The Best Songs for Your Thanksgiving Playlist

Sorry, Nicole Westbrook. Your song “It’s Thanksgiving” didn’t make the cut.

Welcome to Pop Music Survival Kit: The Perfect Songs for Every Occasion

Turkey dinners and family gatherings and thoughtful expressions of gratitude are all well and good, but Thanksgiving isn’t complete without the perfect holiday playlist. ButThanksgiving isn’t Christmas, you know? It’s not like Rod Stewart is releasing an album called A Pilgrim for My Pretty Lady that you can just load onto your iPod like a soundtrack ninja. You’ve got to work a little harder to get the Turkey Day spirit into your earholes.

If you’ve been reading this site for a while, then you’re probably unsurprised to learn that I have given my Thanksgiving playlist a lot of thought. A few years ago, a friend casually asked me to make one, and for an entire afternoon, it became the focus of all my creative energy. I’ve road-tested quite a few tracks, and I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. So if you are building a Thanksgiving playlist this year, let’s trade notes! Tell me what you’re including (and what you’re leaving out.)

To get the part started, here are a few of my favorite choices (and no, they do not include “It’s Thanksgiving” by Nicole Westbrook):

(1) “Stars” by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals

The current fad for chill-out rock and folk jams is perfect for Thanksgiving. Artists like Mumford and Sons, The Lumineers, The Civil Wars, The Avett Brothers, and even Adele deliver satisfying songs that still make room for conversation. You can be dimly aware that “Hey Ho” is playing, tap your foot, and then catch up with your friend from high school over pie. Imagine trying to do that with some of the dominant genres from the past. “What’s that, Dave’s wife? I can’t hear you over Linkin Park’s hollering.” “Oh, sorry Uncle Pip. I would love to talk, but when Snoop Dogg is on, I have to start grinding. I have no choice.”

This year, I’m adding “Stars” by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals into the chilled out mix. It’s not only an awesome song, but Amanda Brown also killed it on The Voice this week. If your friends and family hear this, they might say, “Oh! I heard this on The Voice,” and then you’ll have material for at least 10 minutes of conversation. Then your playlist is providing a service.

(2) “Tennessee” by Arrested Development

The perfectly chosen oldie can get people cheering while they pass they cranberry sauce. You don’t want to go too obvious or too wedding—no “Respect” or “Love Shack”—but if you pick a classic that people love but don’t hear all that often, then you can get them reminiscing. And old, happy memories are perfect for Thanksgiving.

Choosing the right oldie means knowing your audience. I tend to spend Thanksgiving in New York City with my friends and husband, and since most of us were in high school or college in the early 90s, a song from that era is a sure bet. And since a lot of us are also from Tennessee, Arrested Development’s signature hit is the ideal choice.

(3) “Basted in Blood” by Ana Gasteyer and Sarah McLachlan

Adam Sandler’s “Thanksgiving Song,” which originally premiered on SNL’s “Weekend Update,” is probably the most beloved Thanksgiving tune of all time, but that’s why I prefer Ana Gasteyer and Sarah McLachlan’s “Basted in Blood.” It also debuted on “Weekend Update,” and it’s also awesome, but it’s not as well-known as Sandler’s classic. Why not surprise your guests with the unexpected?

As always, Mark Blankenship is making a squash casserole for Thanksgiving. He tweets as @IAmBlankenship