The famed Christmas song is an elusive figure in music. Most of the time, pumped full of the same saccharine vomit that makes sees tinsel litter the planet for the next ten thousand years, the idea of specifically festive music is a bad one for any band or artist interested in retaining their credibility. That’s because, usually, if you find yourself with a hit Christmas song, then you’ll be cashing in some PRS cheques for the rest of your life and onwards. It’s an alluring proposition for any artist.
Though some have managed to expertly balance on the tightrope of Christmastime cheer and artistic credibility, usually those attempts end with a “kersplat” and a messy clean-up. There are, however, some songs which pertain to the idea of wrapping up warm and sharing time with loved ones. The success, of course, is in a track that is set in winter but reflects the sentiments of the season rather than the commercialism of Christmas. There are also songs which simply rip up the rulebook and do their own version of a festive favourite. Below, we’ve picked out 20 of our favourites.
The alternative Christmas song, in our minds, cannot be heard too often on the radio and can never be considered for a spin on those specifically festive shows. It must exist only in the annals of musical history, ready to be plucked out by one wayward relative as their favourite. And, in doing so, become your favourite relative ever.
You’d be forgiven for thinking these kinds of songs will only come out of the cheesiest artists, but the truth is, we’ve managed to make a collection of songs which not only showcase the purer side of festive songwriting but also some of our favourite artists too. Acts like Julian Casablancas and Joni Mitchell feature on our list but at very different spectrums.
2020 is certainly anything but a usual year, and with Christmas set to look vastly different for millions of people across the globe, there’s probably no better time to invest an alternative Christmas playlist. Luckily, we had a word with Santa Claus and he has provided us with all we need.
20 best alternative Christmas songs:
‘I Wish It Was Christmas Today’ – Julian Casablancas
When Julian Casablancas left The Strokes to pursue a solo career, very few people thought that would entail the singer also jumping on a jingling Christmas anthem for the 21st century—but that’s exactly what he did.
The Strokes lead singer belts out the Christmas tune with his definitive indie drawl, and it’s hard not to see this song becoming a permanent feature at the indie dancefloor clubs.
‘Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)’ – Laura Marling
Here comes our first Christmas-adjacent tune which acts as the more enjoyable side of festive folly. Released in 2010 by Laura Marling as part of her album I Speak Because I Can, it sees the singer use her idyllic vocal to transport the listener.
There’s a certain fragility to Marling’s work, and on this song, we have a pure and genteel piece that clearly evokes the serenity of a snowy Britain.
‘And Anyway It’s Christmas’ – !!!
When !!! announced that they were to release a Christmas song nobody could really understand why. One of the coolest names in the New York dance scene, !!! were not meant to flirt with the commercial festivities.
Of course, the song comes complete with a pumping bassline and a new romantic slide that is hard to resist, no matter the context. !!! may not be the first artist you think of when your mind drifts to Christmas but perhaps they should be.
‘Blue Christmas’ – Bright Eyes
Recorded for A Christmas Album back in 2002, Bright Eyes and Conor Oberst took on the classic Christmas number and turned it on its head. The song was a part of the band’s Christmas record and stands out as easily the finest moment on the LP.
It’s a piece of the band’s iconography that is often forgotten but the joy of listening to the record at Christmastime is worth a reminder of. Oberst and the band deliver one of the finer Christmas songs you’ll ever hear.
‘Home For Christmas’ – Kate Bush
The track originally appeared as part of a BBC television film ‘Wild Turkey’ as presented by The Comic Strip. Airing in 1992, ‘Home For Christmas’ has gone on to become a key piece of Kate Bush’s incredible canon.
The song may not necessarily be at the forefront of avant-garde pop as the rest of Bush’s music, but it is also uniquely styled to her preferences. From the very first notes, it’s clear that this is going to be a special Kate Bush number.
‘Thank God It’s Not Christmas’ – Sparks
If there was one group capable of subverting the sweet and light of Christmas then, of course, it would be Sparks. The band have made a career out of turning the rule of pop on their head, and they do so again with ‘Thank God It’s Not Christmas’.
Released in 1974, arguably before the trademark ‘Christmas song’ was truly constructed, Sparks once again prove to be the pioneers as they take the troops of festive folly and rip it up into tiny little pieces.
‘(We Wish You) A Protein Christmas’ – The Fall
Grab The Fall and their mercurial frontman Mark E. Smith and dress them all up in Santa outfits and we’d bet you still wouldn’t believe the post-punk legends were capable of providing some festive cheer. But, they manage to do just that with ‘(We Wish You) A Protein Christmas).
An undeniable rumble that is certain to make your grandparents’ ears twitch, there’s even a dissatisfied choir to add to the otherwise electronically led piece. Not one for the faint-hearted, use this song to test the mettle of your nearest and dearest.
‘Christmastime’ – The Smashing Pumpkins
Never one to shy away from adding a hefty dose of emotion to a rock sound, Billy Corgan and his band The Smashing Pumpkins did just that when they released ‘Christmastime’, undoubtedly one of the more emotional moments on this list.
That’s not to say it’s a mope-fest. The song is also embellished with the sounds of the season as strings and jingle bells work together to make it one of the singer’s more transportation pieces.
‘I Don’t Intend To Spend Christmas Without You’ – Margo Guryan
One of the most velvety vocalists you’ll ever come across, it seems only fitting that Margo Guryan’s epic ‘I Don’t Intend To Spend Christmas Without You’ is included on our list.
It’s one of the more beautiful moments too. Not only is Guryan’s singing voice right up there with some of the classic Christmas crooners, albeit in a far more delicate way, but the song’s sentiment is also hard-to-resist sweet.
‘Silent Night’ – Low
One of the more unexpected song son this list comes from Low. Recording a Christmas album is not something you’d expect a band like Low to ever commit to, which makes the fact they did all the more enjoyable.
The record is full of classic covers but there’s something subversive and brilliant about their rendition of ‘Silent Night’. A piece of music which is ubiquitously attached to this time of the year, Low make it their own with ease.
‘Frosty The Snowman’ – Cocteau Twins
Another similar moment of enjoyable crossover comes when shoegaze legends Cocteau Twins took on the cheerier-than-a-reindeer-on-crack song ‘Frosty The Snowman’ with their usual class.
Shared as part of Lullabies to Violaine in 2005, the cover original featured on the band’s 1993 EP Snow and is rightly considered one of the finer moments of festive frivolities. Whichever way it arrived at your ears, once you’ve heard this cover you’ll never turn your back on it again.
‘That Was The Worst Christmas Ever!’ – Sufjan Stevens
Not many people can walk the fickle line of Christmas misery and cheer like Sufjan Stevens. Perhaps no artist has ever come close to so accurately portraying both facets of the period.
Originally shared as part of his 2005 record Songs for Christmas, it’s clear that Stevens knew exactly what he was doing with this piece. He covered some classic numbers during the LP but this one stands out as the best.
‘Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis’ – Tom Waits
There isn’t much about this Christmas song from Tom Waits that the expert titling wouldn’t already inform you of. Is it a happy-go-lucky ditty about the sex workers of America partaking in the annual joy of sending and receiving Christmas cards? No. Is it a no holds barred look into the unblinking eye of America’s underbelly? Yes.
The fact that Tom Waits is so happy to add his gravel-toned vocal to songs like this is a testament to his steadfast artistry. Though this song was never pitched as a Christmas tune, it’s easy to imagine Waits’ smile when he imagines people searching for a hopeful tune only to find this.
‘Let Me Sleep (It’s Christmas Time)’ – Pearl Jam
Not many of our entries have been written specifically for the Christmas period but Pearl Jam’s 1991 effort ‘Let Me Sleep (It’s Christmas Time)’ most certainly was. Eddie Vedder’s distinctive vocal finds a warm habitat in the space and certainly adds a hue of golden comfort to proceedings.
Not your everyday Pearl Jam number, the group manage to expertly balance between fitting in with the festive period and never fully committing to it. Yes, the song fits snuggly among its more holiday-centric peers but it could also just be another Pearl Jam song.
‘Winter Lady’ – Leonard Cohen
The term ‘Christmas song’ is being quite liberally applied to this entry but any chance we have to include Leonard Cohen’s fantastic song ‘Winter Lady’, we will most certainly take.
Released on the singer and poet’s debut records Songs of Leonard Cohen back in 1967, this track has slowly been creeping on to our Christmas playlists thanks to the vivid imagery the singer evokes. It’s not so much that this song will make you feel all warm and happy, it’s likely about a sex worker after all. But it does have a certain ethereal charm that plays well within the confines of a quiet Christmas night.
‘Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight)’ – Ramones
Now we’re cooking with gas. When the Ramones figure as part of any playlist you can be guaranteed three minutes of furious three-chord power stances and why someone would think that the Ramones would change for Christmas is beyond us.
Punky and powerful, Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy deliver a simply brilliant piece of Christmas music that deserves revisiting every year. One of the more commercial moments of our list, there’s is nothing to dislike about ‘Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)’.
‘Black Christmas’ – Poly Styrene
Being the face of one of the most influential punk band of all time sometimes isn’t enough. The late, great Poly Styrene, the former lead singer of X-Ray Spex, and arguably one of the greatest punk singers of all time, stepped out of her comfort zone for ‘Black Christmas’.
Most punk lead singers struggled to actually, you know, sing. Instead, they preferred to wail and shout. Meanwhile Poly was capable of bringing the house down all on her own and on this song she proves why.
‘River’ – Joni Mitchell
The song will go down in history as one of Mitchell’s most beautiful—and that’s truly saying something. Its snowy setting has meant that the Blue track has always been a festive favourite.
The track is a wildly popular classic. It’s been recorded more times than any other of Mitchell’s compositions, having been recorded over 432. That said, nothing can really match the tender vulnerability that Mitchell brings to the song. It might well be something to do with the song’s origination. Written about the recent breakup of a romantic relationship, the singer is in deep longing to escape her emotional bonds as they grow too painful to her. The song is thought to be inspired by Mitchell’s relationship with fellow musician Graham Nash.
‘Boxing Day Blues (Revisited)’ – Courtney Barnett
Courtney Barnett has quickly become seen as one of the most gifted songwriters of her generation and, as such, perhaps it is only right that she also throw her hat into the ring with a classic Christmas number, of sorts.
Written as the closer for Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, Barnett’s seminal record, the song, she says was “just about not being there for someone, when they need you.” It’s is therefore naturally pained and utterly beautiful in equal measure.
‘Christmas Is Going to the Dogs’ – Eels
It’s not exactly surprising that Eels would produce a song quite this tinged with melancholy. Despite the inspiring rockabilly melody, it’s hard not to hear Mark Everett’s sour tone cut through every bit of sweetness.
“Christmas is going to the dogs / We’d rather have chew toys than yule logs” laughs of Everett between smoke inhalations. It’s not exactly the type of song to make a Christmas party pop but it is the sort of song to quietly vent to if the family get too much.
‘Chrismtas Will Break Your Heart – LCD Soundsystem
Sharing the song in 2015, James Murphy said: “So, there’s been this depressing Christmas song I’d been singing to myself for the past eight years, and every year I wouldn’t remember that I wanted to make it until December, which is just too late to actually record and release a Christmas song… but this year, Al Doyle had a short break between Hot Chip tours where he could be in NYC…so we all recorded this together, reserved a pressing plant slot, and our friend Bob Weston was available to master it quickly—so that means, less than two weeks after we recorded it, there is actually a Christmas 7,” which feels like something that could only have happened a very, very long time ago.
“Anyway, for the holidays we give you the previous, very long run-on sentence, and this song: ‘Christmas Will Break Your Heart’, which is another one of those songs which had about 75 lines of lyrics, though we’ve knocked down to eight to keep the suicide rate in check.”