It’s the most wonderful time of the year, or so that song playing in the stores keeps on telling us. And it is, but sometimes the inevitable litany of overplayed songs we’ve heard since childhood bring you down on the umpteenth time you hear them in a single day. There are some truly great Christmas songs (who doesn’t really love ‘Fairytale of New York’?), but plenty of them are just tired and plain embarrassing. With that in mind, here is a rundown of some less played Yuletide favourites to be proud of and to keep you rocking through the festive season.
Otis Redding – ‘White Christmas’
A Christmas oldie given a soul revamp by Otis Redding, who breathes new life into it by wringing each note for all its worth. Meanwhile, the brass and shimmering organ give it that uplifting gospel feel, which truly do foster feelings of comfort and joy.
The Ramones – ‘Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)’
This is my kind of Christmas message. Of course, Christmas isn’t always the most tranquil time of year and bust-ups tend to come with the territory. Sometimes the chaos takes hold, but it’s worth remembering what counts, as The Ramones do here.
Pearl Jam – ‘Let Me Sleep (It’s Christmas Time)’
From one of Pearl Jam’s earliest Christmas singles in 1991, ‘Let Me Sleep’ shows Eddie Vedder singing with childlike wonder and vulnerability, both excited and lost as “cold wind blows on the soles of my feet”. Meanwhile, Mike McCready’s stunning eastern guitar melody ensures that this is not your standard Christmas fare. Equally worth checking out is ‘Strangest Tribe’ from a 1999 Christmas single.
Teenage Fanclub – ‘Christmas Eve’
Short, but sweet. The Scot band always could pen a nice ditty with beautiful harmonies and guitar melodies, but this tune comes with an extra sprinkling of Christmas magic.
Eels – ‘Everything Is Gonna Be Cool This Christmas’
A Christmas anthem from the man known as E, full of riffy guitars that will blow away the holiday blues. Any Christmas song with the line ‘Baby Jesus, born to rock!’ immediately deserves a place on this list.
Tom Waits – ‘Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis’
What you might call a Christmas song from the wrong side of the tracks (well after all, it’s Christmas there too isn’t it?). It’s a sad and vulnerable song in some aspects, but what wins it back is Waits’s comic timing and the tongue placed firmly in his cheek (“Charlie, I think about you every time I pass a filling station… on account of all the grease you used to put in your hair”).
Simon and Garfunkel – ‘Seven O’Clock News / Silent Night’
Nestled at the very end of 1966’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, this version of ‘Silent Night’ has a real sting in its tail. While the duo’s ever-perfect harmonies beautifully deliver the Christmas carol against a backdrop of poignant piano, it is juxtaposed by an overdubbed news bulletin of actual events on 3rd August 1966, including announcements of mounting tensions against civil rights marches, Lenny Bruce’s suicide, serial murders and violent responses to Vietnam protests. The song is eerie and encapsulates in just under two minutes the growing fears and anxieties of a once-hopeful generation as an increasingly bleak seventies loomed.
Run-D.M.C. – ‘Christmas in Hollis’
So maybe Run-D.M.C.’s PG rated rapping seems a bit outdated since hip-hop and gangster rap changed the game, but there’s no denying that this half-comic Christmas song has charm. It mixes truthful family traditions with pastiches of Christmas carols and a chance meeting with Santa and his “ill reindeer”…
Joni Mitchell – ‘River’
Poignant and sad despite the jingle bells coda that open and close it, after all of these years ‘River’ still remains one of the most undisputedly beautiful songs ever written. It is definitely a song for those having a blue Christmas, but between the self-admonishments and homesickness there is a tiny glimmer of hope in the river that will take away Joni’s worries. It is a small and possibly false hope, but it is there.
Mogwai – ‘Christmas Song’
Away from their tinnitus-inducing riffing, Mogwai are also capable of quiet and incredibly tender moments. ‘Christmas Song’ perfectly captures that childhood moment of waking up early on Christmas morning, with cold light creeping its way through the window and the ripe silence before the household wakes up and feet shuffle (or scramble) their way downstairs.
Ryuichi Sakamoto – ‘Main Theme From Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’
The main theme from the Nagasi Oshima’s film about the relationships between four men in a Japanese POW camp during the Second World War does not immediately conjure up the spirit of Christmas. Having said that, there is definitely something very meditative about Sakamoto’s piece, like the calm you get when watching snow fall in the depths of winter.
Bruce Springsteen – ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’
Okay, so maybe this is a bit of a cheesy song, but hey, it’s Christmas! Can’t have Christmas without a little bit of cheesiness and I do like a bit of Brooce. So hear’s a rollicking, full band version of ‘Santa Claus is Coming To Town’, complete with cheesy grins and ho-ho-ho’s. Merry Christmas all!
P.S. In the same Christmas spirit, here is a rundown of some of the worst Christmas album covers of all time. Read them through to the end, I promise, you will cry with laughter.
What are some of your favourite alternative Christmas songs? Let me know in the comments below.