Christmas songs are an inexhaustible music resource, especially this time of year. But most of them are, let’s face it, schmaltzy and overplayed. These selections, on the other hand, capture the spirit of the season without sacrificing musical taste.
John Prine, “Christmas in Prison”
In light of Prine’s death earlier this year, and his posthumous win at this week’s Americana Awards, I have little choice but to open the mix with this most poignant of country-folk holiday classics. Leave it up to Prine, ever the compassionate humanist, to consider society’s most dispossessed and disenfranchised during a time of family happiness. RIP.
Bad Religion, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”
The irony of a band that calls itself Bad Religion releasing an EP of Christmas carols is lost on no one, but Greg Graffin & company’s affection for a sweet and spirited holiday confection is genuine, as this harmonic album opener indicates.
Low, “Just Like Christmas”
Jingle bells take center stage in this opening cut from Low’s own Christmas EP, a warm and peppy number that belies the group’s slow-core reputation. If it saw more airplay, I have no doubt more artists would be covering it.
The Wave Pictures, “I Love You Like a Madman”
This jaunty and sardonic tune from the prolific English indie rockers’ seventh album describes an itchy, volatile, anxiety-prone and unconventional Christmas Eve. Isn’t that like a most of them, though, when you get down to it?
They Might Be Giants, “Santa’s Beard”
A fine novelty song in the Dr. Demento tradition, it’s one of the funniest tunes of early (and essential) TMBG, a nightmare scenario in which the fat man with the toys becomes a de facto romantic rival for the unfortunate narrator.
Six Cents and Natalie, “Secret Santa”
A gnomically obscure side project from Northwest indie-pop legends Tullycraft, Six Cents and Natalie released this driving but adorable ditty, featuring plenty of snapping fingers and “ba-da-bas,” about the romantic possibilities of the titular gift exchange.
Mynabirds, “All I Want is Truth”
An alternative title for this effective protest song might be, “Baby it’s Warm Outside.” Riffing on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” it soon reveals itself to be a song about the dangers of climate change and government inaction thereof.
Bob Dylan, “Here Comes Santa Claus”
Later Bob Dylan is an acquired taste, and certainly smoother renditions of this secular holiday favorite exist, but a little raggedness in the vocal cords never hurt anybody; this arrangement goes well with the fake crackling fire on your HDTV.
Vic Godard, “Nice on the Ice”
Admittedly more of a winter song than a Christmas song per se, this lush 1986 paean to the joys of ice skating is one of the catchiest neo-lounge tracks from the mellowed punk rocker. Plus, the lyric “having too much fun to think about recession” feels pretty prophetic.
The Flaming Lips, “Christmas at the Zoo”
This classic from the Lips’ 1995 masterpiece Clouds Taste Metallic is a fuzzed-out yuletide fable in miniature: The band spends Christmas Eve trying to liberate a zoo; the animals decline the offer, but they thank the musicians for their good intentions. It’s almost Seussian in its messaging, and addictive in its chorus-free composition.
Letters to Cleo, “Father Christmas”
You cannot go wrong with the 1977 Kinks original, but this version from the late power-pop quintet Letters to Cleo is an equal competitor. No wonder many a punk and alternative group has been drawn to the song—it’s basically a reflection of class struggle wrapped up in some catchy hooks.
Jimmy Eat World, “12.23.95”
Before they sold out, emo darlings Jimmy Eat World made some pretty interesting and singular music, like this twinkly lament bisecting the band’s 1999 breakthrough Clarity. It’s almost not a Christmas song until the last minute or so, but it’s worth the wait.
Darren Hanlon, “Spend Christmas Day With Me”
Australian twee-pop singer-songwriter Hanlon knows how to pen a sweet Christmas original that also brims with surprising wit; this one contains the ingenious rhyme “point our ray guns at pagans,” which would become the title of a Hanlon compilation.
Marc With a C, “All I Want for Christmas”
Orlando indie pop legend Marc With a C has written some deadly serious songs over his 21-year recording career, but this comedic favorite about the ideal gift isn’t one of them. I’m saving this one for the end for obvious reasons once you hear it—it’s for adult ears only.
The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, “Fairytale of New York”
A bit obvious, perhaps, but I can’t complete this list without the best Christmas song of modern times. Raise a glass and crank it loud.