December is a time of year when true music fans go into hiding. Everywhere we turn, we're bombarded by Christmas songs. Supermarkets, public transport, the TV, the radio; all overrun with the stuff. And it's all awful. But I'm here to tell you that some Christmas music is not terrible. In fact, it's some of the best music out there.
Since starting this blog in 2008, every year I've been more and more excited when December rolls around. Finally I get to listen to some of my favourite songs! So here it is: my list of the best alt-friendly Christmas music. Twenty four songs that will appeal to those of us who love guitars and synths and crave a bit of "edge" on all the music we listen too.
All I Want For Christmas
We start our "advent of alt" with a banger from Master Slash Slave. The weather's cold and everyone's getting into the holiday spirit, but "All I want for Christmas is to get the band back together" is a plea that hits close to home for me. This covers all the key Christmas-song characteristics; wistful lyrics that look back on the year just gone and forward to the year ahead, a cracking chorus, and it even has some festive "jingling" behind the tasty bed of synths and guitars. MSS appears to be mostly the work of one man, Matt Jones. He has since disbanded the band, gotten married, and started a new project with his new wife, called Jonesin' (the new band's called that, not the wife).
Jimmy Eat World's album Clarity is an all-time favourite of mine, so this track is one of the rare breed of Christmas songs that I find myself listening to outside of the holiday season. Beside the refrain and the (non ISO-8601 compliant) title, the Christmas vibes here are subtle, which makes it an excellent palate-cleanser in this playlist.
Long and slow, this haunting and atmospheric track is one of Jim White's best. In fact, No Such Place - the album this song was taken from - is so good that Christmas Day is often pushed into the shadows, and it's only at this time of year that it gets the attention it so richly deserves.
Another Song About Being Alone At Xmas
Way back in 2007 - before he'd even released his first album, Falling Off The Lavender Bridge - Dev Hynes (a.k.a. Lightspeed Champion) built his reputation by releasing several home-recorded EPs. With nothing but his laptop and a copy of Garageband, he was able to generate a real buzz. The full record, once it came, featured an all star cast and lush production values. But I still have a soft spot for those early DIY releases, and this seasonal track is one of those.
I Believe in Father Christmas
Having now established this playlist's alternative bonafides, we'll have a brief run of covers. Greg Lake's I Believe in Father Christmas is one of the few mainstream Christmas songs that I can still stand to listen to, but there's no escaping the fact that it does sound dated and is definitely overexposed. Thankfully we have this cover to see us through, performed by Pictures of Then, and discovered through the XO For The Holidays compilation. This version manages to quite effectively bring the air of menace and frustration - which was merely an undercurrent in the original - right into the foreground.
Continuing with the covers, this next one is more of a 're-imagining', with Banjo or Freakout messing with the melody, scansion, and time signature of White Christmas to create this ethereal, smoke-like version.
O Come All Ye Faithful
No Christmas playlist would be complete without a few carols, so we'll squeeze in a trio of them here. This is a time of year when my rational, atheist mind turns to mush when confronted with all the trappings of the season. Thick dripping candles, vaulted ceilings, and the sheer power of carols that have been hardwired into my brain from an early age all come together to leave me very confused indeed. It's in that spirit that I find the Branches adaptation of O Come All Ye Faithful intensely haunting, despite the god-fearing, exultant nature of the lyrical content.
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
It's not until you really start digging that you realise just how many of your favourite bands have released Christmas music. And most of it is, sadly, pretty dire. My heart sank when I learned that Bright Eyes had released a Christmas album, but thankfully this Fevers-and-Mirrors-era rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen is thumping powerhouse.
Carol of the Bells
One last cover of a carol and then we'll get back to originals. I love hearing otherwise jaunty, cosy songs overlaid with an air of suspicion and menace. I have a good friend who thinks Carol of the Bells sounds like it's straight out of a horror film at the best of times, so I can see how this version came into being. Thankfully Paper Tongues don't lean in too far to any cheesy horror tropes, and this rendition just comes across as a straight-up great song.
Santa Doesn't Cop Out On Dope
We've been veering close to the saccharine sweet, schmaltzy nature of most Christmas songs with the last few selection. So, like a fine sorbet, here's Sonic Youth to cleanse the palette. As with all Sonic Youth's output, it takes a not-inconsiderable effort just to sit through the thing but is ultimately well worth it.
On Christmas Day
I don't know about you, but I love to drop at least one "huh, what?!" moment into every playlist I make - especially if it's one I'm going to play at a party. You could argue that the preceding Sonic Youth track ticks that box, but I've found that this a cappella folk tune about how Jesus is gonna get you really makes people sit up and take notice.
Everything's Gonna Be Cool This Christmas
This is a genuine Christmas favourite of mine. I've always loved Eels, and this track displays what I would call a genuine Christmas spirit.
Another comic juxtaposition of joy (Christmas) and emotional turmoil (today it's infidelity) for your delectation, this time courtesy of the ever-excellent They Might Be Giants.
Countdown to Christmas
Much like with his main band, Art Brut, this Eddie Argos-penned release is mostly worth listening to for the witty word play. The production and arrangement are very much a deliberate pastiche of 70s-era glam-rock Christmas songs, but there's no escaping Argos' idiomatic delivery. An acquired taste, maybe, but one worth acquiring I assure you.
Christmas In Hollis
If, as you should have, you’ve already watched the best Christmas film of all time, then this will be familiar to you. The main sample is actually from another Christmas song (Back Door Santa, a peculiar comic soul offering) so this one gets you a double dose of Christmas cheer.
Argyle: Mind if we hear some tunes? [plays cassette tape] Hey, that'll work!
John McClane: Don't you got any Christmas music?
Argyle: This is Christmas music!
Yippee Ki Yay Father Christmas
Look, I really like Die Hard, okay? I also really like alternative Scottish electro whatever-on-earth-you'd-classify-this-as... Plus, it's a Jonnie Common release on Song by Toad records, which is always and insta-buy in my book.
After three "joke" entries in a row, this playlist is in need of another course-correction. This time we'll take a breather with a bit of instrumental post-rock from Mogwai. Clangy guitars and some soothing strings should set us up nicely for the final run down.
Cold White Christmas
The Casiotone For The Painfully Alone brand has been retired, but that's no reason not to enjoy this festive little ditty. A reason not to enjoy it would be the stark bleakness of the lyrics; I'm a big believer in the 'cheer' part of Christmas, but nevertheless there's still a few less-than-cheerful numbers amongst my Christmas playlist, this being one of the more obvious examples.
It's Christmas So We'll Stop
Most of these Christmas picks are decidedly cheery, so who better to bring the mood down than EbM favourites Frightened Rabbit? There's a couple of versions of this little ditty kicking about the place - including one sung by a choir (minus lyrics, sadly; it's just humming) - but this one is my favourite. It's slightly tougher and less, well, smooth, and that's generally how I like my FR to sound. When reviewing their 2011 EP, I bemoaned the lack of producer Peter Katis' glossy presence, but in this instance the homemade rough-and-ready aspect works wonderfully.
The Anthem Is A Gift
Here's further proof that I am a big fan of the XO for the Holidays compilations. The Anthem Is A Gift, was featured on the second XO comp back in 2009 (which can still be downloaded for free), and is one of that rare breed of Christmas songs that make me sad I can't listen to them for the rest of the year. Obviously to actually listen to it all year round would wear away some of the magic and excitement that December provides, so if you need The Winter Sounds in summer, head over to their bandcamp page.
In Excelsis Deo
I'm still dumbfounded that the There Will Be Fireworks album The Dark, Dark Bright wasn't a bigger hit, and I'll sing their praises to anyone who'll listen. There are some phenomenal songs on that record and I recommend you check it out, but first take a listen to this cracking early track of theirs. Just beautiful stuff.
Merry Christmas From The Family
Although this little gem describes a scene totally alien to the cosy, insular, traditional English Christmases I grew up on, for some reason it struck a chord. Originally a country song by Robert Earl Keen, this version turns the somewhat sinister edge of Keen's country drawl into an altogether more heart-warming affair (and the Blue Christmas coda doesn't do any harm, either).
All Lit Up (For Christmas)
These last three picks on the playlist all fall into the category I think of as "story songs". They each describe a very vivid and well realised vision of a particular Christmas. This little number from The Very Foundation is by far the most adventurous, and is always at the front of my mind whenever I journey home during December (even if I've just popped out to the shops). Witty and at times ridiculous, yet always displaying a proper Christmas spirit (without ever descending into schmaltz), this is, in my view, among the very best that Christmas music has to offer.
It's A Wonderful Lie
Withered Hand (a.k.a. Dan Willson) are (is?) a perennial favourite of mine and all the WH records get a regular airing all year round, but I'd argue that this is his best work. There is even a de-christmasified version that I've seen him perform live outside the holiday season, but it doesn't pack the same punch that this original version does.
Although this list has been crafted to ebb and flow in the way all good playlists should, these last three are very much my favourites. I really enjoy hearing visions of other people's Christmases.