If you crave new music, December can be a trial as new releases pretty much cease. It’s not that I don’t enjoy hearing the Pogues (either version, I’m not a dick) or Wham umpteen times every year, but where are the acts trying to add to the pantheon? Plenty have tried and here I have compiled a list of my top 10 alternative Christmas songs worthy of going toe-to-toe with the best of them.
Like all Christmas games, there are some rules: firstly they have to be originals, not covers. Secondly, they have to be explicitly about or set at Christmas—origins or modern-day, thirdly they can’t be on mainstream Christmas playlists.
Also like most Christmas games, this will provoke arguments. Such as, “how could you miss The Killers or Sufjan Stevens?” For the former, I decided they are all relatively well known so don’t need the attention, and the latter narrowly lost a place to an American band of similar vintage.
So calm down, wipe that gravy from your mouth, unbutton those jeans and turn it up…
Fountains of Wayne, “I Want An Alien For Christmas”
Few songwriters had Adam Schlesinger’s knack for capturing the awkward naivety of adolescence: from “That Thing You Do!” to “Stacey’s Mom” (forget the icky video). He laid bare the insecurities of being a young teenage boy with all the hormones but none of the sporting prowess. Released in 1997, “I Want An Alien For Christmas”—beneath the X-Files trend-hopping and New Wave bounce—is about a geek who just wants a friend. The proviso that the Alien needs to fly is more about the boy being able to escape his mundane existence, rather than the thrill of adventure. Adam had an innate ability to write something that sounded both featherweight and poignant. He will be sorely missed.
Dirty Nil, “Christmas At My House”
The Dirty Nil aren’t just a great punk rock act, they are also one of those bands you would love to hang out with. “Christmas At My House” is a case in point, as rather than telling stories by the fire or singing carols on Christmas Eve, lead singer Luke and his dad prefer to consume a heroic amount of different whiskeys and eggnog, with no regard to best before dates. A scuzzy riff piles on like a line of shots waiting to be downed, and although the chorus ponders whether waking up every Christmas Day with a hangover is a good thing, ultimately the message of the song is — F*ck it, it’s Christmas.
Low, “Long Way Around the Sea”
Low’s 1999 album Christmas is rightly revered as a true classic of the genre and there are plenty of originals I could have chosen but “Long Way Around the Sea” has a quiet charm. A secular hymn to the human spirit, it’s the nativity from the perspective of the three wise men, and what they endured to see the son of God born. The instrumentation is sparse, the tune carried by Al Sparhawk’s weary sigh and the angelic harmonies of Mimi-Jo Parker and Zak Sally swooping in to beckon him on. Even the guitar sounds exhausted. It’s a reminder that change can be arduous to achieve and even once you have reached your goal, there are other battles to fight.
El-Vez, “Santa Claus is Sometimes Brown”
The jokes on “Santa Claus is Sometimes Brown” are double-edged. On the one hand, El-Vez—billed as the Mexican Elvis—is trying to convince a woman that although he doesn’t look the part, he’s the only Santa Claus she wants “comin” up your chimney tonight”. On the other hand, the song gently mocks how inappropriate the White Christmas ideal is to different cultures. It’s this duality that makes this track such outrageous camp fun. Rather than raise an eyebrow at the innuendo—“there’s no sack on my back”—grab some gel and work up a quiff.
Chance the Rapper and Jeremih, “One More Cry”
Christmas can be testing, especially when in the heat of the moment you turn to share a joke with someone who you realise isn’t there anymore. As Chance says, Christmas can “feel like Simba on Father’s Day”. A sombre air surrounds “One More Cry”: the first minute is an auto-tuned Jeremih crooning softly with the tinniest of accompaniment like he is trying to pull himself together. The rest of the track is Chance drunkenly becoming overwhelmed with grief and raging at the idea that as the young patriarch he shouldn’t show emotion. In the end, he resolves to turn a poem he dictated at his Aunt’s funeral into this song. The result is a beautiful meditation on mortality and nothing is more cathartic than a little cry at Christmas.
Marching Church, “Christmas on Earth”
The Iceage frontman Elias Ronnenfelt channels some of the grit of “Fairytale of New York” with this tale of a convict who kidnaps his kids so he can spend Christmas Day with them. The father’s modest dreams only stretching as far as being able to see his kids open his presents before the police kick down the door. If this all sounds a bit of a downer, then the warm surges of brass will have you reaching for the mulled wine. Elias sings with a drunken swagger—imagine if Sid Vicious could actually sing those opening verses to “My Way”—as this bittersweet song makes you appreciate the privilege of a Christmas without drama.
Aidan Moffat & RM Hubbert, “Fir tree”
As Olaf the Snowman adroitly observed, “You cut down a tree and you dress a corpse with candles”. Any Christmas tradition looked at with any objectivity could be morbid and there’s no prizes for guessing a track told from the point of view of a Christmas Tree isn’t going to end well. Pitched somewhere between a moralistic fairy tale and a ghost story for radio, Hubert’s shimmering background and snippets of recorded dialogue drape Moffat’s words with the sense the axe is going to come at any minute. The most terrifying moments are the Tree’s little conversations with woodland animals, all of whom give him only snippets of information, so when the family come to chop him down, he feels pride not terror. You know how it’s going to end, yet you still wish for a better outcome. Sleep well.
US Girls (Feat. Rich Morel), “Santa Stay Home”
It takes some gumption to release a Christmas song in 2020 that puts all of humanity on Santa’s naughty list but Meg Remy and Rich Morel are clearly not afraid of difficult conversations. The jangly indie of “Santa Stay Home” makes a convincing argument against any automatic entitlement to festive cheer and advises Santa to spend the day doing life admin. The evidence against us: global warming. It’s hard to argue with a song this catchy—imagine Kate Bush singing a Billy Bragg song. Perhaps now it isn’t the best time to bring up the imminent death of the ecosystem. But if not now then when?
Porridge Radio, “The Last Time I Saw You (O Christmas)”
Part of the joy of Christmas is meeting up with all your old friends for a catch-up—well it is most years—but there is always THAT person, the ex or casual acquaintance who you run into, and every year you have EXACTLY the same argument. Fed up with this circle of recrimination, Dana Margolin takes this person to task by turning their insult against them: “don’t sing about me, you take everything away from me”. Imagine a more vindictive take on Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”, where every “Merry Christmas” is another knife in the chest and “I break you apart again” another eye-roll. On second thoughts… perhaps a quiet Christmas in won’t be so bad.
Big Freedia, “Smoked Out Santa”
T’was the night before Christmas, and Big Freedia is high and hungry, when a special somebody comes down her chimney. So begins a side-splitting tale of reindeers on cruise control and middle of the night munchies, with Freedia oozing as much warmth and charm as Ol’ Saint Nick himself. It’s a stoner comedy in the vein of Cheech & Chong or Harold & Kumar, where the humour lies in their modest ideas of fun. It’s full of Christmas cheer, but due to its potency, I wouldn’t recommend handling any heavy machinery for a few hours afterwards.
So there we have it. It’s going to be an alternative Christmas for many of us across the world, so I hope these 10 alternative Christmas songs will get you the spirit. Have a wonderful holiday everyone.