Christmas isn’t the same when you’re older. When I wrote the 2016 version of this post, I chalked that up to the retail-based musical bombardment we must endure while shopping for loved ones. Well, I haven’t heard Christmas music in a store in about a year. I’ve hardly been to stores at all since March. This year, Christmas isn’t the same because there’s a damn pandemic ongoing.
I certainly picked a weird year to rewrite this post. If you work in retail or live somewhere that allows you to visit retail stores, maybe my complaints from 2016 would still resonate with you. But for me, I find it hard to relate with my past self and my loathing of Michael Bublé’s music.
Bublé is the whole reason I made the post back then. I reflected on the songs I was being forced to hear and realized most of them were older than I was. The exceptions seemed to be Bublé’s album Christmas and Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You. Bad Religion had recently released a Christmas album, and while it too was awful, it made me think there must be better options than replaying old Bing Crosby tracks or the “no homo abomination that is Santa Buddy,” as I put it back in ’16. At least that complaint still resonates.
I know I wasn’t alone in my righteous fury at Bublé. But discussions with friends revealed an unfortunate fact: Everyone was so sick of retail-based Christmas music that they didn’t want to bother with the genre at all, not even the good stuff. Fair point. Except, I had just spent hours writing and researching an article and I wanted views!
This year, I’m hoping that people have spent much less time being inundated with bad Christmas music. Maybe they’ll be a little nostalgic for the stuff. If that describes you, please enjoy 10 songs you’ll never hear in a Chapters store. And as a bonus to really drive home how many unexplored options there are, half of this list has come out since I wrote my last one.
If It Be Your Will by HAIM (2019)
Like last time, I’m kicking things off with a Hanukkah song because this isn’t just Christmastime (Hanukkah coincidentally began yesterday). This song, a Leonard Cohen cover, comes from a compilation album called Hanukkah+ that also features the likes of Jack Black and The Flaming Lips. Cohen’s lyrics are a whimsical and beautiful prayer, and HAIM absolutely do it justice. This doesn’t feel like a cover, which is usually the mark of a great cover song. Curiously, while the lyrics feel religious, If It Be Your Will doesn’t appear to be regarded as a Hanukkah song outside of this album. Then again, this album was publicly promoted as not particularly religious. Either way, HAIM have a great song here, and whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas or neither, you should give it a listen.
Christmas at the Zoo by The Flaming Lips (1995)
The Flaming Lips, like The Barenaked Ladies, have you covered whether you’re looking for Hanukkah or Christmas music. Christmas at the Zoo is hilarious. Given its age and the high profile of its artists, I can’t believe radio stations and edgy shops in the mall don’t play it constantly. I mean, we’ve canonized a humorous song about Santa running over grandma by an artist known primarily for that song. Why not one about an abortive attempt at busting animals out of the zoo by The Flaming Lips? There’s a whole subgenre of goofy Christmas music out there, and this is one of my favourites.
Holiday by Lil Nas X (2020)
Aside from the title and Lil Nas X saying “holiday” multiple times, I fail to see what exactly makes this a holiday song. The lyrics are mostly about his success in life. The media around the song, like promo images and the music video, are doing the heavy lifting. Though, that may be a selling point. As stated earlier, Christmas music has a bad rap. You can safely blast this good rap any time of year, and you can play it at any party for any holiday. Let’s face it, aside from Halloween, other holidays don’t get a whole lot of music. Having friends over on International Nude Day (which I learned while researching this article coincides with my birthday)? You can play this. The only one is doesn’t work for is National One-Hit Wonder Day.
二人でDecember 24 (Christmas Pleasure) by Night Tempo (2015)
I love learning about other countries’ holiday traditions. My favourite North American tradition is the Christmas pickle (I have two on my tree). There are almost unlimited ways to celebrate this time of year, and there’s no better time of year to learn about them. In Japan, Christmas is a much different holiday than it is in Christian-majority countries. Presents and cards are part of the festivities, and Christmas Eve is one of the most – if not the most – romantic days of the year. The whole season is mostly about spreading happiness. This song certainly makes me happy; it’s just so upbeat and fun!
Night Tempo (who is Korean but whose music pays homage to 1980s Japanese culture) makes retro-inspired aesthetic pop music, often sampling older music in the process. 二人でDecember 24 (Christmas Pleasure) is funky and would fit in at any dance party. We’re all dancing alone this year, but this is a great song to have a good bop to.
Avalanche by August Burns Red (2018)
This song, however, would not work at a dance party outside of a yuletide mosh pit. Avalanche is a metalcore Christmas original. If metal’s not your thing, listen anyway. This is more Trans-Siberian Orchestra than Cephalic Carnage. I love how well it evokes a Christmas mood despite being an instrumental track and without sampling any more well-known melodies. I guess I just associate various jingling sounds and higher-pitched guitars with this time of year. This is a great way to add some seasonally appropriate heaviness to your playlist.
Lost at Sea on Christmas Eve by Giant Enemy Crab (2014)
Who hasn’t been lost at sea on the eve of some major holiday? Giant Enemy Crab gives us a creative spin on the idea behind I’ll be Home for Christmas. It’s a newer song, but given the excellent guitar work, it might be a good way to bond with the classic rock dad in your life. The song sounds like it was recorded in a basement (the vocals contain audible plosives, for example), but I had to shout it out because it does something original and interesting. I wish more artists tried their hand at writing original Christmas music, rather than covering something that ought to be forgotten, like Baby It’s Cold Outside. If only all copies of that song could get lost at sea.
Lost at Sea on Christmas Eve is part of a compilation album from a bigger series of yearly Christmas albums from Halifax studio Friends Friends Friends Records. Unfortunately, it ended the series in 2019, but that still leaves us with a back catalogue of 10 albums to enjoy. That’s ample material for a holiday playlist unlike any other.
Hold You by Grace Eden (2020)
Many of the songs on here are kind of goofy, but Hold You is a track for those looking for more serious new Christmas music. It’s a song about spending the holiday with a love interest and it also touches on the nostalgia many feel this time of year. There are a couple of references to “the old days” and “like we were kids,” which capture an unexplored side of celebrating Christmas as a young adult. Remembering childhood Christmases and trying to recapture the magic you felt then can be a big part of it. That this is a home recording, for me, adds to the intimacy of the song. If you like mildly sappy Christmas music, this one is for you.
Red Ribbon Foxes by A Fine Frenzy (2009)
This is a beautiful song, and its existence proves how little thought goes into the creation of the playlists on offer at most stores and radio stations. It has a catchy hook, excellent musicality, it paints a compelling, comforting and relatable portrait of Christmas, and it has a lovely message (i.e. that there’s more to Christmas than its commercial side). The album it’s on was even released on a major label. It baffles me this song isn’t one of the overplayed that I’m creating this list to oppose. I’m thankful it isn’t, though I can’t imagine getting sick of this one. Alison Sudol is a great singer, and if you like what you hear, you can find more on the album Oh Blue Christmas.
Ugly Xmas Sweater Party by Girlhouse (2020)
How on Earth is this the first song I’ve heard about ugly Christmas sweaters? They have been a phenomenon for years, and a they are a big part of the culture to be left out of the canon. Girlhouse has tried to rectify that with an absolute banger. This indie rock track is going to be hard to stop listening to once the tree comes down. This isn’t a happy song; it’s about a fight at the party. But hey, the stress of the season weighs on us all and inevitably leads to fighting. Though it sounds like her man wasn’t much even before the season. Consider it as a present in disguise, Girlhouse. Leave him.
Christmas Unicorn by Sufjan Stevens (2012)
Sufjan Stevens has long been the go-to artist for a hipster Christmas. He has nearly five hours of Christmas music, both covers of classics and originals. I could have made a separate Top 25 Sufjan Christmas Songs, or ranked them all, but I narrowed it down to one since the point of this exercise is to increase diversity.
Christmas Unicorn is an odd one. It’s also about seven minutes longer than it needs to be, because it becomes the chorus from Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart for no clear reason. However, the first three or four minutes are a delightful, silly, completely non-traditional take on Christmas lore. It’s hard to imagine not having fun while listening to this tune. Though, if you want something normal, he certainly has you covered there too.
A parting note on Christmas music trends
Having done this list once before, I knew it was going to be easy to update it. Even restricting myself to new songs from the past four years, it only took an hour to find five that appealed to me. New, exciting seasonal music is so much more abundant than certain stores and radio stations would lead you to believe.
I should mention that there are entire blogs dedicated to new, alternative Christmas music. If that’s your thing, check out Christmas A Go Go and Christmas Underground. They were both incredibly helpful in terms of finding recent music for this list. I owe them both a big thank you.
If you browse those sites, you’ll notice an excessive amount of COVID-19 Christmas songs. It is quite the common theme this year. I didn’t include any of the songs here, but I am interested to see how these songs age. Will people seek out this music in five years to remind themselves of that one time they did Christmas over Zoom? Will the songs age terribly and be mostly forgotten except by you, me and the site admins over at those Christmas music blogs? I have no idea, but I will say I am aware of no other year that was so wild it had Christmas songs written about it. I guess we’ll find out next year when I do another one of these.
Happy holidays to you, dear reader. May you find a way to celebrate whatever it is you celebrate despite the pandemic.