In case you hadn’t noticed, Christmas is on the way. Shops are stacking Advent calendars from floor to ceiling, and the consumption of mince pies is well under way. In a few short weeks, we’ll be nestled around the tree, drinking eggnog and singing carols… or not.
Truth be told, there’s little traditional about the Clash team’s mutual festivities – if we even celebrate the season. There’s no escaping the standard set of Christmas bangers, however – we’re looking at you Mariah, East 17, and Wham! – as they seep into our daily lives, whether we like it or not.
There’s a rich seam of Christmas treats available for those who want to dig a little deeper, however – here, the Clash writers pick out the 25 best alternative Christmas songs.
Jennifer Lopez ft LL Cool J – ‘All I Have’
The one song bound to be contested on my yearly festive playlist: is it really Christmassy enough to be a Christmas song? Each year I make sure I get into the seasonal spirits by watching this 2002 Jennifer Lopez with LL Cool J that charts heartbreak, self-worth and moving on.
A heartfelt pop R&B tune decorated with jingles and chimes, the video sees Jennifer moving out of LL’s flat, clutching dozens of vuitton bags in the knee-high New York snow, clad in heels and a short jacket. “All my pride is all I have,” she sings, defiantly, as she finally leaves the player who didn’t treat her right. For all the sexy, proud people who don’t feel the cold at Christmas. (Charis McGowan)
Smashing Pumpkins – ‘Christmastime’
It’s a strange fact that goths love Christmas, but they do. A great example of this is Billy Corgan’s entry into the festive canon, 1997’s ‘Christmastime.’ While many a rocker has happily dirtied up a classic for fun, the Pumpkin frontman went the sincere route and crafted a sweet ode to the merriest of seasons.
Complete with sleigh bells and mentions of children playing, this charity release happily holds its own against more well-known Christmas pop numbers. (Sam Walker-Smart)
Julian Casablancas – ‘I Wish It Was Christmas Today’
‘I Wish It Was Christmas Today’ originates from a now-legendary 2001 Saturday Night Live skit which featured the likes of Jimmy Fallon and Tracy Morgan. Eight years later Julian Casablancas covered it for an album of festive classics, soon becoming an indie Yuletide favourite. “I don’t care what anyone says / Christmas is full of cheer”, sings The Strokes’ alluring frontman in his typically nonchalant style. The song quickly moves into a singalong chorus: a total earworm of repetition and euphoria. Christmas never sounded so cool. (Matthew McLister)
“It’s Christmas with DOOM…”
A fusion of MF DOOM acapellas with Cookin’ Soul’s festive boom-bap beats, ‘XMAS DOOM’ serves a treat for all hip-hop fans.
Drawing together a quirky assortment of references and samples, from Charlie Brown to Johnny Ventura and Paul McCartney, the project is a slick, warming twist on the classics. Reaching into the deepest pockets of one’s imagination, the tape is equally ludicrous as it is simply genius, asserting the unmatched lyrical wizardry of the masked rapper. (Ana Lamond)
The Shins – ‘Wonderful Christmastime’
Pumped through supermarket tannoy speakers and endlessly featured on mainstream music stations, it’s simply impossible to escape Paul McCartney’s ‘70s synth-heavy hit ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ each December. Not only does this over familiarity breeds contempt, but the song also noticeably sounds like one 44 years old.
Enter indie cult favourites, The Shins. In 2012, the Albuquerque band delivered a brilliantly cheerful psych-pop cover of The Beatles singer’s ageing hit. Their version increases the levels of jubilation, at the same helping, finally, turn the tune into something wonderfully contemporary. (Matthew McLister)
The xx – ‘Last Christmas’
On their 2012 Radio 1 Live Lounge cover of ‘Last Christmas’, The xx take a seemingly happy-go-lucky pop anthem and turn it into something darker, sparser and more gripping than the original.
Singer Oliver Sim’s pained expression makes you ponder whether it was him, rather than George Michael, recovering from a festive break-up. The climax then turns the song emotion up a further few notches. Jamie xx’s heartfelt synths meet Romy’s melancholic riff for a finale that raise the hairs and tingles the spine! (Matthew McLister)
Gil Scott Heron – ‘Spirits Past’
‘Spirits Past’ by Gil Scott-Heron is a wake-up call to the shattered American Dream coloured in festive musical tones. Heron, in his pop poetry, channels the disillusioned rage of youth, and finding a more spiritual essence. Amidst the restless searching in the lyrics, Heron stumbles toward profound connections, breathing life into his words.
His voice, as Kae Tempest notes, transforms the song into a “living, moving form,” and one that flattens any sense of past, present or future. (Bryson Edward Howe)
The Sugarcubes – ‘Christmas Eve’
As winter grows into the sky, a similar sensuous ballad is found in The Sugarcubes feisty, frostbitten ballad ‘Christmas Eve’ Björk’s voice initially peeks over a restless sonic vista—a shoegazey reworking of The Sugarcubes seminal single ‘Birthday’ by Jim and William Reid of The Jesus and Mary Chain—and tremors with nervous energy, but she is able to instantly leap from a whisper to a howl as if her tiny voice can expand to fill any space, tearing through a vocal topography of glacial immensity. (Bryson Edward Howe)
Aphex Twin – ‘XMAS_EVET1N’
Although this is as much of a Christmas song as Die Hard is a Christmas film, I find some sort of festive feeling emerges from the snowy etheric core of this remix, evoking a warmth and comfort.
The wintery computer-controlled acoustic drums and fat bass synths form a very futuristic and complex protean electric litany. An acrid, acid house rhythm replaces a fading sense of familiarity with a strange sense of discovery, like the childhood excitement of Christmas Day morning. (Bryson Edward Howe)
Saint Etienne – ‘I Was Born On Christmas Day’
This disco-house banger sounds s fresh now as it did on its release thirty years ago. Saint Etienne are better known for their winsome, kitchen-sink dramas but here, the propulsive kick drum and maximalist production force you onto the dance floor.
Tim Burgess from The Charlatans shares vocal duties, giving the whole track the kind of giddy feeling you’d experience on the last day of school before the holidays, when everyone came together and anything goes. (Joe Rivers)
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – ‘Ain’t No Chimneys In The Projects’
The much-missed Sharon Jones can sell any sentiment with the stunning purity of her voice, and here she’ll convince you that Santa has his ways of delivering gifts to the housing projects despite the lack of his traditional access route.
The Dap-Kings retro-soul stylings are second to none, as always, with sleigh bells and a jazzy, saxophone interpolation of ‘Jingle Bells’ bringing the whole thing together to make an underrated holiday classic. (Joe Rivers)
Badly Drawn Boy – ‘Donna And Blitzen’
From the period when the beanied Manucnian could do no wrong, ‘Donna and Blitzen’ is the closing track on Damon Gough’s soundtrack to About a Boy.
It’s the perfect encapsulation of the reach and ambition that define his best moments, as a simple piano melody gives way to bombastic drums and the music swirls around his yearning vocals like there’s a midwinter snowstorm going on but you’re safe and warm inside. (Joe Rivers)
DJ Q – ‘All I Want For Christmas Is Q’
10 years later and it still feels as new as when you first heard it; DJ Q takes the most popular Christmas song ever and turns it into a garage dancefloor heater.
What starts as your normal Mariah Carey build-up changes at the pivotal moment. What happens next? Vocals are chopped, the bass is heavy and your feet instantly start moving. (Joe Hale)
Phoebe Bridgers – ‘Christmas Song’
Perhaps the song on this list that received the most nominations from the Clash writing pool, ‘Christmas Song’ sits in a well-established lineage of festive baubles from Phoebe Bridgers.
A song that “hit me like a ton of bricks” when she first heard it, Phoebe Bridgers’ take on the McCarthy Trenching piece ‘Christmas Song’ doesn’t flinch from devastating emotion – the vocal is as raw as they come, Jackson Browne’s harmony adding something cinematic to the delicate arrangement. As the piano chords collapse in the background, they ease out those chest-bursting words: “The sadness comes crashing like a brick through the window / And it’s Christmas so no one can fix it”. (Robin Murray)
Gucci Mane – ‘St Brick Intro’
When Gucci Mane was released from prison in 2016, people were quick to say the impossibly trimmed man who stepped out was a clone. ‘St. Bricks Intro’ was the DNA test to put those allegations to rest, as nobody else could have pulled off this feat apart from the East Atlanta Santa himself.
Like a lot of Guwop’s best work, ‘St. Bricks Intro’ treads a fine line between being goofy and deadly serious. There is mandatory wordplay about “an igloo full of snow and a white stove”, but the ominous way ‘jingle bells’ is interpolated is nothing but menacing. A Christmas-trap-anthem for the ages. (Harry Thorfinn-George)
Run the Jewels – ‘A Christmas Fucking Miracle’
Few Christmas playlists would be complete without an appearance by the Jewel Runners themselves. Shying away from the usual yuletide themes, Killer Mike and EL-P, instead, take us on an anti-establishment trip onto the snow caked mean streets of New York.
It’d take too long to analyse all of the double entendres and subliminal governmental digs hidden within the four minute track, but we are left with the angry duo waxing lyrical on one of their hardest songs to date. (Mike Milenko)
The Killers – ‘Don’t Shoot Me Santa’
Released back in 2007, ‘Don’t Shoot Me Santa’ is one of 11 Christmas songs released by The Killers, and to some, it’s arguably the most popular of them all. The song’s lyrics tell a darkly humorous story where the protagonist is pleading for mercy from Santa Claus, trying to justify his wrongdoings and begging him for forgiveness.
The track’s overall quirkiness and infectious melody help to make it such a beloved track from the band, who even went on to turn the storyline into a three-part series. (Samantha Hall)
Lucy Dacus – ‘Last Christmas’
Lucy may be known for penning devastating friendship anthems and cavorting across the world’s stadiums as one third of boygenius, but in 2019 she turned her hand at a Christmas cover – joining the long, long list of artists to have a bash at Wham!’s ‘Last Christmas’.
Happily it’s a tune that’s yet to get old, and Lucy’s rendition is wrapped up in enough soggy guitars and indie girl angst to avoid getting lost among the masses. It’s also mercifully upbeat; while some of her peers have used the festive season to produce some beautiful but resolutely miserable hymns, this is a cover that’s actually retained the festive spirit. (Caitlin Chatterton)
Kylie Minogue – ‘Christmas Isn’t Christmas ‘Til You Get Here’
Like Kelly Clarkson, Kylie was born to make a Christmas record. She released her ‘Kylie Christmas’ album in 2015 – accompanied by a delightfully camp live show at the Royal Albert Hall – where a dreamy cover of The Pretenders’ ‘2000 Miles’, among others, was joined by collaborations with Iggy Pop, Frank Sinatra and, slightly randomly, James Corden.
However, it’s the record’s penultimate track, ‘Christmas Isn’t Christmas ‘Til You Get Here’, that stands out as truly embodying a Kylie Christmas song. The cookie-cutter festive tune has it all: toe-tapping keys, saccharine lyrics, a swaying chorus, and dizzying sleigh bells aplenty.
Minogue may be a pop treasure for the ages, but she’s a too-readily overlooked treasure for the holiday season too. (Caitlin Chatterton)
FEET – ‘Vegetarian Christmas’
“Already anticipating what the grandparents think a vegetarian eats…”
As far as alternative Christmas songs go, FEET’s ‘Vegetarian Christmas’ is a stellar find. Linda McCartney sausages, sprouts and gravy, and roasted veggies on a walnut roast, if you had any doubts before – dispel them now, because FEET don’t eat meat! Want a charming and charismatic, jingly song to convince a loved one to kickstart a new Christmas tradition in the form of a veggie Christmas dinner? This song is for you. (Sahar Ghadirian)
Flyte – ‘Won’t Be Home For Christmas’
A bittersweet meditation on the festive season, Flyte’s ‘Won’t Be Home For Christmas’ explores the anxieties of Christmastime. As they sway away from the typical holiday cheer, the band’s focus lies on the shadows that linger and follow many people during this period.
Flyte’s ode to those alone on December 25th, with their poignant vocals and soaring harmonies, traverses landscapes from America to England, unravelling the inescapable theme of family. Christmas can be difficult as much as it’s great for many. Lyrically, ‘Won’t Be Home For Christmas’ may not be like other merry-filled, conventional songs, but it’s certainly reflective – helping you think of others. (Sahar Ghadirian)
Kate Bush – ‘December Will Be Magic Again’
This has all the hallmarks of Kate Bush’s best work, a piano throughline and piercing, ethereal vocals. Perhaps not as well known as it should be it did result in a top 40 hit on its release in 1980.
Unlike other Christmas songs that feel different to the usual work of the artist, this is in keeping with her work from the early part of her career and all the better for it. (Christopher Connor)
The Walkmen – ‘No Christmas While I’m Talking’
Christmas in the shadows…
The Walkmen manage to capture the lonelier aspects of the festive period on ‘No Christmas While I’m Talking.’ Sparsely orchestrated with trembling guitars and rolling drums that evoke the wind bitten corners of NYC in the throes of a blizzard, frontman Hamilton Leithauser agonises over betrayal and the possibility of reconciliation.
However in amongst the infidelities there is a comforting – and relatable – warmth in the sound of sorrows being drowned and liquor soaking into bones. After all, would it really be the holidays without some heartbreak, and tears after one too many. Merry bloody Christmas. (Craig Howieson)
Low – ‘Just Like Christmas’
Arguably the most famous alternative festive song of recent times, ‘Just Like Christmas’ is – from its title down – emphatically not about December 25th at all. Yet perhaps that’s missing the point – it’s a beautiful song, replete with snowy vistas, visions of Lapland (well, almost…) and bells galore.
Christmas isn’t just about being close to loved ones, though. For many people, it’s a time of remembrance, of taking stock. The loss of Low’s Mimi Parker still hits hard; co-founder and widower Alan Sparhawk’s recent set at Le Guess Who became a scorching declaration of grief, an almost-unbearable window into a highly personal sense of loss. Returning to ‘Just Like Christmas’, the song’s evocative simplicity hits all the harder. (Robin Murray)
John Fahey – ‘Good King Wencelas’
The progenitor of so-called American primitive, John Fahey helped to develop and expand the language of the six-string steel guitar. An often-formidable talent, his turn at making a Christmas record remains a staple, a series of recordings that have escaped the tight-knit cult devotion that surrounds the non-secular aspects of his work.
Frosted, ultra-delicate guitar sketches, there’s a sombre loneliness to Fahey’s playing – as though he’s the only worshipper left in a cold church after a Christmas Eve service. ‘Good King Wencelas’ transposes the carol to the American West, the jaunty syncopation disciplined in its own rather loose fashion. Closing with repeated Amen cadences, you’re left with a heartbreaking feeling of empty longing. (Robin Murray)