Not all Christmas music has to be jingle-bell heavy, and the stuff you hear on the radio doesn’t have to be your festive soundtrack. You’ll be surprised to hear that there’s a whole collection of beautiful, funny, and strange alternative Christmas music offerings out there, begging to be listened to as the cold nights draw in. Whether it’s murderous festive chants from Björk or remembering that time Kate Winslet was a pop star for a bit, there’s a surprisingly vast amount of Christmas songs out there. Here’s our top ten alternative Christmas tracks: hot enough to warm the heart of even the coldest Scrooge this December.
1. Misty by Kate BushKate Bush’s enchanting voice lends itself perfectly to dark nights and first snowfalls; her painterly songwriting conjuring gorgeous, frosty images. But at no point was her work more pertinent to the chill of winter than on 50 Words for Snow, a 2011 chamber-pop album that marked the visionary artist’s first record after a six-year hiatus. It’s gentle, patient and beautiful. Misty is not a Christmas song in the traditional sense, but the track makes for sullen, sensual listening. A story of sex sung over a maelstrom of piano chords, pattering percussion and gentle strings, Kate chronicles a fleeting bedtime encounter between a woman and a snowman named Misty.
2. What If by Kate Winslet If it were to come from the mouth of any bog-standard pop star, this would be another early noughties cut of whimsical festive music for the masses. But this song, which appeared in an animated version of A Christmas Carol, makes the cut because it inspired the temporary pop career of one of the most respected stars of the silver screen. Back in 2001 Kate was asked if she’d record a song for a now long forgotten Christmas movie, reluctantly obliging. The studio released it as a single, but only on Kate’s condition that all of the proceeds would go to a children’s charity. What happened next is a work of unlikely Top 40 history -- the track cracked the top 10 and stole every Scrooge’s heart.
3. Sleigh Ride by R2-D2 and C3POHow better to soundtrack your winter than with a Christmas classic performed by two robots from Hollywood’s most iconic sci-fi movie series? On this jolly rendition of Sleigh Ride -- a song made famous thanks to vocal renditions from King of Christmas Bing Crosby, and The Ronettes -- C3PO teaches R2-D2 how to sing, whistle and harmonise as R2 bleeps and bloops along. The song was actually part of 1980’s Christmas in the Stars, a collection of festive tunes tied to the Star Wars universe that also spawned unforgettable classics such as R2-D2 We Wish You a Merry Christmas and the masterful What Can You Get a Wookie for Christmas (When He Already Owns a Comb?). Swept up in the Jedi hysteria of the early 80s, the LP was a huge success, shifting hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide.
4.O Holy Night by Avril LavigneIn 2003 -- somewhere between Let Go and Under My Skin -- Avril temporarily put her angsty teen vocals to bed and gave us a gentle cover of the Christian classic, O Holy Night. Her close friend and songwriting collaborator Chantal Kreviazuk (who’s also worked with Drake) appears as a co-vocalist. Released on a compilation album that one Amazon reviewer dubbed “an emo Christmas collection”, Lavigne covered O Holy Night when she was 19, at the peak of her pop-punk power, but what’s fascinating about her rendition is that it doesn’t tap into the rock-heavy tropes of her peers’ Christmas tunes. This is a throwback so monumental it will tear your Santa hat clean off.
5. Merry Crassmas by CrassIf you like your Christmas music jolly, glossy and pandering to consumerist culture, it might be worth skipping over this from one of the 20th century’s most seismic anarcho-punk bands. Crass, known best for their incendiary (if somewhat short-lived) career in the late 70s and early 80s, were born out of Dial House in Essex - widely cited as one of the hotbeds of anarchy and pacifism in Britain. Known better for songs like Bloody Revolution, and for masterminding the Thatchergate hoax, it seems awfully strange to think that this band of feminist vegetarians were putting together a special 7” EP for the holidays. It’s the brilliant closing monologue, courtesy of Santa Claus himself, that will really stick with you as you eat Christmas dinner. “I hope you've had a jolly time and lots and lots of fun,” Santa laughs. “And if you're munching your delicious turkey at the moment -- I hope it fucking chokes you!"
6. The Little Drum Machine Boy by Beck“Aw yeah, that’s the holiday! That’s the – beeyatch! – holiday robot funk!”, Beck gurns on the opening bars of this hip-hop tinged track about Hanukkah. Pulling melodic inspiration from some of everybody’s favourite Christmas songs, it’s a masterclass in deconstructed festive songwriting, and the ultimate track for anybody who wants to cater to a Christmas-thirsty office party, while appeasing their own alt-rock soul. On The Little Drum Machine Boy, Beck burrows a Jewish prayer under layers and layers of synths to make up its chorus, while saying he gets his “shit lit like a menorah”. It was released in 1996, the same year he made his almighty comeback with the Grammy-winning Odelay, and while that was a record that solidified his status as an American indie musician worth rooting for, his seven minutes of festive 808 funk proved that he wasn’t quite ready to be seen as a mainstream commodity quite yet.
7. Santa Doesn't Cop Out on Dope by Sonic YouthBack in 1973, American crooner Martin Mull released an anti-marijuana festive song entitled Santa Doesn’t Cop Out on Dope. On it, he used the ruse that he had been to the the North Pole and spoken to Santa Claus about how he’d rather pig out on cookies than doobies on Christmas Eve. According to Martin, the 70s youth should follow suit. He might have had good intentions, but his breathy, bell heavy version, while funny, isn’t quite subversive enough to make the cut. Instead, who better to cover some Christmas anti-weed propaganda than Sonic Youth? In 1996, the band took Martin Mull’s sappy track and switched it up into a brilliant cacophony of scuzzy guitar strings and Thurston Moore’s droning vocals. It’s a far cry from Superstar, but equally beguiling for a very different reason; an ironic take rather on a crazily conservative Christmas track.
8. Santa Baby by MadonnaA quick search of Santa Baby will unveil a slew of renditions of the Christmas classic by everybody from Eartha Kitt to Gwen Stefani. As tongue-in-cheek and sensual a song about splashing cash and gift-giving as you’ll get, it’s become a favourite for pop stars to cover come xmas; it’s no surprise that Madonna is behind one of its most influential interpretations. Before Ariana, Kylie and Michael Buble came along, the pop icon and OG i-D cover star lent her voice to the song in 1987 for a charity Christmas album – alongside artists like Sting and Stevie Nicks – and it temporarily wound up succeeding Eartha Kitt’s version as the public’s festive tune of choice.
9. Christmas in Hollis by Run-DMCMusicians from the pop and rock realm tapping into Christmas tunes is old news; it’s been happening ever since carols began to break the Billboard 100. But rap has been less interested in the frivolous way artists ramp up the campness over the holidays. 30 years ago, Run-DMC were one of the first hip-hop acts to try their hand at a festive track with the now iconic Christmas in Hollis. They rap about spotting an old guy in Central Park with “an ill reindeer” who leaves his wallet behind. Inside? Kris Kringle’s driver’s license. It was a radio smash at the time, and spawned a video that beat out the one for Michael Jackson’s Bad, directed by Martin Scorsese, no less, for Rolling Stones’ Music Video of the Year Award. The song’s legacy grew greater when it appeared on the Die Hard soundtrack – another unlikely Christmas classic – but, depressingly, doesn’t receive the same level of radio love as its poppy peers today.
10. Jólakötturinn (Yule Cat) by BjörkLike your Christmas carols to be rooted in morbid Icelandic folklore? Björk (who else) has got that base covered. Back in the late 80s, everybody’s favourite off-kilter songstress had just begun her stint as the lead singer of The Sugarcubes. That winter, in celebration of the festive season, she released her rendition of a classic Icelandic poem: Jólakötturinn, or Yule Cat. Expressive, lethal and brilliant, it taps into an old Icelandic fairy tale about a murderous feline that stalks the snowy countryside at night, preying on unsuspecting victims on Christmas Eve. “If outside one heard a weak ‘ meow’, then bad luck was sure to happen / All knew he hunted men and didn’t want mice,” Björk chants like a nursery rhyme in her mother tongue. Christmas spirit doesn’t get more sinister than this!