Hey, I love Christmas as much as the next guy, and I have my favorite holiday tunes (“Happy Xmas (War is Over),” “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and “The Little Drummer Boy” top my list), but it seems like everybody on the music scene these days has to put out a Christmas album. How many different versions of “Frosty the Snowman” does the world need? And anyway, much of it is clearly meant to capitalize on this favorite of holidays and comes across as insincere at best. It all makes one a little nauseous after awhile.
Thus, I take a certain delight in songs that garotte all the faux Christmas spirit with blood red bows and bludgeon those jingle bells into slightly discordant little nodes of wintery weirdness. So here’s a list of my favorite Christmas songs–in no particular order–that don’t fit too snugly in the traditional Christmas playlist. Some are intentionally humorous, others melancholy and haunting. Some are as dark and dreary as a Scandinavian midwinter’s evening, and a few are just, well, off in some way. I hope you enjoy this soundtrack to the holiday hellscape we all are subjected to this time of year . . .
The Magnetic Fields – Everything is One Big Christmas Tree – I love the Magnetic Fields. This band’s talent cannot be overstated, and their ability to operate in a wide array of styles is simply astounding. This song, in keeping with Stephin Merritt’s sly and occasionally bitingly sarcastic social commentary, is not a Christmas song per se but rather a critique of the increasingly shallow and phony feel-good society we live in. As you’re listening to this song, keep in mind how the commercial powers-that-be seem to be plotting to make Christmas a year-round affair (that may be an exaggeration, but it isn’t much of one) and you’ll see that Merritt’s critical blade comes across as even sharper.
CKY – Santa’s Coming – Punk metal band CKY has always stood apart from similar bands by their skewed humor and semi-surreal lyrics. Their take on the classic kids’ Christmas song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” for example starts off sounding like a simple kitschy rock cover but pretty quickly veers into that tricky territory between humor and horror. The pared-down video featuring Santa Claus fighting with a giant chicken a la Family Guy is just icing on the cake.
A Camp – Silent Night – Cardigans frontwoman Nina Persson’s side project A Camp offers in “Silent Night” a song that flips the peace and reverence conveyed in its namesake into a hauntingly obscure meditation on loneliness and longing. The object of the singer’s affection ‘Baby Brown’ could be an absent lover, but for some reason I always think of a mother who has, for some unspecified reason, been separated from her child and is now only tenuously connected to him or her through the occasional telephone call (to be sure, there are lyrics that reinforce this contention). Now she sits alone on a quiet winter’s day, solemnly wishing for the missing son or daughter to be there with her, filling up the house with the joyful, life-affirming din of a child at play. Depressing? I suppose, but few songs I know of are so eerily effective at capturing the essentia of loneliness and absence.
Weird Al Yankovic – Christmas at Ground Zero – Well, I have to say that had 9-11 never happened this song probably wouldn’t be on the list. I’ve never been much of a fan of Weird Al’s original songs; it’s parodying the hits of others that he excels at, and it’s those that I enjoy most. This song appears on Polka Party!, an album that dropped in 1986, well before the 2001 terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon. And at the time this came out the term “ground zero”, although certainly associated with warfare, obviously wasn’t inextricably linked to one of the worst atrocities committed on US soil. But that is precisely what gives this tune its high creepiness factor today. By the way, if you are offended by my associating of a humorous song with that horrible event, well all I can say is a) I cannot control what associations my brain makes, and b) I don’t believe in the concept of unassailable sacredness anyway, which I think is only useful as a tool for people in power to manipulate the populace into behaving a certain way. That isn’t to say that I think there aren’t appropriate times when we should be solemn and respectful; it just means that I believe that condition should always be temporary. But I digress . . .
Show of Hands – Innocents’ Song / Gwithian – The first part of this morbid Christmas song by English folk duo Show of Hands, which appears on the album Witness, is basically Charles Causley’s poem of the same name set to music and tells the famous Biblical story of the Massacre of the Innocents, presenting Herod as a kind of demonic Santa Claus figure with burning yellow eyes and a gingerbread tongue who comes for the children of the town. But with a few changes to the lyrics this song could just as easily be about Adam Lanza, who has certainly tainted the winter holidays for many of us.
Abney Park – The Little Drummer Boy – This one’s a double bull’s eye for me. Not only is it one of my favorite Christmas songs, as previously mentioned, it also happens to be performed by one of the best steampunk bands on the scene today. There are many versions of this song out there and some are quite good, but few are as unique as this shadow-tinged industrial cover of the timeless Christmas classic. In fact, this comes from Abney Park’s album Through Your Eyes on Christmas Eve, which isn’t bad as a Christmas album on the whole if you like this sort of music. My other fave from the album: “Winter Wonderland.”
Low – Little Drummer Boy – Another excellent version of this tune by nineties alt rock stalwarts Low, I am pretty close to declaring this my favorite rendition of the song ever. This carol has always been a little haunting, but few Christmas songs are so perfectly suited to the eerie droning vocals of Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk as is “Little Drummer Boy.” It can be found on Low’s simply and appropriately titled album Christmas, which seems to contain a nice balance of classic and original yuletide music.
Chris de Burgh – A Spaceman Came Travelling – How do you sell the Christian nativity story to an ever more cynical hippie audience? I guess one way is to throw in a starship and an alien from another world. Despite this strange mash-up of religion and science fiction, this song has actually been a minor hit in Europe a number of times since its initial release. And I have to say that I find it an interesting artifact of the decade of my early childhood, if for no other reason than its portrayal of the archangel Gabriel as an extraterrestrial and its recasting of Christianity as a kind of supercharged cargo cult.
Sufjan Stevens – Christmas Unicorn – Because, why not? This is a notable Xmas song on a number of counts. First, it is the very last track on the very last volume of Stevens’ massive (ten volume) Christmas EP collection, and it’s quite a strange note to go out on, even for the quirky likes of Sufjan Stevens. For another thing, given the indie-folk musician’s self-professed Christianity, this comes across as oddly irreverent and more than a smidge cynical. The song is chock full of snarky lines and surreal imagery. Stevens also manages to toss in a tribute to Joy Division’s dingy post-punk masterpiece “Love Will Tear Us Apart” at the end. What more could a guy like me ask for?
Arcade Fire – A Very Arcade Xmas – It should be acknowledged up front that this was never intended to be released to the public. It’s one of those curiosities where a band early in their career, often in some state of chemical or alcohol induced sublimity, records an improvised jam session for the pure bliss of it. These kinds of things tend to be so outrageous that they transcend conventional critical assessments and move into the ambiguous and esoteric ‘legendary’ status. To many people this may seem like little more than musical masturbation, and I suppose if you got right down to it I wouldn’t dispute that conclusion. However, I am one of those creative types who enjoys peering into the raw, burbling primordial soup of other creative types in order to get a grip on their process. Along the way I may perhaps even get a glimpse of the elusive mother-muse who birthed all of the arts and only seems to make herself known when her adherents are mostly unaware of their own ritual worship. Such is the case with this over eight minute long drunken excursion into the dark demiurgic wilds.
Bob Rivers – Walkin’ Round in Women’s Underwear – Rivers is to Christmas parody songs what Yankovic is to pop-rock parody songs. Okay, maybe that’s an overstatement, but I know of no other musicians who have satirized the Christmas holiday as often and as successfully as radio DJ and music producer Rivers. He has plenty of other songs that could easily fit on this list, but this one, a parody of “Winter Wonderland”, might just be the raunchiest, and it’s certainly one of the funniest.
Cast in Bronze – Carol of the Bells – A musician whose primary instrument is a rolling carillon–one of the few mobile ones in existence, in fact–a rack of different sized bells arranged to be played by keyboard, Cast in Bronze had a brief spot of fame when he appeared in the seventh season of America’s Got Talent and was summarily X-ed out by all three judges during the quarter-finals. (Not that America’s Got Talent has anything whatsoever to do with recognizing and nurturing genuine talent–it’s basically an American-style democratic election for talent where the judges serve as the electoral college and the audience as the voters, and like many such elections it tends to promote the blandest and least threatening candidates. Howard Stern, how far you’ve fallen . . . ) So anyway, even if you’re not a fan of this sort of thing, you’ve probably heard the “Carol of the Bells” in some movie, commercial or TV show (e.g. here). But I really like this band’s all instrumental rendition of a true holiday gem.
Gayla Peevey – I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas – And who doesn’t? Ten-year-old Gayla Peevey was basically a one-hit wonder with this screwball Christmas tune, but then it was originally never intended for any audience outside of her hometown. The song was a local success first, and then, in order to put himself in the limelight a local promoter started a campaign to actually purchase Peevey a baby hippo and the rest is history. Oddly enough the campaign was successful, but soon after getting her hippo, the girl donated the animal to the Oklahoma City Zoo. Never mind that hippos are notoriously dangerous animals, making them utterly inappropriate pets for anyone, the song also has some really questionable lyrics for a kiddie song, such as “Mom says the hippo would eat me up, but then teacher says a hippo is a vegetarian” (vegetarians they may be, but Mom is probably right) and “I want a hippopotamus to play with and enjoy.” To add to the kookiness, Peevey has one of those oddly ageless, sexless, elfish voices. Quirky and amusing Americana from the fifties.
Crudbump – Fuck You If You Don’t Like Christmas – Why, a very merry Christmas to you, sir! I am (mostly) in accord with Crudbump’s tastes and I find this song quite funny, but if the f-bomb offends you then you had better avoid this one like the plague.
Randy Newman – Christmas in Capetown – And speaking of offensive words . . . Well, it’s Randy Newman, so you know he’s got ulterior motives, but what other white musician can get away with dropping the n-word in his lyrics without generating a massive controversy? This song concerns a white resident of South Africa who mostly doesn’t question the racist policies of his own government, but his cognitive dissonance has begun to eat at him lately nonetheless. Probably no song in this list is more timely than this one in light of Nelson Mandela’s recent departure from the planet, reminding us that it hasn’t been that long ago since Apartheid was the law of the land in South Africa and that bigotry is hardly a thing of the distant past.
Spinal Tap – Christmas with the Devil – From where I’m standing you can’t go far wrong with a song that contains the lyric “There’s someone up the chimney hole and Satan is his name.” Spinal Tap is one of those bands that so effectively parodied a particular musical niche–in this case eighties hair bands–that many people don’t even realize they weren’t serious. And to be fair many hard rock and heavy metal bands of the eighties were almost self-parodies. This particular track probably owes the most to Mötley Crüe’s Shout at the Devil, as well as bands like Dokken and Ratt, who in retrospect probably did more to domesticate the devil and make him kid-friendly than the other way around (for the edification of you young’uns, a chronic complaint of hardcore Christians in the eighties was that rock music was turning our precious youth into an army of miniature devil worshipers). Seriously, I can’t even tell you how many times kids brought the Shout at the Devil album to my sixth grade music class and played it again and again with nary a scowl or censorious word from the teacher. With that in mind, what’s more domestic than Christmas?
James Chance – Christmas with Satan – Our second holiday outing with the Dark Prince comes from James Chance, a major player in the No Wave arts movement of the eighties, and clocking in at nearly ten minutes, it’s a real doozy. I confess I’ve never been much of a jazz fan and that’s especially so with free-form jazz. Actually I tend to dislike asymmetrical and rhythmless music in general. Even most classical music leaves me cold. Hell, I’ve only recently been able to fully appreciate instrumental music of any sort. I have long supposed this was because my major inroad to music was the narrative quality of the lyrics, which makes a lot of sense because I am a largely narrative-driven sort of guy. If you need proof, consider that even as an elementary school lad I wanted to be a fiction writer. So without Chance’s vocals (as naked and raw as they are) to lend some humanity to the diaphoretic squeak and skronk of the instruments, I likely would not have gotten ten seconds into this song before shutting it off. But the story here of a drug addict who ODs one Christmas eve and finds himself in a netherworld court charged with suicide and sentenced to burn in hell, only to discover that his punishment isn’t quite what he had in mind, is a fascinating one. Chance’s sincerity is really what sells it though, and anyway the music changes into something more resembling rock about a third of the way in. Check it out.
Houndmouth – Krampus – Forget the devil. How about Christmas’s very own demon, the Krampus? If you don’t know, the Krampus was essentially the dark counterpart to Santa Claus in the mythology of Germany, Austria and some of the Scandinavian countries. While Santa delivers presents to the good boys and girls, this devilish creature drags the naughty ones to his hellish lair. Ah, those wonderful old-time Europeans; they certainly knew how to scare the everlovin’ crap out of their children in order to keep them on the straight and narrow. Anyway, this song conveys a simple message with very few words: Krampus is coming to gobble up the bad kiddies. Now isn’t that festive?
Unto Ashes – Krampusnacht (For Krampus the Christmas Demon) – Unto Ashes is a difficult act to categorize. They mix medieval-type music, both secular and religious, folk, goth, and other elements of darkwave and blend it all into something gloomily gorgeous. Who better then to sing about December fifth, the night devoted to the Krampus?
Merle Haggard – If We Make It Through December – I grew up listening to country music. When you’re raised in the South it’s kind of hard not to. Although I’m pretty much a rawk fan these days and think the vast majority of modern country is drivel, I still have some nostalgic feelings for the classic stuff. Merle Haggard kind of straddles the line. He falls into the “outlaw country” movement, which is mostly hit or miss for me, but I do like this song, with its bittersweet tale of an average Joe who loses his job just before the holidays and feels guilty that he can’t give his little daughter a proper Christmas. Haggard gives his hard-luck narrator just the pinch of optimism he needs to keep this tune from falling into maudlin self-pity territory.
Pretty much everything on Psych-Out Christmas – For a load of crazy Christmas songs, this is a good one-stop property. From Sleepy Sun mimicking the grimmer side of the sixties with their rendition of What Child is This?, to Dead Meadow’s spaghettified surf rockabilly in Mele Kalikimaka, to the Fuzztones channeling the Ad Libs in Santa Claus, this ain’t the kind of Christmas music you’ll hear in your local mall. Of course, the most recognizable name in the lineup is Iggy Pop, who offers a low, slow and dirty version of White Christmas. If you’re a sucker for seasonal psychedelia, this is the album for you!