December isn't all about dull melodies.
Let’s not beat around the bush – most Christmas songs are pretty shit. Sure, Mariah’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ and WHAM’s ‘Last Christmas’ are iconic, but we all know that they’ve been flogged to high hell, and are probably more likely to have you gritting your teeth in agony instead of humming merrily down the shopping aisle.
Thankfully, there are a select few – not many, but a few – Yuletide anthems out there that are actually pretty decent, and some that even defy the Christmas curse to hold up as being really good. Today, we’re shining a light on some of these tracks, digging through the crates to bring you our favourite Christmas songs actually worth listening to.
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Paul Kelly – ‘How To Make Gravy’
A true blue Aussie classic, and a surefire front-runner for one of the best Christmas songs of all time, you just can’t knock PK for this one. A melancholic tale of an inmate reminiscing on the joys of Christmas through the form of a letter to his brother while he spends his sentence behind bars, ‘How To Make Gravy’ is so ingrained within the experience of an Australian Christmas that December 21st is now colloquially known as ‘Gravy Day’ – you just can’t beat it.
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – ‘Ain’t No Chimneys In The Projects’
Clocking in at an all-too-short two minutes and twenty seconds, ‘Ain’t No Chimneys In The Projects’ packs a stone cold groove courtesy of the Dap-Kings and a powerful vocal performance from the late, great Sharon Jones. Here, Jones addresses social inequality atop of a bedrock of funky guitars, driving bass and euphoric horns, with Neal Sugarman even throwing in an interpolation of ‘Jingle Bells’ into his blazing saxophone solo to help put this one right at the top of the tree.
The Pogues – ‘Fairytale Of New York’
For many of us, Christmas is the furthest thing from the jolliest time of the year, and who better to remind of us that than Celtic punk outfit The Pogues? A gut-wrenchingly bittersweet duet between the band’s Shane MacGowan and guest vocalist Kirsty MacColll, ‘Fairytale In New York’ trades in the sleigh-bells and mistletoe for a profanity-packed tale of crushed dreams, drug abuse and alcoholism, reminding us all that for the most part, Christmas really isn’t all it’s cracked out to be.
Kanye West & GOOD Music – ‘Christmas In Harlem’
Kanye’s not known to be one to shy away from Christian themes – even before he went full gospel with last year’s Jesus Is King, his rhymes were littered with references to the Big Book and all things related. As part of the roll-out of 2010’s era-defining My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye cemented his penchant for Yuletide cheer with the joyous ‘Christmas In Harlem’: a soulful festive banger inspired by Run DMC’s ‘Christmas In Hollis’ that spotlights the entire GOOD Music roster of 2010 with guest verses from Pusha-T, Cam’ron, Big Sean, CyHi Da Prince and more. Special points go to Pusha-T for sneaking a smattering of coke lines into his verse – after all, what would a White Christmas be without Pusha-T?
Phoenix – ‘Alone On Christmas Day’
This one’s actually a ‘70s deep cut from The Beach Boys, but considering it never received an official release, we’re going to focus on Phoenix’s incredible rendition for Bill Murray’s A Very Murray Christmas. ‘Alone On Christmas Day’ sees everybody’s favourite French rockers team up with Letterman musical director Paul Schaffer for an all-too-catchy ode to being lonely during the holidays, with Thomas Mars’ vocals gliding atop of squelchy Moog synths and honky-tonk pianos to make for a sensational seasonal ear-worm. Keep your ears out for Bill Murray’s backing vocals!
Paul McCartney – ‘Wonderful Christmastime’
A controversial choice, but one I’ll happily fight and die for. For many, ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ represents the absolute worst aspects of Paul McCartney’s songwriting (and some), but for me, there’s few original Christmas tunes as bizarre as this one. Whether it’s the weird chorus vocal, those oh-so-gooey Prophet 5 pads – paired with a badly out-of-sync delay for good measure – or the totally redundant verse about the children’s choir, ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ is totally out-the-box, and injects some kookiness into a genre that tends to be a bit vanilla and stale.
Julia Jacklin – ‘Baby Jesus Is Nobody’s Baby Now’
Julia Jacklin is a master of emotive songwriting, and on her newly released single ‘Baby Jesus Is Nobody’s Baby Now’, the local singer-songwriter proves that even a Yuletide jam isn’t immune to her tearjerking tendencies. Backed by nothing but a hushed acoustic guitar, Jacklin reminisces on the mundanities of spending Christmas Day with your family as a single twenty-something, evoking imagery of cold cuts, gatherings with the extended family and that feeling of dread that seems to intensify around this time of year.
John Lennon – ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’
A December standard that’s been absolutely rinsed since its release in 1971, John Lennon’s ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ isn’t just a ripper Christmas tune: it’s also a poignant protest anthem against the carnage of the Vietnam War. Here, Lennon juxtaposes the joys of a stereotypical Christmas with lyrics referring to the treatment of Vietnamese civilians living in fear, and although the wartime aspect of the tune has decayed somewhat in the 50 years since its release, it still holds up as a pretty good alternative to ‘White Christmas’.
Albert King – ‘Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’’
In what might be one of the dirtiest Christmas songs to come out of the ‘70s, blues guitar legend Albert King’s ‘Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’’ sets up a steamy scenario that sees Santa get it on with somebody’s wife in the kitchen on Christmas Eve. With funky clavinets and blistering guitar solos galore, ‘Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’’ is the kind of Christmas tune best played after the kids go off to bed – but man, the guitar work is something else.
James Chance – ‘Christmas With Satan’
There’s really no way to describe this track: is it jazz? Avant-garde? Funk? Proto-punk? Regardless of what it may be, James Chance’s ‘Christmas With Satan’ is just about as surreal as Christmas music could ever get, and might just be one of the most bonkers songs ever made. We wouldn’t recommend playing this at the dinner table on the big day, but hey – what are we to know?
Joni Mitchell – ‘River’
If we’re going to be technical, ‘River’ doesn’t really have all too much to do with the festive season – in fact, it’s far more indebted to Mitchell’s breakup with Graham Nash than it is to that day on December 25, aside from that intro piano that sounds awful reminiscent of ‘Jingle Bells’. Nevertheless, it’s since been associated with all things Christmas, with Joni describing the pangs of a love abandoned while the town prepares Christmas trees and sings carols around her. Another one that’s bound to hit you right in the heart when you least expect it.
The Flaming Lips – ‘Christmas at the Zoo’
An understated highlight from their 1995 LP Clouds Taste Metallic, ‘Christmas at the Zoo’ sees The Flaming Lips tackle an alternative view of Christmas by shining light on the cruelty of caged zoos. Throughout the track, Wayne Coyne breaks into the zoo to free the animals on Christmas Eve, yet as it seems, the animals don’t want to be freed: they’d rather be the ones to do it themselves. Adorned with blown-out drums and walls of fuzzy guitars, ‘Christmas at the Zoo’ serves as the perfect soundtrack for all your psychedelic escapades this silly season.
Kurtis Blow – ‘Christmas Rappin’’
Simply iconic. Kurtis Blow is an absolute legend of hip-hop’s golden era, and ‘Christmas Rappin’’ epitomises everything that made him such a great: his flow is clean as hell, the lyrics are hilarious without hinging on cliche, and man – that groove! A certified party starter for any festive function you’ve got to attend this month.
Julian Casablancas – ‘I Wish It Was Christmas Today’
Without listening to the lyrics which would be incredibly impressive to ignore, Julian Casablancas’ foray into Christmas music shares that typical Strokes sound. Not exactly an original, it features lyrics from Saturday Night Live’s Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz as a recurring sketch before being given its New York indie rock rendition. Sprinkled over with all the classic Christmas elements of bells, optimism, and oh, dozens of mentions of Christmas, this track is certainly one of the least annoying Christmas songs you’re likely to hear. A worthy placeholder on this list.
Vulfpeck – ‘Christmas in L.A’
Get our funk on this Christmas with the funk legends themselves in Vulfpeck and their presentation of doing Christmas in L.A – the idea is that Christmas in L.A is just a normal day with Christmas overtones and this song replicates that, it’s just a normal song with Christmas overtones, marvellous. Another one you’d be forgiven to not realise it’s a Christmas song if it weren’t for the title with less apparent vocals that still ooze that Christmas feeling. This toe-tapper’s video clip reflects the feelings of many who may not share the same Christmas spirit as everyone, an all-round classic that’s impossible to be miserable to if you’re looking for that pick-me-up! A great song in every other month of the year too.
Get in the Christmas spirit here.