With Thanksgiving officially behind us, the Winter season is now in full swing! That means that should you choose to venture out into any public locale, you are guaranteed to hear each of the following songs no fewer than three times: Mariah Carey‘s “All I Want for Christmas Is You“, Elton John‘s “Step Into Christmas“, and/or “Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney. It’s enough to make you pepper spray a fellow shopper.
Now, I love (most) Christmas music: from the traditional carols, to the jazzy instrumental takes on classic wintery ballads, to the modern covers by top 40 artists. I’m an equal opportunity lover of Christmas tunes. But even I get sick of hearing the same old songs, carefully calibrated into playlists every time I leave the house to do a little Christmas shopping.
So in the interest of sanity and preserving the holiday spirit, each year I create my own personal Christmas playlist. It’s a mix of tunes you don’t normally hear while out grabbing a deal on a the latest tech gadget, buying a cup of coffee, or taking advantage of a two-for-one deal on cozy slippers. And that suits me just fine. It’s what I listen to in the car and plug into my iPod whenever I just can’t stand to hear Wham!‘s “Last Christmas” one more freakin’ time.
“Silent Night” by The National, Sufjan Stevens, and Richard Reed-Parry (of Arcade Fire)
In 2010, Richard Parry of Arcade Fire, and Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National hosted an episode of the BBC Radio 6 Music Program. On it they played a duo of Christmas songs that they had jointly worked on, along with indie artist and musical maestro, Sufjan Stevens. There wasn’t an indie music heart in the world that didn’t rejoice at this collaboration. The songs performed were: 1) a beautifully rendered version of the go-to Christmas carol “Silent Night”, and; 2) the folksy-Christmas tune, ”Barcarola (You Must Be a Christmas Tree)”, which cries out to be listened to in front of a fireplace with a warm beverage of your choosing.
Silent Night, Holy night, all is calm, all is bright
‘Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in Heavenly peace
Sleep in Heavenly peace
It’s worth noting that though this is more of a Christmas song, I included it on my list of songs for surviving Thanksgiving. But make no mistake: I’m not cheating by using it again here. Why? Because it is a gorgeous song in its own right and deserves to be mentioned twice. Also, because I said so.
In the interest of time (and laziness), I am going to quote myself from said piece again here: “Sufjan Stevens is such a wonderfully eclectic musician that the fact that he covered an 18th century Christian hymn is hardly surprising. This sparsely arranged version (originally penned by Robert Robinson, with music by John Wyeth ) was included on Stevens’s album Songs for Christmas…It was also featured on the critically acclaimed TV show, Friday Night Lights. Whatever your beliefs may be, this song is an undeniably beautiful piece that touches on the sentiments of grace and gratitude.” Done and done.
Come, Thou Fount of every blessing
Tune my heart to sing Thy praise
Streams of mercy, never ceasing
Call for songs of loudest praise
Teach me some melodious sonnet
Sung by flaming tongues above
Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it
Mount of Thy unchanging love
Whenever some know-it-all (**not that I know anything about that**) composes a list ranking the best indie Christmas tunes, “The Christmas Song” by The Raveonettes is always near the top. And for good reason. This lovely number expertly casts a Christmas spell over all who listen; it creates an infectious mood that is joyful (without the cheesiness), with just a dash of longing. Consider it a “new classic”. Released in 2003, the song is performed by the Danish indie rock band, The Raveonettes (a duo comprised of Sun Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo). Oh! And this song was used in an episode of The O.C.. But don’t hold that against it.
All the lights are coming on now
How I wish that it would snow now
I don’t fell like going home now
I wish that I could stay
This classic song is almost synonymous with Judy Garland; but many artists have dared to add their own unique spin to the song ever since Garland first crooned it in the 1944 movie musical, Meet Me in St. Louis.
It has been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Kermit the Frog (yes, THAT Kermit…I know. Awesome.). Chris Martin first performed his version in 2001 and with his simple but solid take on the classic ballad, he did the song (and Garland) proud.
Through the years
We all will be together,
If the Fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson wrote this song specifically for the album, The Hotel Cafe Presents Winter Songs, which was released in October of 2008. The compilation album includes songs performed by female singer/songwriters, most of whom have been associated and/or performed at the Hotel Cafe (a great live music venue in Hollywood, CA).
In “Winter Song“, Bareilles and Michaelson blend their beautiful vocals in a way that creates a sound that is both angelic and heartbreaking. This is the kind of song you want to listen to while staring wistfully out a front picture window as it snows.
This is my winter song.
December never felt so wrong,
cause youre not where you belong;
inside my arms.
This is my winter song to you.
The storm is coming soon
it rolls in from the sea.
My love a beacon in the night.
My words will be your light
to carry you to me.
“Can I Interest You in Hannukah?” by Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart
Because you may want some options this holiday season. Plus, this song is pure comedy gold. It was part of A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!—the greatest Christmas variety show ever put to television.
Most of the songs from the special, including this one, were penned by David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger and can be found on the Christmas special’s Grammy-winning album. As for the lyrics, there really are no words. Just check it out and enjoy the musical banter between Stewart and Colbert. It really is “the greatest gift of all”.
What do you say, Stephen, do you want to give Hanukkah a try?
Stephen: I’m trying see me as a Jew
I’m trying even harder
But I believe in Jesus Christ
So it’s a real non-starter
Jon: I can’t interest you in Hanukkah? Just a little bit?
Stephen: No thanks I’ll pass. I’ll keep Jesus, you keep your potato pancakes. But I hope that you enjoy ‘em on behalf of all of the goyim.
Jon: Be sure to tell the Pontiff, my people say Good Yontif.
Stephen: That’s exactly what I’ll do
Both: Happy holidays, you
Sixpence None the Richer?! Remember these guys? Either way, their cover of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” feels fresh, effortless, and seemingly tailer-made for lead-vocalist Leigh Nash’s voice. The end result is beautiful and simply haunting.
Fun fact! This version of the famed Christmas carol was featured in a season two episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
It came upon the midnight clear
that glorious song of old
from angels bending near the earth
to touch their harps of gold
peace on the earth, good will to men
from heaven’s all gracious king
the world in solemn stillness lay
to hear the angels sing
Snoopy! Who doesn’t love the Peanuts Gang? People without hearts. That’s who.
Christmas time is here;
we’ll be drawing near;
oh that we
could always see
such spirit through the year…
Here Death Cab for Cutie takes on an iconic Christmas tune, which was originally sung by Darlene Love in 1963. Rolling Stone ranked Love’s performance of the song as number one on its list of “The Greatest Rock and Roll Christmas Songs” (December 2010). Now, no one can ever really top the sheer vocal power and leave-it-all on-dance-floor-style of Darlene Love, but among the covers of this holiday staple, Death Cab for Cutie does a pretty great job. They embrace simplicity and tackle the song with a straight-on approach. The result is beautiful.
The snow’s coming down
I’m watching it fall
Watching the people around
Baby please come home
The church bells in town
They’re ringing a song
What a happy sound
Baby please come home
“Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel” is a traditional Advent & Christmas hymn, with an English text that was translated from its original Latin version in the mid-19th century by John Mason Neale and Henry Sloane Coffin. With Joshua James lending his trademark emotionally-loaded voice to the carol, the result is a Christmas song that cuts straight to your core.
O come, O come Thou King of David, come,
And open wide your heavenly home.
Make safe the way that leads us on high,
And close the path of misery, by and by.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
Full disclosure: I am not a fan of Jack Johnson. But when I came across his version of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer”, I was completely charmed. First of all, it’s not exactly the go-to Christmas song to cover when artists are picking which tunes to sing for their inevitable holiday album. Mad respect.
Secondly, Johnson added a final verse…which works. Now, normally when musicians change and/or add lyrics to such a classic holiday tune I hurl my iPod across the floor in a fit of self-righteous anger. Don’t they know these songs are my babies and I love them as they are?! But in this case, the final verse is actually quite clever and it adds a nice coda to Rudolph’s story. Suck it, previously ignorant and catty reindeer!
Well Rudolph he didn’t go for that
he said “I see through your silly games”
How could you look me in the face
when only yesterday you called me names?
Well all of the other reindeers man,
well they sure did feel ashamed,
“Rudolph you know we’re sorry,
we’re truly gonna try to change”
“I Believe in Father Christmas” is a song originally by Greg Lake, with lyrics by Peter Sinfield. Lake has stated that the song was intended to be one of protest over the commercialization of Christmas. Sinfield, however, has gone on record as saying the song is about, “a loss of innocence and childhood belief.” In 2008, U2 covered this song to support the Product Red Campaign (a brand organization founded by Bono and Bobby Shriver to help fight AIDS in Africa). The Irish rock band pumps the song—one that was formerly more contained and introspective—full of life with their trademark energy and unstoppable musical momentum.
They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on Earth
But instead it just kept on raining
A veil of tears for the Virgin’s birth
A song for the animal lovers among us. This song dates back to 12th century France (where the melody was set to the Latin song “Orientis Partibus”). It is the story of the gifts brought to the Nativity, as told from the point of view of the animals—a donkey, a cow, a sheep, a dove, and a camel. I freakin’ loved this song as a kid—LOVED it. And it warmed my heart to hear Sufjan Steven’s version, which was released in 2003 on Vol. 3 of his Songs for Christmas album series.
“I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown,
“I carried this mother up hill and down;
I carried his mother to Bethlehem town.”
“I”, said the donkey, shaggy and brown.”
Ok, ok: this one often pops up in retail store playlists. But not many outside of Spencer’s Gifts or Lids. Besides, this ballad has been with us since 1987 when it was first released by kick-ass Irish punk band, The Pogues. It features additional vocals by British singer Kirsty MacColl. What makes this song great is the way it throws of the traditional ideas of what a Christmas song must be: It tells the bittersweet story of two Irish lovers—the female on her deathbed remembering a celebration one past Christmas Eve in New York. It truly can make you laugh one moment and cry the next. Oh, and it also contains the oft-quoted capital line, “Happy Christmas you arse”
When you first took my hand
On a cold Christmas Eve
You promised me
Broadway was waiting for me
This version by famed New Orleans trombone and trumpet player, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews is beyond gorgeous. It is entirely instrumental, and is a testament to the power of pure music. Though this is one of the most famous Christmas hymns around, this version—performed by a group of New Orleans musicians, led by Andrews, and featured in an episode of the short-lived Aaron Sorkin show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip—makes you feel like you are hearing the song for the first time. “O Holy Night” is usually a song to covered by artists to show off some fancy vocal stylings; but here, Troy Andrews and the rest of the New Orleans-based musicians contributing to the piece, make it truly about the music—and it is divine.
O holy night, the stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
“(What’s so Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?” featuring Elvis Costello (as a bear), Feist, John Legend, Toby Keith, Willie Nelson, & Stephen Colbert
This musical gem was also part of A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All! And it is glorious. Where “Can I Interest You in Hannukah?” is played for laughs, this cover of an Elvis Costello song (featuring various performers who were also part of Colbert’s Christmas special) is remarkably poignant.
Stephen: As I walk through
This wicked world
Searching for light in the darkness of insanity
I ask myself
Is all hope lost?
Is there only pain and hatred, and misery? ohhhh
Bear (Elvis Costello): And each time I feel like this inside
There’s one thing I wanna know
Stephen and Bear (Elvis Costello): What’s so funny bout peace love & understanding?
What’s so funny bout peace love & understanding?