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Alternative Christmas Songs: 20 Classics That Break With Tradition
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List & Guides

Alternative Christmas Songs: 20 Classics That Break With Tradition

From nostalgic indie-rock to punky expressions of festive angst, the best alternative Christmas songs make for a cool Yuletide soundtrack.

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It’s true that Christmas music is an age-old tradition, but it’s not all about swing jazz and easy listening. For decades, indie bands, punk groups and hip-hop outfits have given Bing Crosby a damn good kicking by wrestling with the holiday season clichés and offering us a cathartic counterpoint to all the merriment. Like hurtling down a snowy hillside on Santa’s sleigh, listening to the best alternative Christmas songs is one hell of a wild ride…

Listen to the best Christmas songs here, and check out our best alternative Christmas songs, below.

20: Liam Gallagher: All You’re Dreaming Of (2020)

Treating his diehard fanbase of “parka monkeys” to his very own Christmas song, former Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher’s All You’re Dreaming Of was described by the singer as “an instant classic that is perfect for this time of year”. Co-written with Cherry Ghost songwriter Simon Aldred, it’s a ready-to-order sentimental ballad practically gift-wrapped for Gallagher’s iconic voice, showcasing his vocal range with a delicacy and warmth that fits him as snugly as a pair of new slippers. The song reached No.24 in the UK upon its release in November 2020 and helped raise money for the Action For Children charity.

19: Courteeners: Winter Wonderland (2015)

For the first time since their debut album, St Jude, Manchester group Courteeners reunited with Stephen Street – the legendary producer of Blur and The Smiths – to record Winter Wonderland, a festive-themed single for the housing and homelessness charity Shelter. Written by songwriter Liam Fray on Norah Jones’ piano while in New York City, this sweeping ballad is an atmospheric wonder, with dour and blizzard-laden lyrics contemplating the beauty of a snowy landscape before concluding “it’s bloody annoying, after a day”. Though the song failed to chart, it remains one of the best alternative Christmas songs for indie-rock fans.

18: The Wombats: Is This Christmas? (2008)

As eccentric purveyors of fun-loving indie pop, Liverpool band The Wombats cram so many festive references into Is This Christmas? that you’ll begin to wonder if you’ve drunk too much eggnog. Whether it’s Mum burning the turkey, or watching Back To The Future repeats on TV, the song takes an ironic swipe at a dysfunctional family during the holidays, bemoaning being in your overdraft as you quaff red wine. Released in December 2008, Is This Christmas? peaked at No.47 in the UK, thanks to Matthew Murphy’s eccentric observations (“It never really snows, it’s more like horizontal sleet”) and the song’s riotous, manic energy.

17: Fountains Of Wayne: I Want An Alien For Christmas (1997)

Released in December 1997 by power-pop hitmakers Fountains Of Wayne, the child-like wish-fulfilment fantasy I Want An Alien For Christmas reached No.36 in the UK. Cut from the same geek-rock cloth as Weezer and They Might Be Giants, songwriter Adam Schlesinger masterfully inhabits the surreal imagination of a boy who just wants Santa to bring him a little green man from outer space to watch The Twilight Zone with. Oh, and he also has to be able to fly. With tongue firmly in cheek, the best alternative Christmas songs rarely get more humorous or playful than this.

16: Coldplay: Christmas Lights (2010)

Having established themselves as one of the world’s biggest alternative rock bands, Coldplay aimed for Yuletide immortality by releasing Christmas Lights in December 2010. A rare example of an alternative festive tune that can also claim a place among the best Christmas songs, the single peaked at No.13 in the UK and found Chris Martin singing of a drunken bust-up with a lover, as a man with “all kinds of poison” in his blood prays for snow and streetlights to melt away his sorrows. With sparkling piano chords and Martin crooning out of tune “like some drunken Elvis singer”, Christmas Lights truly is the gift that keeps giving, proving Coldplay’s aptitude for crafting melodically affecting ballads that capture life’s woes.

15: Prince: Another Lonely Christmas (1984)

Released as the B-side to his 1984 hit I Would Die 4 U, Another Lonely Christmas saw Prince expand his scope to craft this overlooked festive gem. Like a forgotten present left under the tree, the song speaks of the loneliness that accompanies the holiday season, with Prince musing on the passing of a lover who died on Christmas Day. Another Lonely Christmas remains a cult favourite among fans, even though Prince later became a Jehovah’s Witness and stopped celebrating the festivities. Deserving far more exposure than it got at the time, this plaintive ballad comfortably earns its place among the best alternative Christmas songs.

14: The Killers: Don’t Shoot Me Santa (2007)

Las Vegas indie favourites The Killers depict Father Christmas as a gun-toting maniac in Don’t Shoot Me Santa, the best of a series of Christmas songs the band have recorded throughout their career. Anthemic and unconventional, singer Brandon Flowers duets with Halloween Town frontman Ryan Purdey and sings from the perspective of a little boy who pleads with Santa that he’s been a good boy who doesn’t deserve a bullet in the head for misbehaving. With some of its profits going to Project Red AIDS charities, Don’t Shoot Me Santa reached No.34 in the UK and was later released as part of The Killers’ compilation of festive ditties, Don’t Waste Your Wishes.

13: The Smashing Pumpkins: Christmastime (1997)

Throwing themselves into the holiday mood, Christmastime was recorded by The Smashing Pumpkins for inclusion on the 1997 compilation A Very Special Christmas 3. Full of lush orchestration and Billy Corgan’s sincere lyrics promising “toys for everyone”, Christmastime is one of The Smashing Pumpkins’ most heartfelt compositions and deserves to be remembered as one of the best alternative Christmas songs of all time. It’s quite rare for songwriters to authentically capture the spirit of Christmas gratitude, but, doing so without a hint of irony, Corgan is clearly the exception to the rule, gifting us with a festive tune for the ages.

12: The Futureheads: Christmas Was Better In The 80s (2010)

Newcastle post-punk revivalists The Futureheads turned their hand to Yuletide bombast on Christmas Was Better In The 80s, an invigorating blast of nostalgia and enthusiasm. After a rousing piano intro and a flurry of a cappella “Hallelujah”s, the band recall their childhoods by launching into a gleeful rocker on why they feel Christmasses were more enjoyable in the past, remembering how “the snow was deeper in the 80s”. Likely referring to December 1981, when snow fell across the UK at Christmas time, it speaks to our continued hopes for a white Christmas every year.

11: Julian Casablancas: I Wish It Was Christmas Today (2009)

The Strokes’ frontman, Julian Casablancas, brings his best garage-rock snarl to I Wish It Was Christmas Today, a marriage of seasonal good cheer with New York punk attitude. Singing that he doesn’t care what the neighbours say, and that he’s going to enjoy Christmas this year regardless, Casablancas crowbars as many festive clichés as he can into his song, with high-spirited abandon (“Santa’s bringing goodies to the boys and girls/In every nook and cranny of this crazy-ass world”). As a cover of a Saturday Night Live holiday performance, I Wish It Was Christmas Today is a rollicking standard among the best alternative Christmas songs.

10: The Darkness: Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End) (2003)

An instant classic among the best alternative Christmas songs, Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End) reached No.2 in the UK upon its release in December 2003. As per his schtick, The Darkness’ Lycra-jumpsuit-wearing frontman, Justin Hawkins, channelled Freddie Mercury with all his flamboyance and soaring falsettos, surrounded by carol-singing kids and snow machines. Ironically enough, despite the fact that The Darkness are clearly musically in thrall to Queen’s hard-rock pomp, Christmas Time is far more fun than their idols’ own Christmas offering from 1984, Thank God It’s Christmas. Thank God for The Darkness!

9: Kate Bush: December Will Be Magic Again (1980)

Like discovering a shiny sixpence in a bowl of figgy pudding, December Will Be Magic Again remains a hidden gem in Kate Bush’s back catalogue. That’s a real shame, as this spellbinding Christmas single is an idiosyncratic delight, with shimmering piano flourishes and Bush’s quirky vocal delivery. Though it peaked at No.29 in the UK upon its official release in November 1980, the song had originally been aired the year before, on a BBC TV Christmas special in which Bush performed to a studio audience while sat in a wicker chair and dressed in Santa’s favourite shade of red.

8: Run-DMC: Christmas In Hollis (1987)

With Christmas In Hollis, New York City’s finest hip-hop trio, Run-DMC, transformed a sample from Clarence Carter’s 1968’s festive funk cut Back Door Santa into one of the best alternative Christmas songs. Including musical nods to Jingle Bells, Frosty The Snowman and Joy To The World, it’s easily one of old-school rap’s most noteworthy holiday bangers. The single reached no higher than No.56 in the UK, but its later inclusion in the 1988 action flick Die Hard – which, of course, is a Christmas movie, no matter what Bruce Willis says – means that Christmas In Hollis still stands the test of time.

7: Low: Just Like Christmas (1999)

Minnesota-based indie-rock group Low were on tour in Europe when they wrote Just Like Christmas. Hearing echoes of Phil Spector’s “Wall Of Sound” production style while tinkering around with an Optigan keyboard, bassist Zak Sally and guitarist Alan Sparhawk had little idea just how much magic they’d captured when they released their Christmas EP as a gift for fans in 1999. Ensuring the record’s place among the best Christmas albums ever recorded, singer Mimi Parker’s wistful vocals prove suitably entrancing as the group mixes slowcore with 60s girl-group melodies. For further proof of its standing among the best alternative Christmas songs, Just Like Christmas has since been covered by the likes of Snow Patrol and Gabrielle Aplin.

6: The Flaming Lips: Christmas At The Zoo (1995)

Capturing The Flaming Lips during their mid-90s Syd Barrett-esque psych-rock phase, the head-splitting 1995 single Christmas At The Zoo is a fuzzy, oddball foray into the tradition of festive songcraft, with singer Wayne Coyne telling the story of a zookeeper who decides to set animals free from captivity. Trouble is, none of them wants to leave their cages. As the snow starts to fall on Christmas Eve, it’s clear the song is a lo-fi reflection on escaping the prisons of our own minds (“They’re not happy at the zoo/But they preferred to save themselves”).

5: Joni Mitchell: River (1971)

With a gentle piano introduction that interpolates Jingle Bells, Joni Mitchell’s River, from her 1971 album, Blue, is without a doubt one of the best alternative Christmas songs of all time. Beautifully singing about the breakup of a relationship during the holiday season, Mitchell offers an insightful take on festive melancholy (“It’s coming on Christmas/They’re cutting down trees”). Standing tall among the best Joni Mitchell songs, River is also one of her most-covered compositions, having been tackled by over 400 artists – most notably Ellie Goulding, who took it to No.1 in the UK in December 2019.

4: Pretenders: 2000 Miles (1983)

Emerging from the late-70s punk scene, Chrissie Hynde and her new wave outfit, Pretenders, surprised fans with the heartbreaking 2000 Miles, released as a festive single in December 1983. With jangly guitar tones and synths as pure as snow, many have considered it one of the best alternative Christmas songs in part due to its winter-themed music video, in which Hynde appears to be singing about the ending of a long-distance relationship. However, the song’s meaning has also been interpreted as being about the death of the band’s original guitarist, James Honeyman-Scott. Reaching No.15 in the UK, it’s a highlight of the group’s Learning To Crawl album and remains one of the best Pretenders songs.

3: The Waitresses: Christmas Wrapping (1981)

A Christmas song that starts with “Bah humbug!” was always bound to go down in history. Bringing out the Scrooge in all of us, new wave upstarts The Waitresses scored a notable hit in 1981 with Christmas Wrapping, a brass-backed favourite for singletons who are forced to tolerate holiday celebrations they’d rather avoid. From turning down event invites to begrudgingly cooking the world’s smallest turkey, singer Patty Donahue reluctantly bestows festive greetings but admits she would rather hide away until it’s all over (“Merry Christmas, but I think I’ll miss this one this year”). Of course, there is a happy ending, and that’s why Christmas Wrapping earns a spot on our list of the best alternative Christmas songs.

2: The Kinks: Father Christmas (1977)

Known for his wry social commentary, frontman Ray Davies cuts right to the chase on The Kinks’ 1977 single Father Christmas, which is about a cynical man who dresses up as Santa Claus but gets mugged by feral youths (“Father Christmas, give us some money/Don’t mess around with those silly toys”). As a comment on inner-city poverty and a world in which rich kids get more than enough toys, the single failed to chart due to its controversial lyric about using a machine gun to scare all the children on the street. Chiming with punk’s iconoclastic fervour, The Kinks’ exposé of the darker side of Christmas still packs a mighty punch.

1: Ramones: Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)

We all know that Christmas is a special occasion for bringing loved ones together, but NYC punk pioneers Ramones[https://www.thisisdig.com/feature/best-ramones-songs/] understood it could be a double-edged sword. Their 1987 single Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight) taps into the smouldering resentment and violent arguments bubbling under the surface of a dysfunctional family, with Joey Ramone pleading for a stress-free holiday season (“Christmas ain’t the time for breaking each other’s heart”). With lyrics referencing sugar-plum fairies and snowball fights, Ramones created a timeless rock’n’roll classic that deservedly tops our list of the best alternative Christmas songs.

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