Looking for some new tunes to spice up your Xmas playlist? You’ve come to the right place. While I like the holiday classics as much as the next guy, part of my Christmas tradition is also to blast some songs that don’t traditionally get played at a lot of Christmas gatherings. Despite their sometimes questionable content, these songs are no less qualified as Christmas music than Die Hard is as a Christmas movie (Full disclosure: I just saw Die Hard for the first time last weekend, but I can nevertheless confirm, it’s a frickin’ Christmas movie #BruceWillis4Santa).
What follows is a list of some of my personal favorites of lesser-known Christmas (& anti-Christmas) songs that can perhaps provide a soundtrack to your upcoming holiday festivities. And with a week-and-change to go until the big day, there’s still plenty of time to learn the lyrics and impress all your friends and family at your holiday gath…I mean, Google Meet! #COVIDChristmas
Honorable Mention: Tom Waits – “Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis”
The title of this tune provides a bit of foreshadowing for the style of songs that you can expect to find on this list—songs about festive, holiday things like a hooker sending an ex-client a Christmas card to notify him of his impending paternity. But, hey, at least you know this list will be objective. The song is set in Minneapolis, and it didn’t even crack my top 15! #ObjectiveAnalysis #NotAHomer
Honorable Mention: Billy Squire – “Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You”
A song full of holiday cheer that provides the unsolicited response to the rhetorical question, “Who says Christmas songs can’t rock?” Side note: I once saw Billy Squire perform live as part of Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band, and I rocked out so hard that I made the Star Tribune concert review. I am the air guitar player in the front row!!! #TrueStory
Honorable Mention: Spinal Tap – “Christmas With The Devil”
Leather-laden elves, rancid sugar plums, and flaming stockings?!?! Christmas with the devil sounds frickin’ sick! Like, literally, if you eat those sugar plums…And no invitation necessary! Your ticket is your SOUL!!!
Honorable Mention: The Handsome Family – “So Much Wine”
15. Fountains of Wayne – “I Want An Alien For Christmas”
It’s a song about a kid that wants an alien for Christmas. What more do I need to say?
14. The Band – “Christmas Must Be Tonight”
For those of you that insist on putting the “Christ” in Christmas, this is the best I can do for you. I’m more of an Xmas guy myself, but it’s the frickin’ Band. Only they could make the three wise men cool.
13. Matt Costa – “I Bet On Flying High”
This song would be “high”er on my list if Matt Costa sang about drinking something other than martinis. How about a gin and tonic or a mezcal margarita? Or anything that comes in a real glass? Whatever. As long as we’re getting wasted, I guess I’m down.
12. blink-182 – “I Won’t Be Home For Christmas”
This song is me summoning my seventh-grade self (#DudeRanch #WhatsMyAgeAgain?). I actually love most of my relatives, so I can’t relate to the lyrics all that much, but I’m a sucker for immaturity. And for those of you for whom this song isn’t immature enough (I know you’re out there), allow me to recommend another blink-182 holiday hit, “Happy Holidays, You Bastard”.
11. Adam Sandler – “The Chanukah Song”
If you don’t want this song on your Christmas playlist, it’s probably because you’re one of those xenophobes that gets pissed off when someone wishes you a “Happy Holiday” rather than a “Merry Christmas”. If you haven’t figured it out yet, this list isn’t for you. I hope you have a terrible “holiday” (purposely trolling), and that your Bing Crosby record gets scratched to shit.
(HOWEVER! If the reason you don’t want this song on your Christmas playlist is because you’re a former Seattle Supersonics fan and any reference to that team gives you PTSD, then that’s totally fair.)
10. She & Him – “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”
Sometimes the best deep cut Christmas songs are lesser-known covers of certified holiday classics. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has received some fair albeit overblown heat in recent years for its creepy/rapey undertones, but some modern remakes have offered a different spin that could help this catchy tune maintain its popularity in a culture that’s passed it by. My personal favorite is the She & Him version in which the girl plays the creeper, but for those who can’t stomach these lyrics no matter who’s singing them, allow me to recommend the Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski version which hilariously turns rape culture on its head.
9. Tom Petty – “Christmas All Over Again”
What’s that you say? You’ve already heard of this song, and therefore do not believe that it belongs on a list of Christmas songs you’ve never heard of? Well, get bent. I love Tom Petty and I will put him on any goddamn list I want.
By the way, if your Christmas playlist doesn’t have every single song from the Home Alone 2 soundtrack—including and especially the theme music—then it’s not a real Christmas playlist. #JustSayin
8. John Prine – “Christmas In Prison”
Also a suggestion for your “RIP 2020” playlist, and any playlist that you make for any reason ever. John Prine is the frickin’ man. Of the 300,000+ lives that COVID-19 has claimed thus far this year in the U.S. alone, there’s no doubt as to who was the best songwriter. “Christmas In Prison” is my personal favorite, but “Everything Is Cool” and “Silent Night All Day Long” should make your holiday playlist, too. It’s Christmas at my house, there’ll be John Prine tonight, your songs are forever, I’ll miss you, goodbye.
7. Steve Earle – “Christmas In Washington”
Steve Earle had a rough 2020, as well, losing his son Justin Townes Earle to causes you’re probably well aware of it you’ve ever listened to more than a few Justin Townes Earle songs. But this politically charged Xmas anthem is a great example of why Steve Earle is one half of one of the most underappreciated father-son duos in rock-n-roll history. The lyrics can cater to the politically disaffected of various ideological leanings, but with references to historical figures like Woody Guthrie, Joe Hill, and Malcolm X, the song is primarily directed at socialist sympathizers like myself. But if you think that means you can’t play this song at holiday gatherings full of your conservative family members, fear not…It’s a country song! Plus, I’m confident that your MAGA hat wearing uncle will have no idea who Emma Goldman is.
6. Weird Al – “The Night Santa Went Crazy”
I go back and forth on Weird Al. Sometimes I think his songs are too dumb. Other times I think his songs are not dumb enough. But in “The Night Santa Went Crazy”, Weird Al gets the dumbness recipe just right, and that recipe includes reindeer sausage. The holidays are all about bringing joy, and there is nothing on my Christmas playlist that brings me more joy than the idea of a drunk and disgruntled St. Nicholas terrorizing the North Pole with an assortment of military grade weapons. In spite of the bloodbath that ensues, the story does have a happy ending. The elves get new jobs, Vixen’s therapy seems to be going well, and psycho Santa has been sent to prison (unless, of course, you’re listening to the “extra gory version”).
5. OutKast – “Player’s Ball”
Even though I’m more of a rock-n-roll guy, I wanted to include at least one rap song on this list, and it also happens to be a song that put one of the most legendary duos in hip hop on the map. OutKast’s “Player’s Ball” doesn’t sound like any Christmas celebration that I’ve ever been a part of, but I can think of worse ways to spend a holiday than rolling around Atlanta in some gangsta-ass rides. And while there may not be any chimneys in the ghetto on which to hang your stockings, there’s apparently no shortage of smoke. #WhenInRome
Post script: If you’re looking for a hip hop flavor that’s a little more family friendly, give a listen to these classics by some of the genre’s pioneers:
4. Kacey Musgrave & Willie Nelson – “A Willie Nice Christmas”
How about a great American songwriter who didn’t die this year? At the ripe age of 87, Willie Nelson is still cranking out the hits, including this tropical Christmas carol recorded with Kacey Musgrave in 2016. For those of you who have found my list thus far to be entertaining but distasteful, this song might be an exception. The Mariah Carey formula suggests that it might not be possible to create an immediate Christmas classic, but a few decades down the road, it would not surprise me in the slightest for this inclusive tune to receive some regular radio play on the KOOL 108 of the future (#LocalRadioReference, #Homer). Maybe Willie will still even be around to witness it.
3. The Killers – “Don’t Shoot Me Santa”
Back to the distasteful. It’s hard to imagine a Christmas song more quintessentially American than one that so seamlessly intertwines our national love affair with both Santa Claus and gun violence. This is not a repeat of the cartoonish massacre depicted by Weird Al, but instead a much more (unfortunately) believable narrative of a young victim of bullying who has reached his breaking point and decided to seek revenge on his antagonists. But in spite of his attempts to justify his violent behavior, the actions of this tortured soul have also landed him on Santa’s naughty/hit list, hence the title of the song. Weird Al is silly. The Killers are art.
2. Rockford Mules – “Merry Christmas South Dakota”
This song hits deep. There’s a big part of me that wanted to put it at #1, but I’ve begrudgingly accepted it as the runner-up. I know very little about the Rockford Mules (I mean, they don’t even have a Wikipedia page), other than the fact that they’re from Minneapolis (#DefinitelyAHomer), and that they wrote one of the most sadly relatable and sentimentally powerful Christmas songs of all time. Everybody has lost somebody, and as much as we love being around our loved ones during the holiday season, we also feel the absence of those who are missing. A good Christmas playlist should reflect the spirit of the holiday. It should be celebratory, cheerful, and fun. But it’s important and therapeutic to create moments to honor that longing for those no longer with us. “Merry Christmas South Dakota” gives us that space. It’s four-and-a-half minutes of soulful, southern rock in which we can wish a “rest in peace” to those passed on, and pray a silent night for all of us still here. We wish you were here, too.
- The Kinks – “Father Christmas”
This song always makes me think of the scorching criticism I’ve received over the years from friends and family regarding the decision I’ve made not to subject my own kids to the charade that is Santa Claus (if you’re reading an air of superiority into the way that I wrote that previous sentence, then you can probably empathize with their hostility). “How can you be so selfish and cruel,” they say, “robbing your children of the magic of Christmas just to give some comfort to your own unbearable ego?!” (#FairPoint) My defense is always something to tune of the billions of children and families around the world who don’t even celebrate Christmas (cause they’re not Christians), let alone get a visit from Santa, and they seem to be doing just fine (cue *eye roll*). Also, even for many Christians that do celebrate Christmas, Santa might not visit their households if they live in a poor neighborhood (cue *even bigger eye roll*). And while by this point in the conversation my adversary is too annoyed with me to even continue, I take solace in knowing that the Kinks have my back.
“Father Christmas” is a reminder that there are a lot of boys and girls in the world who “Santa” will not visit this year. What is more, it’s a reminder that if Santa were to visit those households, toys would not be the first thing on their Christmas lists. They would want money for their impoverished families. They would want a stable job for their daddy, whose got a lot of mouths to feed.
But aside from allowing me to preach from my anti-Santa soapbox, the main reason that “Father Christmas” takes the place of top song on this list—other than the fact that it frickin’ rocks—is its ability to speak to the true meaning of the holiday (at least for the secular), that being the spirit of giving.
There are plenty of reasons to criticize the commercialization of Christmas (and I’m confident that I could do it with the utmost condescension), but underneath the exchange of those gift-wrapped material goods lies an earnest desire to make others happy. No one should have to apologize for having the economic means to earn a visit from Santa that puts a smile on the faces of their children. Even a Scrooge like me can admit that opening presents on Christmas morning created some of the fondest memories of my childhood. But in the spirit of “Father Christmas”, what if those gifts also carried with them something for the families so often forgotten? What if every toy gifted to our children was paired with a donation to a charity for the boys and girls of the world who aren’t quite so fortunate? What a great lesson to teach to our kids. What if every Amazon Prime purchase for an adult family member or friend was accompanied by a contribution to their favorite nonprofit? What a great way to fulfill the spirit of giving for those people on Earth who are truly in need.
I don’t think that the Kinks intended “Father Christmas” to be read into as a serious song, particularly with the pretentiousness that I’m employing here. The song is fun, funny, and ironically festive. However, the sad truth remains that there are many children/families who won’t have what they want or need this holiday season, unless some kind of “Santa” steps in. What a better holiday it would be if we could all use the Kinks as an inspiration to be somebody’s “Father Christmas”. But remember, if you’re going to donate this holiday season, don’t mess around with those silly toys. That’s not what the poor kids need most. Instead, give ‘em some money. Or they’ll beat you up. #MerryChristmas