There’s only a day or two left until Christmas, and I’m finally ready to start listening to more “traditional” Christmas carols—classic versions of holiday songs that are sung by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald…even Michael Bublé gets in on the act at this point. The rest of the month, I listen to “alternative” Christmas music as a way to not get sick of the holiday cheer. There’s only so many times you can hear Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” without wanting to bash in a Muppet’s head.
Anyway, there are a lot of popular artists that sing Christmas songs, but here are five albums (and a bonus track!) that I always end up going to at some point in the season. Check them out below if you’re looking for some new Christmas tunes at this (admittedly late) date.
5 “Alternative” Christmas Albums
Dustin Kensrue — This Good Night Is Still Everywhere
My #1 go-to Christmas album, traditional or not, is a folky set by the lead singer of Thrice. Dustin has one of my favorite voices in music—like lightning funneled through a cigarette-stained pipe. He’s also a devout Christian, and his passion for the season shines through on two original tracks (the sparse, hopeful title track and the powerful closer “This Is War”) and eight seriously great covers.
Must-Hear Track: “Fairytale of New York”
Banjo Or Freakout — XA2010
I have no idea who ‘Banjo or Freakout’ is, but after finding it on a list a few years back I feel obligated to share one of my favorite holiday musical mind trips. This is probably the only Christmas shoegaze album that exists, a haze of ethereal voices and experimental blips that will go nicely with those “special” seasonal cookies you’ve been eating.
Must-Hear Track: “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”
Bright Eyes — A Christmas Album
Sad bastard Christmas music. Originally released in 2002 to benefit the Nebraska AIDS Project, this album finds Conor Oberst and friends coming together to record some very simple arrangements of traditional Christmas songs. If you’re aware of what Oberst’s Bright Eyes music sounded like in the early 2000s, you won’t be surprised by the cold, weepy atmosphere. Still, there’s something beautiful and even heartwarming about the way songs like “Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem” brace against the darkness. Also, some older gentleman reads “The Night Before Christmas” for the last track, so you’ll finally have a recording of that if you want it.
Must-Hear Track: “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”
My Morning Jacket — Does Xmas Fiasco Style
Forget the title and the cheesy cover photo. This is a great My Morning Jacket EP that just happens to be Christmas-themed. The band recorded this as a break during sessions for their classic At Dawn album, and its filled with 34 minutes of epic jams, shimmering vocal harmonies, and sleigh bells.
Must-Hear Track: “Xmas Time Is Here Again”
Bob Dylan — Christmas In The Heart
Bob Dylan has been known for twisted and turning a lot during his music career, but even his most ardent supporters couldn’t have predicted that the (Jewish) singer would drop a set of Christmas tunes out of nowhere in 2009. The album’s old-style ‘Christmas card’ cover hints at the traditional arrangements, though there’s nothing ‘traditional’ about the 7+ decades that creak through Bob’s voice. The combination of straight-up arrangements and, well, Dylan… makes already ludicrous songs like “Christmas Island” even stranger in context. An odd collection that’s definitely worth your time, you’ll never hear these songs the same again. And that’s the point!
Must-Hear Track: “Must Be Santa” (definitely watch the video)
…and here’s a bonus song!
Recommended Track: “Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto” by James Brown
This is absolutely my favorite Christmas song. It’s never been considered a ‘holiday classic’ because the subject matter is so weird, but it does a wonderful job incorporating classic soul into the season. It’s also amazing how seamlessly the song fits into James Brown’s oeuvre from a sonic and thematic standpoint—it would easily be an above-average track on almost any of his albums—as his ad libs and that upbeat saxophone solo sound as natural here as on a classic like “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag”. Like any good James Brown record, it’s the soul and spirit of the city…it just happens to be snowing.