It's easy to grow tired of hearing the same holiday songs over and over again. Happily, there's a lot of seasonal music that's not heard as much and is just waiting to be discovered!
I've put together a playlist of some lesser known (but still wonderful) tracks to spice up your holiday playlists.
Aimee Mann - “Christmastime”
I’ve always been fond of Aimee Mann both as a songwriter and as a singer. She didn’t write this one, but her vocal delivery plus the song’s stately tempo and production evokes Christmas for me every time I hear it.
Beck - “The Little Drum Machine Boy”
Beck has matured over the years, but in the 1990s he could consistently be counted on for tracks that were both wigged-out and musically satisfying. This one is a funky hybrid of a Hanukah and Christmas song and is thoroughly enjoyable.
Sufjan Stevens - “Sister Winter”
Sufjan Stevens has written many fine songs for the holiday season; some of them are joyful and danceable, and some more serious and melancholy. “Sister Winter” is one of the latter. Like many of his holiday songs, it was originally written and recorded just for his family and friends.
Squeeze - “Christmas Day”
Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook of the band Squeeze were routinely referred to as the Lennon and McCartney of the late 1970s-early 1980s New Wave era. This 1979 single is a prime example of their songcraft, a modern take on the Mary and Joseph story with a killer chorus.
Elton John - “Ho, Ho, Ho (Who’d Be a Turkey at Christmas?)”
Elton John released his Christmas single “Step Into Christmas” in 1973. The song was also a thank you to fans, and the single’s B-side “Ho, Ho, Ho” was like attending an Elton holiday party. The so very British vibe adds to the fun.
Fishbone - “Slick Nick, You Devil You”
Here’s one from the “Bad Santa” category of Christmas songs, released many years before that movie. Released by the funk rock band Fishbone in 1987, it’s a holiday tradition for me to try to play this one every Christmas.
Timbuk 3 - “All I Want For Christmas”
The band best known for their song “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” had many more songs that deserved to be hits. Many of the toy references in “All I Want For Christmas” are dated, but the wish for world peace is timeless.
Dread Zeppelin - “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth”
The idea behind Dread Zeppelin was to create a reggae band with an Elvis Presley impersonator as the lead vocalist with a healthy dose of Led Zeppelin riffs. This track bears little resemblance to the classic Spike Jones original of “Two Front Teeth,” but it has its own unique charm!
The Mittens - “Merry X-mas Mayan Empire (Slight Return)”
Speaking of riffage, here’s one of the all-time great Christmas songs to come out of Iowa. This track from the Cedar Valley band features lyrics with abundant Christmas imagery, and a mysterious title that includes a nod to Jimi Hendrix.
Gary Walker & The Boogie Kings - “Santa’s Got A Brand New Bag”
An homage to the 1965 James Brown soul classic “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag.” It fits. Santa refills his bag every Christmas! It's sure to get your holiday party started. Also, check out the version by the acapella group The Bobs.
Miles Davis - “Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)”
There are more than a few songs that decry the overt commercialism and sometimes fake sentiment of the holiday season, but this one has the distinction of having been composed by jazz great Miles Davis! His record company wanted a Christmas single, so Miles enlisted the talents of the witty lyricist (and future “Schoolhouse Rock!” songwriter and performer) Bob Dorough for this not-so-cheery song. Dorough sings the song like he means it.
Michael Franks - “I Bought You a Plastic Star for Your Aluminum Tree”
Ok, here’s another cynical holiday track. This time the jazz is of the laid back L.A. variety. Los Angeles is also the setting of the song, all the better to underline its delicious anti-traditionalist vibe.
Sting - “The Burning Babe”
The songs on Sting’s 2009 record “If On A Winter’s Night…” are inspired to a large degree by traditional music of the British Isles. The imagery of centuries old Christmas songs can be striking, but “The Burning Babe” is noteworthy. The lyrics, taken from a 16th-century poem, relate a burning vision of the infant Jesus on a dark, cold night.
The Chieftains with Jackson Browne - “The Rebel Jesus”
Jackson Browne wrote and sings this song, with the traditional Irish band The Chieftains backing him. Browne takes the view of “a heathen and a pagan” looking askance at humanity during the holiday season, and yet admiringly at Jesus.
Ben Keith & Friends (feat. Johnny Cash & Neil Young) - “The Little Drummer Boy”
Longtime Neil Young associate Ben Keith released a Christmas album titled “Seven Gates” in 1994. On the venerable Christmas standard “The Little Drummer Boy,” we are treated to Johnny Cash and Neil Young singing a vocal duet. To my knowledge, it’s the only time they ever recorded together in the studio.