Treat your music system to the 15 best alternative Christmas songs

Frightened Rabbit It's Christmas
(Image credit: Frightened Rabbit)

While we love a classic carol settling us into the festive season, popular Christmas songs are, to many, some of the worst things to happen to Christmas and to songs, infecting shopping malls, cafes and every public space with naff tunes played ad infinitum until your ears bleed and your teeth are ground down to dust.

That doesn't have to be the case, and while they may be vastly outnumbered, there are some brilliant not-often-played gems to celebrate with this time of year. If only every radio station in town or your Aunt Doreen had the sense to play them in place of endless Wizzard and Paul McCartney. The horror. 

As our gift to you (ha!), we've put together this list of proper, alternative festive tunes to test whatever hi-fi kit you're lucky enough to unwrap on the big day. If only we could promise you never had to hear Mariah Carey again…

Listen to our alternative Christmas playlist on Tidal.

Half Man Half Biscuit - All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit (Back in the D.H.S.S., 1986)

There was one in the gang who had Scalextric/And because of that he thought he was better than you”. Oh, the ignominy of your friends having the toys your parents couldn’t get for you. 

Here, Half Man Half Biscuit remind us the true meaning of Christmas is not in the belongings you have, but in the destroying of other people’s belongings when they’re being smug and irritating.

Listen to All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit on Tidal

 Jeff Buckley - Corpus Christ Carol (Grace, 1994) 

Although almost 500 years would separate the song’s composition and the birth of the man who ultimately made it famous, Corpus Christi Carol and Jeff Buckley feel like a match made in heaven. Carols can be divine bliss for some and absolute torment to others, but it’s hard not to listen to Buckley’s pure, piercing falsetto and not be won over.

It’s a carol, carols are Christmassy, and thus it makes the cut. End of discussion. 

Listen to Corpus Christi Carol on Tidal

Elliott Smith - Angel in the Snow (New Moon, 2007)

You can’t get much more alternative in terms of Christmas songs than a nice tune about class-A drugs. We’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out what the lines “All crushed out on the way you are, better stop before it goes too far” are referencing, suffice to say that Smith’s warm, sincere vocals accompanied by a raw, slightly out of tune guitar make this an alternative treat that qualifies for inclusion on this by containing the word “snow”. 

Which might not really be about snow at all.

Listen to Angel in the Snow on Tidal

The Killers - Don’t Shoot Me Santa (Don't Waste Your Wishes, 2007 / 2016)

The Killers were the undisputed kings of the alternative Christmas record at one point, providing a safe haven from Carey, Richard and co., with their tuneful, tongue-in-cheek takes on the festive period. 

The effortlessly catchy Don’t Shoot Me Santa is the pick of the bunch, a track that starts off a mini-narrative trilogy alongside I Feel It In My Bones and Dirt Sledding which revolves around a drunken, psychotic Santa Claus-chasing lead singer Brandon Flowers across the Nevada desert in a fit of vengeful rage. 

All three are worth checking out, but Don't Shoot Me Santa is arguably the pick of the bunch.    

Listen to Don't Shoot Me Santa on Tidal

The Ethiopians - Ding Dong Bell (Trojan: This is Christmas, 2017)

So many reggae and ska tunes we could have picked – Toots and The Maytals’s Happy Christmas; Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Merry Christmas, Happy New Year; Granville Williams’s Santa Claus Is Ska-ing To Town

We go for The Ethiopians, though, not least for Ding Dong Bell’s production being so endearingly portly and full of fireside warmth.

Listen to Ding Dong Bell on Tidal

Tom Waits - Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis (Blue Valentine, 1978)

Barroom piano, Tom Waits’s unmistakably guttural tone and a bittersweet tale of a prostitute writing to an acquaintance of pregnancy and incarceration: Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis is about as festive as they come. Although if your Christmas is anything like the one Waits is describing, we're very sorry. 

Listen to Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis on Tidal

James Brown - Soulful Christmas (Soulful Christmas, 1968)

Staggeringly, James Brown released three whole Christmas albums. This is the title track from his second, which opens with the equally brilliant Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto, with the Godfather of Soul offering choice opportunity to dance off those roast potatoes and stuffing.

Listen to A Soulful Christmas on Tidal

Low - Long Way Around The Sea (Christmas, 1999)

Low released their eight-track Christmas album – cannily titled Christmas – in 1999, and included re-workings of Little Drummer Boy, Blue Christmas and Silent Night. The standout track for us, though, is Long Way Around The Sea: a sullen telling of bringing gifts to the newborn Christ, and the acceptance of God over the word of Herod.

Listen to Long Way Around the Sea by Low on Tidal

Ryuichi Sakamoto - Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1996, 1996)

Ryuichi Sakamoto actually starred alongside David Bowie and Tom Conti in Nagisa Oshima’s wartime drama Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, and picked up a BAFTA for his score for the film. This piece, which became the film’s theme music, has been covered and sampled numerous times in the years since, but has never been so affecting as its original.

Listen to Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence on Tidal

The Flaming Lips - A Change At Christmas (2003) 

This isn’t so much a celebration of Christmas, as much as a wish that the compassion and sympathy to which we feel compelled at this time of year was the rule rather than its exception. Far from a groundbreaking idea, but one that sadly doesn’t feel out of date.

Listen to A Change At Christmas on Tidal

Björk - Jólakötturinn (1986)

The Yule Cat, or Jólakötturinn, is a monster in Icelandic folklore that devours those without new clothes to wear before Christmas – a sign you had not helped with the autumn’s wool work. The lyrics for Jólakötturinn come from Jóhannes úr Kötlum’s poem of the same name, and prove that Iceland even has better monsters than we do. 

Plus, it's sung by Björk, and she can do no wrong as far as we're concerned

Listen to Jólakötturinn on Tidal

Mogwai - Like Herod (Young Team, 1997)

From one Christmas villain to another, Mogwai’s Like Herod only truly references its subject in the title, given its instrumental nature, but does perhaps somewhat inadvertently capture the violence he sought to wreak. Try sleeping through this one, Granddad.

Listen to Like Herod on Tidal

Khraungbin - Christmas Time Is Here (Version Mary) (2018)

Khruangbin’s cover of this Vince Guaraldi Trio classic is a typically laid-back groove from the Texan three piece. We like this bass-heavy version, B-side to the main version released on 7-inch vinyl a couple of winters ago.

Listen to Christmas Time Is Here on Tidal

Christopher Lee - Darkest Carols, Faithful Sing (2014) 

Metalheads, this one's for you. Did you know the late great Sir Christopher Lee (yes, he of Hammer Horror's Count Dracula and The Lord of the Rings' Saruman fame) released not one, not two, but three heavy metal Christmas albums? Shredding guitars meld with his gloriously deep, operatic voice that intones as ominously as a tombstone – but there's something utterly joyous underneath it all.

Listen to Darkest Carols, Faithful Sing on Tidal

Frightened Rabbit - It's Christmas So We'll Stop (2007)

The world lost one of its finest, most articulate and sardonically humourous songwriters in Scott Hutchison back in 2018, and It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop is as apt a way as any to celebrate his life as another year comes to a close. A call to arms to end our bickering at least for the day, and perhaps even extend the amnesty to New Year, this decade-old track has become no less handsome with age.

Listen to It's Christmas So We'll Stop on Tidal 


Listen to What Hi-Fi?'s alternative Christmas playlist on Tidal

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Harry McKerrell
Staff writer

Harry McKerrell is a staff writer at What Hi-Fi?. He studied law and history at university before working as a freelance journalist covering TV and gaming for numerous platforms both online and in print. When not at work he can be found playing hockey, practising the piano or forcing himself to go long-distance running.

With contributions from