While we love a classic Christmas carol settling us into the festive season, popular Christmas songs are, to many, some of the worst things about both Christmas and songs.
They are the waste paper basket at the office party, where bailiff letters swill with regurgitated eggnog, and around it we all sing maudlin verse to hide our despair.
But all is not lost. Because, though vastly outnumbered, there are some brilliant not-often-played gems to celebrate with this time of year.
As our gift to you, we have put together this list of alternative Christmas 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 Spotify (opens in new tab) and Tidal (opens in new tab).
All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit by Half Man Half Biscuit
“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 acting like a…
Buy Back In The D.H.S.S./The Trumpton Riots E.P. (opens in new tab) by Half Man Half Biscuit from Amazon
Ding Dong Bell by The Ethiopians
So many reggae and ska tunes we could have picked – Toots and The Maytals’s Happy Christmas (opens in new tab); Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Merry Christmas, Happy New Year (opens in new tab); Granville Williams’s Santa Claus Is Ska-ing To Town (opens in new tab). We go for The Ethiopians, though, not least for Ding Dong Bell’s production being so endearingly portly and full of fireside warmth.
Buy Trojan Christmas Box Set (opens in new tab) from Amazon
Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis by Tom Waits
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.
Buy Blue Valentine (opens in new tab) by Tom Waits from Amazon
Soulful Christmas by James Brown
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.
Buy A Soulful Christmas (opens in new tab) by James Brown from Amazon
Long Way Around The Sea by Low
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.
Buy Christmas (opens in new tab) by Low from Amazon
Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence by Ryuichi Sakamoto
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.
Buy Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence OST (opens in new tab) by Ryuichi Sakamoto from Amazon
A Change At Christmas (Say It Isn't So) by The Flaming Lips
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.
Buy Ego Tripping At The Gates Of Hell (opens in new tab) by The Flaming Lips from Amazon
Jólakötturinn by Björk
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.
Stream Björk (opens in new tab) on Amazon Music
Like Herod by Mogwai
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.
Buy Young Team (opens in new tab) by Mogwai from Amazon
Christmas Time Is Here (Version Mary) by Khruangbin
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.
Buy Christmas Time Is Here (opens in new tab) by Khruangbin from Amazon
Darkest Carols, Faithful Sing by Christopher Lee
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.
Stream Darkest Carols, Faithful Sing (opens in new tab) on Apple Music
It's Christmas So We'll Stop by Frightened Rabbit
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.
Shop Frightened Rabbit (opens in new tab) on Amazon
Listen to What Hi-Fi?'s alternative Christmas playlist on Spotify (opens in new tab) and Tidal (opens in new tab)
10 of the best songs to test your speakers