❉ An alternative Christmas playlist to soundtrack your festivities!
Every Christmas, we all reach for the same old compilations of Christmas hits. We hear Slade wish Merry Christmas Everybody, John Lennon tell us War Is Over (if we want it) and Wham! lament Last Christmas. They’re all great and it’s wonderful to hear them again and again, but don’t you sometimes wish there was some different festive tunes to listen to?
Well, now there is! We put the word out to our band of contributors and asked for them to nominate some Christmas tunes that they love, but are less familiar than the ones you find on the compilations at the tills at Sainsburys this time of year. We’ve whittled down the list to a festive top ten, but you can hear more on the Spotify playlist we’ve put together, which gives you an alternative Christmas playlist to soundtrack your festivities.
So turn up the volume and gives these tunes a listen!
Sparks: ‘Thank God It’s Not Christmas’
In Russell Mael’s words, “Our tribute to every day of the year that doesn’t fall on the 25th of December”, Thank God It’s Not Christmas is a highlight of Sparks’ Island Records era, as Russell Mael sings an alternately wry and depressing lyric about the desire to find activities that distract oneself from a slowly disintegrating relationship. The lyrics are truly magnificent, both in their literal meaning and the way they work with the music, and Muff Winwood’s crystal-clear production emphasizes the song’s soaring, anthemic qualities. – James Gent
Eels: ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas’
Christmas Songs. They have to sound like Christmas songs, right? There are no sleigh bells or choirs in Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas by Eels, but the trappings aren’t the point of the song. It’s a feelgood, bouncy, stripped down alt-rock thumper, built on gnarly guitars and Mark ‘E’ Everett’s parched growl of a vocal. What’s Christmassy about it? The answer is the message. Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas is a touching, reassuring arm around the shoulder of an unnamed friend having a rough time, at what for many is the worst time of year to be alone. It offers a little encouragement and hope, and ‘Hail Fellow Well’ Met friendship, it’s the Christmas spirit writ large, without the need for a children’s choir or any window dressing. Clocking in at under three minutes, it also features E growling “Baby Jesus/Born to Rock” which is worth the price of admission alone. – Martin Ruddock
Pet Shop Boys: ‘It Doesn’t Often Snow At Christmas’
They may well have had a Christmas number one, but this is their only seasonal song, an up-tempo track guaranteed to leave you with a grin on your face and a dance in your step. It’s both very Pet Shop Boys and very British (essentially Christmas is usually disappointing, but let’s make the most of it anyway), and entirely festive. – Alun Harris
Gruff Rhys: ‘Post Apocalypse Christmas’
Christmas. The clue’s in the title, right? A Christian festival celebrating the birth of their anointed Saviour. Except… as you get older you realise that it’s not, it’s a convenient point in the year to for most of us to take a breather and pause along with a guilt-free gluttonous blow-out. And we’re not an especially religious country any more, not to the extent of having a dominant faith. We’ve got a shared Christmas but we need to make it work for everyone.
Enter Gruff Rhys, a man at a perpetual left-angle to reality. His ‘An Atheist Christmas’ EP is a thing of beauty, an opportunity for some wryly dour reflections on Christmas set to some of his jauntiest tunes. End of the Line is a weary ode to the capitalist spirit of the season and Slashed Wrists for Christmas an Alan Bennett-esque vignette but the highlight’s Post Apocalypse Christmas, a jaunty tuned tale of a nuclear winter wonderland where the season still brings people a little joy. With the way world events have gone this year it might well be the festive carol we’ll all need this time next year. – Jon Arnold
The Pearlfishers: ‘Snowboardin’
Scottish cult-favourite The Pearlfishers have been making magnificent pop music since the early-90s. Their 2005 release ‘A Sunflower at Christmas’ is an earnest mix of traditional carols, alternate versions of winter-themed songs from earlier albums and new compositions, including the record’s opener Snowboardin’ ‘If you ever wondered what Todd Rundgren and Brian Wilson collaborating on a Christmas song would sound like, Snowboardin’ will give you a pretty good idea. Some of the lyrical references to snowboarding may be lost on most listeners, but it’s easy to relate to the song’s underlying dilemma.
Well, it’s comin’ on Christmas
There’s only four shopping days
When they’re fighting at the checkout
It’s maybe time to get away
The appeal of addressing that “grown up condition” with “a guaranteed teenage cure” is similarly clear. Would that all holiday dramas could be so easily dispatched. – Don Klees
Cristina: Things Fall Apart
Imagine you’re a jaded party girl living in New York, Christmas 1981; thoroughly bored with The Mudd Club, Paradise Garage, and all those endless parties you have to be seen at and attend. This might be your anthem, an ever so slightly no-wave sound and lyrics not so much sung, as declaimed.
Things… is the ultimate anti-Christmas song from the best ever anti-Christmas album, ‘A Ze Christmas Record’, from what was then one of New York’s most interesting and out there record labels. The album contains Christmas Wrapping by The Waitresses – which has become something of a perennial – but Cristina’s black hearted song is the jewel in this album’s considerable crown. Its closing couplet, “I caught a cab back to my flat, Wept a bit and fed the cat” is probably one of the most honest ever written. – Peter Robinson
Fountains of Wayne: ‘I Want An Alien For Christmas’
I first heard An Alien For Christmas on the Starburst Radio Show, a couple of years back. I was hooked straight away by this simple little ditty about a boy who longs for Santa to bring him “A little green guy, About three feet high, With seventeen eyes” so they can ” can hang around the house all day, “And watch the Twilight Zone”.
Musically it’s very similar to the pop-punk Weezer do so well and it’s a great alternative when your ears have had enough Slade and Wizzard. Don’t be surprised though if it’s still your earworm in June. – David Geldard
Martin Newell: ‘Christmas in Surbubia’
Christmas in Suburbia manages an amazing hat-trick of being cynical, romantic and full of wonderment all at once. It’s the tale of a young man returning to his family’s neighbourhood with a jaundiced eye toward the holiday, and amidst the merriment somehow finding himself on Christmas morning in the wrong house in bed with a beautiful girl. “There’s an angel in the bed / And you wonder what you said / Then you realise it’s Christmas….” Everything about this lovely little song is perfect, and it deserves to be in the pantheon of modern Christmas classics, right next to The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York.’ – Ben Adams
New Order: ‘Rocking Carol/Ode to Joy’
It’s common for an artist too cool to do a Christmas record to work around that by being arch, obtuse or ironic about it, but it’s not quite clear why New Order recorded these peculiar versions of Rocking Carol and Ode To Joy, analogue synthtastic and vocodered to hell, sounding like Wendy Carlos gone very wrong. They are best known for being given away on a flexidisc to people attending the Hacienda on Christmas Eve 1982, but they certainly weren’t recorded for that, they were used a year earlier as background music on an item on local news magazine programme Granada Reports, one of whose presenters was Factory Records boss Tony Wilson. He could have asked them to do it. They could have said no. I guess it just amused them. The tracks are, clearly, some sort of joke. – Keir Hardie
Low: ‘Just Like Christmas’
Just Like Christmas starts off with a shuffley drum beat before what sounds like a wobbly old record being put on the turntable. It’s instantly homely and inviting. The vocals are quite lo-fi as well, without being too murky or indistinct.
The song deals with a cross-border journey from Stockholm to Oslo (530km as the Google flies). It includes a bit of snow, some complaints about bed sizes and getting lost. It also contains the wonderful refrain “You said it was like Christmas… but it wasn’t like Christmas at all.”
There’s not a huge amount to analyse. Through the production and the style, it captures a slice of Christmas magic and has subtly become an essential part of the festive period. – Steven Alexander
Roy Wood/The Wombles: ‘I Wish It Could Be A Wombling Merry Christmas Everyday’
Somewhere around the turn of the century, someone had the odd idea of Roy Wood teaming up with Mike Batt and mashing up their respective Christmas songs. Whoever it was, was a genius! Really, listen to how they don’t work together, listen to how clunky the title sounds when it’s sung out loud, and yet, somehow, it all comes together to produce something so awful, it’s absolutely brilliant!
They’ve dusted down the Womble costumes for the video, Roy Wood has donned his pink shades and they look like they’re all having a whale of a time doing it. It genuinely makes me smile every time I hear it. So let the bells ring out for a Wombling merry Christmas to all of you at home. – Simon Hart
❉ And if these songs have whetted your appetite, the contributors to we Are Cult have helped compile a Spotify playlist of their favourite Alternative Christmas songs. Take a listen to thirty Christmas songs you may not know, but really should here: