25 Christmas songs for people who hate Christmas songs

From the undeniable to the oft-overlooked, a Spotify playlist for the rest of us.

Feb 29, 2020, 2:15 pm*

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Nico Lang 

Nico Lang

Ramon Ramirez 

Ramon Ramirez

It’s the least wonderful time of the year. For the last month, nearly every department store across the country has rolled out its annual rotation of the same five Christmas songs, which will be played on a loop either until Santa Claus brings toys to all the little boys and girls or you die of a brain hemorrhage. Numerous research studies have shown that if you play “Christmas Shoes” 20 times in a row, it causes listeners’ heads to explode like the aliens in Mars Attacks.

To make your December a little less agonizing, the Daily Dot put together a playlist of 25 Yuletide tunes that won’t make you regret having ears. Christmas songs generally suck, but these exceptions to the rule prove your holiday season doesn’t have to.

For your atmospheric convenience, they’re bundled onto a Spotify playlist. You’re welcome to skip ahead.


1) Mariah Carey — “All I Want for Christmas Is You”

Acknowledging it is unavoidable: When it comes to holiday music, Mariah Carey’s 1994 hit continues to reign supreme, still a staple of Top 40 stations across the country. It’s a modern holiday classic, a throwback to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound that benefits from Carey’s octave-defying pipes. If there’s anyone who doesn’t like this song, I have yet to meet them. Nico Lang

Vulture/Twitter

2) Wham! — “Last Christmas”

Sure, Mariah Carey fronted the last American classic with her Motown-inspired ’90s jewel. In the ’80s, however, no one came closer than George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley. The Wham! duo planted a flag on Christmas ’84, and in the subsequent 31 years, the seasonal staple has shown up on the Billboard charts for 11 of them. The earnest dramatism glides on an inescapable synth line and when Michael pipes in with that “once bitten and twice shy” zinger, tears at the office holiday party. “Last Christmas” is workplace despair, layered karaoke, and spiked eggnog. Ramon Ramirez

3) Tom Waits — “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis”

Tom Waits’ melancholy blues are the perfect antidote to forced holiday cheer. But what makes “Christmas Card” a particularly special song in the Waits canon are the unexpected notes of grace he finds in the story of a prostitute writing an old flame from prison. His darkly comic lyrics underscore a poignant message of redemption: “I’ll be eligible for parole come Valentine’s Day.” NL

4) Elvis Presley —“Santa Claus Is Back In Town”

This side A, track one from the King’s ’57 Christmas record arrives swigging spirits and swerving “in a big, black Cadillac.” Here, Elvis is Santa, and he’s in town for one night only, ladies. The rockabilly cut is held together by a rollicking piano solo, “Heartbreak Hotel” tempos, and at its festive core, some appropriately sentimental and contrived, Bing Crosby-esque background singers.  RR

5) The Magnetic Fields — “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree”

There’s a reason that the indie Thanksgiving movie Pieces of April enlisted the Magnetic Fields for the soundtrack: Their music is a strangely perfect companion for any holiday celebration. I would recommend “The Book of Love” and “Strange Powers,” but this track from Realism brings the band’s trademark sardonic edge, specifically Christmas-centric line: “All the world is turning prettily/Everyone’s awaiting Sandy.” NL

6) Otis Redding — “White Christmas”

Nothing extrapolates those seasonal blues like muddy keys, throwaway Steve Cropper licks, and Atco Records horns. “May your days be so merry,” Redding sings on this samurai of a cover, released posthumously in ’68, a year after his death. It’s familiar but pointed, building to a frenetic nosedive of howls cruelly cut off by the era’s insistence on three-minute singles. RR

Niche Music/Twitter

7) XTC — “Thanks for Christmas”

For something a little more conventionally cheery than Tom Waits or the Magnetic Fields, look no further than XTC’s “Thanks for Christmas.” The new wave band was one of the most critically beloved acts of the 1980s (see: “Senses Working Overtime”), and here they offer up the rare track that both Pitchfork and your grandmother could agree to love. NL

8) Marvin Gaye —“I Want to Come Home for Christmas”

The best Christmas songs skip the tired process of describing the weather and decorations and bite right into the human experience of traveling and gathered relatives. We know Gaye’s understated and underrated ’72 original features magnetic crooning, but it’s also a beautifully written offering. Inspired by the backdrop of Vietnam, co-author Forest Hairston noticed yellow ribbons tied around trees to honor prisoners of war. Gaye took the baton and sprinted. RR

9) Aimee Mann — “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”

When it comes to great Christmas songs, Aimee Mann’s catalog is an embarrassment of riches. On 2006’s One More Drifter in the Snow, Mann covers eight Christmas classics—with two original compositions thrown in (“Christmastime” and “Calling on Mary”). The standout is her playful and altogether wonderful duet with Grant-Lee Phillips on this song from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I dare you not to smile while listening to it. NL

10) The Sweet Inspirations —“Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday”

No one is touching this sublime pair of minutes. The ’69 gem builds its wall with background “oohs,” air-raid trumpets, and a giant hook. Christmas doesn’t deserve soul this urgent and realized. RR

dorososoto/Twitter

11) The Pogues — “Fairytale of New York”

This isn’t just one of the greatest Christmas tracks ever recorded. The Pogues’ bittersweet melody is truly one of the great songs of any kind—landing high on Q magazine and NME’s best-ever lists. It wasn’t as big a hit in the U.S., which makes this year the perfect time for American listeners to dive in; it’s so unbearably wonderful that listening to it makes me want to hug the first person I see. NL

12) Boyz II Men feat. Brian McKnight — “Let It Snow”

Before Justin Timberlake was paying homage to their scope and direction with “Dick in a Box,” the original men in tan vests turned cold weather into an opportunity for consensual fireside lovemaking. Boyz II Men’s enduring epic pauses for choral harmonizing at the altar, then immediately dips into intent: “Come over here and help me trim the tree—I want to wrap you up, baby, then you’ll see you’re the only present that I need.” It’s aching, dead serious, and with additional heat from eventual ’90s king Brian McKnight, nearly a diabetic coma brought on by too many ginger snaps. RR

13) Big Star — “Jesus Christ”

As the fourth track on Third/Sister Lovers, an ode to Jesus’s birthday is pretty jarring when sandwiched between a Velvet Underground cover and “Big Black Car,” a beautifully somber tune about alienation. But if anything, this sweet, strange tune is a reminder of what continues to make Big Star such an influential band four decades after the album’s release. (If you’re unfamiliar with the group, also check out “September Gurls” and “Thirteen.”) NL

14) Queen — “Thank God It’s Christmas”

Don’t let Freddie Mercury on the mic to drop a Christmas song, because he’ll overload it with zest and art. It’s been a shitty year, he posits, but frankly, my love, it doesn’t matter because we’re huddled together when we most need it. The holiday single was co-written by the band’s perennial secret weapons, guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor and was an easy cash grab that dueled Wham! on the charts in ’84. But when you have the greatest frontman in rock history, this ship will swim: “Oh my love, we live in troubled days,” Mercury sings expertly because it’s always true. RR

Classy Pictures/Twitter

15) The Damned — “There Ain’t No Sanity Clause”

For everyone celebrating a punk rock Christmas this year, there are more than a few must-listens. “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” sounds exactly like every Ramones song (which is a good thing), and Alice Cooper’s “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” is pretty delightful. But my personal favorite comes from the Damned—in which the ’70s Brits give Santa the finger.  NL

16) King Diamond — “No Presents for Christmas”

Danish metal sultan Kim Bendix Petersen used Christmas ’85 as an opportunity for doom. On this thrash labyrinth, Santa has no helpers and the world’s children will wake up sans presents. There is no happy ending. There is, however, lots of awkward lyricism about Western cartoons—Donald Duck, Tom, Jerry. It’s hard, fast, and an unhinged thought experiment that netted falsetto howls and constant shredding. Beyond its quirky countercultural appeal, “No Presents for Christmas” charges up your last-minute drives to the mall—ironically helping mankind produce presents for Christmas 30 years running.  RR

17) The Waitresses — “Christmas Wrapping”

When I mentioned I was writing this to a friend, she immediately replied: “You have to put ‘Christmas Wrapping’ on it.” This was not a request. The song—a perennial favorite more than 30 years since it debuted—inspires such passion for a reason: “Christmas Wrapping” recalls the best of ’80s female-fronted groups like the Go-Gos and Blondie. And that sax is utterly irresistible. NL

18) Blink-182 — “Happy Holidays, You Bastard”

“It’s Christmas eve, and I’ve only wrapped two fucking presents” is every procrastinator’s reality when the calendar flips to Dec. 24 and you realize Amazon won’t ship in time. It’s an annual reality for America’s creatures of habits, myself included. This 40-second track from corporate, suburban punks Blink-182 is chiefly a throwaway gag from 2001­—a running joke about grotesque sexual acts and panic-stricken nerves. But its holiday angst continues to ring true, and the cage-rattling teen escapism pairs elegantly with the self-inflicted seasonal stress. RR

19) Sufjan Stevens — “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!”

In 2006, Sufjan Stevens ignited an ongoing debate among the prolific indie folk singer’s massive fanbase: What’s the best track from Songs for Christmas? The five-disc box set—recorded over as many years—leaves listeners an absurd amount of choices, from the upbeat “Put the Lights on the Tree” to “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” There’s no right choice, but if I had to save one single from a fire, it would be the achingly romantic “Christmas in the Room.”

Note: If that weren’t enough, he released yet another set in 2012. I’m convinced Sufjan Stevens hates his fans and wants us to argue forever. NL

20) !!! — “And Anyway It’s Christmas”

Was your sonic palate molded in the early or mid-2000s? Was your hipster-chic iPod certified because dance punks !!! rested atop its clickwheel library? Do you get nervous and relate to content about visiting conservative family members at the holiday break? If so, this sentimental geek single should be embedded slang. If not that’s even better, because this pummeling rhythm transcends its narrow market. RR

21) Julian Casablancas — “Christmas Treat”

Julian Casablancas’ post-Strokes career has gifted us with plethora of catchy gems. Released shortly after “11th Dimension,” this cover of a song from a 2000 Saturday Night Live skit might not reach the blissful heights of Phrazes for the Young, but it’s undeniably good. It’s further proof that the former rock frontman has a great ear for pop songs—no matter the season. NL

22) The Sonics — “Don’t Believe in Christmas”

The essential ’60s garage-rockers pack a gripping keys solo, rollicking chants, and pointed skepticism into this flyover jam. “Don’t believe in Christmas,” goes the chorus. “Cause I didn’t get nothing last year.” It’s dissent with all the depth of a Twisted Sister anthem, yes, but it also makes you want to hurl a shot glass at the jukebox with its primal freakouts. Wreck the halls. RR

23) Dengue Fever — “Little Drummer Boy”

In our previous music roundup, I extolled the virtues of Cambodian pop, and if you haven’t checked out Dengue Fever since then, here’s another chance. The indie psych-rock band brings the Khmer sound to Christmas, putting a fresh and quietly radical spin on a song I’ve always hated. NL

24) Kanye West feat. Cam’Ron, Jim Jones, Vado, Pusha T, Musiq Soulchild, CyHi Da Prynce, Teyana Taylor and Big Sean — “Christmas in Harlem”

Five years ago, Kanye West attacked pop with constant singles—15 of them released every Friday from August through December, for free. This was the one about Christmas, and oh boy did it knock.  RR

Manila Concert Scene/Twitter

25) Saint Etienne — “I Was Born on Christmas Day”

One of the things that unites nearly every song on this list is that you could listen to it any time of the year, and “I Was Born on Christmas Day” is no exception. The track is no less joyous or danceable than the band’s signature disco-tinged tunes (like “Last Days of Disco” and “Last Days of Music”). And if putting this on your Spotify list impels you to check out the British group’s triumphant (and criminally underrated) 2012 record Words and Music, so be it.  NL

Illustration by Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Dec 21, 2015, 6:12 pm