It’s December 21st, which means we probably should’ve written this article a month ago. Before you’d been barraged by endless hours of the reliably good-cheer-sapping Christmas radio. Before red and green had permanently scorched themselves onto your retinas, and Starbucks had sold their eight-trillionth peppermint mocha (okay, an approximate). With just one last hectic weekend between us and
the birth of baby Jesus those presents (retail workers, you have my condolences), we’re here to offer an antidote to those repetitive mall playlists. Taking nothing away from the likes of Bing, Burl, or the Beach Boys, here’s our holiday gift to you: an assortment of slightly off-the-beaten-path Christmas tunes to enjoy amid the blizzard and bustle.
“Christmas Card From A Hooker in Minneapolis” by Tom Waits
To begin: a saucy piano ditty from everyone’s favorite lizard-throated lounge rat. From his 1978 album, Blue Valentine, the down-tempo number allows Waits to slip into the character of the titular hooker as she dictates a Christmas card to a man named Charlie. Typical of the gutter-punks that populate Waits’s best songs, she’s a bit down on her luck — no longer taking dope, but pregnant, and with all her friends “dead or in prison.” How’s that for some holiday cheer? Waits carries the mournful tune with his signature early-era rasp, and doesn’t leave us without a twist ending. This hooker’s neither pregnant, nor engaged — merely in prison and awaiting parole (“come Valentine’s Day”). People use Christmas as an excuse to reach out to old loved ones — even when they’re just trying to borrow some cash.
“A Change At Christmas [Say It Isn't So]” by The Flaming Lips
From the band that produced an entire sci-fi film entitled Christmas on Mars, this wide-eyed quasi-social-activist song was relegated to a B-side, appearing only on the band’s Ego Tripping At the Gates of Hell EP. Against a sheen of synth and a distant choir, Wayne Coyne employs his trademark, painfully earnest vocal to declare his wish of stopping time to grant mankind a perfect moment (coincidentally, right around Christmas). Instead of opting to celebrate, the Lips just continue to dream (and attempt not to dread) about the future. It’s an extremely pleasant little missive from a band with a distinct style and occasionally, something profound to say.
“Listening to Otis Redding At Home During Christmas” by Okkervil River
Okkervil River’s Will Sheff loves to tell little stories in each of his songs. Though at times they can be big and conceptual, the title of this song implies its heavily personal nature. Here he frames the image of his childhood home and the warm traditions he associates with it. As the song continues on, however, he returns home to the harsh realities of a changed personal landscape. A specific woman is alluded to, but for all Sheff’s specificity it remains a touching ode to a universal longing. To return to the past, to something simpler — a home you return to for Christmas every year, that’s never quite the same again.
“Christmas In Harlem” by Kanye West
Kanye isn’t the first rapper to tackle the Christmas song, but (as he’ll probably tell you) he may have mastered the art. Worth it for the opening verse alone, in which Yeezy declares, “I like the way ya THINK Mommy / So put some more egg nog in YA DRINK, Mommy,” the secret to the song’s success is in how it feels so casual (some might think tossed off). But Kanye and his cohorts capture the essence of celebration in a way that doesn’t feel forced. With a hook that’ll be caught in your head for days, it’s the best contemporary Christmas jam to blast at your holiday party without embarrassment.
“A Christmas Duel” by Cyndi Lauper & The Hives
I’m not entirely sure how this exists, but here it is. The Hives’ Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist and Cyndi “Still Just Want to Have Fun” Lauper trade filthy quips against a Phil-Spector all-the-bells-and-whistles backdrop. The rollicking music could carry a more conventional collaboration, but the duo’s strange sense of humor is instead on full display. After a plaintive piano intro, Almqvist begins, “I bought no gift this year, and I slept with your sister.” By song’s end, let’s just say more family members get involved. If you ever wished that your drunk uncle at the family Christmas gathering suddenly up and started to wail one out (though that’s probably a reality for some people), then this one’s for you.
“I Wish It Was Christmas Today” by Julian Casablancas
The original was already something of an iconic classic in its own right, but when the Strokes’ frontman unexpectedly included a turbo-charged rendition as a B-side to his first solo album, everything just clicked. Casablancas maintains the basic melody and fleshes it out to full song length. It may no longer be suited to a straight-faced prancing Tracy Morgan, but it’s got an infectious quality that wouldn’t be out of place alongside other semi-recent radio captive, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” It’s propulsive quality — full of rolling synths, cymbal crashes, and a spindly guitar line — make it an all-to-easy contender for an ongoing holiday loop. It’s hard not to press play for a second time.
“Donde Esta Santa Claus?” by Augie Rios
For our avid hispanic readership (this is real), I give you that Christmas hippo song’s evil cousin. Recorded in 1958 when Rios was only twelve, it’s an addictively cutesy take on the “child eagerly awaiting Santa Claus” song. After growing up in Michigan with the Detroit area radio stations, I became conditioned to the same familiar stable of songs. When I moved to Los Angeles, I was struck by how uniformly similar the lineup was, with one exception — this song. If you ever spend the holidays in the LA area, and you turn on the radio, you will hear this song. Whether you regret it six hours later when you’re still humming it to yourself, well… let’s just say I moved away from there not too long after.
Other Festive Recs:
The entire, borderline batshit-lunacy of Sufjan Steven’s recent 58-song Silver and Gold collection. It includes, but is not limited to, a 9-minute electro-autotuned version of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” that somehow genuinely reaches an unexpected existential crescendo, a song about being a unicorn that midway through becomes “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” a song that declares baby Jesus to be the “king-a-ling-a-ling,” a cover of Prince’s “Alphabet Street,” and a bunch of legit carols. It’s pretty good, guys.
Andrew WK’s rendition of “Silent Night” for the AVClub Undercover Series. You can watch it here. If possible, it is even more amazing than you might expect.
Belle & Sebastian’s “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.” They don’t always seem so twee. Sometimes they just swing.
Rosie O’Donnell & Smash Mouth’s “Nothin’ For Christmas.” Yo, Rosie, what time is it? It’s CHRISTMASTIME, GIRL.
Happy Holidays, everybody!