Definitive List of the Best Non-Traditional Christmas Songs

December 2, 2012

yeti christmas

It’s getting cold in Jinju. There are Christmas trees up in the coffee shops, Christmas music playing in Emart. I was hoping to have some great Korean Christmas songs to share with you, but so far I’ve come up empty. I’ve found some terrible K-pop Christmas tunes, but I’ll spare you from those. Instead, here’s an annotated list of the best non-traditional Christmas songs (with one or two great covers of traditional songs). These are mostly by indie / folk artists. I’m sorry I can’t post the mp3s, but you can hear almost all of them on YouTube. Let me know if I’ve made any glaring omissions. Happy holidays!


1. “Just Like Christmas” by Low. This is a perfect Christmas song: a simple, catchy melody, a sweet story about the warmth of friendship in a cold foreign land, and some jingle bells. “By the time we got to Oslo / the snow was gone. / And we got lost. / The beds were small, but we felt so young. / It was just like Christmas.”

2. “All That I Want” by The Weepies. A gorgeous Christmas seaside love song. “Out in the harbor / the ships come in, / it’s Christmastime.” And how about a little Christmas magic? “Deer might fly, / why not? / I met you.”

3. “Maybe This Christmas” by Ron Sexsmith. A hopeful little tune that feels like it should be playing in everyone’s home this time of year. “Maybe forgiveness will ask us to call / someone we love, / someone we’ve lost / for reasons we can’t quite recall. / Maybe this Christmas…”

4. “Christmastime” by The Smashing Pumpkins. A joyous ode to childhood wonder. Cue the strings and the tender nostalgia. “I remember dreaming, / wishing, hoping, praying for this day. / Now I sit and watch them: / the little ones I love, / so excited by the wait.”

5. “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues with Kristy MacColl. An Irish immigrant in a New York City drunk tank on Christmas Eve reminisces about Christmases past and a lost love. In polls in the UK and Ireland, this song is usually voted as the best Christmas song ever. It’s a heartbreaker. Knowing how badly the story ends makes the hopeful, joyous refrain so much more painful: “The boys of the NYPD choir were singing ‘Galway Bay.’ / And the bells were ringing out for Christmas day.”

6. “The Ragpicker’s Dream” by Mark Knopfler. The lead singer from The Dire Straits is spending Christmas in a bar with his “associate,” getting drunk on whiskey and beer and wishing he knew the waitress a little better. At the end of the night: “There’s a ten for your trouble, / you have beautiful hair. / Make the last one two doubles, / it’s a cold one out there.”

7. “River” by Joni Mitchell. Some people argue that this is now a traditional Christmas song, while others argue that’s it’s not actually a Christmas song at all. It’s a breakup song set during the holiday season, and it’s amazing. “It’s coming on Christmas, / they’re cutting down trees, / they’re putting up reindeer, / singing songs of joy and peace. / I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”

8. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Hem. This is my favorite traditional Christmas song, sung by my favorite band. When covering this song, artists fall into one of two camps: the “hang a shining star upon the highest bough” camp and the “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” camp. Hem throws in their lot with the muddlers, and so do I. It’s a poetic truth about human existence. We all have to muddle through this life. But we don’t have to muddle alone.

9. “Christmas is Coming Soon” by Blitzen Trapper. The only Christmas song in existence to reference Steve McQueen, Donkey Kong, and making love in a stolen car. Best of all is this lonely girl: “Carefully, she climbs up into the tree. / Her radio sits below in the snow, / filling the night with songs as she waits for dawn.”

10. “Carol of the Bells” by Tomandandy. There’s something vaguely unsettling about this rendition of the old classic, taken from the Rules of Attraction soundtrack. Maybe it’s the human screams and indecipherable whispering in the background.

11. “Song for a Winter’s Night” by Sarah McLachlan. This song is what longing sounds like. “If I could know within my heart / that you were lonely too, / I would be happy just to hold the hands I love / on this winter’s night with you.”

12. “Rudy” by The Be Good Tanyas. The story of a homeless man who dies from exposure on a cold Christmas Eve night in Georgetown. Includes the great line: “Deck the halls, Rudolph the red-nosed wino knows it’s Christmas time.”

13. “2000 Miles” by The Pretenders. Are you missing someone you love this holiday season? This is the song for you! “The snow is falling down. / Gets colder day by day. / I miss you. / I hear people singing. / It must be Christmastime.”

14. “Christmas in Prison” by John Prine. He’s in prison. His sweetheart isn’t. It’s Christmastime. “The searchlight in the big yard / swings ’round with the gun, / and spotlights the snowflakes / like dust in the sun.”

15. “The Atheist Christmas Carol” by Vienna Teng. From the title, you might expect something cynical or bitter. Instead, this is an anthem of hope, and maybe the most emotionally powerful song on this list. “It’s the season of scars and of wounds in the heart, / of feeling the full weight of our burdens. / It’s the season of bowing our heads in the wind / and knowing we are not alone in fear, / not alone in the dark.”

16. “Merry Christmas to the Drunks, Merry Christmas to the Lovers” by Ballboy. This song wins the list’s Thickest Scottish Accent Award. It’s a Christmas song for after the bars have closed. “Aye, I am here / with you tonight. / Hold my hand, / take me home / for Christmas.”

17. “King Night” by Salem. What is this unholy brew? Can you hear “Silent Night” drowning beneath the surface of this boiling cauldron?

18. “Peace At Last” by Hem. This is my favorite Christmas song. I even made a video for it, years ago:

Honorable Mention:

Tom Waits – “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” ; The Handsome Family – “So Much Wine” ; Trainwreck Riders – “Christmas Time Blues” ; Dido – “Christmas Day” ; Jack White – “Christmas Time Will Soon Be Over” ; Jenny O – “Get Down for the Holidays” ; Rufus Wainwright – “Spotlight on Christmas” ; Laura Marling – “Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)” ; Frontier Ruckus – “Christmas Eve, Driving Home” ; Marah – “Christmas with the Snow” ; The Boy Least Likely To – “Christmas isn’t Christmas” ; Andrew and the North American Grizzly – “Let the Snow Fall” ; Coldplay – “Christmas Lights” ; Caitlin Rose and Keegan DeWitt – “You Never Come Home for Christmas” ; Frightened Rabbit – “It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop.”

Bonus Track!

“Nirvana,” a Charles Bukowski poem, read by Tom Waits. This poem is about a young man (“not much chance, completely cut loose from purpose”) on a bus on a snowy day. The bus stops at a diner, and he experiences a moment of magic, when the world suddenly makes sense. But then he gets back on the bus, and the moment slowly slips away. And so he decides to close his eyes and try to sleep, because “there was nothing else to do. / Just listen to the sound of the engine, / and the sound of the tires / in the snow.”

♠ Above image is a delightful yeti Christmas card by Regina Mako. ♠

5 Responses to “Definitive List of the Best Non-Traditional Christmas Songs”

  1. Paddy O'Jersey said

    Try out: Christmas in New York by Shilelagh Law

  2. Reblogged this on merlinspielen and commented:
    Back from shopping and overdosing on overly sweet and happy Christmas tunes and I was doing research to create my own list of “non-traditional” Christmas songs…and well Robert has done the work for us already. Have a read and do a Youtube search and make yourself feel the real spirit of Christmas!

  3. Marc said

    I love Christmas 1915 sung by Tommy Fleming. The Irish tenor’s beautiful voice sings to the WWI spontaneous truce between the Germans and English in the trenches. Only problem is that the event occurred in 1914. But let’s forgive him for that.

  4. John M said

    Great list! Here’s a playlist of some lesser-known Christmas music:

  5. Christopher Kringle said

    I realize this list is from 5 years ago but it is fantastic. I stumbled across it when putting together a song a day list. I love every song on here.

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