Sometimes the relentless cheer of Christmas can get more than a little cloying. For some of us, the idea of having to hear Christmas carols sends us running in the opposite direction as fast as possible. To help you through the holidays, here are five of the coolest Christmas songs to help you celebrate the festive season without losing any of your street cred.
Soundtracking the various Charlie Brown TV specials over the years, pianist Vince Guaraldi and his cohorts, drummer Jerry Granelli and bassist Fred Marshall made some of the most enduring jazz recordings of all time. Opening the 1965 album A Charlie Brown Christmas, the trio’s version of “O Tannenbaum” is the perfect way to have a cool Christmas. The musicians play the Yule standard with a swinging easiness that will have you clicking along from the first bars. It’s celebratory but without any of the saccharine mawkishness that makes traditional Christmas music so decidedly un-hip.
It wasn’t until long after they’d dissolved as a group that Memphis band Big Star were acknowledged as one of the coolest bands of all time. Recorded in 1975 for the band’s decidedly bizarre third album, which was not released until 1978, “Jesus Christ” is an irony-free tribute to the day that Jesus Christ was born. Complete with frontman Alex Chilton’s charming and boyish vocals, fuzzy guitar leads, sleigh bells, a sing-along chorus and a slightly unhinged saxophone solo, this is prime Big Star power pop in service of celebrating the sacred day.
In Irish band The Pogues' distinctive style, this Christmas ballad is gruff and whiskey-soaked. Featuring the late Kirsty MacColl singing alongside the Shane MacGowan’s barely off-key warble, there is a strange sweetness to hearing them exchange insults (“You’re a bum, you’re a punk”; “You’re an old slut on junk”), especially when the song resolves in its glorious refrain. Beautifully orchestrated with a string section and a tin whistle that lends an unmistakable Irish flair, “Fairytale of New York” is a Christmas song for the downtrodden but resilient people of the world.
Before they took off into the stratosphere on their later work, The Flaming Lips were one of the weirdest and woolliest indie rock bands of the 90’s. “Christmas at the Zoo,” from their seventh album Clouds Taste Metallic, tells an absurd tale in which the song’s narrator, bored because of a lack of snow on Christmas Eve, decides to release all the animal from the zoo. Christmas is only incidental to the song’s lyrics, but in its whistling bridge and uplifting rhythm, there is definitely something undeniably festive about this idiosyncratic jam from the Lips.
Glasgow indie pop group Camera Obscura celebrated Christmas in 2009 with this cover of an old Jim Reeves country song. Embellished with festive chimes, the tragic story song tells the story of a pair of travelers struggling to get home through a blizzard around Christmas time. “It’s only seven miles to Maryann”, the song’s narrator tells us, and every verse she gets closer, as does the warmth of home and the promise of a hot meal. Singer Tracyanne Campbell lowers her voice to a near whisper in the final verse, revealing with great solemnity that old Dan never made it back, perishing “just a hundred yards from Maryann."