Let’s face it: By Dec. 1, many of us are already sick of Christmas carols. The shops start playing them right after Halloween, and year after year of the same songs over and over, it’s hard not to feel weary of them by the time Christmas Eve actually rolls around.
But amid the clutter of the usual Yuletide carols are some songs that stand out. I present my top seven non-traditional Christmas tunes. Why seven? Because 10 was too many and five was just too few.
7. Blue Christmas
This 1948 song is the oldest on this list, made popular decades ago by Elvis Presley. It’s been sung countless times since then by nearly every country and rock star in the book. I lean toward Sheryl Crow’s version (though I like John Denver’s as well). But no matter who sings it, the reasons to like it are the same: Amid the happy Christmas songs, this one is almost gleefully the opposite.
It’s a downbeat lament for a lover long gone, a recognition that not every Christmas season is hugs and kisses, and a smooth response to the sometimes annoying “White Christmas”—all rolled into one. “You’ll be doing all right, with your Christmas of white, but I’ll have a blue, blue, blue, blue Christmas.” Amen.
6. Christmas at Ground Zero
Weird Al Yankovic is a genius. Mostly known for his parodies, he released his own Christmas carol two decades ago and I haven’t stopped laughing since. Set to aggressively cheery Christmas music, Al imagines the Yuletide season amid the start of a nuclear war—and he remains darn happy about it. His lyrics, sung with unremitting glee, include: “Everywhere the atom bombs are dropping, it’s the end of all humanity. No more time for last-minute shopping, it’s time to face your final destiny.” It’s easily the funniest Christmas song ever.
It’s hard not to love a Christmas song that ends with the line “What a crazy fluke, we’re gonna get nuked, on this jolly holiday.”
5. Christmas Lights
These days, Coldplay is known for uplifting rock anthems that exude optimism. So it’s a bit strange that their Christmas single, released last year, starts on a downer: “Christmas night, another fight; tears, we cried a flood. Got all kinds of poison in; of poison in my blood.”
Yet like any good Christmas special, the song is all about finding hope—sometimes in the unlikeliest of places. For the Coldplay crew, it’s a sea of bright, blinking Christmas lights. “Those Christmas lights, light up the street; Maybe they’ll bring her back to me. Then all my troubles will soon be gone; Oh Christmas lights, keep shining on.”
Schmaltzy? A little. But the melodic chorus and uplifting tone make it hard to resist.
4. Song For A Winter’s Night
The song is sad without feeling morose, a simple hymn wishing for someone who isn’t there: “If I could only have you near to breathe a sigh or two, I would be happy just to hold the hands I love and to be once again with you.”
The Killers are known for releasing a new Christmas song every year and they’ve had several good ones. From the ridiculous “Don’t Shoot Me, Santa” to the Mexican-themed, “Happy Birthday, Guadalupe,” it’s clear they know how to rock for the season. Last year’s “Boots,” however, is something different. It starts with an audio clip of Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life” where he prays to God to show him the way.
From there it tells its own story of a loner who is not exactly looking forward to the New Year. “Brand new year, coming up ahead. You know it’s been so long, since I rang one in.” But he finds hope—and potential salvation—in the reminiscences of the Christmases of his youth. “I can see my mother in the kitchen; my father on the floor. Watching television, It’s a Wonderful Life. Cinnamon candles burning, snowball fights outside, Smile below each nose and above each chin. Stomp my boots before I come back in.” What starts as just nostalgia, however, ends on a note of redemption. “So happy they found me. Love was all around me. Stomp my boots before I go back in.”
2. Happy Xmas (War is Over)
More than 25 years after its debut, John Lennon’s ode to Christmas still carries significance. His version is marred a bit by Yoko Ono’s backing vocals, and the song can feel somewhat cheesy, especially when the children’s choir appears. But the lyrics and tune more than make up for it. Appropriate to Lennon, the song is hopeful, wishing everyone not just a Merry Christmas, but a world without war. It also offers a slight challenge to justify what good one has achieved during the past year: “So this is Christmas, and what have you done?”
There is no song that better captures both the ambivalence and the joy of Christmas than this Blues Traveler’s 1997 original song. It embraces the mixed feelings the holidays can bring when everyone seems happy, but you don’t feel it: “Comes the time for Christmas, and I really have to ask: If this is feeling merry, how much longer must it last?” The lyrics are superb, the harmonies are beautiful: the song is one of the best Christmas carols written in years.
It builds as the singer focuses first on his doubts about the meaning of Christmas, but he comes to terms with them by embracing the joys of the season as well. “As you raise your yuletide flask, There’s like this feeling that you carry, As if from every Christmas past. It’s as if each year it grows, It’s like you feel it in your toes, And on and on your carol goes, Harvesting love among your woes.”
The song climaxes with the verses sung in rounds—each verse beginning over again, only to be interrupted by the start of another, culminating in a chorus of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” over top. It’s a rousing crescendo and the only Christmas song worth listening to all year.