The best alternative festive songs to soundtrack your Christmas and New Year

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Featured image: Bradley Sansom

The aAh! music editors share their favourite alt tunes to soundtrack your Christmas

Whether you’re Christmas-obsessed or a bit of a Scrooge, perhaps you’re beginning to feel bored of hearing the same five Christmas songs everywhere you go, in some continuous, surreal soundtrack. Don’t get us wrong, we love a Christmas classic as much as the next person – the ‘Fairytale of New York’ never gets old (rest in peace Shane MacGowan) – but there comes a limit. So, if you want to enjoy some festive tunes but you’re looking for something different, look no further. The aAh! music editors have collated their favourite alternative Xmas songs, for the Grinches and everyone else. As we’re not fans of pigs in blankets, these are the only festive bangers we’ll be enjoying over Christmas.

Royal Bangs – Shit Xmas (2009)

Royal Bangs walked so MSPAINT could run. The Knoxville, TN, punk experimentalists mixed squelching synths among their zigzagging riffs, swimming against the indie sleaze tide for four albums. The first two are stone-cold classics.

Granted, ‘Shit Xmas’ doesn’t have the most festive title, nor the sleigh bells and other musical tinsel that festoons other yuletide hits. It does, however, have a chorus that soars higher and faster than Santa’s entire reindeer retinue at full fitness.

With no new releases since their 2013 album Brass, and inactive live since 2016, it looks like Royal Bangs are no more.

Elmo & Patsy – Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer (1979)

While Pink Floyd topped the UK Christmas charts with the bleak ‘Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)’, a husband-and-wife duo from Lexington, KY, lightened the mood with what turned out to be an enduring seasonal cult track.

There’s no allegory or hidden metaphor in the title. It’s the tall bluegrass tale of a gran, legless on eggnog, who comes a cropper in the snow at the cloven hooves of an errant reindeer. Stiff Records, the then home of Madness, Ian Dury and The Go-Go’s, released the song over here the following year, but it sank back into obscurity.

Elmo & Patsy divorced in 1985, with the 87-year-old Elmo now a national athletics champion in his age bracket for several middle-distance events.

Pet Shop Boys – It Doesn’t Often Snow at Christmas (2009)

Never one to follow the crowd, Neil and Chris spent their imperial phase during the 80s resisting the urge to do a cash-in Christmas single. But that changed in 2009, with the release of ‘It Doesn’t Often Snow at Christmas’. It’s an anthem for the misanthropes – modern Christmas is quite naff really, when you think about it.

In a typical Tennant-Lowe fashion, the witty observational lyrics are the star of the show. There’s “nothing on TV”, your family’s “fighting around a plastic tree”, and to top it off it’s “hardly ever snowing”. But the Boys’ protestations resolve into a lovely reminder that Christmas will be alright, “because I’ll be with you”. Just the right amount of kitsch-forced jollity for me.

If you’re the sort of person who takes the back streets through town this time of year to avoid the hordes of people making merry at the Christmas markets, this one’s for you. 

LCD Soundsystem – Christmas Will Break Your Heart (2015)

A bystander to the New Yorker’s distinctive blend of electronic and nu-disco, ‘Christmas Will Break Your Heart’ recoils in the face of festive pleasantries. Atop a bedrock of tender piano balladry and languid, meandering bass guitar, frontman James Murphy scrambles to a frenetic crescendo at the finish of the song, backed by a choir and seasonal sleigh bells throughout. 

“So what if you don’t love me anymore? I’m coming home, can you see me?” Whilst not an entirely conventional soundtrack to a family Christmas dinner, this gift from LCD Soundsystem is best enjoyed wallowing in the melancholy of Boxing Day. 

The 1975 – Wintering (2022)

Stuffed with snarky jibes and crude gags, ‘Wintering’ encapsulates the joyous and oftentimes chaotic countdown to the big day. Throughout the quirky instrumental arrangement, lyricist Matty Healy gleefully recalls family fables from Christmases past, present and future. 

A controversial figure in regards to his antics both on and off stage, Healy confesses: “I just came for the stuffing, not to argue about nothing”. In the spirit of the holiday season, forgiveness and good cheer runs rampant in this tongue-in-cheek Christmas ditty. 

Wolf Alice – In The Bleak Midwinter (2022)

For music fans who aren’t particularly fond of the tried and tested Christmas cliches, Wolf Alice’s re-imagining of this traditional carol swings far left-field of its original incarnation. Incorporating synthesisers and finger-picked acoustic guitar passages, the instrumental is unrecognisable from its source material. 

With this being said, Ellie Rowsell’s ethereal vocal melodies re-ignite the magical spirit of the holiday season amidst the dark, brooding verses. This intricate cover track by Wolf Alice conveys the deep sadness alluded to in the song title; ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ does what it says on the tin!

Smith and Burrows – This Ain’t New Jersey (2011)

Taken from the tracklist of Christmas cult classic Funny Looking Angels, ‘This Ain’t New Jersey’ tells the story of a pair of doomed lovers snowed in together on Christmas Eve. Trapped in a cosy pub, the couple reconcile over their shared love of festive pop-culture, with references to Santa Claus Is Coming To Town and It’s A Wonderful Life

“The workmen grit the road as the barman grits his teeth” is a stroke of lyrical genius from singer-songwriter duo Andy Burrows and Tom Smith, who also find the time to take a jab at American dialect: “This ain’t New Jersey, Father Christmas is coming to town”. Gift-wrapped with delicate percussion and soothing piano interludes, ‘This Ain’t New Jersey’ is the perfect accompaniment to a glass of mulled wine beside a roaring fire on a chilly December evening.

Sufjan Stevens – Did I Make You Cry On Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It) (2006)

From the box set of collated EP’s, Sufjan Stevens’ Songs for Christmas is well stocked with festive songs and carols. For Christians and jaded ladies alike, this mega-album holds all the festivity of a hymn you sob to. If you like to cry on public holidays, or if you just like 00’s folk indie, Sufjan has the winter song for you. ‘Did I Make You Cry On Christmas Day’ is a particularly melancholy anthem to get you through the bleak midwinter. Telling the tale of a relationship breakdown due to seasonal affliction disorder, the bells and layered instrumentals encapsulate the feeling of depression at Christmas. 

For a more modern (and dire) take, Peach Pit did a fantastic 2018 cover. 

The Flaming Lips – Christmas at the Zoo (1995) 

From Clouds Taste Metallic, the final ‘weird’ Flaming Lips album before they crossed into the mainstream with The Soft Bulletin, ‘Christmas at the Zoo’ is a heartwarming yarn about Wayne Coyne trying to break his animal pals out of captivity. 

Despite the peacocks, orangutans and kangaroos all agreeing that they’d prefer to be living in the wild, they want to escape on their own terms. A laudable attitude that helped make a poignant Christmas classic. 

FEET – Vegetarian Christmas (2019)

If turkey doesn’t tickle your fancy, then Coventry-based band FEET are serving up some alternative options this Christmas, taking the listener on a journey through a vegetarian Christmas. In classic style the band combines a lighthearted beat with some darker lyrics on vegetarianism: “They ain’t got a voice, it’s your choice to make the right one,” so it best be, “sprouts and gravy, a Linda McCartney too” this year. Released on their own label Clapped Records, I’d consider this festive tune as an anthem for the non-meat eaters out there.

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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