Holiday Music That Won’t Kill You: A List

One consistent annoyance of the holiday season is the terrible music that comes along with it. It seems stores and coffee shops resort to the blandest, most cloying choices in some desperate effort to make sure we are 100% certain what time of year it is. Even the good versions of excellent songs have been pummeled into our ears so persistently that they are rendered unlistenable.

Years ago I asked for suggestions for good music with a connection, even if thin, to the winter season. Below is that list with some new additions, and there are even more in the comments.

Disclaimer: what makes for good music is supremely subjective. I can’t promise you’ll like these. But I can say they passed the test for me of being preferable to the overplayed, the junk and the saccharine tunes you often hear this time of the year.

  • The Kinks, Father Christmas – I love the subversive sentiment and straightforward rock energy that’s so rarely a part of holiday music.
  • John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things – Jazz isn’t for everyone, but Coltrane is in great lyrical form here, and it’s easy listening in the best sense of the phrase. The song is the star of the album, but the rest of it is solid (even if not on theme, as there is a song called Summertime).
  • Christmas Around The World, Various – This Putumayo collection is hit and miss, but the winners are gems. The Zydeco version of St. Nicholas, the Cuban brass version of Deck The Halls, and the Latin Paz en la Tierra (Peace on Earth) are the kind of lively antidotes retail stores need to discover (It’s more Western hemisphere than “world”, but I’m not picky).
  • Sufjan Stevens, Christmas boxed set – I’m a Sufjan fan, but I confess I own but haven’t listened to much of this. Most of his albums make for good listening year round, and the soft, spiritual themes in his music definitely resonate come holiday time.
  • Jimmy Smith, Christmas Cookin’ – this is the only soul/Christmas music I’ve heard that I didn’t mind. Mostly classics reinterpreted in modern, soul/R&B arrangements.
  • Bruce Springsteen, Santa Claus is Coming to Down. (bias alert: I’m a Springsteeen fan). There’s something genuine in the loving humor offered in his voice, rising over a live big band sound.
  • Mashup DJ BC’s Santastic (high energy) – this will test your attention deficit disorder tendencies. Either you’ll love it or hate it.
  • Bach’s Christmas Oratorio – Classical music seems an obvious solid choice for alternative holiday music
  • The New Possibility, John Fahey (guitar instrumental)
  • Soma.Fm – Christmas lounge music

I do love classics, but wish I knew a wider range of them for holiday music. If you know of collections of standards done with interesting spins, unusual arrangements, or exceptional performances that should be in the standard canon but currently isn’t, let me know.

If you have recommendations of any kind please do leave a comment. What else should I try?

Thanks to Tiff, John, marrije, and Bryan Zug for their suggestions from the original post.

26 Responses to “Holiday Music That Won’t Kill You: A List”

    1. Scott Berkun

      Nice – sounds like a 50’s era classic but is entirely unfamiliar to me.

      Reply
  1. Brian Clancy

    Thanks Scott, good list.

    Anyone who play Christmas music prior to Thanksgiving Day should be forced to play “Father Christmas” as loud as possible on loop for several hours. Then I will give them a pass.

    The Pogues Featuring Kirsty MacColl – Fairytale Of New York

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      I’m a Pogues fan, but this song isn’t for me. Many people have recommended it, so perhaps it deserves a place on the list in spite of my tastes.

      Reply
  2. Luz

    Have you listened to Over the Rhine? Snow Angels and Blood Oranges in the Snow are some of my favorite Christmas albums. Bluesy songs about hope during dark and cold winter nights. http://overtherhine.com/music/

    Reply
  3. Mike

    Classical Christmas music? Oh my, now there’s a broad topic! Here are a few selections (few relative to what’s available, of course), by rough chronological order.

    There’s a lot of medieval and Renaissance Christmas works, of course; my favorite Christmas Mass is Thomas Tallis’s Mass “Puer Natus est Nobis.” Curiously, this work only survived in manuscript, some of which has been lost, so of the five movements every mass has, only three or maybe four survive:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7LJ-8mTupCs

    More generally, there’s a fine recording of Tudor-era English music for Advent that includes the Tallis Mass above (not my favorite recording, but none of therecordings I’ve heard of the mass are less than excellent); I recommend the whole CD if you want some good lesser-known Christmas-related music:

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B003OXILP6/associatizer-20/

    A standard Christmas classic is Corelli’s Christmas Concerto:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eql1FdlWwiY

    For more up-to-date Christmas music, here’s four off the top of my head, and a varied lot they are. First, the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger’s Christmas Cantata is rather happier than a lot of his music from the time (during and just after WWII):

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vm2T5SSlCGI

    Second, the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (first name pronounced “Rafe”) wrrote a delightful Fantasia on Christmas Carols:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ib8LUJkMEjU

    Third, Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness wrote a fine Christmas Symphony. Hovhaness was saturated in Armenian and other non-Western music and created a vast amount of music that all sounds like Hovhaness, and if you don’t like his style that much, you’ll rue his writing 67 symphonies, but if like me you do like his style, it’s great to have so much:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xffMZy5d6s

    Finally, one that’s definitely obscure but a delight: There’s a fine CD of contemporary Latvian Christmas cantatas (first of a series, I think) sung by the New York Latvian Concert Choir that’s worth picking up:

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B013EOLRBE/scottberkunco-20/

    My favorite piece on it is the cantata by Ilona Rupaine, but it’s not up on YouTube, alas. (And she doesn’t seem to have had much of her music recorded either, alas.)

    And on a completely different note, here’s a fairly obscure Christmas jazz song by the nutty singer and jazz harmonica player Karen Mantler that in its own way captures more than one side of the Christmas spirit…

    Reply
  4. Bruce Fenske

    Father Christmas by the Kinks is a must. Here are some other songs I love during the holidays:

    Christmas Time is Here Again, The Beatles
    River, Joni Mitchell
    Auld Lang Syne, The Beach Boys
    A Christmas Song, Jethro Tull
    2000 Miles, The Pretenders
    Happy Christmas (War is Over), John Lennon
    Christmas All Over Again, Tom Petty
    Star Carol/Comfort and Joy, Simon & Garfunkel
    Ding Dong Ding Dong, George Harrison
    Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), U2
    Shepards, Bruce Cockburn
    The Christmas Dance, Ringo Starr
    Christmas, The Who
    The Christmas Song, Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds
    Wonderful Christmastime, Paul McCartney

    A surprisingly great album is “What I Really Want for Christmas” Brian Wilson. It’s “SMiLE” meets Phil Spector’s Christmas!

    Reply
  5. Dave Gordon

    Alison Krauss and Union Station – There is a Reason
    Koko Taylor – Merry Merry Christmas
    Leo Kottke – In Christ There is No East or West, and Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring
    Canned Heat – Christmas Boogie
    John Renbourn – The Black Balloon album (not a Christmas theme, but appropriate for the season)
    Little Charlie and the Nightcats – Santa Claus
    C.J.Chenier – Zydeco Christmas
    Willie Nelson – Silent Night
    Tish Hinojosa – Arbolito
    Asleep at the Wheel – Jingle Bell Boogie

    Reply
  6. Carol

    A couple of others (and I’ll second your Coltrane nomination):

    – We Three Kings, The Roches (plus Hallelujah Chorus from their second album)
    – That’s Christmas to Me & PTXmas, Pentatonix
    – Christmas Remixed – Holiday Classics Re-Grooved (a little uneven, but the good ones—Most Wonderful Time & Happy Holidays—are worth it)

    Reply
  7. Nancy

    Good list!
    2 of my favorite albums:

    The Alligator Records Christmas Collection
    Merry Axemas – Guitar Christmas

    Reply
  8. Ben Buchanan

    Every year I know the perils of the season are truly upon us, when I hear an even-worse-than-last-year version of Jingle Bell Rock. It’s some kind of psychological warfare. I’ll never ever forget doing the post office run at a holidays job, where the excessively upbeat and saccharine christmas music appeared to be driving the postal workers crazy. A couple of weeks out from Christmas, that soundtrack was gone and the staff were all smiles ;)

    Anyway…

    I find a bit of rockabilly livens things up a bit – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vUT2jJDYKs&list=PLRTLOUSBRV2-Luu0KfxCw27kR6LCH2OE8 …quite faithful versions really, just with RHH energy.

    Or some steampunk – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0E7B1E_-Rc&list=PLieoSLAHPxwGRUT7XGq43xcw_VO_A9qii

    Reply
  9. Drew

    I’m a fan of Duke Ellington’s reinterpretation of Nutcracker Suite.
    And Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings have a great Christmas album out this year.

    Reply
  10. Sam

    I can only say Thank You.

    Reply

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