The 10 Best Indie Christmas Songs

Whether you experience Christmas as a spiritual curative or a wretched crucible likely depends upon your capacity to enjoy the Yuletide season’s truly disassociate spirit of insanity. Most of us may consider ourselves largely inured at this point to the curiously redundant recurring color schemes, the unnaturally oppressive nighttime lighting and deeply strange rituals, the whole notion of dwarves and deer running amuck with bounty and coal. On a conscious level, most of us just take that the whole thing in stride. Well, you might say, that’s just Christmas!

That’s all fine and good, but lets be clear, as well: this entire thing is essentially like a four week acid trip beginning with the conclusion of the 4 o’clock Thanksgiving Day football games and not culminating until you find yourself on December 26th surrounded by piles of empty boxes and patterned paper, puzzling with a far away stare at the large and stately tree that for reasons you scantly recall, you have dragged into your living room and decorated in the manner of a particularly flamboyant pro wrestler. As Oscar Wilde once put it – it’s the kind of thing you like if you like that kind of thing.

We like it! Christmas is a great, weird Lynchian kind of impasse in the otherwise cold, grey Soviet-style dirge that is yet another East Coast winter. But lord knows it comes with a soundtrack. Christmas carols are sort of the Eagles catalog of holiday songs. Some are pretty okay and some make you want to tear your head off and kick it down the street, but everybody knows every one from the first notes to the last “pa-rum-pa-pum-pum”[1]. The ubiquity of Christmas songs can take on concentration camp-like cruelty, but they are a truly unique phenomenon, ranging from the transporting to the insipid, decade-after-decade and even century-after-century. Every year there are new Christmas albums, and on a rare occasion the new Christmas standard. Here are ten Yuletide-themed songs that, in our view, represent the best of contemporary music’s wrangling with that season’s complex cocktail of love, yearning, and guilt. May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be largely without irreparable harm.


10. The Magnetic Fields – “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree”

There are a few topics of significance that have not been addressed by the wry genius of The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt and this festive examination of the colossal emotional trainwreck that is the Christmas spirit is no exception. Here we have the rare misanthrope taking up the mantle for the hated Christmas character Ebenezer Scrooge, “If they don’t like you, screw them/ Don’t leave your fortune to them.” Merrit may love Christmas on his own terms, and those terms include a verse entirely in German, loosely translated as “Everything isn’t all a dream/ Is everything a nightmare?”

9. They Might Be Giants – “Santa’s Beard”

Narrowly getting the call over TMBG’s impeccably titled, Dial-A-Song-only masterpiece, “We Just Go Nuts At Christmastime,” “Santa’s Beard” is a classic dip into the deep end of the pool of Yuletide weirdness. Adopting some of the same conceit as the certifiably demented “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” [2] this is an amusing if troubling narrative told from the perspective of a married man who can’t quite comprehend his wife’s affection for a friend who dresses as Santa: “Now I can’t help but feeling jealous/ Each time she climbs on his knee/ Why must she climb on his knee?”

[2]This song is fucked up. The 1952 would-be standard written by Tommie Connor is evidence of some manner of deep Hitchcockian perversion, the nature of which would be inappropriate to explore on a family-friendly website such as this, but seriously, what is going on in “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”?

8. Palace Songs – “Christmastime In The Mountains”

This languid, gorgeous piece of country folk is typically mysterious for Palace Music in terms of attribution. It may be a long lost folkways-style gem or something directly from Will Oldham and company themselves – they aren’t telling and even with the magic of the Internet it’s difficult to find out for sure. Ultimately, its derivations are insignificant. This brief, moving testimony is a ghostly rendering of all of the beauty and resentment of a holy time – it conjures those that you hold most dearly and perhaps have harmed you most of all.

7. The Ramones – “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)”

Everybody knows that Christmas night is going to go one of two ways – either every longstanding criticism is going to be left aside in the name of the holiday spirit or else one drink leads to another and we’re all going to “talk.” The great Ramones anthem is an appeal to kick it over to the next day. Grievances on grievances are put aside because it’s Christmas. We all know that we’ll be fighting in the morning, so for the love of god, let’s wave a white flag tonight.

6. Belle & Sebastian – “Santa Claus”

We have come to expect many terrific things from Belle & Sebastian over the years: unforgettable melodies, clever wordplay, and a diverse palette of unique sounds. We have NOT come to expect Glasgow’s finest chamber pop outfit to deliver a convincing cover of garage legends the Sonics’ celebrated 1966 caveman stomp “Santa Claus,” complete with flute. But here it is on the Internet, so it must be true! It’s either a Christmas miracle, or Stuart Murdoch has been in the nog. Whatever the case, they should do this kind of thing more often.

5. The Minus 5 – “Your Christmas Whiskey”

Every Christmas Day is littered with important questions of itinerary: what time is the family coming, when are the presents being opened, and most crucially, when do we get to start drinking? On this cheerful tribute to literal Christmas spirits, Scott McCaughey and his merry friends in the Minus 5 make a tuneful and compelling case for sampling the goods early and often. Everything is better this way: greedy kids, crappy presents, and even the Vienna Boys Choir all take on a pleasant haze. Rock solid holiday advice from one of our most important philosophers.

4. Tom Waits – “Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis”

Tom Waits’ epistolary rendering of a lost soul becoming ever more lost is one of the greatest tragic holiday songs ever written. This is the story of a protagonist deluding herself on the occasion of a holiday, attempting vainly to paper over the profound sadness of addiction and loss that has become the purview of her existence. Christmas can be a redemptive time, but it can be a cruel one too. A cold assessment of who we are currently and what, under different circumstances, we might have been.

3. Big Star – “Jesus Christ”

Between the pure voice of Alex Chilton and the indelible melody that informs the Big Star classic, “Jesus Christ,” we are hard pressed to find a more moving and complete devotional than this one. Juxtaposed with the weary sadness that was characteristic of the final Big Star album, the spiritual ebullience can feel like something of an outlier, but such deep faith was more of a characteristic than an exception in Chilton’s writing. If Chilton seemed bitter at times, it often felt like the disappointment of a true believer.

2. John Cale, “Child’s Christmas In Wales”

John Cale has long been reputed for his brilliance as both an arbiter of the best contemporary music as well as an implacable champion of the avant-garde. Amidst the achievements of his fantastic solo work is one of the greatest seasonal songs ever, “A Child’s Christmas In Wales,” which remembers all of the mystery of childhood and the majesty of remembering years past.

1. The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl, “Fairytale Of New York”

What makes a great song a classic? And after that, what makes a classic a standard? This bitter, generously rendered song transcends time and place. “Fairytale Of New York” is unique and panoramic, somehow managing to wed a sweeping cross-Atlantic narrative to a crushingly intimate and believable character study. The dissonance between the swelling romanticism of the song’s melody, set against the malevolent backdrop of disintegrating lives is at once thrilling and heart rending, with Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl managing to continuously wring jet black humor out of their pathetic predicament. It is a terribly sad song, but in the manner of a true Christmas classic, there remain the slightest underpinnings of hope and redemption. One of the towering songwriting achievements of the past fifty years, and arguably the greatest Christmas song ever written.

Comments (50)
  1. Great jams all around, especially from Pogues and Tom Waits, but I’m always partial to Rilo Kiley’s “Xmas Cake.” it’s plenty sad and dark, just how I like my holiday tunes

  2. How did Sufjan not make the cut?

  3. “Fairytale of New York” is a truly brilliant song. I’ve listened to it a good 50 times this month.

  4. Always dug: “Long Way Around the Sea” by Low, “Christmas was Better in the 80′s” by Futureheads, “Christmas Party” by Walkmen.

  5. “You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot, Happy christmas your arse I pray god it´s our last. “

  6. What about Low – Just Like Christmas, one of my favourites

  7. Great choices, esp Pogues and Waits – brilliant songs, any time of year. Also, this paragraph –

    …this entire thing is essentially like a four week acid trip beginning with the conclusion of the 4 o’clock Thanksgiving Day football games and not culminating until you find yourself on December 26th surrounded by piles of empty boxes and patterned paper, puzzling with a far away stare at the large and stately tree that for reasons you scantly recall, you have dragged into your living room and decorated in the manner of a particularly flamboyant pro wrestler.

    - pretty much sums up the entire crummy holiday better than any of these songs. Just sayin.’

  8. Sufjan Stevens could have his own top ten indie Christmas songs list. Silver and Gold was excellent. That said, some great choices here. No argument about number one.

  9. Just for Now by Imogen Heap? No one?

  10. Julian Casablancas – I Wish It Was Christmas Today

  11. Damn straight, “Fairytale” is the best Christmas song.

  12. I’d add in the Boy least Likely To’s Christmas repertoire. I mean, “Jingle My Bells”? Cheeky. :)

  13. No complaints about no. 1, best Christmas song ever by a country mile. Got to wonder about the lack of Sufjan though.

  14. REUBEN – Christmas is Awesome

  15. No Wham!?

  16. I agree, I’m surprised at the lack of Sufjan, but which one would it be? “That Was The Worst Christmas Ever” is pretty great, but would it make the Top 10?

    More surprised by the lack of MMJ. “Xmas Curtain?” Durrr…..

    • Christmas Unicorn with it’s transition into Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”

    • I like his experimental freakouts. “Do You Hear What I Hear,” “The Child With the Star on His Head” and the previously mentioned “Christmas Unicorn” are all stellar.

    • Props for the MMJ shout-out. Not that it deserves to be on this list, but I’m particularly partial to their version of “Oh Holy Night” when Jim interrupts the song midway through to take his shoes off.

  17. Being from Ireland, as the years go by you get kinda sick of being bombarded with Fairytale of New York from November through to Christmas. No doubt it’s a good song, but still… every day…

  18. Frightened Rabbit-It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop

    Also, where’s Sufjan? [x12]

  19. “Hey Guys! It’s Christmas Time” by Sufjan Stevens should be on that list.

  20. If #1 had been anything other than “Fairy Tale of New York” I would have had to call shenanigans on the whole list. Well done Stereogum.


  22. i know enough has been said about the lack of sufjan, but “christmas in the room” is so incredible even though it’s new

  23. Maybe it’s not indie, but I’ve always been partial to “Father Christmas” by the Kinks.

  24. Any electronica love for Sally Shapiro’s “Anorak Christmas” or Lindstrom’s “Little Drummer Boy” would also be appreciated.

  25. Little known Fugazi inspired Christmas tune

  26. Jonathan Coulton & John Roderick’s ’2600′ (or just about anything from their album ‘One Christmas At A Time’).

  27. Stereogum, you put They Might Be Giants on a “10 Best” list.

    I…I love you. I just do. The words just feel so right to say now.

  28. This is a pretty good list. But I do think that Roman Candle’s “It’s Christmas. Go on and Say Hello” deserves to be here too. But I suppose they’re not prominent enough to make this sort of list. It’s too bad

  29. I refuse to take this list seriously, because of the inclusion of Papyrus font in the last video. Never again, Avatar. Never again.

  30. pretenders – 2000 miles
    erasure – she won’t be home
    weezer – the Christmas song
    raveonettes – the Christmas song

  31. Chris Stamey and the dB’s “Christmas Time”

  32. Got to this a little late I see.

    Christmas in Prison — John Prine

  33. Wait a tic… is this list by Timothy Bracy, as in Mendoza Line Timothy Bracy? I loved your band. Lets be friends.

  34. How’s about this for an indie Christmas song….new for 2013.
    Mulled – A Perfect Christmas

  35. The guy in the picture at the top looks a whole lot like Macklemore

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