Published Dec. 18, 2012 on USA TODAY College.
I don’t want a lot for Christmas, there is just one thing I need…
And it is to never hear All I Want for Christmas Is You ever, ever again.
That may be dreaming big, considering it is hard to avoid the song short of never stepping out in public, but from the shelter of your own headphones you can be festive without hearing Christmas songs that turn you into a Grinch.
I present to you an incomplete guide to holiday tunes that you’re not as likely to hear over the Macy’s soundsystem. At the bottom of the page lies a Spotify playlist with these jingle jams and more, as my gift to you.
• Sufjan Stevens – Silver & Gold and Songs for Christmas
There is no bigger fan of Christmas in the music industry than Sufjan Stevens. Proof: He’s released two five-volume Christmas box sets, Songs for Christmas in 2006 and Silver & Gold this past November.
Stevens’ ode-to-Santa marathon features covers of the classics, fresh takes on the most traditional carols and hymns and his own wacky original songs, such as Come on! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance! and Christmas Unicorn. (Also wacky, this series of infomercials he created to “promote” Silver & Gold.) Through all the songs, Stevens remains true to his experimental folk ways, continuing to play with electronic sounds on Silver & Gold as he first did on his 2010 critically acclaimed solo album The Age of Adz.
And that recent 58-track, almost three-hour long Christmas extravaganza didn’t tire Sufjan Stevens out; he collaborated with rappers Heems, Kitty Pryde, Busdriver and others on a mixtape of Silver & Gold wordplayfully entitled Chopped & Scrooged.
• The O.C. Mix 3: Have A Very Merry Chrismukkah
Like many of my peers, The O.C. introduced me to so much new music in my impressionable middle school years via Death Cab for Cutie obsessive Seth Cohen. (I still have almost all the compilations on CD.) The Chrismukkah episodes are objectively the best ones of the early 2000s teen soap opera, so naturally the holiday compilation is equally great. Ron Sexsmith’s Maybe This Christmas still makes me want to run around with Ryan and Marissa in that ritzy Orange County mall, and indie vets Low shine bright on Just Like Christmas. (I’ll highlight Jimmy Eat World’s Last Christmas WHAM! cover later as it deserves its own section.)
• Holidays Rule compilation
Just before Halloween, Starbucks’ label Hear Music and Concord Music Group released a 17-song holiday compilation boasting an eclectic mix of artists. The standout track is the Sharon Van Etten and Rufus Wainwright duet Baby, It’s Cold Outside, so much so that I have to feature it here:
The always-great Eleanor Friedberger performs a jazzy Santa, Bring My Baby Back (To Me) and The Shins’ James Mercer’s airy voice well suits the band’s cover of Wonderful Christmastime.
• She & Him – A Very She & Him Christmas
Zooey Deschanel’s sweet croon and M. Ward’s smooth blues guitar complement each other and — surprisingly — Christmas music very well, especially and appropriately on the song made famous by Elvis, Blue Christmas. The duo’s take on The Christmas Song also holds up with M. Ward’s smooth guitar pickings oozing through the song under Deschanel’s hushed warm vocals. Fortunately, this Christmas album successfully avoids the too-cutesy territory that plagues She & Him’s original material.
• Fiona Apple – Frosty the Snowman
Possibly the best Christmas cover ever (read: My favorite Christmas cover ever), Fiona Apple’s bluesy voice, accompanied by only an acoustic guitar, beautifully tells the story of that magical, pipe-toting snowman. Apple’s vocal stylings, flowing from sweet and soprano to staccato and shouting to soft and soulful, bring real, wonderful life to a silly song about a sprung-to-life snowman and his magic hat.
• The Format – Holly Jolly Christmas
Nate Ruess’ latest band, fun., is featured on the Holidays Rule compilation, but before the days of uncapitalized good times, Ruess fronted The Format with Sam Means and, boy, were they a great act. Ruess’ powerful boyish vocals perfectly suit the classic by Burl Ives, and Means’ multi-instrumental talents provide the most jolly music.
• Jimmy Eat World – Last Christmas
Yes, WHAM! is a little cheesy, but that is why we love them. Alt-emo rockers Jimmy Eat World somehow manage to embrace the cheese and avoid being tacky. Maybe it’s because they’ve never tried to take themselves too seriously. (Something that likely makes London minimalist electro act The xx’s new take on the song fall flat.) Dancey and heartfelt, Jimmy Eat World lays their feelings on the line in this Christmas love song — though it would be crazy to expect anything less from these emo pros.
• The Polyphonic Spree – Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
Covering a John Lennon song is an ambitious undertaking, but I suppose when your band has 20+ members, it is not as daunting a task. The Polyphonic Spree’s characteristic purely joyful symphonic-pop and massive ensemble is a perfect match for the children’s chorus supporting in Lennon’s original. The group’s layered instrumentals, highlighting brass and percussion, and inherent euphoric feeling adds an air of whimsy to the track unmatched by other attempted Lennon-coverers.
Which holiday tunes would you add to this mix?