Christmas music has been revived well beyond its white-bread roots through reinvention. In the mid-’60s, Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You and the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas made an old story sound new and are to this day justly celebrated as modern classics.
But there’s a subgenre that hasn’t gotten its proper due—the alternative Christmas canon, written in the last forty-odd years and performed by some of the least Bing Crosby-like folks you can imagine. But with the rise of Generation X to something resembling respectability, they have become classics in their own right. And so here’s a list of some of our favorites to deepen the seasonal playlist.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono — “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”
This might be considered patient zero. The original hipster, who put the Beat in the Beatles, was by 1971 occupying luxury hotel bedrooms with his bride and making promiscuous pleas for peace against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. This tune was written at the St. Regis and recorded with the Harlem Community Choir during Ono’s initial embrace of New York. Somehow the shimmering guitars and sticky melody of this tune (borrowed from “Skewball,” an old English ballad) have resonated beyond protest movements of the time to become a genuine hippie Christmas classic whose punch is only slightly pulled by its ubiquity on coastal shopping-mall loudspeakers.
Tom Waits — “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis”
Early-period Tom Waits almost always performed this song live as a medley with “Silent Night,” but this is no angelic Christmas carol. Over a jazzy, laconic piano melody, Waits narrates a letter from a prostitute to a man named Charlie. While wistful about their past fling, she reveals that she’s now clean, pregnant, and married to an ambitious, doting husband. Oh, and also, none of it’s true—she just needs to borrow some cash, and she’ll get out of jail on Valentine’s Day. You can just imagine Waits staring at you, letting out a bourbon-soaked, wheezy laugh the moment you realize you’ve been had.
Big Star — “Jesus Christ”
Aching earnestness was always Big Star’s jam and the song “Jesus Christ” off their brilliant ramshackle album Third/Sister Lovers seems almost without the irony so many hipsters cling to, with its talk of “angels from the realms of glory” and its simple heartfelt chorus “Jesus Christ was born today.” The only wink and nod comes when a sax solo is introduced by saying, “Let’s get born.” The band makes a joyful noise, providing an unapologetic bright spot on an album otherwise featuring a cover of the Velvets’ “Femme Fatale” and cheery seasonal fare like “Holocaust.”
The Kinks — “Father Christmas”
This is the O.G. punk Christmas song from the original punks. There’s a reason you don’t hear this 1977 song while shopping for the holidays: It’s excruciatingly bleak. The lyrics tell the story of a mall Santa getting mugged by a group of young kids demanding money instead of toys. One child asks for a job for his father, or, if that’s not possible, a machine gun to “scare all the kids down the street.” It’s a sardonic tale with tinges of class warfare—perfect for the soundtrack to your wholesome holiday gathering.
Steve Earle — “Christmas in Washington”
This song opens with a backroom political Christmas come alive, with a vision of Democrats celebrating an election-year win while Republicans take comfort from whiskey and the knowledge that “he cannot seek another term, there will be no more FDRs.” But it’s really a song about the persistence of hope from Earle’s progressive alt-country vision, trying to coax old generous ghosts from long slumbering graves, from Woody Guthrie to Joe Hill to Martin Luther King. Recorded in 1997 for the album El Corazón, there is defiance behind the sepia-toned litany and you can almost feel the snowflakes falling on the departed.
Bob Dylan — “Must Be Santa”
Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart was a rarity of sorts: It was a bad album, which is unusual for the legendary bard; but it also showcased the stone-cold singer’s bizarre sense of humor. Prime example: the album’s lone single, “Must Be Santa,” was recorded polka-style and its music video set the call-and-response Christmas classic to Dylan parading around a house party in PJs, donning a long-haired wig, a Santa cap, and smoking a cigar. Definitely the strangest thing Dylan’s done since that Victoria’s Secret commercial.
The Pogues — “Fairytale of New York”
But the heavyweight champion of the alternative Christmas canon is “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues, a masterpiece of balancing the season’s sentiment with raw unsentimentally. The epic opening piano chords are undercut by a drunk couple’s crass dialogue, captured by Shane McGowan and the late Kirsty MacColl with a repartee more real than anything Ella and Louis ever achieved. It is dark; it is hopeful; it is soaring. The video is a black-and-white classic, directed by the recently departed Peter Dougherty, with cameos by Matt Dillon as a cop and an NYPD pipe and drum band playing beneath the Washington Square Arch. No wonder Bill Murray added it as the capstone to his catalogue of Christmas tunes in this winter’s A Very Murray Christmas, in a climactic moment when he passes out cold and ends his interminable night at the Carlisle Hotel.