I love Christmas.
It’s the only time of year when the whole world changes and society becomes consumed with its own traditions. The movies, the food, the music, the lights, everything shifts towards warmth. I’m already a nostalgic person, but December is the only time of the year where it’s socially acceptable to become lost in tradition.
It’s the darkest, coldest, most forgiving time of the year. The only way we can survive it is by literally coming together to use each other for heat and support. In a way, these traditions are just a way for us to make this time of the year less painful. To distract ourselves from the horrifying coldness of reality. Maybe that’s why these traditions seem so extra special and warm, just by sheer context and juxtaposition of what they’re surrounded by.
As per usual, music lies at the center of nostalgia for me. For many people, Christmas music is something to be endured. Songs they’ve heard hundreds (or thousands) of times before. They evoke flashes of clogged department stores, congested supermarkets, and uncomfortable get-togethers of yesteryear. I get that, but I think there’s also beauty in these songs, especially if you’re willing to dig deeper than the usual Christmas standards.
10) Julian Casablancas “I Wish it was Christmas Today”
Any time an SNL original get adapted by one of the seminal indie rockers of the 2000’s you know you’re in for a treat. As chronicled here by the AV Club, “I Wish it was Christmas Today” originated as a child-like Casio-laden goof about which, while inexplicable at first, quickly became an SNL tradition. Initially met with polite giggles, the crowd rapidly descends into joyous belly laughter at the sheer absurdity of four grown men this excited about Santa. The child-like lyrics, the unadulterated joy, the sloppiness are all the things that make SNL an institution. Covered in 2009 by The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, this version begins with a singular shaking bell which quickly becomes drowned out by a maniacal drum roll and thundering guitar. Eventually, Casablancas makes his way to the forefront of the track retaining the same child-like lyrics from the original song. The swagger that Casablancas brings transforms the track into a post-modern, post-ironic, Christmas classic.
9 - LCD Soundsystem “Christmas Will Break Your Heart”
Following a monumental final album and indefinite hiatus, LCD Soundsystem announced their return in 2015 in the weirdest way possible: with a Christmas original. Released on Christmas Eve, “Christmas Will Break Your Heart” served as the band’s first single in five years and a proclamation to indieheads everywhere that LCD was back. The song itself serves as a cautionary tale of the many dark pitfalls of Christmas, detailing the various ways that the season will abuse you, beat you down, and drain you of life. It’s a depressing Christmas song tinged with happiness as James Murphy explains that despite the laundry list of horrible ways Christmas will wreck you, he’s “still coming home.” And that’s what the holidays are all about.
8 - Vulfpeck “Christmas In LA”
Funk band Vulfpeck is known for a lot of things. When they’re not releasing silent albums, conceptual Kickstarter campaigns, or composing some of the catchiest tunes of the past decade, they also release some worryingly funky songs. Initially released as an instrumental track on their breakthrough EP Fugue State, the song “Christmas in LA” felt like a weird outlier. While the track did evoke a certain Peanuts-esque of sense chilliness, there was nothing overtly Christmassy about it. I suppose it’s true to its name, “Christmas in LA” might feel like something, but it’s definitely a far cry from a White Christmas. The track was later revisited on the band’s first full-length album Thrill of the Arts now fleshed-out with jingle bells, and a Michael-Jackson impersonating David T. Walker on vocals. With that revision, the song became a fully-realized Christmas track worthy of all the strutting, swagger, and snarling lips you could humanly muster.
7 - August Burns Red “Carol of the Bells”
On its own, separate from Christmas “Carol of the Bells” is an incredible song. With ominous monk-like chants, ceaseless momentum, and of course, the titular bells. While the song has been covered by everyone from Trans-Siberian Orchestra to the cast of NBC’s Community, I believe the definitive edition was released by metalcore act August Burns Red as a bonus track on the genre’s seminal Messengers. Featuring wickedly-fuzzed out guitars, tight blast beats, and more bass drum than you can shake a crime stick at, this rendition is not for the faint of heart. Later re-recorded for the band’s Christmas album Sleddin’ Hill, “Carol of the Bells” still stands tall as one of the best songs on the album, and the band’s catalog.
6 - Burl Ives “Silver and Gold”
For the sake of following up the thrashy metal of August Burns Red with something more relaxing, this Rudolph the Reindeer standard is an absolute classic. The rich voice of Burl Ives is accompanied by a lightly-strummed guitar and swirling instrumentation as he sings very literally about the concept of silver and gold. Silver and gold on their own are great, but put those on a Christmas tree and they instantly become more meaningful. See also the cover by Sufjan Stevens horrifyingly titled “Justice Delivers Its Death.”
5 - Mariah Carey “All I want for Christmas is You”
Sexy outfits aside, Mariah Carey has cemented herself as a pop icon by single-handedly adding a modern track to the Christmas lexicon. Beginning with a solitary music box, Carey soon enters with sultry vocals and several irresponsibly-vocalized notes. At 50 seconds the piano kicks into Billy-Joel-mode and the song becomes a rocketship of energy, jubilance, and holiday spirit.
4 - Trans Siberian Orchestra “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo”
I’m technically doubling up, but TSO’s medley of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and “Carol of the Bells” is epic enough to warrant its own spot on this list. This shred-heavy rendition of two Christmas classics is enough to turn atheists into believers… Or the exact opposite. It’s living proof that Christmas doesn’t need to be safe, clean, or overly-religious. Sometimes it’s a wailing guitar and modern interpretations of classics.
3 - Sufjan Stevens - “Christmas Unicorn”
Sufjan Stevens is a Christmas maniac. Between 2001 and 2011 he released 10 EPs of Christmas music, later collected in two box sets, the EPs span 100 tracks and dozens of different genres and sounds. In addition to the 6 vinyl records, his second Christmas collection included stickers, temporary tattoos, cut-out ornaments, and a lengthy write-up of the artist’s thoughts on the holiday. The releases contain almost as many original tracks as covers of Christmas standards. At the tail end of the tenth EP, the last song of 100, lies a Sufjan original called “Christmas Unicorn”- a world-spanning 12-minute epic of electronic bloops, guitar vibrations, and cathartic lyrics.
The song begins similarly to “Christmas Will Break Your Heart” with a biting list of modern day Holiday gripes. Sung from the perspective of the “Christmas Unicorn” whose identifying features are a wrist adorned with a credit card and being “hysterically American.” After self-describing himself as a “symbol of original sin” Sufjan goes on to address the listener directly:
“For you’re a Christmas unicorn / I have seen you on the beat / You may dress in the human uniform, child / But I know you’re just like me
Those lines are followed up with a sprawling instrumental and a beautiful build. He then goes on to clarify “I’m the Christmas Unicorn, you’re the Christmas Unicorn too” and repeats that phrase as the music builds into a cathartic release that crescendos with a cry of “It’s all right, I love you!”
2 - Tchaikovsky “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy”
You may or may not be shocked by this, but I’ve never been a “ballet guy.” That said, the soundtrack of the Nutcracker Ballet has always been something that stuck with me. Since I don’t have the vocabulary to properly break down ballet or classical pieces, I’ll simply state my love for this song in an ironic way to cover up my own ignorance: “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” is FUCKING LIT.
There’s something dark and sinister about this song that’s appealed to me ever since I was a child. I don’t know how the song fits into the context of the play, but I can only imagine something horrifically dark and life-altering is happening as this song plays. It evokes the darkness of the holiday and something deadly lurking just out of sight.
1 - Band Aid “Do they know it’s Christmas”
“Do they know it’s Christmas” premiered in 1984 featuring everyone from U2’s Bono to Wham!’s George Michael… okay maybe that isn’t a vast range, but it’s more about what this song represents. The coordination of artists alone is impressive. The fact that dozens of singers have (repeatedly) signed off on this charitable effort is a beautiful notion. While it’s been covered by everyone from The Barenaked Ladies to the entire LA comedy scene, the track original song has remained the best and cemented itself as a wholesome holiday classic.
Star-studded nature of this song aside, “Do they know it’s Christmas” features some of the most iconic, beautiful, and oddly haunting lines of any Christmas song. Reminding ourselves of how well we have it, and to help out those in need is what this season is really about. The holidays are fun, but there’s still a world out there. Band Aid symbolizes a concerted effort to come together, set egos aside and give back. It’s the ultimate symbol of goodwill and the holiday season wrapped in one of the most poetic and gorgeously-written songs of the past several decades.