If you’re exhausted from that radio station on your presets that flipped to all-Christmas the day before Thanksgiving and has been playing nothing but Mariah, Wham!, Brenda and Burl ever since, here’s a tonic: 40 great holiday songs you probably haven’t heard. If you know even a quarter of these recordings, count yourself a true connoisseur of the carol, but even that should still leave some discovery that could offer the turbo boost you need on Christmas Eve.
And nothing against Brenda Lee (pictured above) — we’ve got her covered here, just taking one step back from rocking around that tree. Meanwhile, here’s to spreading the holiday love and giving Joni Mitchell, John Prine, Aly & AJ, George & Tammy, Sharon Jones, the Killers, Louis Prima, Aimee Mann and others their own due as queens and kings of Christmas for a day.
- “(Happiness Is the Best) Face Lift,” Joni Mitchell
“River,” you may be surprised to find out, is just one of two great Joni Mitchell songs that happen to have Christmas as their setting. In this outstanding 1998 number, Mitchell makes a wry, tender, epic narrative out of an unmarried middle-aged couple coming home for the holidays and “shacking up” in defiance of the narrator’s disapproving mother, whom the singer begs to just try on a smile for Christmas.
2. “Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus,” George Jones and Tammy Wynette
This duet is prioritized especially in honor of the currently running “George & Tammy” limited series, but a song celebrating the joy of being mum and dad on Christmas morning is good for any year, even when the real-life singers had a tough time staying mister and missus.
3. “Not This Year,” Aly & AJ
A million pop-punk Christmas recordings have come and gone, most drowning in their own self-conscious ironic juxtaposition of season and snottiness. But when it comes to feeling bad at Christmas, Aly & AJ mean it, man. The odd but satisfying chord changes make this a holiday rollercoaster musically as well as emotionally, providing a sort of thrill even as the duo drearily register that “it’s not snow, it’s rain coming down.”
4. “Winter Wonderland,” Chet Baker
That traditional melody sounds like it was born to be a trumpet riff, not reverse-engineered that way by one of jazz’s greatest.
5. “Sleigh Ride,” TLC
This TLC track (a) has a music video and (b) has a music video with more than a million views, so maybe it’s more of a stretch to put this on a list of Christmas obscurities than it is with any of the other material here. But their very, very updated take on a holiday perennial still seems to have been unfairly forgotten.
6. “Jing a Ling, Jing a Ling,” the Andrews Sisters
This is a “Christmas song” in the same way that “Jingle Bells” is a Christmas song — it’s not, really, just a winter song that it feels kind of wrong to listen to after December. But while we’re on the subject of “Jingle Bells” — is it possible that “Jing a Ling, Jing a Ling” is actually a better song? And that the only reason it’s never been popularized as such is because it’s so rapid-fire it’s literally impossible to sing along to if you are not a member of the Andrews family? What a thrilling tune — it’ll actually make you feel like you’re careening through a forest in a one-horse open sleigh hoping the ring you’re about to spring on your beloved doesn’t go tumbling into the snow.
7. “Baggage Claim,” Smash Mouth
Is it possible we underrated Smash Mouth all these years? You’d sure think so from this superior example of a modern Christmas rock song. How is that no one else ever thought to base a song on the joy of greeting a family member at the carousel? This one may have special meaning in 2022 for anyone whose journey home on a series of flights was especially hard-fought.
8. “Christmas Time,” the Chris Stamey Group
A sweet-rocking celebration of being back with the family for the holidays, even as the singer also laments that “it gets (him) down” that his lover is “far away in (her) hometown” for the big day.
9. John Prine, “Everything Is Cool”
A song about being in one of the very last stages of grieving a breakup, finding it “surprising” to feel that “everything is cool,” even though it’s been just over a year since the object of his affections took off. He may be trying a little too hard to convince himself that it’s all right, but we all get through how we can. Meanwhile, it is still definitely not cool that Prine has gone away.
10. “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects,” Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
Speaking of performers whom we’re not cool about their being gone, there’s the great Sharon Jones, who left behind one hell of a hard-grooving Christmas album. This song offers some comfort and joy to children’s concerns about what exactly Santa is supposed to slide down in the lack of fireplaces, and serves as a nice companion piece to James Brown’s “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto.”
11. “Santa Will Find You,” Mindy Smith
Much like the Sharon Jones song, this one, written more directly for actual kids, assuages any doubts that Santa lacks a tracking device that will help him find tots when they’ve traveled for Christmas. I know it made me feel better, anyway. Songwriter Chely Wright also has her own fine version of this modern children’s standard-in-waiting.
12. “Joseph, Better You Than Me,” the Killers featuring Elton John and Neil Tennant
Billboard recently published an article about how religious Christmas songs are dramatically falling out of favor in consumption. Rarer still than contemporary artists covering spiritual classics is modern songwriters trying to put their own spin on the nativity story. So kudos to Brandon Flowers for trying to find a novel way in with this 2008 number. Lyrical content aside, it’s a warming feeling to hear Sir Elton’s voice unexpectedly coming in on something that is not an oldies mashup.
13. “For Christ’s Sake, Pick up the Phone!,” Jaymay
There are Dickens’ ghosts of Christmases past, present and future… and then there is just the annoying sensation of having been ghosted for Christmas. Jaymay, who made a terrific album of Christmas originals a few years back, is here to convey that mixture of heartache and sheer aggravation that only those who’ve been ditched just in time for the holidays know.
14. “One of You in Every Size,” Marty Robbins
One of classic country’s great voices has a very specific — nay, obsessive — Amazon wish list.
15. “Jingle Bells Pt. 1,” the Rev. T.L. Barrett & the Youth for Christ Choir
Black gospel choirs don’t usually cross over to the secular side with their Christmas or any other fare, but this rousing ensemble finds something holy — ecstatic, even — in the promise of a one-horse open sleigh.
16. “On Grafton Street,” Nanci Griffith
Christmas is the time to think about lovers you haven’t seen in years, maybe decades, and no one conveys the sudden onset of bittersweet romantic holiday memories more wistfully or better than Griffith in this small masterpiece of a song.
17. “Reindeer Rock,” the Sportsmen
As vintage rockabilly goes, the Sportsmen are as clean and smooth as it gets. But when they follow a suspenseful mid-song buildup with a sudden explosion of “rock rock rock rock!,” for a moment it feels like the wholesome high school hop could explode into a Christmas mosh pit.
18. “The Merriest,” June Christy
Break out a martini and prepare to toast before you set the needle down on one of the most suave Christmas rhyme schemes ever: “Thoughts for the musers / A cheer for the winners / Breaks for the losers / To the beats and the debonariest / Greetings like the Merriest.”
19. “Here Comes Santa Claus,” the Ramsey Lewis Trio
It’s hard to imagine anything Gene Autry ever wrote could be made to swing as hard as “Here Comes Santa Claus” does with the jazz master Lewis at the piano, veritably hopping and skipping down Santa Claus Lane with lightness and swagger in his step.
20. “Kings of Orient,” the Odds
Many attempts have been made to transform Christmas hymns into rock ‘n’ roll songs, very few successfully. But this Canadian band pulled it off, with an edge to the guitar that suggests what it might sound like if fellow Canuck Neil Young ever cut something from the hymnal. It helps that “westward leading, still proceeding” is a combination of rhyme scheme and chord change that’s still tops in the traditional caroling hit parade.
21. “Give Me a Second Chance for Christmas,” Mike Viola
Regrets? We’ve had a few, and not even too few to mention, and the holidays can tend to be a time to start cataloguing mistakes as we stake stock of a year or a lifetime. The great, undersung L.A. rocker Mike Viola believes that Christmas would be an appropriate time to rectify what’s gone wrong. What missy of a grinch could resist his pleading?
22. “Rock N’ Roll Santa Claus,” Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns
This too-obscure late-’50s rhythm & blues/early-rock group lets us know that Santa has moved his base of operations away from the North Pole because “people up there don’t rock ‘n’ roll.” Listening to the Clowns groove, you can hardly blame him, even if millions of gift-starved children had to be disappointed during the relocation.
23. “Nut Rocker,” B. Bumble & the Stingers
The main theme of “The Nutcracker” has been subject to some charming instrumental reinterpretations over the years, all the way into the EDM age, but it’s hard to beat this irreverent, rocking, piano-based take. Emerson Lake & Palmer did a cover of this arrangement decades later that’s also worth seeking out.
24. “The Lights and Buzz,” Jack’s Mannequin
“I’m coming home from my hardest year,” sang Andrew McMahon at the beginning of this bittersweet mid-tempo rock song, and he wasn’t exaggerating — he was recovering from cancer at the time. Even if your hard year didn’t involve a near-brush with death and you just had a moderately soul-shaking year, you may be able to relate.
25. “Twinkle (Little Christmas Lights),” JD McPherson
McPherson’s “Socks” album may be the most charming album of all-original Christmas songs to come along in recent years. Before he completed that, he teased it with this one-off single that neatly recaptured the vintage era of rockabilly/R&B Christmas classics.
26. “Believe in Me,” Fun.
What do we all have in common with Santa? The need to be believed in, as per this contribution from the late band Fun. that lives up to their name, with an underpinning of actual neediness lurking under this lark of a tune.
27. “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus,” Brenda Lee
There’s no shortage of the OG Queen of Christmas, Brenda Lee, on the radio this time of year. But “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus” is a distant third on the list — backed up into near-obscurity — behind “Rockin’ Around…” and even “Papa Noel.” Recorded back when she was still “Little” Brenda Lee, this track is a sort of precursor to the Kinks’ “Father Christmas,” as if sung by one of the young punks in that song, demanding to know of Santa where his concern for the poor and disenfranchised is. Of course it’s a distinctly C&W take on that theme, with Don Helms, who played in Hank Williams’ band, providing the memorable steel guitar riff.
28. “Christmas in California,” the Living Sisters
The all-star quartet (stars in our minds, anyway) of Alex Lilly, Inara George, Becky Stark and Eleni Mandell joined forces in 2014 for a terrific Christmas/Hanukkah album, “Harmony Is Real,” that had any number of contenders for this list. For anyone living in the Southwest, though, the obvious pick would be “Christmas in California,” which pays homage to the Beach Boys with its harmonies while finding real wit in the incongruity of an 80-degree holiday season.
29. “Nothing Left to Do (Let’s Make This Christmas Blue),” the Both
As Darlene Love once sang, nobody ought to be alone at Christmas, but many are. Aimee Mann and Ted Leo, teaming up as the Both, provide an anthem for those sticking it out by their lonesomes during the holidays, when “The fire inside is warm and dry / A tree is up, the lights are hung again / And no one else is coming by… / I’m doing fine, but at Christmas time / I don’t know what I’m supposed to do / With all the gifts that I’ll never give to you.” It takes a village, or actually, a duo, to make Christmas sound this palpably solitary.
30. “Christmas Child,” Rotary Connection
The Rotary Connection’s 1968 Christmas album casts just enough of a weird and wonderful spell that you may not want to break it by looking them up. When you do, you’ll find there’s a lot more wonderfulness where this came from — and that having had future solo star Minnie Riperton in the group is part of its legacy. The ensemble is serious enough about Christmas’ origin story to rhyme “born” with “hated, rebuked and scorned,” but don’t let that sober lyric scare you off from the woolly fun of this wildly orchestrated and self-consciously groovy track.
31. “Merry Christmas Emily,” Cracker
Christmas gets very rough around the edges — and in its core, too, really — in this rock-and-remembrance track. It could hardly be more specific in its downbeat lyrics: “Emily from a good family / They fucked your head / And sent you to me.” But at the same time, it gets general enough to become an anthem for a lonesome generation: “‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is playing on the TV / I still think about you / Do you think about me?” That’s a recurring question, of course, in many of these tracks.
32. “Senor Santa Claus,” Louis Prima
It may or may not count as cultural appropriation as Prima goes Latin for the holidays, but man, do the drums on this track swing. Hard to find, but you won’t get it out of your head once you’ve discovered it, and you won’t want to.
33. “Darlin’ (Christmas Is Coming),” Over the Rhine
“It’s been a long year / Every new day brings one more tear / Till there’s nothing left to cry,” sing the Ohio-based husband-and-wife duo, but this is not “Merry Christmas Emily”-style bummer — it’s ultimately as uplifting as any song on this list. The theme of “hard times, come again no more” never had sweeter Christmas proponents.
34. “It’s Christmas Time, Ebenezer,” the Len Price 3
Surprisingly few Christmas songs have been written based on Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” What were the odds that an extremely rare example would turn out to be such a furious rocker? Steven Van Zandt did a very good holiday deed when he included this otherwise likely-to-go-unheard winner on his “Little Steven’s Underground Garage Presents Christmas-a-Go-Go” compilation in the 2000s.
35. “I Don’t Intend to Spend Christmas Without You,” Margo Guryan
Some singers take being dumped right before the holidays lying down, and others react with a steely determination to reconnect. In this latter category is Guryan, whose ’60s tune is an undiscovered classic of mid-century cool. Guryan wrote it at the behest of producer Tommy LiPuma, who’d asked for a tune that would leave out all the tropes of holiday songs other than the mention of Christmas itself. It was originally recorded and released in 1967 by Claudine Longet, who just didn’t have the voice to pull it off. Guryan’s superior demo version finally saw release in 2001, with, besides chops to match the tune, maybe just a bit more sense that, underneath the sweet-sounding cooing, she’ll really be bringing the boy back into the fold by any means necessary. A lyric video was just released this year.
36. “(Meet Me) Under the Mistletoe,” Dick Robertson and His Orchestra
It’s 1941. The world is at war. Just one peck?
37. “May Ev’ry Day Be Christmas,” Irma Thomas and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band
Like Roy Wood, Thomas wishes it could be Christmas every day. Only amid the 365-day magic of New Orleans does that seem like a dream that could come true. But it’s a nice, soulful wish for the rest of humankind.
38. “The Little Drummer Boy,” the Soulful Strings
Two things that aren’t normally associated with the word “soulful”: 1. Mostly-string ensembles. 2. The song “Little Drummer Boy.” But as clunky as most versions of that chestnuts tend to be, take away the lyrics and there’ve been a surprising amount of decent jazz or R&B covers over the years. Speaking of anomalies, this one is highlighted by a real rarity in the holiday music canon: a soulful flautist.
39. “Funky Funky Christmas,” Electric Jungle
Not many holiday songs have regular pauses where a basso profondo voice breaks in to recite what exactly he intends to eat on Christmas day. This one does and is all the funkier for it.
40. “I Was Born on Christmas Day,” Saint Etienne
You don’t have to have an actual Christmas birthday — likeSaint Etienne band member and co-writer Bob Stanley does — to get down to this staple of 1990s European dance-rock. It’s about liberation, and the sudden feeling that “in December, my heart’s full of spring.” In that sense, happy birthday to us all, and God bless us, every one.