Observer readers’ alternative Christmas playlist

We asked readers to share their favourite schmaltz-free festive hidden gems. Here, from Shane MacGowan’s other Christmas classic to goth metallers Type O Negative, we compile the best tips

1. Shane MacGowan: Christmas Lullaby (1996)

Everyone knows and loves his Fairytale of New York with the Pogues, but this melancholic classic slipped under the radar in 1996. It has a bit of sentimentality, such as the line where he accepts that he is a drunk loser but that his son has a future. And being a Shane MacGowan track, it is delivered in his usual droll, half-cut style.
Rob McSporran, Bristol

2. Paul Kelly: How to Make Gravy (1996)

Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly in 2015.
Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly in 2015. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP

I’d never heard this until two or three years ago, but it’s a great Christmas track [in the form of a letter home from a prisoner about his regret at missing the celebrations]. Kind of like watching a movie of a family and its weird dynamics. It has that end-of-the-year vibe of reminiscence, longing, joy and a bit of regret. [Also picked by Melbourne’s David McGuinness: “It has the added bonus that you can make gravy by following the lyrics.”]
Chuck Archambeault, Cincinnati

3. Lead Belly: On a Christmas Day (1944)

Louisiana bluesman Lead Belly.
Louisiana bluesman Lead Belly. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

There’s a slightly rambling, slightly mysterious (who’s the “little boy”?) but utterly charming intro in which a mother tells two young children that Christmas is coming. They go out into a high field to spot it. Disappointed, they go back to the house. “Mama, we don’t see no Christmas,” one of them says, but the mother promises: “Well, it’s comin’!” The intro encapsulates the expectation and excitement of young children in the run-up to the special day. Then the song proper kicks in. It’s a simple but catchy little melody repeated over and over again, with an insistent message: everybody gets happy on a Christmas Day. And by the end of the song, I, for one, am.
Phil Town, Lisbon

4. Kate Bush: December Will Be Magic Again (1980)

Kate Bush pictured in 1980.
Kate Bush pictured in 1980. Photograph: Lichfield/Getty Images

I love this track because it’s not a Christmas song per se; it’s a Kate Bush song that happens to be about Christmas. The usual Christmas pop schmaltz, choir and allegory are eschewed in favour of “classic Bush” high notes, gasps, mystique and beauty. But she still manages to squeeze plenty of jingling bells into the song. Nobody does narrative like Kate Bush. This song immediately transports me to childhood Christmas Eves, waiting for Santa to arrive, and looking forward to seeing the family. Do I sound like an overindulgent wanker? Probably. But if anything deserves overindulgence at Christmas it’s this song.
Neil Campbell, Stirling

5. James Brown: Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto (1968)

James Brown performing on The Jerry Lewis Show in 1969.
James Brown performing on The Jerry Lewis Show in 1969. Photograph: NBC/Getty Images

A beautiful message from the funkiest, baddest… the godfather of soul! What’s not to love? Went to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers in concert about 15 years ago and was surprised to see that the support was the inimitable James Brown. He stole the show.
Huw Edwards, Haverfordwest

6. Lindisfarne: Winter Song (1972)

Lindisfarne in 1974, left to right: Paul Nichols, Kenny Craddock, Alan Hull, Charlie Harcourt, Ray Jackson and Tommy Duffy.
Lindisfarne in 1974, left to right: Paul Nichols, Kenny Craddock, Alan Hull, Charlie Harcourt, Ray Jackson and Tommy Duffy. Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty Images

What a fine surprise to read that you are compiling an alternative Christmas playlist. Other than the short days, sleet and political lobbying, Christmas music is what keeps me well away from the high street. This song was written by Alan Hull, who embodied the social fabric of the north-east. The lyrics paint a Lowrian picture of society, weaving in a bleak grey image of winter. It is the perfect song of what Christmas is not supposed to be… but tragically is.
Jim Bain, Creedmoor, NC, USA

7. Sufjan Stevens: That Was the Worst Christmas Ever! (2006)

Singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens.
Singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens. Photograph: Denny Renshaw

On the surface it seems like a beautiful Christmas tune, but the lyrics tell of a really bad Christmas. I love that paradox. Every year, we (my husband, two daughters and I) choose two songs each we would like to hear while eating our Christmas dinner so that everyone gets a fair say. This song is usually the only one related to Christmas – it will be one of my choices again this year.
Sam Field, Cheltenham

8. Tim Minchin: White Wine in the Sun (2012)

Australian singer-songwriter and screenwriter Tim Minchin.
Australian singer-songwriter and screenwriter Tim Minchin. Photograph: PBJ Management

I will always have a soft spot for this. As well as the humour and the reminder that Christmas is a time to spend with your loved ones, it also brings back memories of the year I went backpacking and spent Christmas 2012 in a hostel in Wellington. I was five months out from seeing my family again, and this song was the first real reminder that actually, I did miss home and my family, and that was OK, and it wouldn’t be too long until I did get to see them. I remember listening to it on repeat in the hostel lobby (the only place we could get decent wifi) and just sobbing and letting it all out.
Laura Cooney, London

9. Los Campesinos!: A Doe to a Deer (2012)

Los Campesinos! pictured in 2013.
Los Campesinos! pictured in 2013. Photograph: Titia Hahne/Redferns

It sounds like trying to recapture childhood Christmas magic in your late 20s, and going back to the small town where you grew up for the holidays. I remember coming home drunk every Christmas Eve and seeing the village I’d not seen since the previous December by streetlight. Gareth, the singer of Los Campesinos!, is from the next town along from where I grew up in Somerset and I could picture exactly the kind of cul-de-sacs he was singing about.
Hamish Rankine, Madrid

10. Big Cynthia: I Got Your Cookies and Milk (2014)

Big Cynthia.
Big Cynthia. Photograph: YouTube

Every Xmas playlist needs a bit of raunch and Big Cynthia delivers. This song has such an infectious energy to it. Santa might have a hard time finishing his rounds if he shows up at Cynthia’s house! Much like Lizzo today, Big Cynthia was a body-positive artist. She was the daughter of Motown star Junior Walker, but chose not to cash in on her last name. Sadly, she died in 2017, aged 47.
Michael Day, Portland, Oregon

11. Tom Waits: Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis (1978)

Tom Waits photographed in London, 1977.
Tom Waits photographed in London, 1977. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

A year of happier, improved times are described to an old friend who shared a darker past, but the truth then slowly unravels into a desperate resignation about the tragic situation. Understated, magical storytelling from the master. Gets me every time.
Richard Hodgkins, Shropshire

12. The Attery Squash : Santa’s Laughter Mocks the Poor (2010)

The Attery Squash.

I am very much on the side of “bah humbug” when it comes to Christmas and the sentiment of this song fits right in. My husband has played this to our kids since it was released. Despite the cynicism of her parents, our daughter loves Christmas and by November has already decorated her room.
Jo Peattie, Durham

13. Half Man, Half Biscuit: It’s Cliched to Be Cynical at Christmas (2000)

Liverpool pranksters Half Man Half Biscuit.
Liverpool pranksters Half Man Half Biscuit. Photograph: Ronnie Randall/Retna

Captures the sound and (lack of) spirit at Christmas. Christmas is an easy thing to whinge about and HMHB address the naysayers. Also, most “alternative” Christmas songs are negative and this is positive, but firmly tongue-in-cheek.
Neil Finegan, Chester

14. Miles Davis: Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern) (1962)

Miles Davis performing in 1962.
Miles Davis performing in 1962. Photograph: Gai Terrell/Redferns

A downbeat tune with Bob Dorough on vocals lambasting the cynicism of Christmas. Davis did the song because Columbia Records requested a tune from each of the artists in its jazz stable so it could issue a jazz Christmas album. Miles’s response: “What the fuck do they want me to play for them, White Christmas?”
Jude Fawley, Irvine, California

15. Simon and Garfunkel: Silent Night/Seven O’Clock News (1966)

Simon and Garfunkel.
Simon and Garfunkel. Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns

Poignant and even profound at the time, but perhaps not much more than a historical curiosity now. I wonder how many of my generation remember it? Can we even imagine a record company issuing such a political piece today?
Alan Moore, Suffolk

16. Bob Dylan: Must Be Santa (2009)

Bob Dylan in the video for Must Be Santa.
Bob Dylan (left, in case you weren’t sure) in the video for Must Be Santa. Photograph: Handout/HANDOUT

Nothing says Christmas chez Plank like Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart album and particularly this track. Dylan’s voice is completely gone and it sounds like a bunch of drunks in a pub. It’s so bad, it’s good. They must have had so much fun recording it.
Harry Plank, Lichfield, Staffordshire

17. Foy Vance: Christmas Has Done Nothing Wrong (2009)

Northern Irish singer-songwriter Foy Vance photographed in Belfast.
Northern Irish singer-songwriter Foy Vance photographed in Belfast. Photograph: Paul McErlane

That rare thing: an anti-Christmas Christmas song, beautifully expressing a nation’s frustration at having to hear the same old songs year in, year out. Funny and yet also strangely poignant.
Julian Dodds, Belfast

18. Marching Church: Christmas on Earth (2017)

Marching Church, AKA Elias Bender Rønnenfelt of Iceage.
Marching Church, AKA Elias Bender Rønnenfelt of Iceage. Photograph: Paul James Acerno

This track – from the side project of Iceage’s frontman, Elias Bender Rønnenfelt – is about losing custody of one’s children and then abducting them on Christmas Eve, all set to magnificent horns and first-grade, left-field crooning. An absolute gem.
Joel Andersson, Tyfta, Sweden

19. Vince Guaraldi Trio : Christmas Time Is Here (1965)

The children’s choir on this track from A Charlie Brown Christmas [the soundtrack to a never-aired Peanuts TV special] has all the right qualities for the tail end of Christmas Day: sentimental, a bit mournful, nostalgic, and with oddly furry percussion that makes you wonder if it’s your speakers or your eardrums that have blown up.
DJs Clarker & Legwax, Leigh-on-Sea

20. The Knife: Reindeer (2001)

Olof and Karin Dreijer of The Knife.
Olof and Karin Dreijer of The Knife. Photograph: PR Handout/Elin Berge

Over haunting, melodic, synth-led instrumentation, this tells of the reindeers’ lot in transporting Santa. Just right for a snowy Christmas night.
Kelvyn Gardner, Wicken, Northamptonshire

21. Yellowman: African Christmas (1998)

Yellowman performing in 1983.
Yellowman performing in 1983. Photograph: Rafael Macia/Redferns

A reggae reminder that Christmas is celebrated all across the world and a call for peace among nations. The song also lists 10 different African countries, which will come in useful for your annual Christmas game of Trivial Pursuit.
Pete Southwood, Sheffield

22. Telekinesis: Christmas Time Is Here (Uh-Oh) (2019)

Ben Lerner, AKA Telekinesis, and friend.
Ben Lerner, AKA Telekinesis, and friend. Photograph: Merge Records

I run a Christmas music blog, Christmas a Go-Go!, and I can report that there is a lot of good new Christmas music this year. One of the best is this track by Seattle indie rocker Telekinesis. It’s a very catchy tune with a Cheap Trick vibe that makes you want to dance around dressed only in big red velvet underpants.
Guuz Hoogaerts, Amsterdam

23. The Fall: Hark the Herald Angels Sing (1994)

The Fall’s Mark E Smith pictured in 2001.
The Fall’s Mark E Smith pictured in 2001. Photograph: Lex van Rossen/MAI/Redferns

My kids’ favourite. We enjoy snarling it loudly every year while making Christmas cake. In fact my youngest got into trouble at school once for singing it exactly in the manner of Mark E Smith.
Annie Robinson, Edinburgh

24. Emmy the Great and Tim Wheeler: (Don’t Call Me) Mrs Christmas (2011)

Emmy the Great And Tim Wheeler.
Emmy the Great And Tim Wheeler. Photograph: Press Picture

Santa’s wife sings that she’s tired of being abandoned on Christmas Eve. Sad. Sassy. Beautiful.
Scott Court, Bath

25. Type O Negative: Red Water (Christmas Mourning) (1996)

Type O Negative photographed in 1999.
Type O Negative photographed in 1999. Photograph: Jim Steinfeldt/Getty Images

An utterly beautiful song in the towering goth metal vein with a vaguely Christmassy feel, reminding everyone of the pointlessness of existence and the futility of hope. Merry Christmas everyone!
Steve Cuddihey, Thompson, Norfolk


Listen to the playlist on Spotify

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