10 of the best Christmas songs (that aren’t by Mariah Carey)

The classics are back in the charts even earlier than usual – alongside the perennial row about the Pogues. So why not discover these lesser-known festive bangers?

Judging by the number of trees and lights going up already, the UK is rounding off the worst year ever by turning Christmas 2020 into a six-week celebration of successful vaccine trials. Sure enough, sales and streams of festive songs are up by 50% compared with the same week last year, with Mariah Carey leading the charge and likely to go Top 40 tomorrow. But to avoid being thoroughly sick of All I Want for Christmas Is You before you have even opened an Advent calendar, consider adding these lesser-known tracks to your playlists.

Luther Vandross – The Mistletoe Jam (Everybody Kiss Somebody)

Listen to the track.

Vandross powerfully emanates the warmth and earnestness of Christmas – he is the perfect accompaniment to a four-Baileys high with the heating on full. His 1995 album This Is Christmas features a beautiful take on Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – it vies with the Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra takes for the title of definitive version – plus excellent originals, such as the piano ballad With a Christmas Heart and The Mistletoe Jam, a frisky funk number with the come-on: “Glad you got big legs / ’Cause they’re so good when we’re romancing.”

Britney Spears – My Only Wish (This Year)

Listen to the track.

What with the sheer volume of classics from the glam rock era and before, it is tough to make a new Christmas song break through, but this effort from Spears has doggedly made its way into the canon. In it, she pleads with Santa for a boyfriend; that heartbreaking minor chord change in the chorus will surely convince him to deliver a hunk down the chimney.

Kelly Clarkson – Underneath the Tree

Listen to the track.

The X Factor enforced a brutal secularisation in the Christmas charts, its almost unshakeable grip on the Christmas No 1 between 2005 and 2015 preventing wonderfully festive songs such as this from getting the attention they deserved. Thankfully, Clarkson’s 2013 song is becoming a perennial. It bounces like a five-year-old on their parents bed at 5am on Christmas morning – if you attempt to play the sleigh bells along with it, you will need a protein shake to help your triceps recover.

John Fahey – Christ’s Saints of God Fantasy

Listen to the track.

If you are the sort of person who likes Christmas, but not in a 2,000-calories-before-11am-then-a-fight-about-immigration-policy-with-your-stepdad sort of way, this beautiful 10-minute suite of solo guitar ruminations may be the thing for you: as cleanly beautiful as a robin’s footprints on a winter morning.

Kanye West – Christmas in Harlem (feat Teyana Taylor and CyHi the Prynce)

Listen to the track.

The greatest piece of Christmas rapping sees West loosening up for the holidays, doing his shopping last minute and being an endearingly sleazy Santa getting sloshed on eggnog with his girlfriend. Taylor’s sublime chorus never fails to make the heart twinkle.

Leroy Carr – Christmas in Jail – Ain’t That a Pain?

Listen to the track.

As you ponder lifehacking Boris Johnson’s Christmas lockdown rules by turning your in-laws’ house into a blood donation centre, you can at least give thanks that you are not the character in this Carr song. The 1929 recording by the bluesman sees him longing for turkey and a Christmas tree in his cell and bail money as a present, but the melodiousness of his lament suggests even he has a glimmer of Christmas sparkle.

Jesu – Christmas (Life Mass)

Listen to the track.

Christmas, a 2010 doom-shoegaze track by Justin Broadrick under his Jesu guise, becomes sublime in this 2018 live version for a fashion show in a Paris church: a carol of sorts, with 12 minutes of beautifully chiming and shredding guitars instead of choirboys.

Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers – Christ Was Born on Christmas Morn

Listen to the track.

Recorded in 1929 and led by the vaudeville comedian Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon, this jazz-gospel crossover may sound like it was taped from the far end of an AM radio dial, but its wildly catchy melody burns through the scuffs and scratches.

Courtney Barnett – Boxing Day Blues (Revisited)

Listen to the track.

A loping, moping tune that is devoid of Christmas cheer, but still has a little spring in its step. The Australian indie star sings of a horribly uneven relationship, in which one person cares too much and the other not at all: “Like a Christmas tree on Boxing Day, thrown away / Why don’t you feel for me any more?” If everywhere you turn there are bubbled couples smooching while you are social distancing, this is one to put on headphones and kick dead leaves to.

Low – Some Hearts (At Christmas Time)

Listen to the track.

Making the greatest Christmas song of the past 20 years is commendable; making the second-greatest is just showing off. The Duluth, Minnesota, band’s quietly rollicking masterpiece Just Like Christmas has rightly become well known and squares nicely with the jollity of the season. This 2016 follow-up is very different: a percussion-free ballad with Mimi Parker singing, as if with a consoling hand on yours: “Some hearts will break at Christmas time.” Her melody is as pure, glistening and open as a snowbound prairie and pricks my eyes with tears every time I hear it. Christmas can be tough, and this year it will be newly and especially so for many; let’s heed Parker’s words.

Which are your favourite overlooked Christmas songs? Share them in the comments below.

Contributor

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The 100 best albums of the 21st century
We polled 45 music writers to rank the definitive LPs of the 21st century so far. Read our countdown of passionate pop, electrifying rock and anthemic rap – and see if you agree

Ben Beaumont-Thomas (1-50); Laura Snapes and April Curtin (51-100)

13, Sep, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Best albums of 2019 so far
Ariana Grande delivered swaggering pop, there was state-of-the-nation rap from Slowthai, Dave and Sleaford Mods, Billie Eilish shouted out for the teens, and Angélique Kidjo blended Africa with Cuba

Ben Beaumont-Thomas and Laura Snapes

04, Jun, 2019 @12:00 PM

Article image
The 50 greatest Christmas songs – ranked!
From John Fahey, the Sonics and the Waitresses to Slade, Wizzard and Mariah Carey, we count down the best festive numbers

Michael Hann

05, Dec, 2019 @12:00 PM

Article image
The 20 greatest breakup songs ever – ranked!
On the 40th anniversary of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive topping the charts – and as the UK blunders towards its own acrimonious divorce – here’s the definitive list of tear-stained stonkers

Alexis Petridis

14, Mar, 2019 @3:16 PM

Article image
Tunisian techno, Xitsongan rap and Satanic doo-wop: the best new music of 2019
From cheeky rappers to explosive hardcore punks, we introduce 50 artists sure to make an impact in the coming year

Ben Beaumont-Thomas, Laura Snapes and Ammar Kalia

28, Dec, 2018 @10:00 AM

Article image
50 great tracks for July from Drake, Ebony Bones, Low and more
From Nicki Minaj’s sex chat to Blawan’s masterful minimal techno, here are 50 great new tracks from across the musical spectrum. Read about our favourite 10 and subscribe to the playlist

Ben Beaumont-Thomas and Laura Snapes

10, Jul, 2018 @9:58 AM

Article image
Pop, punk and protest songs: the hottest music on the horizon in 2019
With the uproarious Idles hitting the road, Kamasi Washington play a mind-expanding UK show, and new albums from the Specials, Weezer and AJ Tracey, here are the sounds the new year will be shaking to

Alexis Petridis

01, Jan, 2019 @3:00 PM

Article image
Elvis Presley's power, Tina Turner's legs: musicians pick their biggest influences
Sade taught Jessie Ware quiet confidence, while Sly Stone helped Baxter Dury ‘make the unlikely into something rational’: contemporary favourites salute the stars who had the most impact on them

Interviews by Rachel Aroesti

01, Mar, 2018 @6:18 PM

Article image
Best albums of 2018 so far
Lily Allen dished on her divorce, Arctic Monkeys found their inner crooners, Cardi B earned her stripes, Pusha T teamed up with Kanye West and the Vaccines made an unexpected classic

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

20, Jun, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
From Ghetts to Genesis, Nick Cave to Arlo Parks: autumn 2021’s essential music
From Fontaines DC to the Valkyrie, a techno Halloween to Little Simz, this is the unmissable music of the next few months

Alexis Petridis, Ammar Kalia and Andrew Clements

25, Aug, 2021 @5:00 AM