Most people who know me well are familiar with the fact that I’m not a big fan of holiday music. Sure, the classics still work. But year after year, big stars release holiday albums that take advantage of the single biggest money grab in the business (next of course to covers albums). I’m unimpressed by most of them given their blatantly commercial nature. I think these records sell well because people are starved for something new that can break up the almost endless loop of the usual songs that get played non-stop throughout the season.
Well, in an effort to offer some relief to those who share my pain, here are 20 holiday songs done by rockers you may know, some you may have heard of, and some you can hear for the first time. They aren’t ranked; these are simply a collection of songs that I think work as both holiday songs and as all-around great rockers. Let me know what you think, and may some, if not all of these, help usher in the best holiday yet, especially in a year we would all like to put in the rear view mirror!
Julian Casablancas – “I Wish It Was Christmas Today”
The Strokes front man has developed a solid solo career that has revealed him to be the heart and soul of the band. This is as good a record as The Strokes have produced as a band. It’s got great energy and a somehow dignified punk sensibility that befits an established New York City rocker like Casablancas. You’ll swear you’re listening to The Strokes themselves and wonder why this song didn’t get more airplay.
Robert Earl Keen – “Merry Christmas From The Family”
Keen is a national treasure. His songs have been covered by everyone in the business. But outside of Texas, he doesn’t make much noise. This may be one of the funniest songs about the season. It’s a sing-along crowd favorite in concert. Even if you don’t dig the Austin scene or bristle at the sound of anything with a whiff of country, this song will make you smile.
Eels – “Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas”
Mark Oliver Everett, better known as Eels, has operated on the fringe of rock for years. His eclectic arrangements and quirky productions match the offbeat lyrics he brings to his music. But at its core his music rocks. This song reminds me of another Eels classic, “Saturday Morning.” Strong and sturdy, this is a keeper on any holiday playlist.
Dave Edmunds – “Run Rudolph Run”
It’s hard to compete with Chuck Berry. But Dave Edmunds does just that in his version of this classic. It’s all muscle. Edmunds delivers a real fat guitar sound and a rock-solid rhythm. Just straight four-to-the-floor rock and roll.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “All I Want For Christmas”
I can’t say that I’ve been a huge fan of this NYC trio, but this song could change things. Mariah Carey’s version of this song nearly killed it for me. Somehow the YYYs bring it back to life and offer a real sense of fun – the kind holiday songs are supposed to have. It makes me wonder what this song would sound like if Blondie did it.
Florence + The Machine – “Last Christmas”
There’s no questioning the power of Florence Welch’s voice. Here, on their version of the 1980s Wham hit, she is on full display. The band completely pulls back and she slows the song down and turns it into a real torch. This is as brilliant as the North Star!
The Ramones – “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)”
This is probably the most recognized song on the list. I’m not sure why I don’t hear it more often. It’s true to the band’s sound and to their entire body of work and sounds as fresh today as it did upon release.
The Reindeer Section – “You Are My Joy”
The Reindeer Section are a super group formed by Gary Lightbody of Scottish band Snow Patrol. They came together almost by chance and it’s unclear if they will work together in the future. But this single made a lot of noise for good reason. If it sounds familiar it may be because it was used in the soundtracks of Grey’s Anatomy, and on the fourth season of Queer as Folk.
Shurman – “Tomorrow Is Christmas Day”
This is an acoustic version of a song Shurman previously recorded in the studio with the full band. The group is from Austin and tours regularly with Blues Traveler. It’s a solid approachable song by a talented bunch of real road hounds.
Gary U.S. Bonds – “Christmas Is On”
I love that Gary U.S. Bonds still tours, still records. His trademark sound hasn’t changed at all over the last 50 years. This song and the record on which it appears offer the same kind of hop that made “This Little Girl” soar as high as it did when it was first released almost forty years ago.
The Raveonettes – “The Christmas Song”
This Danish duo put forward one of the best songs on this list. It’s got this terrific Roy Orbison sound. I can almost hear Bruce Springsteen laying down a version of this song. It’s rock solid, and as it builds, the Raveonettes maintain a mesmerizing vocal presence. And frankly the guitar work is just fantastic. Start to finish, a work of perfection.
Death Cab for Cutie – “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”
Ben Gibbard delivers a very interesting version of this song. It’s soft, delicate, and sparse. This is a song I never thought I needed to hear again. Gibbard shows here why I was wrong.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – “In This Home On Ice”
This song is as 1980s new wave as anything else Clap has put down. Again, here’s a song that isn’t heavy-handed with holiday trimmings. You have to look hard into the lyrics to find the connection. It instead stands firm on solid songwriting and musicianship. It’s also a perfect highway song if ever I’ve heard one.
Band Of Horses – “The First Song”
This isn’t often thought of as a Christmas song. Maybe that’s because there are no sleigh bells in the background. But the lyrics are all about Christmas and the season. It’s also among the band’s best – hands down.
Fireflies – “X-Mas Song”
Sadly, Fireflies are no longer together, but when they were making music they were often compared to Bowie and the Flaming Lips. To me they sound more like The Byrds and The Mamas & The Papas. This is a lazy atmospheric song that’s short and simple but somehow hard to ignore.
Galaxie 500 – “Listen, The Snow Is Falling”
This is what I call old school. These guys were making music in the late 1980s and early 1990s and at the time were often considered a modern-day Velvet Underground. The song starts small and builds slowly. It’s amazing that this Harvard-based trio didn’t get more traction on the indie scene. Stay with it. Don’t jump off the song until you have heard it rock out into total psychedelia. This is a keeper. Real hot!
Best Coast and Wavves – “I’ve Got Something For You”
These two bands got together and put out the quintessential beach song for the holidays. It drips with Beach Boys and Jan and Dean vibes. Here’s hoping they collaborate more often. This really works.
Darker My Love – “Snow Is Falling”
Darker My Love is an LA-based band. Their music has a Tom Petty meets post-punk sound, with hints of Band of Horses. It’s an interesting song with a lot of subtle production tricks that add just the right seasoning.
Ryan Adams – “Hey Parker, It’s Christmas”
In my opinion this is the perfect song to close out the list. It’s a very small and intimate piece of work, anchored mostly by a lazy piano. Yet it’s complex in other ways. I’m a sucker for almost everything Adams does so maybe I’m too quick to call it a classic. You be the judge, but time and again with songs like this I begin to see Adams as a modern-day Tom Waits, uniquely at ease in telling the troubled tales of what may seem like forgettable characters at first, until you realize the depth of the songs.
Header image of Florence + the Machine courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/brendenmendez.