Top 20 Alternative Christmas Records

Putting a Little Alt Rock in Your Holiday Spirit

Christmas music
Sol de Zuasnabar Brebbia / Getty Images

What would Christmas be without Christmas music? For many people, the yearly rotation of Christmas songs played everywhere in the month of December can get pretty repetitive. Fortunately, there is an array of renegades who have been attempting to reinvent the Christmas record as a vehicle for artistic expression. 

For listeners who love Christmas music but need more than an album's worth of songs to make it through the month or for listeners who want something a little more creative, there's something for everyone to enjoy here. 

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Banjo or Freakout: 'XA2010'

Banjo or Freakout, XA2010
Public Domain

If you ever found yourself wishing you could find that perfect Xmas record that was a little less Céline Dion, a little more Animal Collective, here your dreams come true. In 2010, Banjo or Freakout—a London-based Italian named Alessio Natalizia—turned out a free Christmas record that instantly became the most interesting and experimental seasonal set ever assembled.

Natalizia's radical reworkings of the most tired standards are mind-altering: Swimming electronics, pulsing noise, shoegaze guitars, and chillwave warp turn noxious jingles such as "Frosty the Snowman" and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" into wild sonic storms of a shape-shifting nature.

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The Boy Least Likely To: 'Christmas Special'

The Boy Least Likely To, Christmas Special
Public domain

The Boy Least Likely To are an English duo lingering at the twee-est end of twee, so it may come as no surprise that their "Christmas Special" is all tinkly glockenspiels.

Almost entirely originals—including a semi-inspired novelty number, "George and Andrew," which imagines a sweet seasonal reunion between estranged Wham! founders Michael and Ridgeley—the "Christmas Special" album is a suite of songs about being a brokenhearted, pure-at-heart boy ("I still believe in Santa Claus, even if no one else does," Jof Owen whimpers) during that most sentimental of seasons.

All of which is leavened by plentiful seasonal puns ("Jingle my bells, it's Christmas time/I'll jingle yours if you jingle mine," "I can ding-dong merrily/around the stupid Christmas tree"), and frowny faces.

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Bright Eyes: 'A Christmas Album'

Bright Eyes, Christmas Album
Public Domain

As if in thrall to delusions of Xmas togetherness, Bright Eyes' "A Christmas Album" is, unlike the band's regular LPs, not some work of ego for frontman Conor Oberst but a gathering of the Bright Eyes "family." As a result, although not every track is a winner, there are moments of genuine frosty frisson.

For example, in "Away in a Manger," Maria Taylor sweetly whispers the lullaby over an eerie audio-collage treatment inspired by Simon and Garfunkel's "7 O'Clock News/Silent Night" or "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," which is rendered as ironic slowcore dirge, loaded with the tragedy of time passing.

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The Concretes: 'Lady December'

The Concretes
Public Domain

"Lady December" is more a Christmas single than a Christmas album, but it's undeniably awesome. The Concretes issued the EP in 2004, right at the peak of their powers, coming in the wake of their awe-inspiring self-titled debut LP (one of the very best albums of the decade, no less).

The title track of "Lady December" finds the Swedish big-band at their most swelling, most thrilling, most utterly romantic, with huge sweeps of strings, weeps of violin, hugs of organ, yelps of flute, and a vocal from Victoria "Taken by Trees" Bergsman (hear her make the phrase "forgive and forget" just ache with feeling) that highlights how much The Concretes have missed her since she was booted from the band. It's not super-Christmasy, either, which is always a bonus.

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Emmy the Great and Tim Wheeler: 'This Is Christmas'

Emmy the Great and Tim Wheeler 'This Is Christmas'
Public Domain

In "This Is Christmas," sad songsmith Emmy the Great and her boyfriend Tim Wheeler—former frontman of Ash—combined for a snarky seasonal satire. But it still functions as a Christmas record, chiefly because there's an earnest love in the arrangements: all epic string swells, chiming sleigh bells and crooning vox. That supermarket-friendly veneer masks the smart-ass words, where "Sleigh Me" is an explicit euphemism for sex and "(Don't Call Me) Mrs. Christmas" is a scorned-woman ballad sung by Mrs. Claus.

Yet "Jesus the Reindeer," in all its zany blasphemy and loaded cultural commentary, doesn't, weirdly, seem any more idiotic than "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" itself. And when the set closes with the sweet "See You Next Year," "This Is Christmas" feels like a Christmas special: You've had a few laughs along the way yet been touched, too.

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Gruff Rhys: 'Atheist Christmas'

Gruff Rhys, Atheist Christmas
Public Domain

Welsh rocker Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals fame knows that Christmas and depression go together hand in hand for so many. Even bastions of unimpeachable Christmas cheer acknowledge the fact; after all, that most touching of seasonal movies, "It's A Wonderful Life," begins with Jimmy Stewart contemplating suicide.

Though it boasts gallows humor in its delivery, Rhys' EP "Atheist Christmas" sounds plenty depressed itself. "It was 1987/and you'd just been diagnosed with manic depression," Rhys laments over the mournful piano in "Slashed Wrists This Christmas," which counters its comedy with tender, tearful delivery. It's a stark musical tonic for those who hate the "light entertainment" of the season. 

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Josh T. Pearson: 'Rough Trade Christmas Bonus'

Josh T. Pearson, Rough Trade Christmas Bonus
Public Domain

Josh T. Pearson's acerbic, solemn songwriting and vivid, son-of-a-preacher backstory have made him a figure of mythical Americana in Europe. The sparseness of his discography has fed the myth: Pearson released only one (double) album with his Lift to Experience, 2001's "The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads," then disappeared for a decade, returning with a stark, soul-baring solo debut, "The Last of the Country Gentlemen," in 2011.

"Rough Trade Christmas Bonus" was, as its title suggests, a five-track bonus disc affixed to his solo LP in Rough Trade shops, but it stands as one of the most moving Christmas albums committed (live) to tape. Here, "Angels We Have Heard on High" is a six-minute, fingerpicking epic in which Pearson's honeyed, cracked country croon makes every syllable into a sob.

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Low: 'Christmas'

Low 'Christmas'
Public Domain

When it was released in 1999, this "Christmas" disc from slowcore pioneers Low seemed revolutionary. At the time, no one of any credibility was attempting to create Xmas records of genuine substance, which made hearing the trio's artful interpretation of seasonal sounds a jaw-dropping experience.

After kicking off with Phil Spector sleigh bells and ​optigan on "Just Like Christmas," Low play "Little Drummer Boy," "Silent Night," and "Blue Christmas" as hypnotic, minimal, glacial studies in seasonal sadness. In some ways, the tone is more of an Easter record, especially in the originals; "Long Way Around the Sea" is loaded with Son-of-God gravitas, and "If You Were Born Today" laments that a 21st-century Christ would most likely be slain while still a child.

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My Morning Jacket: 'Does Xmas Fiasco Style'

My Morning Jacket 'Does Xmas Fiasco Style'
Public Domain

If you were to go by the artwork—which shows the band in bad haircuts and secondhand suits, posed cheesily—and self-mocking title, you'd guess that this Christmas record from My Morning Jacket was but a big joke. But put on the six-song, 34-minute set, and all such irony and/or pessimism is washed away by the waves of Jim James's glorious voice.

Released in 2000 and recorded while the Kentuckian combo was at work on their classic "At Dawn" LP, this "Fiasco" finds one of the band's best-ever jams, "Xmas Time Is Here Again": six minutes of glinting guitar harmonies, sleigh bells, and yearning vocal harmonies.

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Parenthetical Girls: 'Christmas'

Parenthetical Girls, Christmas.

Public Domain

Zac Pennington, leader of Smiths-obsessed Portland out-pop outfit Parenthetical Girls, has called his Christmas-record obsession the product of a perverse fascination with the "weird sense of warmth mixed with the crass commercial cash-in." Even if his band's obscure, self-released records—all oddball originals, not tired traditionals—were anything but cash-ins, Parenthetical Girls' unlikely annual EPs find them getting genuinely swept up in the season.

Gathered together as a single "Christmas" volume, these bizarre labors of love—defined by the couplet "thank god it's not Christmas/when there's just you to do"—stand as nothing less than a towering achievement, Pennington making rich, artistic cake from just so much seasonal treacle.

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Rosie Thomas: 'A Very Rosie Christmas'

Rosie Thomas 'A Very Rosie Christmas'
Public Domain

Rosie Thomas's Xmas LP succeeds, admirably, due to the unfailing earnestness of the endeavor. Thomas, a devoted Christian whose faith influences her regular singer-songwriter gig, tackles the standards of the season with no shortage of inspiration, and the results are unbelievable.

Happy to shift keys and change up tempos, she sets "Winter Wonderland" to a lazy shuffle of overlapping piano chords and brushed drums, and "O Come O Emmanuel" becomes an '80s synth-pop power ballad. Then, there's "Christmas Don't Be Late." Seemingly so synonymous with The Chipmunks that it's beyond rescue, Thomas treats it as a mighty, swelling, rousing piano basher, its six sing-along minutes cresting at "Transatlanticism"-esque levels of anthemicism.

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Saint Etienne: 'A Glimpse of Stocking'

Saint Etienne 'A Glimpse of Stocking'
Public Domain

It's hard to deny that a disc boasting a pounding Euro-disc cut called "No Cure for the Common Christmas," sets "A Glimpse of Stocking" apart from the Christmas record ranks. The LP finds Saint Etienne flipping from groovy '60s pop to sad ballads, slyly avant-garde pieces, and pounding acid-house anthems.

"A Glimpse of Stocking" is largely tongue-in-cheek: "Come on Christmas" pipes in a cheering crowd and a pipe organ for a sporting-event feel, "Unwrap Me" finds Sarah Cracknell winkingly evoking Marilyn Monroe over bells and gongs, and "Gonna Have a Party" ladles on the Autotune like so much gravy. It teeters on the brink of being a novelty album of novelty songs, but, really, that just makes it even more of a Christmas record.

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Sam Mickens: 'A Christmas Gift to You, Zac Pennington'

Sam Mickens: A Christmas Gift to You Zac Pennington
Public Domain

Zac Pennington—leader of Christmas-obsessed Portland orchestral-pop types Parenthetical Girls—so loved Christmas that, here, his pal Sam Mickens makes him a Christmas record. But "A Christmas Gift to You, Zac Pennington" came out originally as a free-to-download gift for all, especially those with a fondness for left-field yuletides.

Here, the suicidal Dead Science leader (and one-time Xiu Xiu member) makes a suite of stripped-down, spartan takes on traditional songs, in which he stretches out syllables with torturous tremors, his wavering vibrato making lines such as "Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!" sound like wails from on the edge of sanity. Mickens' drunken delivery contrasts with the sober setting, his voice matched to solitary scratchy guitars, wonky synths, or (on an abstract, a cappella take on "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas") pure silence.

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She and Him: 'A Very She and Him Christmas'

She and Him 'A Very She and Him Christmas'
Public Domain

On their first two LPs, "Volume One" and "Volume Two," Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward—aka She and Him—showed themselves as students of Phil Spector, unafraid of wearing their sentimental hearts on their sleeves. So a Christmas record seemed like a natural fit, with all the Wall of Sound, sleigh bell–jangling, string-swelling grandeur as the likely outcome.

Yet "A Very She and Him Christmas" is often stripped-down, with Deschanel and Ward setting their voices to spare arrangements. The songs are a mixture of oldies and oddballs of the lesser-known variety, and the performances seem genuinely filled with the holiday spirit. It's the most "straight" Christmas record on this list, beautiful, sentimental, and devoid of transgression.

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Sufjan Stevens: 'Songs for Christmas'

Sufjan Stevens 'Songs for Christmas'
Public Domain

The grandaddy of all hipster Xmas discs, Sufjan Stevens' "Songs for Christmas" is a lavish five-CD box set collecting annual EPs Stevens made for friends and family from 2001–2006. The 42 tunes mix originals with traditionals and are reverent, ridiculous, whimsical, and achingly beautiful in varied measures. Sometimes all at once.

I find myself listening to "Vol. III," 2003's "Ding! Dong!" the most; "All the King's Horns" is all cascades of piano and woodwinds, the tragicomic "That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!" sounds like a tender refugee from "Seven Swans," and the gentle, playful reading of French fable "The Friendly Beasts" is ridiculously charming. More than two hours long, "Songs for Christmas" has surely soundtracked countless Christmas dinners already.

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Sufjan Stevens: 'Silver & Gold: Songs for Christmas, Vols. 6–10'

Sufjan Stevens 'Silver & Gold: Songs for Christmas, Vols. 6-10'
Public Domain

As if one five-disc Christmas box set wasn't enough to prove his obsession with seasonal records, here Saint Sufjan is shown to be a hopeless slave to that "creepy Christmas feeling" once more. And "Silver & Gold" makes "Songs for Christmas" feel like a minor prologue; Sufjan's second yuletide box presents the world with 58 songs and almost three hours of all-new music. Somehow, amid 167 minutes, the clichés of the Xmas disc are almost entirely absent.

Highlights include a take on the Sacred Harp death hymnal "Idumea," a tender ode to children scared/scarred by family conflict ("Carol of St. Benjamin the Bearded One"), a lo-fi, eight-bit-esque cover of Prince's "Alphabet St.," and "Christmas Unicorn," a 12-minute psychedelic, "Age of Adz"–styled freakout that transforms halfway through into a riff on Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart."

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The Sweptaways: 'A Christmas Party' and 'Cry Cry Christmas'

The Sweptaways: Cry, Cry Christmas
Public Domain

If communal caroling is synonymous with Christmas for you, The Sweptaways shall surely put a giddy seasonal smile on your dial. A 30-strong, all-lady, a cappella vocal co-op from Stockholm, the band members normally reinterpret Swedish indie-pop and '80s hits as chaotic torrents of harmonized voice, but, for Christmas purposes, they work in a more collaborative format.

This pair of EPs finds a pair of collaborations—which, with much overlap, appear on both discs—with crooner Magnus Carlsson, and there's even big piano chords, drums, and handclaps added to the normally vocal-only mix. For those who want to imagine that 30 Swedish women are caroling on their doorstep, it's hard to beat The Sweptaways' glorious take on The Concretes' "Lady December."

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Timbre: 'Silent Night'

Timbre 'Silent Night'
Public Domain

"Alternative" takes on the Christmas record don't have to be avant-garde, oddball, or sarcastic readings. On her free via Bandcamp Christmas album, "Silent Night," Tennessean harpist-songwriter Timbre Cierpke dares to make a seasonal set of unvarnished sincerity and unadorned beauty, combatting the tradition toward tacky and ersatz with each achingly artful arrangement.

"O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" are made resplendent with stark harp patterns and gentle daubs of piano and tuned percussion, but it's nothing compared to the title track. Here, that most standard of Christmas standards is turned into a seven-minute epic, beginning as a heartbroken, hesitant piano ballad before spilling out into a choral conclusion sung by the 30-member congregation.

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Tracey Thorn: 'Tinsel and Lights'

Tracey Thorn 'Tinsel and Lights'
Public Domain

Former Marine Girl and Everything But the Girl vocalist Tracey Thorn fulfilled a lifelong goal when she made her 2012 Christmas album "Tinsel and Lights." The set reflects the earnestness Thorn feels for the project, beginning with "Joy," an original whose feelings on the season are loaded with middle-aged melancholy ("you loved it as a kid/now you need it more than you ever did").

Thorn shows herself a fan of alt reads on Christmas, steering well wide of persistent standards as she covers Low, Sufjan Stevens, and the White Stripes and recruits Magnetic Fields leader Stephin Merritt to pen an original. Like the She and Him LP, it tilts a little more towards MOR, but there's such a sense of earnest sentimentality and cutting melancholy etched in every pleasant arrangement that "Tinsel and Lights" feels quietly subversive.

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Various: 'A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records'

Various 'A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records'
Public Domain

OK, OK, OK: This isn't very alt. In fact, you could make a case this is the ultimate Christmas album. And, true, there's no irony in Phil Spector's legendary (and much-copied) 1963 Christmas classic. Yet, there was a sense of subversion at the time, a sacrilege in running a hallowed holiday through the newfound youth-culture fad of rock 'n' roll.

But what truly earns "A Christmas Gift for You" its perennial cred is just how good it is. Here, heinous jingles are turned into Wagnerian operas ("Frosty the Snowman") or spaghetti western soundtracks ("Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer") via Spector's ever-glorious Wall of Sound, which piles on sleigh bells and echoes to infinity.