Music is the greatest blessing of Christmas. It’s also the greatest curse.
When the lights are glowing and the stockings are hanging, there’s nothing quite like a classic Christmas tune to really complete the holiday mood. But the problem is that after you’ve listened to the same old Christmas songs year after year, they start to get painfully familiar. And boring. By mid-December, you’ve already heard, “Jingle Bells” a million times, and the charm is wearing off quickly.
To combat this tendency, I’ve made it a point every year to search for new, fresh, original, quirky, off-the-beaten-path Christmas songs — songs that feed my need for holiday cheer while not boring me to death with a slightly different arrangement of the same tracks that are already on 90 percent of all the other holiday albums of the last half-century. And while this search isn’t always fruitful, I find that each year my repertoire of non-traditional Christmas tunes has expanded.
So if you’re in the market for something different this Christmas season, check out this festive holiday playlist that features a sampling of songs that aren’t typically played into the ground. It’s a diverse playlist, so whatever your musical taste, hopefully you’ll find something you like.
1. Sarah McLachlan, “Wintersong”
I’m not really a Sarah McLachlan fan, but sometimes circumstances beyond your control establish an affinity for something you wouldn’t otherwise appreciate. Case in point: On the evening of December 8, 2006, an employee at the Barnes & Noble in Avon, Indiana, decided to play McLachlan’s then-new Wintersong album (in its entirety, apparently). Little did that employee realize at the time, there would soon be a nervous young man accompanying a gorgeous young lady into the store while on their very first date. And that nervous young man would hear this album while simultaneously falling in love with the girl he was with. And that nervous young man would marry said girl. And make some beautiful babies with her. And he’d forever feel a bond with Sarah McLachlan and her Wintersong album, solely because it was playing on that most fateful and blessed evening.
2. Coldplay, “Christmas Lights”
All the cool kids these days make fun of Coldplay, so I realize that I’m taking a risk here. But criticism aside, I’ve always enjoyed Coldplay’s music, and I especially enjoy this emotional roller-coaster of a Christmas song that they recorded a few years back. While there are plenty of songs that speak of the bittersweet nature of the holidays — the sorrowful-yet-hopeful tension that many experience during this time — few songs are able to evoke those feelings as “Christmas Lights.” It has become an annual fixture of my December listening queue.
3. B.B. King, “Lonesome Christmas”
Christmas seems to be one of those times when the absence of loved ones is most keenly felt. When a friend or family member has passed on, it’s during the holiday season that the loss seems most profound. Just last year the music world lost one if its greatest members, the blues master B.B. King. And so it seems fitting that during this season of reflection, we honor his legacy with a fun little tune that will get your foot tapping while you’re wrapping those presents at midnight on Christmas Eve.
4. Sovereign Grace Music, “Who Would Have Dreamed”
Having grown up in the church, I’ve spent many a December Sunday morning singing one of the standard 15 hymns that everyone sings around this time of year. And while I still love (many of) those hymns, I always find it refreshing when a new song comes out that tells the story of Jesus’ birth in a fresh way. SGM’s recent album Prepare Him Room is packed full of such songs, and it’s hard to pick just one for this playlist. But we’ll go with this song that contains one of my Christmas music lines ever, “Who would have dreamed or ever foreseen that we could hold God in our hands?” There’s the mystery of Christmas in a nutshell.
5. Straight No Chaser, “The Christmas Can-Can”
You’ve probably heard this song (I think it traveled the interwebs quite extensively a few years ago), but it’s always fun to listen to it again and revel in its rapid-fire hilarity. As the old adage goes, “It’s only funny because it’s true.” Shopping, shopping, shopping!
6. Calexico, “Green Grows the Holly”
Technically, this song is far from “non-traditional.” These lyrics have actually been around for quite some time. But “Green Grows the Holly” is probably not featured on many of your “Greatest Hits of Christmas” CDs, so I think I can get away with including it here. Plus, Calexico’s arrangement of the song (with those mournful horns) is worth enjoying in its own right (whether it’s Christmas season or not).
7. Dave Matthews Band, “Christmas Song”
I can’t vouch for the theology Dave Matthews, but any playlist of non-traditional Christmas songs surely has to include this one. It’s skeptical (at best), but I think it’s a fascinating cultural artifact that speaks to the way people misconstrue and misunderstand the divine child at the center of Christmas. We’d do well to keep this in mind. Not everyone walks around with a robust Trinitarian theology in their back pocket, fully appreciative the intricate mysteries of God-made-flesh. The church has a better story to tell than some vague notion of misunderstood love.
8. Lauren Daigle, “Light of the World”
This is a song I just discovered that I’m really enjoying. It’s one of those anthemic-feeling worship songs that are a dime a dozen these days. But there are some really nice lines in here that beautifully capture magnificent truths. (For instance, “The drought breaks with the tears of a mother.” A powerful image of hope and deliverance!) Even at Christmas we all need a turn-up-the-volume-and-sing-along-in-the-car sort of song. And I would submit this as a worth candidate for such an honor.
9. Pearl Jam, “Let Me Sleep (It’s Christmas Time)”
Let’s journey back to the 1990s, shall we? When you think of Christmas, you probably don’t think of Pearl Jam. But when your kids wake you up on Christmas morning way earlier than you want them to, you’ll probably find yourself inadvertently singing the refrain from this tune, “Oh please let me sleep, it’s Christmas time.”
10. Ben Kweller, “It Ain’t Christmas Yet”
We’ll wrap up our holiday musical journey with a fun, rockin’ little jam. If you’ve been on Santa’s naughty list, the good news is that you still have some time to make things right. So use these next couple weeks wisely, and see if you can earn your way back into Santa’s (legalistic) favor, and maybe — just maybe — you’ll get what you’re wishing for under the Christmas tree.