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Steve Sutherland picks the top tunes to make your Christmas rocking and soulful

Listen to the tunes on Spotify https://t.ly/wHtm7

"We've all heard of Rudolph and his shiny nose

And we all know Frosty whose made out of snow

But all of those stories seem kind of…”

Woah, steady on Prancer! It’s way too early for Mr. Hankey The Christmas Poo! He and his naughty South Park buddies are best consigned nearer the bottom of this list. We get what he's on about though. While we may be merrily familiar with sack-loads of musical Christmas crackers courtesy of Frank and Bing, Noddy and Macca, Wham! and Mariah, and while we are cosy enough wrapped up on a sleigh ride with Spector, there does come a point where these seasonal visitors begin to wear out their welcome. Baby, it’s cold outside… Yeah, we know that Dean-o. You told us that last year, and the year before, and the year before that …

Fear not, gentle reader, there’s no need to get the Xmas collywobbles. Chillax yourself because, like a refreshing mint julep amongst all the eggnog, here it is to save the day and stabilise your sanity - the Herald’s 2023 Christmas Playlist, a veritable aural Advent Calendar of alternative seasonal songs for you to savour. There’s 31 in all - a tune for every December day. So, pour yourself a stiff one, raise it high in a toast Shane and Kirsty and let’s get cracking shall we...

1.Billy May & His Orchestra, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer Mambo

Billy May
Billy May

There’s a phrase, camp as Christmas. This is the proof of that particular pudding. The hoary old Johnny Marks stalwart was given a sassy going-over by Billy May & His Orchestra in 1953. It's drummer Alvin Stoller doing the OTT vocals. Warms the cockles and other parts too. “What the heck is a mamboooooooo?!"

2. Fleet Foxes, White Winter Hymnal

Beautiful and strange, this 2008 track from Seattle band Fleet Foxes' debut LP is perfectly self-descriptive. It is quite literally a white winter hymnal festooned with gorgeous harmonies beneath which lurks something a little more sinister. Just who is Michael, and why does he fall, his blood staining the snow like strawberries in the summertime?

3. The Bird & The Bee, Carol Of The Bells

The double B are a Los Angeles-based duo consisting of Inara George (daughter of Little Feat’s Lowell George) and renowned producer Greg Kustin. Their lovely, glittery version of the Mykola Leontovvch Ukranian tune was released in 2007 as a single off a Starbucks compilation called Stockings By The Fire. Cuddle up.

4. Eels, Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas.

A spirited ode to the power of friendship, this cup of cheer came courtesy of Mark Oliver Everett aka E who also had a pretty neat song called Christmas Is Going To The Dogs which is all about the holiday from a mutt’s point of view. You can find both on the Useless Trinkets: B-Sides, Soundtracks, Rarities And Unreleased 1996-2007 compilation. There’s a new one for this year too - Christmas, Why You Gotta Do Me Like This? - which is also not too shabby. All together now: “Baby Jesus, born to rock!”

5. Magnetic Fields, Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree

Small but perfectly formed, this chirpy little tune appeared on Stephin Merritt aka Magnetic Fields’ 2010 LP, Realism. Oh, and by the way, if you haven’t heard Andrew In Drag from Love At The Bottom Of The Sea (2012), put that right right away. It’s just about the most brilliant song ever.

6. Cocteau Twins, Frosty The Snowman

From the silly to the sublime, the melty old fellow was given a glistening shoegaze-y glaze by Liz Fraser and the chaps on their 1993 Xmas EP, Snow. The A-side was a nearly-as-good-but-not-quite jostle through Winter Wonderland.

7. Vampire Weekend, Horchata

Named after a South American hot (or cold) toddy made from rice, milk, vanilla and cinnamon, you can find this track on VW’s second LP, Contra, which came out in 2009. There’s lots in it about stamping your feet and wrapping up to keep warm. Plus there’s the confession that, “I’d look psychotic in a balaclava.” Hey, wouldn't we all?

8. James Brown, Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto

james brown
james brown

In 1968, the caring, sharing Godfather Of Soul instructed the jolly old beardy one to miss him out and take all the pressies to those more deserving and in need in this coolest of yuletide singles. Still swings 55 years on.

9. Bob Dylan, Must Be Santa

There are loads of great versions of this one. Tommy Steele’s cor-blimey-guvnor cockney take from 1961 is pretty neat. She & Him (Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward) managed to squeeze a mention for Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton into their 2016 versh on their Christmas Party album, and Kurt Vile does it in suitably laid-back fashion with his kids on the chorus on this year’s Back To Moon Beach EP. But the grandaddy of them all is ol’ Bob's gruff and giddy go from 2009’s Christmas In The Heart collection. Did I mention it’s a Polka? Nice to imagine the late great John Candy’s Home Alone polka bums having a jolly crack at it too.

10. Julian Casablancas, I Wish It Was Christmas Today

The Strokes’ singer took time out from being just about the chillest guy on earth in 2001 to cover this infectiously dopey anthem created for the American satirical TV show Saturday Night Live by Jimmy Fallon and co.

11. Owl City, Peppermint Winter

Candy cane cute, this 2010 single from Adam Young who hails from the wonderfully named Owatonna, Minnesota is sweet as icing on a Christmas cake but, oh, hang on. What’ all this? "The snowflakes start falling and I start to float 'til my mean older brother stuffs snow down my coat.” Ooooph!

12. The Killers, Joel, The Lump Of Coal

The Killers
The Killers

Every Christmas from 2006 for the next 11 years the Las Vegas hit-makers released a single in support of the AIDS charity Red. None were anything less than great, some were brilliant. Happy Birthday Guadalupe featuring Mariach El Bronx was one highlight, Don’t Shoot Me Santa Claus starring Ryan Pardey as a malevolent St Nick another. But for sheer tear-jerking, shameless sentimentality, you can’t beat Joel. It’s the story of a reluctant lump of coal who is given to a naughty boy by a nasty Santa (Jimmy Kimmel) in place of a gift as punishment. The coal becomes a diamond and makes it all come good. What’s the matter? Got grit in your eye? (All Killers Christmas tracks are now collected together on the Don’t Waste Your Wishes album).

13.Let’s Go Sailing, Icicles

Weird and wonderful, this track from the little-known American outfit fronted by Shana Levy is all about how you should avoid standing under icicles lest they fall and stab you. It features an inspired guitar steal from The Cure’s Just Like Heaven and can be found on 2007’s The Chaos In Order LP.

14. Fountains Of Wayne, The Man In The Santa Suit

This New York band put out a single called I Want An Alien For Christmas in 1997 and it was great. But this was the B-side and was even better. The department store Santa is hungover, the kids are throwing up root beer all over him and mocking him for looking like Jerry Garcia but he has to stick it out because he needs the money. Very touching, very funny and very Bad Santa. The band’s main man Adam Schlesinger died from COVID complications in 2020 so let’s raise a glass of cheer to him.

15. Sparks, Christmas Without A Prayer

Typical of the quirky old Mael Brothers to remember the lonely at Christmas - the divorcees and singletons. The dating agencies aren’t working out for this fellow and 2015 looks mighty bleak until, like a shaft of light from heaven, an inspirational choir kicks in to lift the spirits. Kind of the equivalent of that bit in Home Alone where the old bloke next door who Kevin mistakes for a murderer gets to hug his granddaughter. All together now: Ahhhhh!

16. The Youngsters, Christmas In Jail

The Youngsters
The Youngsters

A cautionary tale about drunk driving from a Los Angelean soulful doo-wop quartet released in 1956. It was a minor hit - their only one - and deserves the kind of rekindled respect that The Soggy Bottom Boys brought to In The Jailhouse Now thanks to the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou.

17. Tyler The Creator, I Am The Grinch

A critter with impeccable heritage, the grumpy old Grinch first arrived courtesy of Dr Seuss in 1957. Since then Jim Carrey’s done him growly proud in the 2000 film How The Grinch Stole Christmas and, for the soundtrack to the 2018 animated movie, Danny Elfman got together with Tyler, The Creator to wow us with this: “Tell your homeboy in a red suit to chill/ Before I ban him from Whoville“. One for all the cool kids and not a cuss word in sight!

18.Kate Bush, 50 Words For Snow

The title track off her 10th LP which came out in 2010, Kate gave over the lead vocal duties to Stephen Fry who does indeed recite 50 different words for snow with la Bush occasionally encouraging him with, “Come on Joe, you’ve got 32 to go” and the like. It’s a fantasy by the way. There aren’t actually 50 words for snow in any language but they had oodles of fun thinking up stuff such as santanyeroofdikov, stellatundra, faloop’njoompoola, spangladasha, shnamistoflopp’n, sorbetdeluge and sleetspoot’n.

19. Kate Rusby, Little Jack Frost

Hankies at the ready. This is not on Spotify because Ms Rusby takes umbrage with the streaming company not paying musicians well enough so you’ll have to listen on Youtube. It’s the final track on the wonderful Barnsley folkie’s The Girl Who Couldn’t Fly which came out in 2006. A traditional take on the tale of the young runaway boy who finds sanctuary from the cruel world in the branches of a grove of kind-hearted trees, with all those ‘lifestyle choice’ homeless folks littering our streets, it’s emotional to put it mildly.

20. Phoebe Bridgers, So Much Wine

This is a cover version of The Handsome Family’s despairing plea to get your drinking problem sorted over the holidays. It was released in 2022, all proceeds going to the Los Angeles LGBT Centre. Ms Bridgers has also tackled Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas in the past so she’s got the xmas bug alright.

21. Sufjan Stevens, That Was The Worst Christmas Ever

In the Sutherland household, Sufjan is the prince of Christmas. We could recommend a handful of seasonal tracks from this multi-instrumentalist who likes to perform live sporting angel’s wings. Between 2001 and 2006, he made six yuletide EPs for friends which were collected together on the Songs For Christmas LP on his own Asthmatic Kitty label. Nestled amongst the trad numbers are original treasures Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance!, Did I Make You Cry on Christmas? (Well, You Deserved It!) and the jewel in the crown, That Was the Worst Christmas Ever! Sufjan’s not been well lately, suffering from Guillain-Barre syndrome and is currently having to relearn to walk. Get well soon genius.

22. LCD Soundsystem, Christmas Will Break Your Heart

Released on Christmas Eve 2015 and absolutely as desolate as the title suggests, here we intrude upon James Murphy ruminating, as so many have before, on what a cruel and lonely time Dec 25th can be if you’re without kith, kin and the like.

23. Joni Mitchell, River

“It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees, they’re putting up reindeer, and singing songs of joy and peace…” Sounds great right? Wrong. Joni’s deep into feeling sorry for herself on this seasonal beauty. Just the piano plinking Jingle Bells plucks at the heart strings. It’s from her career peak, Blue, released in 1971.

24. South Park, Mr Hankey The Christmas Poo

Ah, here he is! No self-respecting seasonal playlist would be complete without a look-in from South Park and the mighty Mr. Hankey. The song’s taken from 1999’s Mr Hankey’s Christmas Classics LP and it’s quite the defication celebration! "Howdy Ho!”

25. Augie Rios, Donde Esta Santa Claus

Born in NYC into a Puerto Rican family, Augie was 12 years old when he recorded Donde… (Where Is Santa Claus?) and its fab B-side Ol' Fatso (I Don't Care Who You Are Old Fatso, Get Those Reindeer Off My Roof). A lovely Noel novelty.

26. Wombats, This Is Christmas?

Liverpool’s Wombats come over all Scrooge-like on this anti-festive stomp from 2008. They dread the big day’s drunken family arguments and the song’s stuffed full of, er, stuff like: "Turn Back To The Future off I've seen it before…” It’s great to howl along to, though, and all proceeds from the single were donated to MENCAP so perhaps they weren’t so Ebenezer-ey after all. Bless.

27. Ramones, Merry Christmas, (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)


Looks like it was pretty rough being a Ramone so our hearts go out to Joey as he pleads for a little yuletide peace and quiet. Poor lamb. You can hear him and da brudders doing this on 1989’s Brain Drain. Also, do yourself a favour and check out Danny Says which is on 1980’s End Of The Century and is all about the band being stuck in LA on a promo tour and wishing they were home in NYC for Christmas. Joey never sounded so lovelorn.

28. Futureheads, Christmas Was Better In The 80s

All the way from snowy Sunderland comes this 2010 bombastic good-time fib complete with a chorus Freddie Mercury would have been proud of and simply lashings of tra-la-la’s.

29. El Vez, Feliz Navidad

El Vez
El Vez

Robert Alan Lopez is El Vez who excels in flamboyant Latin American Elvis impersonations. This magnificent mash-up off his 1994 Merry MeX-mas LP weds Jose Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad to PiL’s Public Image. Honestly! Utterly inspired.

30. Loose Tapestries: Can’t Wait For Christmas

This is a meeting of merry musical minds between Sergio Pizzorno of Kasabian and Noel Fielding from The Mighty Boosh and The Great British Bake Off. They came together to soundtrack Fielding’s Luxury Comedy TV series and this daft but once-heard-not-easily-shaken little ditty was a single off their second LP, N.H.S, which came out in 2015. At one point it claims Fielding’s wife is a walnut and there’s a daffy rap by Me Innit, who just happens to be Idris Elba!

31. Kanye West, Christmas In Harlem


Voted by the Sutherland family as the greatest Xmas song ever. It’s so fab that even Ye’s current bout of appallingness can’t dim its magnificence. It’s a gospel-y soulful ode to Christmas shopping and seasonal cheer complete with bad driving, missing your parents and saucy snuggling with your partner once the kids are tucked up in bed. “I gave her the hot chocolate. She said it was deeeericious” indeed!

You can enjoy all the goodies on the Herald’s Christmas Playlist via Spotify right here:https://t.ly/wHtm7

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