Let’s be honest with ourselves. There comes a time during the wonderful, joyous holiday season when you reach the point that if you hear Brenda Lee singing about a marshmallow world one more time you might run head-first into a brick wall. Don’t be ashamed: We all have our breaking points. Christmas classics are classics for a reason — they are timeless, they bring us back, flood us with warm, woolen memories. Yet it should be noted that yes, at some point, classics can get a little worn out and you need a little break. You don’t want to go total Scrooge, but you do want to suggest that maybe, just maybe, you listen to something else.
Bold move, but not a bad move.
So here, if you find yourself in such a situation, here are 10 alternate versions of some of these Christmas classics that you might not have heard before, but could be just what you need to provide respite from more of Ms. Lee, Elvis, Bing Crosby, the Trans Siberian Orchestra, and Ol’ Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra.
Sufjan Stevens – “Joy to the World”
Just like Christmas, it starts out of slow, mellow and peaceful before descending into manic chaos. Stevens’ version of the old standard, heard at Christmas Eve masses everywhere, is off his 2012 album, Silver & Gold and might not be dinner music per se, but it’ll definitely spark one or two conversations.
Weezer – “O Holy Night”
You have to hand it to Weezer. Even with an elementary-school choir mainstay like “O Holy Night,” they can run it through Rivers Cuomo’s scientific lab of pop music and make it sound like the Weez. What is traditionally an exceptionally ethereal and mildly surreal song gets chunked up with distortion-wielding guitars and hammering drums. I would bet that your grandmother prefers the original.
Death Cab for Cutie – “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”
Few Christmas songs have the energy and gusto of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” And while Death Cab’s version has some energy to it, it’s definitely a more atmospheric and meditative take on the Phil Spector, Wall of Sound classic. It’s always been a song of emotion and in their version, Death Cab twist that emotion ever so slightly, making it more somber and more of a plea.
The Shins – “Wonderful Christmastime”
“Wonderful Christmastime” hasn’t reached iconic classic status yet, but as far as modern songs go, it’s definitely on the top of the waiting list. The Shins version, included in the 2012 compilation of Christmas songs, Holidays Rule, doesn’t stray too far from Paul McCartney’s original. If anything, they add even more top-tapping pop to it, an achievement in its own right, because how could anyone make a McCartney song more chipper? They do it, though, even getting literal, adding a children’s choir to the bridge.
Sidecar Radio – “Little Drummer Boy”
A now defunct band from Maine, Sidecar Radio throw a little Sublime-esque stank on this holiday standard. With its up strokes and reggae/rock backbeat, you could say it’d fit nicely as the soundtrack to those Corona commercials you see every year — you know, the ones with the illuminated palm tree. Well that’s until the drummer goes off and the volume starts to wake the neighbors. Your young cousins will probably dig this one. Hey, you can use it to relate to them.
Coldplay – “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”
This is from the version of Coldplay that you first fell in love with with somber, Chris Martin’s puppy dog vocals and a lingering piano in the background. There’s nothing groundbreaking about this version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” nor is it any kind of wild right turn. And you know what, that is perfectly fine because ultimately it’s a delicate and beautiful version of a delicate and beautiful song.
Amy Winehouse – “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”
This one is a bit of a bridge between old and new, but it still needed to be included. (Oh, Amy Winehouse and your amazing voice.) She takes this weird Christmas classic to school and does so in very bare-bones fashion. You know that if she had wanted to, she could have really done this song up. But it’s cool that she didn’t and that it comes off as if it was recorded during soundcheck, with only a few band members present and cigarette smoking wafting through the air.
Bright Eyes – “Blue Christmas”
Conor Oberst never met a song he couldn’t take down sorrow lane, so what better than Oberst twanging up “Blue Christmas?” He aches, he yearns, he pines, he makes you feel his pain. Hey, cause it’s the holidays and no one does nagging pain better than the holidays. Just ask your local liquor store.
Sugar + Hi-Lows – “Jingle Bells”
Sugar + Hi-Lows are a duo from from Nashville, and their boogie-down version of “Jingle Bells” appeared on their 2012 EP “Snow Angel.” Call me crazy, but I just figured that we were good with the original version of “Jingle Bells,” the one we sung as kids, the one we teach our kids to sing. Now I feel downright foolish because this take on the tune is as cool as the look your aunt gives you when you forget to send her a Christmas card.
She & Him – “Silver Bells”
I’ve always liked “Silver Bells.” It’s fun to sing along to and even if you don’t know all the words, it’s easy to throw in a couple that feel like they belong. With only ukulele strumming along to Zooey Deschanel’s crooning, they take it down a few notches and make a song made to sway along to that much easier.
And now, a bonus selection that might not be a fan favorite, but might be something you listen to as you wait for your relatives to leave.
Jack White – “Christmas Time Will Soon Be Over”
Presented without comment because by the time you’re ready to listen to this, the last thing you want to do is listen to someone talk anymore.