The Alternative Christmas Drivetime Playlist
Christmas can be tough on the ears. You can’t walk into a petrol station without the experience being soundtracked by Robson & Jerome. But we deserve better. Here’s a seasonal road-trip playlist for the more discerning music fan: we’ve left a few snowy knees-ups and fireside heart-tuggers in there (it’s Christmas, after all) but we’ve steered clear of the incessantly overplayed stuff. Happy listening, one and all.
Ben Lerwill is a freelance travel writer based in Oxfordshire. His work has appeared in more than 50 publications, including National Geographic Traveller, The Times, The Independent, Wanderlust, BBC Countryfile and Time Out.
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Bob Dylan – Must Be Santa
Bob Dylan, to his immense credit, genuinely seems not to care a fig what the world thinks of him. This daft, accordion-heavy polka romp through an old American holiday song is hardly in keeping with his surly-poet persona, but when the man himself is wearing a wig and growling his way through a delirious communal singalong, who’s complaining? Altogether now – “Who’s got a big red cherry nose?”
Smashing Pumpkins – Christmastime
Who said rock groups can’t do yuletide clichés? This was recorded as part of a charity album in 1997, and while Billy Corgan’s raw voice is immediately recognisable, the music and lyrics are as far removed from the band’s usual pummelling alt-rock as it’s possible to get. Toys, prayers and Christmas trees all get a look-in – and yes, there are even sleigh bells.
The Killers – I Feel It In My Bones
The Killers, with admirable commitment, have been making Christmas songs every year since 2006. The results have ranged from hoedowns (2011’s The Cowboy’s Christmas Ball) to surreal ballads (last year’s Joel The Lump of Coal), but this, from 2010, is the most likely to appeal to fans of the group’s big hits. It includes the couplet “I sweat like a snowman out in the sun/ Dreamin’ that they’re ain’t nowhere to run to, baby”. Which, quite frankly, beats Mistletoe & Wine all ends up.
The Waitresses – Christmas Wrapping
It’s been almost 35 years since cult Ohio band The Waitresses released this uplifting seasonal single (to little fanfare at the time, mind you) but the song remains firmly planted on the right side of the quality-control line. The radio still gives it a fair airing each December, and Patty Donahue’s sweet-as-candy-cane vocals continue to rumble along cheerily against a swelling backdrop of brass and drums.
Bing Crosby & David Bowie – Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy
Everyone from Johnny Cash to Susan Boyle has tried their hand at covering Little Drummer Boy – with predictably mixed results – but nothing stands up to this 1982 duet by Bing Crosby and David Bowie, mainly because of the cross-generational magic of the pairing. Together, Bing’s warm baritone and Bowie’s clean, British-accented notes create something special. If you thought it wasn’t possible for a performance to be both cheesy and classy, here’s proof otherwise.
Darlene Love – Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
Christmas records don’t come much more enduring than this original 1963 rendition of a now-much-covered holiday song. Initially released as part of a Phil Spector compilation, it was written for the lead singer of The Ronettes but by happy circumstance found itself entrusted to young Californian gospel singer Darlene Love. Her belting vocals, dipping and soaring throughout, would surely not have been bettered by anyone.
The Futureheads – Christmas Was Better In The 80s
Packing in a stocking-full of festive ingredients (delicate piano, four-part harmonies, a few hallelujahs for good measure) this is an entertaining, tongue-in-cheek homage to the joys of a childhood Christmas. It takes less than a minute for the song to evolve into the sound of the Sunderland band doing what they do best: diligently pounding the life out of drums and guitars.
The Pretenders – 2000 Miles
An almost unbearably poignant tribute to the band’s late guitarist Jimmy Honeyman-Scott, this is the sound of The Pretenders on potent form. It’s a deeply atmospheric recording – the whole song is full of images of snow, frost and purple skies, and Chrissie Hynde’s vocals are immense throughout. Feel-good? Far from it. Brilliant? Unquestionably. Best avoided if you’re feeling over-emotional.
Paul McCartney – The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)
Macca received some fairly stinging criticism back in 2012 after his performance was deemed to be sub-par at the Olympic Opening Ceremony. This version of Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire was recorded just a few months afterwards, and proved that he still had a special voice on him. If you can take on a Nat King Cole classic and not sound awful, you’re doing something right.
Low – Just Like Christmas
“On our way from Stockholm/ It started to snow”. The opening lines of this 1999 release from indie-rockers Low pave the way for three gentle but infectious minutes of sparse drums and lilting vocals. If you’re looking for a song to act as a cockle-warming counterweight to the novelty singles that clogged up the Christmas charts in the 90s, this is the one.