Does hearing Andy Williams bray, "It's the most wonderful time of the year!" every time you go to the grocery store in December (and, increasingly, November) fill you with inchoate rage? You're not alone. Most Christmas and holiday music can be pretty insufferable, especially when you're stuck in the slowest checkout line and it's one of those shopworn "classics" that's been rammed down our collective throats since before your parents found out Santa's not real. And this year, for many of us (read: Trump haters), all that forced jollity, merriment and Jesus-in-a-manger stuff can be even harder to swallow.
But like the holidays themselves, Christmas music isn't all bad. Some of it manages to cut through the rampant phoniness and consumerism and evoke the emotions that are most people's favorite part of the holidays: love, nostalgia, gratitude, warm familial vibes. Other Christmas songs subvert the "spirit of the season" in clever, cathartic ways. And the really, really good stuff manages to do both at once.
We polled L.A. Weekly's crack team of music nerds and assembled the following list of holiday songs that don't turn us into total Grinches. A few are old favorites that have survived heavy rotation; most are overlooked gems you probably haven't heard in years, or maybe never heard at all. We hope they'll fill your hearts with joy — or at least not make you want to leave us a lump of coal in the comments.
20. The Damned, “There Ain’t No Sanity Clause”
One of a very few punk rock Yuletide numbers that has stood the test of time, this wry, high-velocity romp epitomizes The Damned’s endearingly reckless, self-deprecating brilliance. Issued in November 1980, the single was a last gasp for the band, perpetrated on the cusp of their transition from peerless punk firebrands to dismal goth-pop groaners. “Sanity Clause” coincided with The Black Album and its calamitously self-indulgent 17-minute death knell, “Curtain Call” — a dark moment for Damned fans, which represented a shattering of trust that was emotionally on par with discovering Santa Claus doesn’t actually exist. —Jonny Whiteside
19. Louis Armstrong, “Zat You Santa Claus?"
A genuinely cool Christmas track, Louis Armstrong’s 1953 single “Zat You Santa Claus?” is truly timeless thanks to how effortlessly it brings in the holiday vibes without any dependence on the season’s traditional sounds. Here, Armstrong is preparing for some holiday cheer when he hears a series of noises that he fears might come from a source other than Jolly Ol’ St. Nick. But don't worry — that's him, all right. —Chaz Kangas
18. Band á Part, “Donde Todo Sigue Igual”
It wouldn't be surprising to see a photo of Javi Roman and Coral Rodriguez of Band á Part next to the definition of the phrase "hella indie twee pop stuff" in the Royal Spanish Academy's dictionary of phrases. Even Zooey Deschanel would advise them to tone it down just a (t)wee bit. The duo's Christmas track, "Donde Todo Sigue Igual" (Where Everything Remains the Same), is a cute little ditty based on the nostalgic holiday story of city kids returning to their sleepy hometown for Christmas. —Ivan Fernandez
17. The Darkness, “Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)”
One of the great U.K. Christmas traditions is the race for the Christmas Day No. 1 spot on the singles chart. In 2003, fresh from their mega-debut Permission to Land, The Darkness were British rock & roll darlings, and frontman Justin Hawkins was determined to cement his standing as a rock star by topping the charts on Dec. 25. In fact, his glory was taken by the un-fuzzy and somber cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” by Gary Jules, from the Donnie Darko soundtrack. Still, The Darkness’ song is typically operatic, and seasonably joyful. They were robbed. —Brett Callwood
16. Dan Hicks, “Somebody Stole My Santa Claus Suit”
We lost so many brilliant musicians in 2016 that the February passing of San Francisco singer-songwriter Dan Hicks really didn't receive the attention it deserved. For nearly 50 years, Hicks and his band, the Hot Licks, built upon the hippie-era sounds of SF folk music and jug bands, adding touches of jazz, bluegrass, gypsy and Western swing. One of his last studio albums was 2010's Crazy for Christmas, a thoroughly delightful set of holiday-themed originals and covers given the old-timey string band treatment and delivered with Hicks' trademark gravelly charm. He originally wrote and recorded a more rollicking version of this song with The Christmas Jug Band in the late ’80s, but the laid-back take on Crazy for Christmas is a master class in how to make a novelty tune sound like a timeless classic. —Andy Hermann
15. Kate Bush, “December Will Be Magic Again”
For proof that the U.K. is and always has been cooler than its bastard stepchild, the United States, look no further than Kate Bush’s 1979 BBC2 Christmas special. The lights go up on Bush wearing gossamer batwings and screeching her song "Violin" — and that’s before she’s joined onstage by two dancing, anthropomorphic string instruments. The entire thing is delightfully weird, but the best moments are more subdued, including Bush’s piano-accompanied performance of “December Will Be Magic Again,” a song that revels in holiday-season cliches and nods to Oscar Wilde. Also worth a listen: Bush and Peter Gabriel’s rendition of Roy Harper’s breakup song “Another Day,” the perfect antidote to saccharine holiday cheer. —Gwynedd Stuart
14. David Bowie & Bing Crosby, “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy”
David Bowie was in his full creative pomp in 1977 when he recorded this song for Crosby’s Christmas special. Sadly, Bing would leave this world just five weeks later. The song would eventually be released as a single in ’82, but the footage from the special, with the hokey scripted dialogue, is required viewing. The song is special, particularly this year as we continue to mourn Bowie, thanks to the “Peace on Earth” counterpoint that he provides as Bing continues to sing “Little Drummer Boy.” According to rock & roll legend, Bowie insisted that he go in that direction as he hated “Little Drummer Boy.” It worked out beautifully in the end. —Brett Callwood
13. Run-DMC, “Christmas in Hollis”
It's the bombastic, scratched-up nod to "Jingle Bells" that hooks you into this classic slice of holiday hip-hop from Run-DMC. "Christmas in Hollis" funks up the old Yuletide jams underneath tales of Christmas in Queens. Run finds Santa Claus' stash of cash and returns it, for which he receives an awesome gift from St. Nick in return. DMC's holiday is a little more low-key. He's "chillin’ and coolin’ just like a snowman." Run-DMC had already hit big with "Walk This Way" by the time they dropped their holiday hit. The song went on to irk angry cop John McClane in Die Hard and was heard in a Nissan commercial last year. Have yourself an ’80s Christmas and seek it out on the first installment of A Very Special Christmas, where it's placed alongside seasonal tunes from Madonna, Eurythmics and U2 and wrapped up with a Keith Haring cover. —Liz Ohanesian
12. Akim, “Santa Claus Is a Black Man”
Written by Teddy Vann (Luther Vandross’ “Power of Love/Love Power”) for his daughter Akim, “Santa Claus Is a Black Man” was a 1973 empowering single for black children who were usually left out of traditional children’s Christmas media. The 5-year-old Akim’s endearing vocals, Vann’s definitively cool ’70s production and the impactful closing vocals from Vann’s artist Peggi Blu make the track rise above what some may have perceived as a novelty record. A regional tradition on New York and New Orleans radio, it’s since become a staple of Christmas music mixes around the world. —Chaz Kangas
11. The Ramones, “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)”
Sleigh bells and slashing guitars are a match made in holiday heaven on this 1989 single from NYC punk godfathers The Ramones. The song was written by lead singer Joey Ramone, whose unabashed love of Phil Spector girl groups shines through in the ear-candy melody and shamelessly sentimental lyrics. But his bandmates, especially eternally angsty guitarist Johnny Ramone, keep the whole thing from lapsing into pure treacle. It's proof that, contrary to popular opinion, The Ramones still occasionally made great songs (and OK, some pretty terrible videos) long after Road to Ruin. —Andy Hermann
10. Luther Vandross and Darlene Love, “I Listen to the Bells”
Luther Vandross’ This Is Christmas, from 1995, is the Holy Grail of R&B Christmas albums for its secular originals (along with a couple of traditional songs) capturing both the loneliness and little joys of the winter holidays. “I Listen to the Bells” is the album's crown jewel, a syrupy, six-minute Motown production that spares no expense. As exes facing the prospects of another Christmas apart, Vandross and Darlene Love’s heartbreak is buoyed by their own upbeat theatrics and a show-stopping sax solo from the E Street Band’s Clarence Clemons. —Pete Tosiello
9. Pretenders, “2000 Miles”
The closing track on the Pretenders' 1984 album Learning to Crawl masterfully captures both the beauty of the holiday season and the sense of loneliness that can pervade it, especially when your loved ones are several time zones away. It's been covered over the years by everyone from KT Tunstall to Coldplay, and Hynde herself did a piano-led remake of the song in 2014 with Björn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John. But it's the original version, with Robbie McIntosh's chiming guitars, that's still likeliest to leave you misty-eyed. —Andy Hermann
8. Attaque 77, “Papa Llegó Borracho”
Christmas isn't just boughs of holly and caroling door to door. It's also Billy Bob Thornton portraying a Santa Claus addicted to sex and alcohol and other not-so-jolly Yuletide blessings. "Papa Llegó Borracho" (Dad Came Home Drunk) is definitely in the latter camp. The song comes from Argentine punk group Attaque 77’s 1989 debut album, Dulce Navidad (Sweet Christmas). The Christmas traditions Ciro Pertusi sings about aren't all that sweet: an alcoholic father, a bleak and unpredictable future, and another New Year's celebration without Champagne or caviar. Good ol' optimistic punk music, right? —Ivan Fernandez
7. Wham!, “Last Christmas”
It may have the word right in its title, but Wham!’s “Last Christmas” really has nothing to do with Christmas. As the gorgeous song’s minimal lyrics and snow bunny–filled video indicate, it is about lost love. The original was released in December 1984, presumably as a Christmas No. 1 contender in the U.K. It didn’t make it, but has since been covered countless times over the last two decades, by an array of teen favorites such as Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Carly Rae Jepsen and Hilary Duff as well as by unlikely bands such as The xx, Arctic Monkeys, Manic Street Preachers and Jimmy Eat World. None of them hit the mark the way the fluffy-haired, pouty-lipped George Michael did. —Lily Moayeri
6. Prince, “Another Lonely Christmas”
The B-side to “I Would Die 4 U,” Prince’s “Another Lonely Christmas” is pretty dark for Christmas fare, given that it’s about missing a special someone who happened to die on Dec. 25. But this holiday season it takes on a much different, even more somber tone, as it’s our first Christmas without the Purple One. That’s why we suggest playing the seven-minute 12-inch version, which includes the second verse omitted from other formats (explaining the “banana daiquiris” line), as well as an amazing Prince guitar solo. Prince played every instrument on the recording, and only ever performed the track live once, on Dec. 26, 1984. —Chaz Kangas
5. James Brown, “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto”
James Brown’s classic Christmas treat, with its loose, funky, soul au go-go sound, manages to spread light-hearted joy while delivering a powerful sociopolitical statement. It’s profoundly self-possessed, personal testimony that goes from ebullient expectation to tearful blues in a flash, an unusual twist that JB pulls off with spiritual grace. Brown had ripped up the rule book a few months earlier with “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud,” and he did it again here: Linking Santa to the ghetto was a stone-cold stunner to a mainstream 1968 audience. —Jonny Whiteside
4. The Waitresses, “Christmas Wrapping”
It's not that Christmas sucks; it's just that the holiday snuck up on you and now it's bringing up all this anxiety about things you didn't do and things you need to do and it's coming out in a big mess of words. There are so many words in "Christmas Wrapping," which may not be obvious until you try it out at karaoke. This holiday track from The Waitresses — the same new-wave band responsible for "I Know What Boys Like" and the theme song for Square Pegs — is verbose, but listen closely and you'll find the story. It's full of Christmas angst but ends with more cheer than expected. Sometimes you just have to roll with the holidays, even if you're over them. —Liz Ohanesian
3. Elvis Presley, “Santa Claus Is Back in Town”
Go ahead. Piss and moan all you like about how Elvis “ripped off” black artists and was a fat, pathetic slob. Whatev. This is still the single greatest rock & roll Christmas record ever made. Elvis’ slurred, dirty, wailing delivery and Scotty Moore, Bill Black and DJ Fontana’s walloping primitivo accompaniment put this over with a licentious zeal that never wears out its welcome. Although he favored gospel above all else, Elvis genuinely excelled as a blues singer (there simply ain’t another white cat who can pull ’em off as convincingly), and this wildly unlikely collision of atmosphere and theme rates as a minor, and altogether irresistible, masterpiece. —Jonny Whiteside
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2. The Vandals, “Oi to the World”
Taken from the holiday-themed album of the same name, and later covered by friends No Doubt for the A Very Special Christmas 3 album, “Oi to the World” tells the heart-warming story of Haji the punk and Trevor the racist skinhead getting into a fight on Christmas Eve when Trev objects to Haji’s sweet guitar noise. Haji, armed with a sword, does some major damage to Trevor, but when he uses his turban to bandage the white supremacist, they make friends and drink liquor together. It’s a true Christmas miracle, played out over a classic, anthemic Oi! melody. —Brett Callwood
1. The Pogues feat. Kirsty MacColl, “Fairytale of New York”
A delightfully cynical story of a Christmas song, The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” is an immigrant’s drunken ode to the false promises of a better life in America and a relationship gone sour. Set to the upbeat sounds of accordion and fiddle, Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl play the parts of lovers in a swiftly deteriorating love affair, which takes them from kissing on a street corner one Christmas to trading insults — ”You’re an old slut on junk” — the next. The extremely entertaining music video features Matt Dillon as a surly cop and a youthful MacGowan, before all he wanted for Christmas were his two front teeth. (Christmas-ruining fact: MacColl died in 2000 at 41 after being hit by a boat in Mexico. Cheers!) —Gwynedd Stuart