Christmas music tends to be pretty tame, with most bands opting to do straightforward covers of the same small repertoire of seasonal classics. But some still manage to make holiday songs memorable. Here are some of our favorite indie-rock Christmas carols:
"Jesus Christ" by Big Star
Kicking off this playlist is Big Star, an early 1970s power pop band that became a cult favorite after being hopelessly ahead of their time. "Jesus Christ" is an emotive, lifting song about the birth of the Christian savior, and it also has some really fun harmonies.
"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" by Sufjan Stevens
No indie-rock Christmas playlist is complete without a pick from Sufjan Stevens's Silver & Gold. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" has some gentle reed instruments in the background and sounds like it's sung by a whole family of merry hipsters.
"Silver Bells" by Bright Eyes
Conor Oberst's quiet voice is normally the focal point of any Bright Eyes song, but on the band's A Christmas Album sixteen different people contribute vocals, which gives this horn-backed version of Bing Crosby's classic a choral quality that slowly descends into chaos by the end.
"Green Grows The Holly" by Calexico
Joey Burns and John Convertino of Tucson, Arizona based Calexico smartly build up their choruses here with major chord progressions and horns to allow the quieter, calmer verses to mount with anticipation.
"Frosty the Snowman" by Fiona Apple
Fiona Apple had a great 2014 with "Container," the theme song for the Showtime series The Affair. On this track, Apple's warbling voice is full of something that isn't normally present in her work — genuine excitement.
"Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" by She & Him
Zooey Deschanel already cemented her place in the Christmas canon with her performance in Elf, but her voice had matured by the creation of 2011's A Very She & Him Christmas. On "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree," she's playful, boisterous, and simply great.
"Christmas Must Be Tonight" by Bahamas
The twangy guitar and thumping bass of "Christmas Must Be Tonight" let The Band's lyrics (as covered by Bahamas) take center stage here.
"Just Like Christmas" by Low
This track have a dreary, wintery quality to it, built out of minor chords and the tinkling of jingle bells in the background. "The beds were small but we felt so young / It was just like Christmas," Mimi Parker sings, convincingly evoking the nostalgia of the holiday season.
"Joy To The World" by Seabird
Indie-rock with a hint of Kentucky bluegrass guitar, Seabird brings a slower, more passionate voice to what is normally one of the most upbeat and celebratory Christmas carols. When Aaron Morgan reaches a falsetto to sing "Repeat the sounding joy," it gives me chills.
"December" by Regina Spektor
"Rumors have started that you are in love again/ Rumors that are completely unsubstantiated," Regina Spektor sings in her Russian-accented soprano voice on "December." This song, though at times it feels like a modernist mixtape, draws out one of the hardest things about the Christmas season — its focus on romantic love, whether you get to experience it or not.
"Wonderful Christmastime" by The Shins
The Shins sound genuinely happy on their cover of "Wonderful Christmastime," and when they work in a children's choir, The Shins really shine.
"I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day" by The Civil Wars
I am still personally mourning the break-up of indie-folk rock group The Civil Wars earlier this year. In their rendition of "I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day," Joy Williams and John Paul White sing slightly off from one another, giving the song a discordant, almost anxious quality that builds into a beautiful, soothing harmony.
"It's Christmas So We'll Stop" by Frightened Rabbit
This playlist could go on and on forever with great indie Christmas covers, but "It's Christmas So We'll Stop" with this original song by Scottish-rock band Frightened Rabbit:
Oh it's Christmas so we stopped
Were it not for the tick of the clock
And the spinning of the Earth in space
We could always be this way
And as we sleep at the fall of the day
In the room next door the tree lights brighten the rodents' eyes
And catches a glimpse of the dust beginning to rise