People either love or hate Christmas music – there’s rarely ever anyone in between. I happen to fall into the former camp, although my holiday playlist is about half Christmas music and half regular music.
One of the problems with Christmas music is that we hear the same songs over and over again throughout the season. It’s easy even for someone who loves Christmas music to get tired of it by the end of December. But that doesn’t have to be the case. You can find plenty of terrific Christmas songs that you won’t hear in the stores or on the radio, and they can be welcome additions to your holiday enjoyment.
Here are the eight best Christmas songs you’ve probably never heard. Add them to your playlist if you’re looking for something fresh and different or if (like me) you’re tired of hearing “All I Want for Christmas Is You” for the millionth time.
8. “Big Bulbs,” Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings
Some songs we sing at Christmas because they uplift our soul, while others have become part of our holiday traditions because people have sung them for generations (even if we don’t know why). And then there are Christmas songs that are just fun. The late Sharon Jones recorded a Christmas album with the Dap-Kings in 2015, and it’s full of fun.
It’s a Holiday Soul Party is exactly what it sounds like: glorious retro-soul songs about Christmas, along with one about Hanukkah. The bounciest and most fun original on this album is a tune called “Big Bulbs.” Jones and her friends are looking for the best Christmas party, and they know they’ve found it when they see the big, colorful Christmas lights in the window.
It’s a breezy, catchy song that’s not deep and doesn’t demand much of the listener. I guess that makes it a perfect Christmas party song.
7. “Christmas for Cowboys,” John Denver
On my recent list of bad Christmas songs, I brought up John Denver’s “Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk this Christmas).” It’s truly awful, but the rest of the Rocky Mountain Christmas album may well be Denver at his best. One of the more underrated tunes on that album is “Christmas for Cowboys.”
Steve Weisberg penned “Christmas for Cowboys,” and it’s a simple, stripped-down song about the joys of celebrating Christmas under the stars with a herd to take care of. It’s joyful and melodic without veering into sentiment. It doesn’t make a huge statement about Christmas; rather it tells of enjoying the season in one particular way – albeit one that most of us wouldn’t be able to identify with. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy and appreciate such a simple, lovely song.
6. “I Celebrate the Day,” Relient K
Christian punk band Relient K recorded a Christmas album in 2003 as a bonus to people who purchased their album Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right…but Three Do. Deck the Halls, Bruise Your Hand was, for the most part, exactly what you’d expect from a punk band in that era. The band roars through traditional Christmas carols with a massive dose of irony (at least on the secular ones) along with a handful of originals. They later expanded the project for the full-length Let It Snow, Baby…Let It Reindeer.
But Relient K leaves room for some truly tender, faithful moments on the album as well, like the sweet medley of “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger” and the gorgeous original “I Celebrate the Day.” On the latter song, lead singer Matt Thiessen sings to Jesus, asking Him if he was aware of His purpose as He lay in the manger.
It’s a moment of sincere beauty right in the middle of the album. When Thiessen sings “I celebrate the day that You were born to die/So I could one day pray for You to save my life,” he brings home the real meaning of Christmas. And that’s one of the most special moments any of us could experience during the holidays.
5. “Christ Is Born,” The Carpenters
The Carpenters set the gold standard for Christmas music with their beautiful seasonal albums. Their take on classic Christmas standards – and their own “Merry Christmas Darling” – has become required holiday listening for many people.
For some reason, the glorious modern hymn “Christ Is Born” goes overlooked. It’s a simple choral piece with lyrics that herald the birth of Jesus. The orchestrations and choir are marvelous, but the highlight of the song is Karen Carpenter’s majestic alto.
“Christ Is Born” is on par with any of the traditional carols, but for some reason, we don’t hear it anywhere else. And that’s a shame because the simple beauty and majesty of this carol prove that it belongs alongside the rest of the timeless holiday canon.
4. “Stars & Promises,” Peter Mayer featuring Tina Gullickson
Peter Mayer plays guitar and sings backup as part of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band, but his solo music goes in a much different direction. Mayer’s solo style walks a tightrope between folk and jazzy pop. Nearly everything he has recorded is wonderful, but nothing is as exquisite as his Christmas albums.
His first holiday offering, 2000’s Stars & Promises, stopped me in my tracks the first time I heard it with its delicate beauty and joy even in restraint. (He has also done live shows that match the album’s sweet sound.) Mayer’s original songs and innovative takes on Christmas carols create a gentle celebration of the season. He even dips his toes into Coral Reefer sounds with the title cut, a duet with fellow Coral Reefer Tina Gullickson.
The lilting, jazzy sound and lovely vocals present a tableau of pleasant holiday memories that just about anybody can identify with. It’s not the deepest of meditations on Christmas, but “Stars & Promises” is worth occupying a spot on your seasonal playlist, along with the rest of the album that bears its name.
3. “Great Things (Mary’s Song),” Melanie Penn
After a difficult year personally in 2016, Melanie Penn became inspired by the idea of doing a Christmas album. She decided to write songs based on the point of view of different participants in the biblical Christmas account. The Immanuel album came out of that inspiration.
The whole album is beautiful and worshipful, and every song conveys the truths of scripture in its own way. Penn based one of the most uplifting songs on Immanuel on the Magnificat – Mary’s song of praise from Luke 1.
“Great Things (Mary’s Song)” is an exuberant song of praise that any believer can identify with. Penn wraps her beautiful voice around the lyrics as if they were her own and not straight from scripture. And that’s the beauty of it: nearly anyone can sing along and identify with the heart behind the song, at Christmas and all year long.
2. “Snowed in With You,” Over the Rhine
Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine has released two of the best Christmas albums of all time. The first, 1996’s The Darkest Night of the Year, takes its cue from old-fashioned candlelight Christmas services with mostly acoustic instrumentation and a beautiful collection of original and traditional carols. Snow Angels, which followed ten years later, was a departure that looked backward and forward with more originals, homages to modern Christmas classics, and tributes to Charles M. Schulz, Vince Guaraldi, and Karen Carpenter.
Among the many highlights from Snow Angels is the Christmas love song “Snowed in With You.” Lead singer Karin Bergquist sings of her desire to have her husband home from work so that they can get snowed in and spend Christmas together. It’s a simply gorgeous, jazzy number, and it sounds like an instant Christmas classic. It’s one of the most romantic holiday tunes I can think of.
1. “On to Bethlehem,” Bill Mallonee
Bill Mallonee is the force behind college rock stalwarts Vigilantes of Love, and his first Christmas album, Yonder Shines the Infant Light, combines some of his holiday music from that band with some solo stuff. One of those tunes, which actually appears twice – as a VoL live track and in a stripped-down solo version — is the powerful confessional “On to Bethlehem.”
The song is autobiographical, mentioning his struggles in the music industry and his own tendency to keep distance between himself and God. But in the context of Christmas he tells the Lord, “My heart’s electric with Your love again.” The final verse encapsulates the gospel message better in two lines than just about anyone else could.
“On to Bethlehem” isn’t a party song, nor is it a rousing sing-along. Rather, it’s a pensive, thoughtful, vertical Christmas message that all of us can identify with in one way or another. It’s a powerful addition to the anyone’s Christmas playlist.
That’s my list. I hope you can enjoy these songs and that they will add to your Christmas season. May your holidays be bright and blessed.