Tis the season . . . to hear the same yuletide melodies played in every supermarket, shopping mall, and Laundromat you visit. Like Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” It’s a fine song — the first 35 times you hear it each season. But, if you’re not a Grinch and want to listen to songs that aren’t Christmas kitsch but will still get you in the spirit of the holidays, we’ve got you covered.
Some of these songs are modern renditions of centuries-old hymns and others are popular Christmas carols redone. A few embrace the commercialization of the holiday, but many more emphasize the Christian narrative — the Jesus of it all.
So, here are 20 Christmas songs that are better than the ones you’re listening to right now:
1. “O Come All Ye Faithful” by Page CXVI
If I could only listen to one album all season, without question it would be Page CXVI’s Advent to Christmas. The mission of this trio, whose name refers to a passage on page 116 of C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew, is to revive hymns. Their renditions are both soothing and meditative.
From the light percussion to the tinkling piano, the melody alone awakens the soul as it swells wonderfully at the refrain. More beautiful still is the way Page CXVI’s hymns draw you back to the powerful, centuries-old lyrics that often get lost in familiarity.
2. “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” by Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan’s album Songs for Christmas contains 42 songs, and it’s not his only Christmas album. This version of the classic hymn pulls you out of the chaotic commercialism of many Christmas songs and focuses you back on the spirituality of the season. Something about the simple plucking of the banjo makes you reflect on the lyrics: Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God. . . .
This song won’t bring out that jolly Christmas cheer, but it does evoke an almost ancient feeling when the first verse is sung a capella (which is Italian for “in the manner of the chapel”) at the end.
3. “O Come O Come Emmanuel” by The Civil Wars
What I like most about The Civil Wars’ version of this hymn is that the melody embodies the paradox of the lyrics (and, really, the Christian narrative). The song itself calls for rejoicing, yet its composition is rather eerie. Similarly, its lyrics tell of the coming of humanity’s savior, yet the way he accomplishes that salvation is through ultimate suffering. This is a great Advent song, as The Civil Wars’ haunting harmonies leave you waiting and yearning for the miracle that is Christmas.
4. “O Holy Night” by Shane & Shane
Shane & Shane pick up the tempo in their rendition of this typically slow classic using a jazzy guitar rather than the usual piano arrangement. “O Holy Night” is one of those songs that I don’t usually listen to outside of Christmas church services because its legato-style composition has a way of dragging on and on. So, I like that this Texas duo created a version of this carol that I actually want to listen to more regularly during the holiday.
5. “Angels We Have Heard on High” by Page CXVI
I didn’t want to put every Advent to Christmas song on this list, but I also couldn’t just put one. Page CXVI takes “Angels We Have Heard on High,” which is normally more upbeat, and softens it quite a bit, gives it a dreamy quality. The light trumpeting that comes in during the “Gloria” refrain and the gentle percussion throughout creates a sound that beckons you to reflect on its lyrics. I’m not usually a big fan of female lead singers, but Latifah Phillips’ airy vocals are moving, to say the least.
6. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” by Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors
Where this carol is typically sung as an upbeat march, Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors slow it down and give it a more thoughtful arrangement. Lead singer Drew Holcomb’s grumbly, soulful voice pairs nicely with the higher pitched, but subtle, harmonies that come in a little later via his wife, Ellie.
This acoustic take on Charles Wellesley’s classic hymn isn’t going to be like the music you’re used to hearing at Christmastime. But that’s what I appreciate about it — a mellow rendition that showcases the group’s Tennessean roots.
7. “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” by Benjamin Dunn and Friends
The chorus-style chanting that begins this carol and continues in the background throughout creates an air of mystery. The simple but distinct xylophone and tambourine tones take away from the Gregorian-monk feel, but don’t compromise the mesmerizing quality of the song.
At the end, a piano plays alongside a few lines the group has appended to the original: Merry gentlemen, you can rest now. He has come down to us. Merry gentlemen, rest. How very Advent — rest and wait upon the Lord.
8. “Every Bell On Earth Will Ring” by The Oh Hello’s
The hand-clapping in this rendition make it feel like this song would best be sung outside, gathered around a campfire, in the snow. It’s a totally fun and upbeat song that features a mixture of lyrics from “Joy to the World” and “I Saw Three Ships” and also “O Come Let Us Adore Him.” This Texas-based brother-sister duo (how cute is that?) bring a nice twang to a medley of Christmas classics rolled into one via banjo, tambourine, and other heel-stomping beats.
9. “Silent Night” by Folk Angel
Folk Angel exclusively produces folky (go figure) remakes of Christmas songs, and half of the band’s members are on the staff at Matt Chandler’s The Village Church. As the group’s name suggests, they bring the tambourines and the harmonicas and soulful vocals. They take “Silent Night,” which is usually a slow, serious lullaby, and turn it up a bit, though it’s still relatively calming. Folk Angel adds a bit of unique style by adding after each set of verses a refrain: Rejoice, oh rejoice. Emmanuel has come.
10. “Carol of the Bells” by the bird and the bee
The only thing I wish differently for this song is that it was twice as long. “Carol of the Bells” has long been a favorite of mine, and this is hands-down the best rendition I’ve come across. The instrumentals are both spooky and cinematic — fit for a Tim Burton animated film — and singer Inara George’s wispy vocals, as they change key throughout, certainly add to that eeriness.
With its drama and bells and whistles, this psych-pop Christmas song deserves to have a whole light show choreographed to it.
11. “Christmas Must Be Tonight” by Bahamas
This redo of the 1977 original by The Band is at a combination of smooth jam and comforting folk. It manages to sound equally at home on a tropical beach as it does beside a snowy campfire. The combination of Bahamas’ — which is to say Afie Juravnen’s — slow drawl and deep bass sounds have a coaxing effect.
The song, written from the point of view of the shepherds who traveled to greet baby Jesus, picks up slightly at the chorus as electric instrumentation and gang vocals accompany the words: How a little baby boy brought the people so much joy / Son of a carpenter, Mary carried the light / This must be Christmas, must be tonight.
12. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by Echosmith
The beauty of Echosmith’s modern approach to this nineteenth-century carol is in the way the high and airy solo vocals lead up to the song’s crescendo between verses, which showcases a striking bit of percussion. (As a reminder, this is the all-sibling band that released the hit “Cool Kids.”) Other siblings join in on the vocals for the last set of verses — which kind of emphasizes those lyrics: Oh, God’s not dead and not asleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail.
I give Echosmith props for changing my mind about an achingly slow Christmas song that I didn’t much care for before.
13. “Little Drummer Boy” by for KING & COUNTRY
This one starts out grand, which is fitting given its all about exalting the King. This track, by the Australian brother duo, is more pop rock, more upbeat, and leans more heavily on instrumentation than most of the others on this list. Driving the song is the fast-paced strumming of a single note, supplemented by periodic electronic twinkling effects — which sound the way I imagine sparkling snow would if it made noise.
14. “Xmas Time Is Here Again” by My Morning Jacket
This has been one of my favorites for a few years now — and one of the few originals here. The constant jingling of bells throughout the song lend it an extra Christmasy vibe, and the acoustic strums, grumbly lead vocals, and gentle repetition of “bop bop” in the background give it a tinge of folk. It says something that this song is six-plus minutes long, yet I never find myself wanting to skip forward. Even at the four-minute mark, where the picking of an electric guitar replaces all vocals for a full minute and a half, I find myself in this song ’til the jingle-bell end.
15. “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” by She & Him
Of all the songs listed here, this one probably retains the most of the original’s sound. Zooey Deschanel (She) and M. Ward (Him) impart on this track a sweet, retro feel that is both soothing and spunky — perfect for snuggling under a blanket by a fireplace. Deschanel’s earthy voice coupled with the sounds of a ukulele make for a tranquil tune, and the light sound of jingle bells make it Christmas.
16. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by Jack Johnson
Surely Jack Johnson can’t be the only one who thinks it’s bogus that the other reindeer never apologized to Rudolph for mocking him before he saved the day, well, night. So, he takes the liberty of appending an extra verse to his remake of one of Christmas’ kitschiest classics. His new ending: All of the other reindeers, man, well they sure did feel ashamed. “Rudolph you know we’re sorry. We’re truly gonna try to change.” Talk about a life lesson packed into his lighthearted version of this carol.
17. “Deck the Halls” by The Last Bison
Twinkling xylophone tones, peculiar plucking sounds, and jingle bells are featured prominently in The Last Bison’s wildly playful version of this familiar yuletide song. The staccato of female vocals adding a sweet-sounding “bump badump bump bump” to the mix gives the melody a real folky feel. It’s a short but sweet Christmas tune arranged by a group based out of Virginia, my people.
18. “Go Tell It On the Mountain” by Seabird
This tambourine- and banjo-heavy rendition of the Civil Rights anthem is both upbeat and retains almost none of the original feel of the song. Seabird cut the first three verses, opting to start right off with the chorus: Go tell it on the mountain, over the seas and everywhere. Tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born. Then, the song jumps into the fourth and fifth verses, though the refrain dominates.
It’s entirely catchy, though is admittedly not very Christmas-sounding (but, lyrics!), and it has the kind of rhythm that you find yourself involuntarily nodding your head along to the beat.
19. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” by Abandon Kansas
The Midwest group Abandon Kansas does this 1960s plea for peace in an indie-rock sound that features keyboard tones and a higher-pitched electric guitar. They also add a folky flair to the song with group shouts of “Can you hear it?” and “Are you listening?” and even a Lumineers-like “Hey” chants that comes in at the end. It starts out slower, but this is another fun one that’ll have you tapping your feet along to the tune.
20. “Joy to the World (You Are My Joy)” by Rend Collective
An Irish folk-rock Christmas rendition to round out this list. Rend Collective’s debut Christmas album is aptly named Campfire Christmas, Vol. 1. When I listen to this track, I can just see the group of twenty-somethings dancing around a campfire in plaid button-ups and knit ponchos to this song. It sounds silly, but you really can feel the joy emanating from this tune. Rend also adds its own twist to the song by including a simple refrain of “Joy! Joy, joy, joy, you are my joy” to the verses, with background vocals and harmonies that really add to joy of it all.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.