Not Quite the Classics:
A Modern Christmas Playlist

December 20th, 2017
8 minute read

Happy holidays, everybody. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had Christmas music on in the car every day since Thanksgiving. I’m breathing Christmas music. I’ve had nothing to do but get cut off by reckless NJ drivers and listen to Christmas music, which lends itself to a lot of thinking and drastic braking. I want to share some of this fantastic music with our readers, so I’m compiling a list of my favorite Christmas covers: new versions of songs that are better than the original. This playlist should be perfect for light listening, family gatherings, and skidding to a dead stop on a highway. Enjoy!

[The whole playlist is available on Spotify. Check it out!]

1. O Holy Night – Weezer

This is my favorite Christmas song. I prefer a version of this song which shall not be named, but Weezer is a close second. The steady strumming of electric power chords provides a rhythmic base on which Rivers Cuomo builds up some great vocals. In fact, I found myself listening intently to the charming variations in his accent.

Cuomo’s pronunciation in this track reflects his distinct New York accent, as he struggles with the consonant “r” throughout the whole track. Cuomo alternates between dropping “r” at the ends of words, turning “dear” into something closer to “deah,” but turning the same “r” into a “w” when he pronounces “stars” as “staws.” Other times, he pronounces “r” completely normally. In all of Weezer’s music, this signature accent adds to the unique nature of the band’s sound, and this particular recording is no different, though the accent did lead me to listen more closely to the words.

2. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – Coldplay

Is this the best version of this song that I could find? No, probably not. This is arguably the most classic of Christmas classics, and it’s been covered up and down. Sinatra’s own immaculate recording, like Sinatra himself, can’t be beaten. However, Coldplay’s cover of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas does warrant mention. The slower pace lets the words shine through and lets Chris Martin’s voice soar.

The downside to this version is the creative liberty that Martin takes with the melody. He naturally sings at the top of his register, and therefore has a preference to take his melodies down instead of up. This is not quite the song for that, because the song is traditionally driven by the climbing melodies that build up over the sumptuous background strings. Martin skips several of those melodies, taking them down an octave, disappointingly. It could have been improved by a more faithful vocal melody, but Coldplay still delivers with this cover.

3. Merry Christmas (I Don’t Wanna Fight Tonight) – the Ramones

For flavor, here’s an original. It has the same exact drum beat as every other Ramones song (you know the one) and it opens with Johnny Ramone’s favorite four power chords, like every other Ramones song, so you know it’s an original. And just like any other successful Ramones song, the only factor driving that success are the lyrics.

The catchy chorus is short and gets brought back around just enough to satisfy the listener’s craving for it. The verses are cute, but in my view, the highlight of the track is the rhythmic breakdown at the end: “Merry Christmas, I don’t wanna fight tonight. Merry Christmas, I don’t. want. to. fight tonight… Merry Christmas, I don’t want to fight tonight… with… you…” You heard the man. Don’t fight.

4. We Three Kings – Sufjan Stevens

We Three Kings is a song that actually has a number of wonderful versions. Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Conniff, and the Beach Boys come to mind, but the devoutly Christian Sufjan Stevens takes the cake. Stevens’s quiet vocals are perfect to call to mind the slow, moody march of the Three Wisemen, and his signature acoustic sound complements the minor tonality of the music. You can also hear in his singing the devotion and reverence of a true believer.

Stevens says each word, not as if he is reciting rote, but as if each word means something to him deeply — and all indications are that it does. Religion is a nearly-universal theme in Stevens’s non-holiday music, and it comes to the forefront on nearly every track on all five Christmas EPs he has released. His song selection is expert, and his familiarity with carols and hymns at all levels of renown is truly impressive. Enjoy this deeply-informed rendition.

5. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – Bright Eyes

Bright Eyes seems to be channeling another band in this recording — hometown friends of theirs, in fact: the noisy Omaha indie outfit Cursive. With a mournful mandolin backing up a guitar, pierced by an ominous upright bass that anchors the song firmly in a minor key, Bright Eyes maintains their typical instrumentation. However, it’s the clashing of the instruments against each other that hearkens to Cursive, who frequently use dissonance in their music, as opposed to the usually melodic, folky Bright Eyes.

This whole creepy minor-key feel is ultimately very successful for this somber carol. When Conor Oberst sings the line “God rest ye, merry gentlemen,” one can hear the exhaustion in his tone. The warbling of a violin and a trumpet together form a solo that goes along perfectly with the scratchy, chaotic jangling of the guitar. For someone who grew up hearing “God Rest Ye…” performed on guitars in churches, this Bright Eyes cover is rewardingly anarchic.

6. Wonderful Christmastime – the Shins

The original recording of Wonderful Christmastime (by Paul McCartney) is wonderfully immersive. There are sleigh bells, children singing; atmospheric keyboards. The Shins trimmed off some of that warmth, compensating with booming reverb and dream-like layers of keys to achieve an equally surreal atmosphere. Early on, it verges on shoegaze, but the heavy drum beats and distorted guitars that come into the music later in the track help to keep the sound firmly grounded.

The vocals take on a new light, as the Shins feature their lead singer, James Mercer, whereas McCartney elected to quadruple his voice in imitation of his former band. The listener can pay attention to all of the enunciations and intonations of each word, taking in the lyrics in a way that the snappy quartet harmonies of the original don’t quite allow.

7. Baby, It’s Cold Outside – from the Elf soundtrack

I’m a Baby, It’s Cold Outside truther. A lot of people think this song is really creepy, and rightly so, but (as lame an excuse as this often is for past behavior) those were the times. When the female singer asks, “say, what’s in this drink?”, it’s because she likes the taste and is expecting an answer like “Chambord” — nothing worse. In the current era, it’s easy to look back in time and imagine that the minds of writers were as polluted as our own. However, a modern listener needs to consider the nearly-Puritanical culture of the 1950s, where it was considered pretty socially unacceptable for a woman to stay the night with a man. The reality is that the back-and-forth is meant to coyly show that the female singer doesn’t want to have to leave and is looking for an excuse to stay.

Now that I’ve defended the song on its merits, let’s discuss this amazing cover from the Elf soundtrack. Zooey Deschanel teams up with Leon Redbone (the voice of Leon the Snowman from the film) to deliver the simplest and most satisfying rendition of this song I can find. If you’re looking for one male and one female singer, as opposed to the chorus of women in Dean Martin’s classic recording, for example, look no further. Other duets are skewed, with one singer or the other carrying the track, but Deschanel and Redbone share the spotlight, coming together to pull off a great rendition.

8. Sleigh Ride – fun.

I’ve heard a number of versions of this number, and I don’t like any of them. Ferrante and Teicher’s instrumental recording is cute, with the horse whip and all, but it’s kitschy overall. She and Him have a good cover, but the ups and downs of the vocals expose the limits of Zooey Deschanel’s untrained voice. Ella Fitzgerald, normally a stalwart when it comes to singing the pants off a classic standard, steps the tempo up just a bit too much in her own version.

However, when I recently heard this recording from fun., I was won over. The poppy, pulsating synths are actually much easier on the ears than the jumpy gallop of the orchestra that forms the backdrop of most Sleigh Ride covers. Nate Ruess, through his somewhat-cringey trademark auto-tune, sings the song more clearly and effortlessly than any other singer I’ve heard, even nailing the tricky syncopated run that goes, “We’re riding along with a song of a wint’ry fairy land…” It’s easy to listen to, it’s new; it’s fun.

9. Feliz Navidad – Kacey Musgraves

Kacey Musgraves seems to be trying to out-do herself here. Her version of José Feliciano’s insanely catchy Christmas smash hit comes off as very authentic. For a country artist, surely plagued by the instinct to add pedal steel and banjos here and there, it’s refreshing to hear flat-picked flamenco-style guitars, Latin singers, and hand percussion.

What makes this version better than the original, in my opinion, is threefold. The recording is newer and the added quality goes a long way. Feliciano’s recording was limited by the technology of the time. Secondly, there is far more variation in Musgraves’s version. She switches between her own lovely vocals and the male background singers several times. The biggest advantage Musgraves’s cover has over the original is her accent. It’s got just enough twang to impart a certain character, but she still sings cleanly and smoothly. Put simply, it’s worth a listen just to hear her singing.

10. Auld Lang Syne – Andrew Bird

This cover is masterful. Andrew Bird begins his rendition of the Scottish New Year tune by strumming his violin like a ukulele, and it only gets better when he kicks out a spicy fiddle riff to complement the chords he was strumming so effortlessly. I’m not huge on vocal improvisations in cover songs, but Bird’s minor variations and jazzy grace notes don’t interfere.

Among the varied genres that are typical of his music, Bird develops a folky, jumpy sound that gives new life to an often slow-sung song. The violin solo at the end is worth sticking around for, but with the track clocking in at four and a half minutes, I have to question why Bird chose to sing the bulk of the song twice before cutting out to a solo.

11. O’Clock News (Silent Night) – Simon and Garfunkel

In the interest of leaving my audience thinking (because it would be stupid to try to leave my audience not thinking), I am closing out with this not-so-modern recording, which incorporates the song Silent Night with then-current news bulletins detailing the events of August 3, 1966. The radio broadcast touches on topics from housing discrimination and Martin Luther King, Jr. to Richard Nixon and Vietnam. Being that Silent Night is around 200 years old, Simon and Garfunkel’s recording is recent news by comparison. I think, however, that the value of the track is in the time that has passed since its release.

At the time, in an era where the United States President was pursuing progress toward a Great Society while unprecedented tension and violence built worldwide, protesters for peace were demonized and the civil rights movement was opposed. Simon and Garfunkel, reaching out from the past, seem to be questioning: how will next Christmas be any different than August 3, 1966?

Post-Script

Thanks for reading. I wish you a merry Christmas, a happy Hanukkah, and peace and prosperity for any other celebration this season. I hope this playlist serves you well.

[The whole playlist is available on Spotify. Check it out!]

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