If there’s two things you’ll find no shortage of every holiday season, it’s Christmas music and complaints about Christmas music. Whether overheard on the radio while the family cooks Christmas dinner in the kitchen, or providing the soundtrack to some frantic last-minute mall madness, the seasonal standards tend to bring out the best and worst in us every December.This year, instead of subjecting you to the same looped Mariah Carey/Wings/public domain “O Tannenbaum” playlist, we’ve assembled some of our favorite lesser-known Yuletide jams. These unheralded angels are sure to delight and get your sugarplum fairies dancing. Here are the five best Christmas songs you’ve never heard.
Akim “Santa Claus is a Black Man,” 1973
Almost two decades before he won a Grammy for co-writing “Power of Love/Love Power” for Luther Vandross, Brooklyn songwriter Teddy Vann penned an incredible Christmas song for his daughter Akim. “Santa Claus is a Black Man,” a genuinely sweet song from a child’s perspective about the magic of Santa, was a hit on black radio and has become something of a cherished cult classic for vinyl collectors and Christmas music aficionados. While it did attract some mainstream press when Vann sued filmmaker John Waters for including the song on his Christmas compilation, the song’s highest profile moment was likely a shout-out from Keith Murray on A Very Special Christmas 3‘s reworking of “Santa Baby”
Mojo Nixon “Trim Yo Tree,” 1992
When compiling a list of the all-time greatest Christmas albums, most include the classics from Elvis Presley, Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby. Often just barely missing the cut-off is cow-punk/”psycho-billy” music pioneer Mojo Nixon’s Horny Holidays. Perhaps the most authentic intoxicated sing-along holiday album (the band admits to not knowing the words to “Good King Wenceslas” so they just drunkenly grunt along with the melody) it opens with singing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus, followed by an inspired cover of Jimmy Butler’s “Trim Yo Tree.” An incredibly fun and downright impressive collection of Christmas double entendres, it’s as cool as Yule gets.
Tiny Tim “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” 1994
Two years before his untimely passing, celebrated novelty act Tiny Tim recorded one of the most polarizing Christmas albums ever released. While some dismiss it for tracks like his downright disturbing rendition of “Silent Night,” there are some absolute gems to be found. We consider his recording of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” to be the definitive version, fully capturing the childlike innocence and wide-eyed wonder that the season inspires within the kid in all of us.
Wesley Willis “Merry Christmas,” 1996
Some Christmas songs are beloved for how they seem to capture everything that is wonderful about the season. If that’s your barometer, look no further than Wesley Willis’ “Merry Christmas.” It begins with “Christmas is a fun time … It is a fun time every December,” and includes mentions of it being “a fun time to get gifts,” spending time with children, Jesus Christ’s birthday as well as a shout-out to Allstate Insurance, pretty much every facet of Christmas is covered. For all the songwriters who’ve picked up a pen on the subject, it took until 1996 for someone to just write “I like this holiday a lot.”
Sufjan Stevens “Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!,” 2003
Few artists have expressed their dedication to the holiday season with as much prolific output as Sufjan Stevens. Responsible for 10 volumes of Christmas EPs, he’s covered the spectrum from the traditional to the quirky. Our favorite, “Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!” comes from his whimsically titled Ding! Dong!: Songs for Christmas, Vol. III. In it, Stevens conjures the imagery from Christmas most neglect to mention. Beginning with “tie up your boots” and mentioning both that “K-Mart is closed” and that “everyone’s home watching TV” before we even get to the first chorus, it’s both one of the outright silliest Christmas songs ever recorded.