‘Tis the season, as they say, to make merry — to spike and quaff egg nog, to unearth crates of broken ornaments, to wrap overpriced boxed sets in radioactive tinsel. It is also the season, unfortunately, to suffer through traditional and more recent versions of Christmas carols you were already sick and tired of way before puberty.
With that in mind, Sound of the City is proud to present a brief survey of some unusually discordant and avant-garde versions of yuletide standards — and fellow-traveler originals — that are guaranteed to alienate everybody in your family into clearing out early. Just think: You’ll have all the Heavenly Ham and pumpkin pie to yourself. Our list of jams appears after the jump.
10. Charles Ray Experience, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”
The levels are all over the place on this one, like some idiot put Charles Ray in charge of archiving old analogue tape after hours at CBS Records and went a little batty all by his lonesome. On the other hand, this is insanely great.
9. Ryuichi Sakamoto, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”
You won’t find this one on any Andy Williams or Burl Ives holiday platter, and there isn’t anything especially paradigm-upsetting or experimental about it. But know this before daring to hit play: this elemental piano plea will come closer to making you cry as sugar plums slam-dance through your head than five dozen drunken rounds of “Jingle Bells” could ever hope to.
8. The Silber Sounds of Christmas Compilation
Flickers of that familiar holiday melancholy surface on this comp, but the participants, generally, are in pursuit of demonic noise. (A few succumb to more conventional tendencies; their entries are almost like intermissions.) To wit: Sailor Winters’ “What Child Is This?” sounds like Armageddon, Upsidedown Stars’ take on “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” is a pure doom-metal dirge that has virtually nothing to do with the original, or My Ambient Nature Girl’s distressed, burnt-treble run at “Handel’s Messiah.”
7. Offthesky, “Oh Holy Night”
Christendom’s soaring, choir-favored anthem gets the frosted ambient treatment in a version that pays its melody pitch-shifted lip service at best but is evocative, transportive, and spine-tingling nonetheless.
6. The Polyphonic Spree, “Silver Bells”
Because the world needs more wildly psychedelic Christmas pop that begins whorled and awkward before cinching perfectly, then blooming like an entire poppy field in April.
5. Snowden, “Christmas Time Is Here”
There’s something oddly come-hither about how a) these guys don’t sound at all excited about Christmas while b) the sonics backing their in-the-roundelay vocals sound like a gathering snowstorm, complete with the percussive equivalent of jackboots crunching snow.
4. John Zorn, “Blues Noel”
This is what I’ve always imagined a Saturday Night Live Band after party gig on New Year’s Eve must sound like.
3. Dungeon Broads feat. Jacob Berendes, “Oh Christmas Tree”
This version gets a mite Henry Jacobs, with a dual-channel stare down: someone laying into a respectable version of the standard on one side but gradually losing the plot, while whoever is on the other side struggles mightily to master studio equipment. I’d really like to be a guest a Christmas party, in full swing, where the DJ is brave enough to slip this one into the mix,
2. John Fahey, “Christmas Medley”
There’s nothing quite like John Fahey’s guitar playing: those range-y, rambling licks, resonant and large-hearted, fragile and staunch. The joke here is that only a handful of the tunes in this seemingly endless playlist, plucked from his career, are actually Christmas carols, but if you’re curled up before a roaring fire with a favorite beverage of choice and a loved one, you’ll be way, way too becalmed and bewitched to quibble.
1. Sonic Youth, “Santa Doesn’t Cop Out On Dope” (Martin Mull)
Yep, it’s true: Sonic Youth covered a Christmas carol, and once you’ve experienced their turbulent version of “Santa Doesn’t Cop Out On Dope,” it’s clear why it was the best possible semi-standard for them to lay waste to. Ol’ Saint Nick never seemed quite this debauched before, and likely hasn’t since. Thurston Moore’s sneering, corporate rock rejoinder is a cherry-on-top bonus: “Merry Christmas, David Geffen.”