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Top 20 Alternative Christmas Records

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11. Rosie Thomas 'A Very Rosie Christmas'

Rosie Thomas 'A Very Rosie Christmas'
Nettwerk
Rosie Thomas's Xmas LP succeeds, admirably, due to the unfailing earnestness of the endeavor. Thomas, a devoted Christian whose faith influences her regular singer-songwriter gig, tackles the standards of the season with no shortage of inspiration, and the results are unbelievable. Happy to shift keys and change-up tempos, she sets "Winter Wonderland" to a lazy shuffle of overlapping piano-chords and brushed drums, "O Come O Emmanuel" becomes an '80s synth-pop power-ballad, and, then, there's "Christmas Don't Be Late." Seemingly so synonymous with The Chipmunks that it's beyond rescue, Thomas treats it as a mighty, swelling, rousing piano-basher, its six singalong minutes cresting at "Transatlanticism"-esque levels of anthemicism.

12. Saint Etienne 'A Glimpse of Stocking'

Saint Etienne 'A Glimpse of Stocking'
Foreign Office
It's hard to deny a disc boasting a cut called "No Cure for the Common Christmas," and the fact the song is a pounding Euro-disc number sets A Glimpse of Stocking apart from the Christmas record ranks. The LP finds Saint Etienne flipping from groovy '60s-pop, to sad ballads, slyly avant-garde pieces, and pounding acid-house anthems. It's largely tongue-in-cheek: "Come on Christmas" pipes in a cheering crowd and a pipe organ for a sporting-event feel; "Unwrap Me" finds Sarah Cracknell winkingly evoking Marilyn Monroe over bells and gongs; and "Gonna Have a Party" ladles on the Autotune like so much gravy. It teeters on the brink of being a novelty album of novelty songs, but, that just makes it even more of a Christmas record, really.

13. Sam Mickens 'A Christmas Gift to You, Zac Pennington'

Sam Mickens 'A Christmas Gift to You, Zac Pennington'
Shatter Your Leaves
Zac Pennington —leader of Christmas-obsessed Portland orchestral-pop types Parenthetical Girls— so loved Christmas that, here, his pal Sam Mickens makes him a Christmas record. But A Christmas Gift to You, Zac Pennington is a free-to-download gift for all; especially those with a fondness for left-field yuletides. Here, the suicidal Dead Science leader (and one-time Xiu Xiu member) makes a suite of stripped-down, spartan takes on traditionals, in which he stretches out syllables with torturous tremors, his wavering vibrato making lines like "Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!" sound like wails from on the edge of sanity. Mickens' drunken delivery contrasts with the sober setting; his voice matched to solitary scratchy guitars, wonky synths, or (on an abstract, a cappella take on "It's Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas") pure silence.

14. She and Him 'A Very She and Him Christmas'

She and Him 'A Very She and Him Christmas'
Merge
On their first two LPs, Volume One and Volume Two, Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward —AKA She and Him— showed themselves students of Phil Spector, and unafraid of wearing their sentimental hearts on their sleeves. So a Christmas record seemed like a natural fit, with all the Wall of Sound, sleigh bell-jangling, string-swelling grandeur the likely outcome. Yet A Very She and Him Christmas is often stripped-down; Deschanel and Ward setting their voices to spare arrangements. The songs are a mixture of oldies and oddballs of the lesser-known variety, and the performance seems genuinely filled with the holiday spirit. It's the most 'straight' Christmas record on this list; beautiful, sentimental, and devoid of transgression.

15. Sufjan Stevens 'Songs for Christmas'

Sufjan Stevens 'Songs for Christmas'
Asthmatic Kitty

The grandaddy of all hipster Xmas discs, Sufjan Stevens' Songs for Christmas is a lavish 5CD box-set collecting annual EPs Sufjan made for friends/family from 2001-2006. The 42 tunes mix originals with traditionals, and are reverent, ridiculous, whimsical, and achingly beautiful in varied measures. Sometimes all at once. I find myself listening to Vol. III, 2003's Ding! Dong! most; "All the King's Horns" all cascades of piano and woodwinds, the tragicomic "That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!" sounding like a tender refugee from Seven Swans, and the gentle, playful reading of French fable "The Friendly Beasts" is ridiculously charming. Over two hours long, Songs for Christmas has surely soundtracked countless Christmas dinners, already.

16. Sufjan Stevens 'Silver & Gold: Songs for Christmas, Vols. 6-10'

Sufjan Stevens 'Silver & Gold: Songs for Christmas, Vols. 6-10'
Asthmatic Kitty
As if one five-disc Christmas box-set wasn't enough to prove his obsession with seasonal records, here Saint Sufjan is shown to be hopeless slave to that "creepy Christmas feeling" once more. And Silver & Gold makes Songs for Christmas feel like a minor prologue; Sufjan's second yuletide box presenting the world with 58 songs and almost three hours of all-new music. And, somehow, amidst 167 minutes, the clichés of the Xmas disc are almost entirely absent. Highlights include a take on the Sacred Harp death hymnal "Idumea," a tender ode to children scared/scarred by family conflict ("Carol of St. Benjamin The Bearded One"), a lo-fi, 8-bit-esque cover of Prince's "Alphabet St.," and "Christmas Unicorn," a 12+ minute psychedelic, Age of Adz-styled freakout that transforms, halfway through, into a riff on Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart."

17. The Sweptaways 'A Christmas Party' and 'Cry Cry Christmas'

The Sweptaways 'A Christmas Party with The Sweptaways and Friends'
Hybris
If communal caroling is synonymous with Christmas for you, The Sweptaways shall surely put a giddy seasonal smile on your dial. A 30-strong, all-lady, a cappella vocal co-op from Stockholm, the band normally reinterpret Swedish indie-pop and '80s hits as chaotic torrents of harmonized voice, but, for Christmas purposes, they work in a more 'collaborative format'. This pair of EPs finds a pair of collaborations —which, with much overlap, appear on both discs— with crooner Magnus Carlsson, and there's even big piano chords, drums, and handclaps added to the normally-vocal-only mix. For those who want to imagine that 30 Swedish women are caroling on their doorstep, it's hard to beat The Sweptaways' glorious take on The Concretes' "Lady December."

18. Timbre 'Silent Night'

Timbre 'Silent Night'
Timbre
'Alternative' takes on the Christmas record don't have to be avant-garde, oddball, or sarcastic readings thereof. On her free via Bandcamp Christmas album, Silent Night, Tennessean harpist-songwriter Timbre Cierpke dares to make a seasonal set of unvarnished sincerity and unadorned beauty, combatting the tradition towards tacky and ersatz with each achingly-artful arrangement. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" are made resplendent with stark harp patterns and gentle daubs of piano and tuned percussion, but it's nothing compared to the titular track. Here, that most standard of Christmas standards is turned into a seven-minute epic, beginning life as a heartbroken, hesitant piano-ballad, before spilling out into a choral conclusion sung by 30-member congregation.

19. Tracey Thorn 'Tinsel and Lights'

Tracey Thorn 'Tinsel and Lights'
Merge
Former Marine Girl and Everything But the Girl vocalist Tracey Thorn fulfilled a lifelong goal when she made her 2012 Christmas album Tinsel and Lights. And the set reflects the earnestness Thorn feels for the project: beginning with "Joy," an original whose feelings on the season are loaded with middle-aged melancholy ("you loved it as a kid/now you need it more than you ever did"). Thorn shows herself a fan of alt reads on Christmas, steering well wide of persistent standards as she covers Low, Sufjan Stevens, and the White Stripes, and recruits Magnetic Fields leader Stephin Merritt to pen an original. Like the She and Him LP, it tilts a little more towards MOR, but there's such a sense of earnest sentimentality and cutting melancholy etched in every pleasant arrangement that Tinsel and Lights feels quietly subversive.

20. Various 'A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records'

Various 'A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records' (1963)
Philles
OK, OK, OK: this isn't very alt. In fact, you could make a case this is the ultimate Christmas Album, a veritable classic to soundtrack families by fireplaces and the like. And, true, there's no irony in Phil Spector's legendary (and much-copied) 1963 Christmas classic. Yet, there was a sense of subversion, at the time: a sacrilege in running a hallowed holiday through the newfound youth-culture fad of rock'n'roll. But what truly earns A Christmas Gift for You its perennial cred is just how good it is. Here, heinous jingles are turned into Wagnerian operas ("Frosty the Snowman") or Spaghetti Western soundtracks ("Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer") via Spector's ever-glorious Wall of Sound, which piles on sleigh bells and echo to infinity.
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