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Cyndi Lauper, Snoop Dogg, The Vandals: 11 Left-Of-Center Christmas Songs
When it comes to holiday music, you can never go wrong with the tried-and-true classics.
Who doesn't love Nat "King" Cole's "The Christmas Song," Elvis Presley's "Blue Christmas," Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas," the A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack, or any of the benignly safe versions of fill in the blank?
But let's face it: When it comes to holiday traditions and music, it's always good to get out of one's comfort zone. With that in mind, unwrap this 11-song playlist of outside-the-box Christmas songs, spanning rock to rap and featuring everything from refreshing spins on the familiar to unexpected holiday thrills.
John Prine, "Christmas In Prison"
This first-hand account of spending the most joyous holiday locked up and separated from the one you love reminds us just how lucky we are to be free on Christmas. Of course, "Christmas In Prison" also contains plenty of John Prine's signature romantic wit ("I dream of her always, even when I don't dream) and comedic hyperbole ("Her heart is as big as this whole g*****n jail") with plenty of longing and hope to spare. "Christmas In Prison" appeared on Prine's third album, 1973's Sweet Revenge, and again as a live version on his 1994 album, A John Prine Christmas, which makes for perfect further off-beat holiday exploration. — Nate Hertweck
Eric Johnson, "The First Nowell"
When it comes to gloriously tasty six-string instrumentals, no one does it better than GRAMMY-winning Texan Eric Johnson. For his take on this timeless Christmas carol, the "Cliffs Of Dover" guitarist intermingles acoustic-based lines, sublime clean guitar passages and Hendrix-y double-stops with his trademark creamy violin-like Strat lines. The result is a sonic equivalent on par with the majesty of the Rockefeller Christmas tree. (For more dazzling holiday guitar tomfoolery, look into the album it's featured on, 1997's Merry Axemas.) — Tim McPhate
Gayla Peevy, "I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas"
Who doesn't want a large semiaquatic mammal for the holidays? For then-10-year old child star Gayla Peevy, not only did she score with the catchy tune, she also got her wish. The 1953 novelty hit, written by John Rox, rocketed up the pop charts and led to a fundraising campaign to buy Peevy an actual hippo for Christmas. Children donated their dimes to the cause, and Peevy got her hippo, named Mathilda, which she donated to the Oklahoma City Zoo. The song itself features plodding brass instrumentals and unforgettable lyrics such as "Mom says a hippo, would eat me up but then/Teacher says a hippo is a vegetarian." It seems Peevy still has a fond legacy with the hippo activist community — she was on hand in 2017 when the Oklahoma City Zoo acquired a pygmy hippopotamus. — Renée Fabian
The Vandals, "Oi To The World!"
In a contemplative mood this Christmas? Try getting into the holiday spirit by way of meditating on the true meaning of the season with this brash, up-tempo Southern California crust punk tune. Now the best-known song from the Vandals' 1996 Christmas album of the same name, "Oi To The World!" remained a relatively obscure track by the Huntington Beach punkers until it was covered by a rising pop/ska crossover band from nearby Anaheim, Calif., in 1997. (Perhaps you have heard of them — they were called No Doubt.) Ever since, the song has been a mainstay of the Vandals' live sets, and they have also played the album Oi To The World! in its entirety every year since its release at their annual Winter Formal show in Anaheim, now in its 22nd year. — Brian Haack
OutKast, "Player's Ball (Christmas Version)"
Though it's best known from OutKast's 1994 debut album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, the Christmas version of the track "Player's Ball" was released earlier on A LaFace Family Christmas, an L.A. Reid-led project to introduce new acts. The then-young Atlanta rapper duo took a Southern hip-hop spin on the season, which can come across as a little irreverent, but at least they're honest: "Ain't no chimneys in the ghetto so I won't be hangin' my socks on no chimneys." Though some people may not find it cheerful, OutKast's season's greetings give "a little somethin' for the players out there hustlin'." — Philip Merrill
Tom Waits, "Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis"
You'd be hard-pressed to find a more heart-breaking Christmas story than this Tom Waits' masterpiece from 1978's Blue Valentine. "Charlie, I'm pregnant and living on 9th Street," begins the Christmas card narrative where a woman writes an old flame to report how much better things are going since she quit drugs and alcohol and found a trombone-playing husband. Waits' signature early-career piano-plinking and tall-tale-storytelling weaves through a dream world of hair grease and used car lots, even sneaking in a Little Anthony And The Imperials reference. In the end, our narrator comes clean with the sobering lyric, "I don't have a husband, he don't play the trombone" before pleading, "I need to borrow money to pay this lawyer and Charlie hey, I'll be eligible for parole come Valentine's Day." For the uninitiated, this is the off-beat genius of GRAMMY winner Waits at his finest. — N.H.
Winger, "Silent Night"
Though they took some lumps in their '80s hair-metal heyday, few would dare deny Winger's talent and musicianship. Surely on display here, frontman Kip Winger (a GRAMMY-nominated classical musician) and his bandmates begin with a traditional unplugged reading of the Franz Xaver Gruber-penned holiday chestnut, complete with four-part harmony. But then it gets really interesting. The boys get "funky" with an inside-out musical pivot that fuses percussive rhythmic accents, pentatonic-based acoustic riffing, Winger's gravely vocals, and some choice bluesy soloing (and high-pitched vocal responses) courtesy of lead guitarist Reb Beach. — T.M.
Cyndi Lauper And The Hives, "A Christmas Duel"
With lyrics that include "I know I should have thought twice before I kissed her" in the opening, you know you're in for a sleigh ride like none other. It's therefore no surprise that Cyndi Lauper and Swedish rock band the Hives' unconventional Christmas duel describes many marital hiccups that might make some blush. Yet the raucous duet somehow comes out on a high note, concluding, "We should both just be glad/And spend this Christmas together." The 2008 track was the brainchild of the Hives, who always wanted to do a song with Lauper. "This is a Christmas song whose eggnog has been spiked with acid, and whose definition of holiday cheer comes with a complimentary kick below the belt," wrote Huffington Post. "It's also an absolute riot." — R.F.
LCD Soundsystem,"Christmas Will Break Your Heart"
Leave it to LCD Soundsystem's producer/frontman James Murphy to pen a holiday song about the depressing side of the season. "If your world is feeling small/There's no one on the phone/You feel close enough to call," he sings, tapping into that special seasonal weirdness that can creep up as a counterpoint to everyone around you being all incessant smiles, warmth and cheer, and pumpkin-spice lattes. While he doesn't shy away from examining the depressing side of surviving the holiday season as an aging 20-, 30-, 40-something, Murphy does at least give a glimmer of hope to grab onto, transient and fleeting though it may be, as he refrains, "But I'm still coming home to you." — B.H.
Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg, Bad Azz, Dat Nigga Daz, and Tray Deee, "Santa Claus Goes Straight To The Ghetto"
As Snoop Dogg declares, "It's Christmas time and my rhyme's steady bumpin'." This track from the 1996 album Christmas On Death Row lets you know why "Santa Claus Goes Straight To The Ghetto." Church food, love between people and happiness stand out as Christmas is "time to get together and give all you got; you got food, good moods and what's better than together with your people." Love in the hard 'hood might have to watch itself, but the various artists of Death Row contagiously testify to abundant love and seasonal joy. — P.M.
Twisted Sister, "Silver Bells"
Bypassing the urge to write new material on their rocking Christmas album, 2006's A Twisted Christmas, Twister Sister instead took the most recognizable holiday classics in the book and made them faster, louder and more aggressive. The result, which to date equate to the group's seventh and final album, is a supercharged concept collection of songs such as "Silver Bells," "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" and "Deck The Halls" bludgeoned by chainsaw guitar riffs, thundering drums and lead singer Dee Snider's soaring screams. This unusual combination makes A Twisted Christmas the perfect soundtrack for any child of the '80s still hoping to tick off the neighbors this holiday season. — N.H.