20 Indie Holiday Tracks to Make You Merry and Bright

Music Lists
20 Indie Holiday Tracks to Make You Merry and Bright

In this time to laugh and be merry, it seems we’ve heard the same collection of songs over and over again for…well, basically our entire lives. That doesn’t mean there isn’t love for them—it’s because they’re so adored that we keep hearing them time and again! But still, it’s nice to shake things up sometimes, and hear some of those well-known tunes done differently. And so we present a collection of holiday covers and originals done by our favorite independent/alternative artists.

“Auld Lang Syne” by Andrew Bird
Perhaps the only version of this song one could ever dance to, Andrew Bird’s fiddle delivers something that will make your fingers start tapping and your chest kind of ache. There’s an upbeat assurance, with the usually wistful, slightly solemn lyrics gathering an air of hope about them as Bird rips through it all with cheerful improvisation. You feel as though you will see all those old acquaintances of yours again, as the tune gives you both the energy for the freshness of the new year, and the stamina to get through the further cold months. And be sure to check out the rest of the collection—Holidays Rule is a compilation with talented indie names including Sharon Van Etten, The Shins, The Punch Brothers, Fruit Bats and more contributing their take on a holiday tune. There’s even a track from Paul McCartney.

“Blue Christmas” by Kevin Morby
Kevin Morby’s wistful voice sways on this lovely cover of Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas,” the track unlocking surprising similarities between the two that I, at least, had never put my finger on before. There’s a haunting gentleness to Morby’s version of it—instead of truly mourning the absence of his lover, he seems to take comfort in the sadness, at least as a constant in his life. “And when those blue snowflakes start falling / That’s when those blue memories start calling,” he murmurs, sounding alright with the steady nature of blue.

“Silent Night” by Christian Lee Hutson
Coming in with layered vocals and altered lyrics full of regret, Christian Lee Hutson instantly makes this track recognizable as part tradition, part his own. “I wanna call, but I don’t,” he repeats, his voice heavy with disappointment at the narrator. Songs like this, repeated again and again, sung by so many over a long time, start to take on a more personal meaning to all of us. Hutson goes one step further and uses the familiar tune to tell a story that perhaps finds resonance in his own life—piecing characters and parts together, one finds someone named Casey with a kid and a “new husband,” a bar too often visited, snow angels, a sack of gifts, and finally, a second life. Driving towards it, the artist repeats, “Making up for lost time.”

“Christmas Time Is Here” by Hiatus Kaiyote
Hiatus Kaiyote, forever the cool kids on the block, bring their complicated ease to Vince Guaraldi and Lee Mendelson’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” beloved by all in the eternal classic “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The band always knows exactly how to walk the line between fascinating musical complexity without stepping into oversaturation, and this track is no different. Strings and repeated layered harmonies are added as pops in between Nai Palm’s slinky vocals. Her voice, perhaps technically smoother and more flexible than the kids singing on the original, still holds the same enthusiasm and joy as they do.

“Frosty the Snowman” by Fiona Apple
You don’t really know how much you need to hear Fiona Apple singing “Frosty the Snowman” until…well…you hear it. Her voice injects the perfect balance of fun and slight brutality into the song, trembling and never going quite where you would expect it to. The guitar bounces along in a way that feels unexpectedly springy for Apple, until she grounds it every once in a while with a biting delivery of this children’s winter tune. There’s delight to this tune, and somehow, she manages to inject anticipation into the ending everyone knows so well (or the one that, with the combination of snow and sun, you might expect). Never has “Frosty the Snowman” felt so new again.

“Linus & Lucy” by Anderson .Paak
This song takes the neo-soul crooner back to his roots as an incredibly hip drummer. Beginning with a solemn trumpet ode to Frosty the Snowman, .Paak turns around and kicks things up a notch, keeping Guaraldi’s “Linus & Lucy” (also from fan favorite A Charlie Brown Christmas) locked into a tight yet constantly shifting groove. The whole band just feels like they’re jamming together with no one listening, leaning into the jazz that is normally more of an inflection in their other recorded music, effortlessly slipping in and out of different tempos and beats. And it wouldn’t be an Anderson .Paak song without a cheesy little “Mwah, Merry Christmas baby,” at the end.

“Must Be Santa” by Kurt Vile
There’s no other way to describe it — this newest song from Kurt Vile just feels fluffy. His daughters (pictured with him on the single’s cover art) join him on this rendition of “Must Be Santa,” lending an air of extreme coziness to the track. Vile, whose style is normally steadily rolling and languorous, sings like he’s singing his kids to sleep, over soft synths. His guitar work adds a gentle twang, accenting the piece rather than taking center stage. There’s a kind twang to the piece: If a Christmas song could be described as “healing,” this fit the bill. It’s all made better by the fact that this is intended as an homage specifically to the Bob Dylan version of the song. Vile commented, “I figured Bob wouldn’t hear it, but I still wanted to do it justice, and once I got my daughters singing with me I hoped he would at least like it. Now I know… he loves it [laughs]. Merry Christmas, Bob Dylan!” And that reminds us…

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“Must Be Santa” by Bob Dylan
There’s simply no way to leave this one out, especially since it doesn’t quite sound like anything else on this list (even Vile’s track of the same tune!). Perhaps one of the most outrageously fun holiday tunes out there, Dylan is just so Dylan on the track. His voice rasps along to an accordion that runs so fast, it feels as though it may trip at any moment. And make absolutely sure to check out the music video for it featuring a raucous holiday party that quickly gets out of hand. As people swing from chandeliers and crash through windows, Santa looks on disapprovingly and Dylan serves as the bard to it all in a wig and top hat.

“baby jesus is nobody’s baby now” by Julia Jacklin
Julia Jacklin knows how to break your heart with honesty, even as she exercises extreme tenderness. She exposes some realistic, ostracizing sides of the holiday—fights with relatives, clumsy attempts to make it through dinner with a smile on your face, forced reflections on your own loneliness. “Watch me go to bed alone this year / There was someone I wanted but / They’re no longer here,” Jacklin sings, her voice bare and high, vulnerable as she looks a stark grayness in the eye. She continues on with a bitter awareness: “Grow up girl / It’s good for your health / To go to bed sometimes / Simply holding yourself.” With specific characters and ailments, the artist shows you the (hardships of) humanity that still exists during the holidays.

“Joy To The World” by Sufjan Stevens
I mean, what kind of list of alternative holiday picks would this be if we left Sufjan Stevens off it? “Joy To The World” pulls you in completely from its first melancholic guitar lick. With Stevens gentle harmonies, the unexpected high notes and soft layering of the song, the tune embodies “bittersweet.” The usually ecstatic holiday song is brought from a roaring fire to a candle, and approaches a thoughtful, grateful reverence for the world as a whole. The way Stevens repeats “And wonders of his love” truly does feel like he’s opening his eyes anew with each repetition, and is each time stunned by what he finds.

“Los Chrismos” by Los Bitchos
In typical, swaggering style from Los Bitchos, they center the fun on “Los Chrismos,” bringing the spirit of party that they bring to…well…their whole discography (see especially the repetition of “Christmas time / Sexy times!” being about half of the few lyrics on the whole song). The group’s surf-rock sound finds its usual rollicking groove, while also exposing a softer, cozier underbelly. There’s just as much celebration as usual, but it’s the kind that happens after a few glasses of mulled wine—a bit slower, a bit softer around the edges, with your dance steps collapsing into another person’s arms. It’s joined by a song called “Tipp Tapp,” on which the band comments, “Born out of a deranged drunken dressing room version of an old Swedish Christmas song, comes the sinister sister of ‘Los Chrismos.’ We imagine ourselves cautiously tiptoeing through a snowy Swedish forest at night holding torches and freaking each other out.”

“Home Alone, Too” by The Staves
The folk outfit has long been known for their precise harmonies, which come out in this ballad of Christmas disappointments. They bring out the reflectiveness of the holidays, and gently coax the same response out of their listener. Music doesn’t always heal, as they sing, “How strange, lovers to friends / And I heard you on the radio / And you played our favorite song.” There’s a rounded, if somewhat sad, glow to the track, something that can only be done with three part harmonies (and the lone, muted trumpet doesn’t hurt either). But thank god for the harmonized chorus, as it leaves you feeling as though, even in loneliness, there might be some sort of community.

“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” by Phoebe Bridgers
This single, released in 2017, began Phoebe Bridgers’ tradition of recording a holiday single each year, done in her very distinct style. The whispering wail of a slide guitar lays a softly shining bed for Bridgers’ voice, which echoes delicately. In her version of the song, Christmas truly feels like a respite from the rest of the winter and the world—although the song may seem sad, it really feels more like breathing out, letting go of everything for a night and a day. There is an acknowledgement in her delivery of how hard life can get, yes, but there’s also a note of hopefulness, of at least allowing yourself to experience the joy of the holiday.

“Angel (Holiday)” by Jack Johnson
As with many Jack Johnson tunes, you could kind of make believe that he’s sitting on your couch, playing it right to you (maybe this time with a Christmas tree in the background). There’s the squeak of guitar strings, and the lightest touch of bells in the background. There’s an easiness and gratefulness to this love that really does feel holiday appropriate, as he rests in easy awe at the fullness his beloved gives him. He fades out singing, “We share the same soul,” a simple yet deeply intimate admittance of togetherness.

“Santa Baby” by Sidney Gish
“Santa Baby” has got to be one of the funniest, strangest Christmas songs out there, and so it makes sense that Sidney Gish would take it on with her typical sense of tongue-in-cheek humor. The album cover alone clues you in to what you’re in for, with collage-style phrases reading “Santa buddy, Santa pally, Santa poppy, I’ll wait up for you dude.” The song retains a more electronic feel than most of Gish’s other music, with synths bouncing you from verse to verse. It kind of makes you want to shimmy along, kind of makes you want to burst into absurdist laughter—such is the beauty of Gish’s feel for irony. The song fades in and out with clips from an interview with department store holiday staple Michael Bublé, in which he says things like, “…well look here, I think that there would be no way that I would have an annual Christmas special if I genuinely didn’t love the holiday and genuinely didn’t love the music. And I do. I think it’s very simple, it’s just not complicated.” Listen, I’m not saying that Gish is laughing at him…but maybe the listener is (just a tiny bit).

“Last Christmas” by Lucy Dacus
Nothing will make you want to jab your elbows and knees in all different directions and call it dancing like this cover of “Last Christmas” by Lucy Dacus. Her rushed speak-singing of the verses puts the humor and recklessness back in a song that has often been made into a drippingly cheesy, tragic holiday love ballad. There’s just no way of getting around it: Dacus’ version rocks out. The 2000s-type compression on the verses give it a fitting teenage feel, calling back to a time when everything concerning love was always taken with the utmost seriousness. And thank god there’s jingle bells in the mix—without them, would it actually be a Christmas song?

“christmas will break your heart” by LCD Soundsystem
Listen, am I the only one surprised that LCD Soundsystem made a Christmas song? It remains largely a piano ballad, staying simple (simple being a relative term for the band) until it doesn’t. Vocalist James Murphy’s sort of quietly breaks your heart as the song intensifies, building until his voice passes out of the track in a wail. Beginning with sort of funny, mostly sad lyrics like, “Christmas can wreck your head / Like some listless awkward sex / So you refuse to leave your bed / Get depressed when no one checks,” the song follows the narrator on his returning voyage. “But still I’m coming home to you” is a line that pops up again and again, letting you know that no matter how difficult Christmas makes their relationship with love, they are determined to keep trying. And when the drums, strings and piano build from pity to a soundscape that engulfs you, you get the classic cathartic release that has made LCD Soundsystem deeply beloved for a bit under two decades.

“Holiday Dreaming” by Molly Burch
With all the time we find ourselves with all of a sudden as the weather drives us indoors, what else are we going to do but daydream? Molly Burch really helps us out there, providing a soft, airy track that still has some movement to it. Of course, when we’re left to sit with our thoughts for this long, some overthinking can happen (“Do you ever think about me? / Or am I one of maybe many?”), but Burch mostly acknowledges how sweet these fantasies can be. “And when I think hard enough / I just want your love / And I wanna be the one / That you’re also dreaming of,” she sings, encouraging us to indulge in our own hopes. After all, just a little bit of dreaming to pass the time never hurt, right?

“Christmas Must Be Tonight” by Bahamas
Like windows glowing out into a cold night, Bahamas’ (aka Afie Jurvanen) holiday track is something you can put on to spur warmth at any time. It’s a cover of a song from The Band, and Jurvanen honors the comfortable feel of the original. Mainly him and his guitar, it makes you want to lean in close to hear exactly what he’s singing, or maybe just to be part of it. Guitar riffs shimmer in the background, and everything kind of feels the way it does when you’ve arrived home for the holidays, have taken a warm shower, and are now sitting around talking in pajamas with the rest of your loved ones. Jurvanen’s voice burns intimately and easily, celebrating what is found in the moment.

“The First Noel” by Bright Eyes
“The First Noel” is off of A Christmas Album, an album on which Bright Eyes keeps it spare and simple. “White Christmas” is the track often heard off this LP, but songs like “The First Noel” hold just as much beauty and vulnerability. Quiet, muted guitar strings set the scene, like a landscape encased in stillness and snow. Conor Oberst sounds slightly nervous, unsure of his vocal steps in a way that makes the song just that much more personal. And when Noel is joined with harmonies at the end, it makes you believe in this moment of community that most holiday songs (even ones by Bright Eyes) are trying to capture.

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