Fun Fact about my work history: as a teen in the late 1990s, I took a job at a local independent radio station. It was a small, 50-kilowatt station, which meant the range was a little more than campus radio. The frequency we broadcasted from was on the lower side of the radio spectrum, too (to borrow a line from Paul Westerberg, it was “left of the dial”), again giving it a very cool, campus radio feel. I mention this because it meant we were the local outlet for alternative and indie rock, and yes, my employment there felt like a teenage dream.
Like a lot of my peers, most of my teen years were spent in my room listening to music. One of my favorite pastimes was scouring through independent record label catalogs and compiling lists of what CDs and 7-inches I wanted to order, and which ones had the most priority. I loved reading music magazines, too (even the mainstream ones), and learning about the influences of the bands I liked, so I could also go back and look for those records as well. I wanted a full music education, and working in radio was definitely a means for me to indulge myself in that.
Man, I loved buying records. Full-length albums were great, but what I really enjoyed was finding lesser-known EPs or singles by my most beloved artists (there’s something very satisfying about finding a rare item at a good price, and my local record shop in upper East Tennessee — Cat’s CDs and Cassettes — was a great place for both). And one way I got those rare tracks was through the seemingly now-elusive Compilation CD.
The 1990s had such a boom of talent coming out of every orifice an intangible decade could possibly have that artists and record companies had enough slough to put out compilation after compilation of unused tracks, b-sides, covers, outtakes, and rarities — often to benefit some non-profit. Some of the more recognizable ones are 1993’s No Alternative, 1994’s DGC Rarities, vol. 1 (wherever was “vol. 2,” huh??), 1994’s tribute album If I Were A Carpenter, and Sire Records’s Just Say Yes series (which technically started in 1987, but who cares). It was a bounty that a young music lover such as myself couldn’t get her hands on fast enough.
But to the point of this playlist, when Christmas came around, so did more of those compilations, now filled with the best alternative Christmas music our ears could handle. “Alternative Christmas music” was so perfect for alt rock radio because it provided us with a subversive way to get into the Christmas spirit, allowing us to reject tradition and replace it with our own. From A&M’s A Very Special Christmas series to Rhino’s Punk Rock Xmas, there was plenty of alt-joy and humbug both to go around.
Each of the tracks on this mix were songs on Christmas rotation at the radio station where I was a DJ. Most of them do come from various ‘90s compilations, but some can be found on regular studio albums as well. I start off the list with probably the most famous alternative Christmas tune in history, “Fairytale of New York,” from The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, which exemplifies everything you could possibly want in an alt rock Christmas song. One legend of the song’s origin is that Pogues’ frontman Shane MacGowan and then-Pogues producer Elvis Costello had a bet that the band couldn’t write a hit Christmas single. MacGowan basically scratched his head for a moment and then proceeded to pen the tune, drawing inspiration from both traditional Irish folk songs and the band’s tour stop in New York City, in addition to a very unlikely place: Ennio Morricone’s score to the film Once Upon A Time In America (learn more about The Pogues and the history of the song here). The single didn’t hit number one on the UK Christmas charts as hoped (the Pet Shop Boys’s cover of “Always On My Mind” had that honor), but its popularity has far-surpassed the longevity of most of those other chart-toppers, anyway; “Fairytale of New York” is frequently cited as the most-played Christmas song of the 21st century (fair to say, Elvis Costello lost that bet). I, like many others, really love that a Christmas song which features the words “slut,” “maggot,” and “arse” not only exists, but is played regularly during the Yuletide season.
“Christmas at the Zoo” is the first track on this mix that wasn’t written and recorded explicitly for Christmas time; it appears on the Flaming Lips’s seventh studio album, Cloud Tastes Metallic, in 1995. Diehard Flaming Lips fans of course know this, but most passive listeners maybe don’t realize that the band was making albums as far back as 1986. Their breakout hit, “She Don’t Use Jelly” came from 1993’s Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, in which Cloud Tastes Metallic was the followup. The record failed to achieve the same commercial success as its predecessor, but has since accumulated cult status as one of the band’s best, perhaps in part due to this cute, thoughtful tune about freeing “all the animals locked up at the zoo” on Christmas Eve.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones are no strangers to December festivities, with their annual Hometown Throwdown taking place every year close to Christmas. “X’Mas Time (It Sure Doesn’t Feel Like It)” was featured on a Mercury Records compilation called A Home For The Holidays that benefited Phoenix House, and paints a picture of a broken and defeated Christmas, where the protagonist sings lines like “This time of year means nothing when you’ve got nothing you can spend,” and “I’ve got nowhere to go/I might sleep here on the sidewalk/I’m tired and cold.” It’s a sad reminder of how lonely and awful Christmas can be for some members of society.
“Merry Christmas from the Family” and “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” come from You Sleigh Me!, a compilation from Atlantic Records in 1995 (the comp also features “Make It Home,” a track made famous by Julianna Hatfield’s appearance on the Christmas episode of My So-Called Life). Jill Sobule’s contribution is a cover of Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas from the Family,” a song Keen himself refers to as the “Rocky Horror Picture Show of Christmas songs.” Daniel Johnston provides an endearing rendition of “Rudolph,” which is to be expected from an artist with such a clear-cut sincerity as him.
“Santa’s Beard” appears on They Might Be Giants’s second studio album, Lincoln, released in 1988 on the Bar/None label. The record contains the band’s first charted single, “Ana Ng,” and led them to signing to a major (Elektra) in 1990. “Santa’s Beard” tells of a home-breaking Santa Claus, with the distressed singer confessing “I saw my baby wearing Santa’s beard” and “I don’t like that fat guy around” (note: although I wouldn’t put it past them, this is NOT a cover of The Beach Boys’s Christmas tune of the same name).
“Oi To The World!” is special. It’s the title track to a full-length Christmas album released by The Vandals in 1996. The Vandals are pretty much known for their tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, and that they recorded an LP full of Christmas songs was incredible to my burgeoning subversive teenage mind. “Oi To The World!” ultimately is a track about opposing sides putting their guards down and just getting along because it’s Christmas — really a nice sentiment, told from a uniquely punk rock perspective. A year later, the track was made more famous by a still up-and-coming No Doubt, whose cover appeared on the A Very Special Christmas 3 compilation in 1997. The No Doubt version comes up often on many people’s alternative Christmas lists, and actually, it was the version we played on the radio station as a single, but I really want to give credit where credit is due, and highlight The Vandals’s contribution to the history of punk rock Christmas music.
And that’s a fine segue to the next section of this playlist: “Hooray For Santa Claus,” “Feliz Navi-Nada,” and “Christmas, Christmas” all come from the Rhino Records release Punk Rock Xmas in 1995. During our nighttime alternative music show, we had what we called the “Featured Independent Label Artist of the Week,” and during Christmas, we would feature different tracks from this compilation all week long. Rhino Records has always been a reliable source for those of us looking for strange or offbeat releases, often supplying record-seekers with reissues of quirky albums of years gone by (along with more mainstream fare, too), or compilations that suit an array of tastes. Punk Rock Xmas is without a doubt one of my favorites from the Rhino back catalog, and these three songs especially fill me with punky holiday cheer. Sloppy Seconds offer us a fun rendition of the theme song to that blue ribbon winner of a “bad Christmas movie,” Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, El Vez (the Mexican Elvis) gives us his pepped-up version of the Julio Iglesias hit “Feliz Navidad” (altering the title a bit to make it…edgier?), and Mojo Nixon’s raucous holiday take on the classic “Louie, Louie” will stay in your head for weeks.
Rounding out the mix are “The Little Drum Machine Boy” and “Santa Doesn’t Cop Out On Dope,” both tracks from the 1996 Geffen release Just Say Noel (not at all related to the aforementioned Sire Just Say Yes series). Beck’s wacky take on the traditional “The Little Drummer Boy” is really more of a Hanukkah song (“It’s the holiday…Hanukkah robot funk!” the song goes), and the lyrics are more about how great Beck is at making beats (“I press a button, make the gentlemen cry”) than any holiday traditions (“I get the shit lit like a menorah/this funk’s so illegal, I think I might need a lawyer” is another couplet — note: this song resonated so much with me as a teen that I once made a Livejournal with the title “funksoillegal.”). “Santa Doesn’t Cop Out On Dope” is a weirdo track from Sonic Youth, a cover of Martin Mull’s obscure 1972 novelty record that chronicles how children should stick to cookies for Santa, advising to “save your joint, ‘cause Santa Claus turns on in his own way.” Thurston Moore has a uniquely unyielding wail throughout their version, ending superbly with “Merry Christmas, David Geffen!”
Of course there are plenty more ‘90s Christmas songs out there to explore: I recommend the A Very Special Christmas series if you’re used to a more palatable musical diet (starting in 1987, the albums feature artwork by Keith Harring, with proceeds going to the Special Olympics. To put it in perspective, the first edition is the album where U2’s version of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is seated.). In 1990, “world-famous” KROQ-FM in Los Angeles started an annual holiday tradition by putting on their Almost Acoustic Christmas concert; in 1999 they released a “best of” compilation, and although they’re just live versions of the bands’ notable singles and not actually Christmas music, the concert benefits Para Los Ninos and the Al Wooten, Jr. Heritage Center (plus other local L.A. charities) every year, so we can’t be too much of a Grinch about it. Speaking of KROQ, the Mayor of the Sunset Strip himself, KROQ’s specialty DJ Rodney Bingenheimer was the force behind a rare Christmas compilation in 1997; the record, called Santa’s Got a GTO: Rodney on the ROQ’s Christmas, features a bunch of Bingenheimer’s favorite underground and garage artists (some highlights are Ride’s “Like A Snowflake,” and “Super Sunny Christmas” by Redd Kross, both pretty hard tracks to find, and definitely not on Spotify).
So please, I hope you enjoy this mix of alternative Christmas radio hits. And I hope it may bring back some memories for you, same as it does me.