As much as I enjoy classic or traditional Advent-Christmas music, I’m more partial to more unconventional Advent-Christmas themed tunes, originals and covers, by mainstream artists in the rock-pop-folk genres. Here are my top 12 that I think will go great with a warm spot by the fire, someone you love (be it human or pet) and warm cup of hot chocolate or glass of eggnog:
12. “Happy Xmas/War Is Over” by Sarah McLachlan (2006) The singer-song writer delivers a beautiful rendering of the song that John Lennon wrote in 1971 as a protest song about the Vietnam War. Four decades later, with the US still at war in Afghanistan and US troops coming home from Iraq by the end of the year, “Happy Xmas/War Is Over” still maintains its relevance.
11. “Joseph, Better You Than Me” by The Killers feat. Elton John and Neil Tennant (2008)
Since 2006, The Killers (led by Mormon front-man Brandon Flowers) have released a Christmas single to benefit (RED), often going back-and-forth from a fun, peppy song to a more serious, poignant piece. I immediately fell in love with this single “Joseph, Better You Than Me” because of its focus on Joseph who often stays in the back of the manger scene. With powerful lyrics and passionate voices, Brandon, Elton and Neil ponder what it must have been like for Joseph to be the surrogate dad for Jesus; what kind of strength and faith it took for a lowly carpenter to bear the responsibility of caring for God-in-the-flesh, God as a vulnerable child in the midst of a harsh landscape and oppressive Roman Empire. The musicians conclude that while they may never know the answers, they are thankful that Joseph was the one chosen–“Joseph, better you, than me.”
10. “Boots” by The Killers (2010)
When a song begins with a scene from It’s A Wonderful Life (the one in which down-and-out George Bailey prays to God in a bar, shortly before meeting his guardian angel Clarence), you know it’s going to be powerful. The focus of the Killer’s traditional Christmas single is about a modern day George Bailey who regrets the decisions he has made in the past, cherishes the love of family at Christmas when he was a child and trudges forward to the hope of a new life. The video creates a more detailed story of a homeless man, who owns nothing more than the clothes on his back and a favorite pair of boots, walks several miles to visit his daughter (whom he hasn’t seen in years) for Christmas.
9. “Magnificent” by U2 (2009)
Never strangers to biblical themes in their long and industrious musical career, U2 offers a stunning version of Mary’s Magnificat in their most recent album No Line On The Horizon. U2’s legendary status is due in part to how the band crafts songs that transcend space and time, making “Magnificent” a tune that hits you full force long after the Christmas season has past.
8. “Christmas Lights” by Coldplay (2010)
An exquisite piece about the difficulty of not being with the one you love during the holidays but that even in the darkness of despair, the “Christmas lights keep shining on.”
7. “Better Days” by The Goo Dolls (2006)
This is “the surprise” song or dark horse of the list, the one that not many associate with Christmas (because it can be played year-round and still have significant meaning outside the holiday) but is indeed about the birth of Emmanuel (God-with-us). My favorite part is when the lead singer emphasizes that the true gift of the season is the child born to save the entire world: “And you asked me what I want this year/And I try to make this kind and clear/Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days/’cause I don’t need boxes wrapped in strings/And designer love and empty things/Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days/So take these words and sing out loud/’cause everyone is forgiven now/’cause tonight’s the night the world begins again.”
6. “The Christians and The Pagans” by Dar Williams (1997)
An uncle and his Christian family welcome his niece and her lesbian partner, both practicing Pagans to dinner on Christmas Eve. A wonderful story sung with poignancy and humor, “The Christians and The Pagans” is an illustration of how all Christians should act toward those with different life-styles and beliefs: with compassion, love and grace. The best line: “Cause now when Christians sit with Pagans only pumpkin pies are burning.”
5. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” by The Civil Wars (2011)
I’ve only recently discovered song-writing duo and they are incredible. A rousing and passion-filled cover of one of the most popular Christmas church hymns.
4. “Getting Ready For Christmas Day” by Paul Simon (2010)
Just about everything Paul Simon does is golden and this song is no exception. It’s a rhythmic number that gets your heart ready for Christmas. The video is great too with the lyrics flying by on a church sign. Definitely required listening for Advent.
3. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings by The Barenaked Ladies feat. Sarah McLachlan (2000)
Hearing this song more than a decade ago opened me up to the idea that old hymns, even the so-called “untouchable” Christmas ones, can still resonate powerfully with an upbeat tempo and two pop artists in Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan. Nothing against the churchy versions of these two hymns, but this one gets deep in your soul and makes you groove to the Christmas beat.
2. “Come Darkness, Come Light” by Mary Chapin Carpenter (2008)
If there is a song by a mainstream musician that should be included in church hymnals, it’s this one by country legend Mary Chapin Carpenter. I used “Come Darkness, Come Light” in our church’s 3:30 pm Christmas Eve service for folks who are mourning the loss of loved ones during the holidays. Mary Chapin draws us into the story of the night of Jesus’ birth and in doing so, beckons the Light to enter the darkness of our lives with the promise of hope and love.
1. “Christmas Song” by Dave Matthews (1997 and 2007)
This one speaks for itself. It’s a brilliant retelling of Jesus’ story that never fails to bring a sense of calm, comfort and peace to the soul. “Love, Love, Love. Love is all around.”
Songs For Christmas by Sufjan Stevens; A Very She & Him Christmas by She & Him; “Christmas in Hollis” by Run DMC; “Maybe This Christmas” by Ron Sexsmith; “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” by Simon and Garfunkel; “Rudy” by The Be Good Tanyas; “Spotlight On Christmas” by Rufus Wainwright; “Carolina Christmas” by The Squirrel Nut Zippers; “Someday At Christmas” by Stevie Wonder; “River” by Joni Mitchell; “Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth” by Willie Nelson; “Glorious” by Melissa Etheridge; “In The Morning” by Jack Johnson; “Rebel Jesus” by Jackson Browne or the rendition by The Woods Brothers.