I think most people dread holiday music. A fair conclusion. Typically signalling hectic retail environments, financial stress and an overall abundance of responsibility in the years most treacherous season. For many people, Christmas is eclipsed by this. It’s easy to resent the holidays when there’s so many people counting on your generosity and resilience. We’ve all been there. But there’s something to be said for the collective effort of festivity. Underneath all that stress is Christmas magic. It’s easy to miss but ever present. We’re all making the effort and trudging through the season. It has to produce some kind of joy. And it’s there. Those quiet moments amidst the chaos. Those hot chocolates in the snow. The smiles on Christmas morning.
Today, we’d like to detour from our regular programming of ultimately dark and brooding subject matter to dive into the often resented Christmas Carol. Contrary to the mindset the metal community tends to share towards Christmas music, there’s actually a fair share of great renditions of Christmas classics that will suit your tastes. Some acts bend over backwards to incorporate the most extreme metal tropes into Christmas music. Really trying to make use of the narrow scope of melody, instrumentation and themes that christmas music provide. Others take a more pedestrian approach. New context for these songs embedded in our psyche since childhood are worth at least a listen through. Though i’m sure this list is bound to shake up your thoughts on holiday music forever. Many of us at the blog have walked away with new Christmas music playlists that we’re bound to revisit. We invite you to take that journey with us and find some new music for your holiday season.
August Burns Red – “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”
Easily the most acclaimed metal band in the carolling department. You’re probably no stranger to August Burns Red’s affiliation with Christmas music. A viral instrumental of “Deck the Halls” being ever present in the MySpace days that spawned an essential collection of Christmas music in the form of their 2012 album Sleddin’ Hill. While you’d be hardpressed to cherry pick a song from that album for this list, the ones with vocals are standouts. It was quite the toss up between this one and “Joy to the World,” the accessibility of this one edges it out the other. While it’s fun to fantasize about the overtly over the top “Joy to the World” featuring blast beats and breakdowns galore, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” is just as wholesome as it gets. With gang vocals leading you through the melody, a punk-esque instrumental guides you along the call and answer of this song. With a killer drum track and effectively perfect guitars, it’s a perfect sing along romp of a Christmas carol.
Fall Out Boy – “What’s This?” (Nightmare Before Christmas Cover)
While Fall Out Boy are far from metal, I think the concept here and their rendition makes this an easy inclusion. Halloween Town. A place where death, gore and fear isn’t only welcome, but constantly celebrated. Kids are rewarded with candy for not only replicating acts of the macabre, but committing them in the literal sense to up the fear factor. Despite the Hot Topic affiliation, Jack Skellington is metal in every definition of the word. The unofficial mascot of Halloween and breadwinner of Halloween town, whose thoughts and actions are ultimately dominated with the most gruesome and grand possible spectacles of the grotesque. “What’s This?” finds Jack’s heart being warmed by the Joy of Christmas. Jack’s cosmic horror is his reality and he used to love it. Rather Christmas is his cosmic happiness. Practically unfathomable. It consumes him and every ensuing thought and action. Danny Elfman mastefully plots this character arc around the song “What’s this?” and Fall Out Boy gives an inspired performance of the song featured as a bonus track on the official soundtrack. Theatrics giving way for chunky power chords. Patrick Stump absolutely nails the character whilst incorporating his signature high notes. They go all in on the choruses with some of the most complex things pop punk is capable of without entirely treading into heavier genres. It’s easily enjoyable and one of Fall Out Boy’s most dedicated performances. If you need help giving your love of metal way to Christmas music, listen to this a few times and follow Jack into the joyous world of Christmas.
Frank Turner & Butch Walker – “Merry Christmas You…”
This is a decidedly non-metal Christmas song but it’s a joyful, if little known, sarcastic ditty to add to your holiday rotation… as long as you’re not easily offended. This one is not safe for work and probably not for your family celebrations unless you’ve got a collection of folks around who have a very special sense of humor. Or are British. Which may be the same thing. This one is actually a cover of a song by the Breakdowns. Frank Turner and Butch Walker decided to put this out after wrapping up sessions for Turner’s Positive Songs for Negative People in Nashville over the holiday season a few years ago. Clearly inspired by the season, but also the senses of humor of both men, the video is a joy to watch for a twang-tinged, English-flavored informal jam that shows off a lot of the appeal for fans of both musicians.
J.J. Hrubovcak – “Nutcracker: Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”
Of the many artists featured on this list. J.J. Hrubovcak has the most extreme renditions of Holiday classics. And if you seriously can’t break from your blast beats and dissonance tremolo picking for five minutes to jam some holiday classics, then look no further. While i’ll be taking a look at his rendition of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”, the entire Death Metal Christmas project is the one-stop-shop if you need your Christmas music this extreme.
So “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” is only a Christmas song by association. The infamous Nutcracker play and public domain of this track means it has nestled it’s way into the popular zeitgeist so deeply that the stillness of Christmas Eve is either envisioned as silent or evokes this song. On this rendition, the eagerness of the wee hours of Christmas eve is replaced. Guitar acrobatics are in full effect. Dive Bombs, dissonance and tremolo picking create a more sinister landscape for this otherwise whimsical song. Backed by insanely ferocious drums, this instrumental is almost bleak if it didn’t feature the mischief of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”. J.J. Hrubovcak is an absolute monster on this track. Even striving to give his main band, Hate Eternal, a run for its money, this track has more in common with Gorguts and old Cryptopsy than its Christmas shell.
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Lemmy Kilmister, Dave Grohl, & Billy Gibbons – “Run Run Rudolph”
Leave it to Lemmy to be joined by Dave Grohl, shocking I know, and Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top) to produce a rocking tribute to Chuck Berry’s rendition of this Christmas classic. Lemmy’s trademark snarl really makes this song and a year on from the legendary rocker’s passing, this makes for a nice piece of late career nostalgia and recognition. The track, originally released in 2008, speaks in a lot of ways as to how Kilmister viewed rock and roll. It should be fun, have some teeth, and pay its respects to the forebears of the genre. These three rock legends combine to give us one of the most fun entries in the Christmas canon of hard rock and metal.
Savatage – “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)”
A lot of people (rightfully) credit Trans-Siberian Orchestra for creating heavy metal music of a classical and Christmas bent in a more than palatable way for metal fans but, back in 1995, Savatage pounded out their version of this song that would make its way into TSO lore (keeping in mind that they had members of Savatage in the fold when they began). The inspiration for this performance is every bit as moving as the piece itself. The band heard the story of cellist, Vedran Smailović, who played in various ruins around Sarajevo during the conflict there of the early 1990s. That the band have crafted a legendary track around a truly moving narrative lends even higher significance to its place on the list of metal Christmas tracks.
Spinal Tap – “Christmas with the Devil”
Christmas songs are a joke. Renditions of the old standards are really the only “new” tunes we get. It’s disappointing and it says something about how people really feel about this stuff. Apparently we love the nostalgia, but we’ve been bombarded with these songs for so fucking long that it’s basically guaranteed that each year you’re certain to hear someone bitch about hearing Christmas music. Whether someone is playing it “too early” or wants to punch Sir Paul McCartney in the face for writing the most annoying song ever, if it’s December (or gasp even November), you’re hearing about it.
In this very spirit, I’ve decided to make Spinal Tap’s “Christmas with the Devil” the song I’ll beat the hell out of every holiday season. Rung in with some cheeky sleigh bells and the “Carol of the Bells,” melody, Tap’s absurd heavy-handedness pulls in holiday gimmicks and pairs them with equal measures of rock’n’roll buffoonery (hello there, gratuitous drawn-out end-of-song solo and demonic “ho ho ho”). Lyrically, it’s the perfect blend of humor and a sort of Nightmare Before Christmas perversion of the holiday, making for perfect singalongs: “The elves are dressed in leather / And the angels are in chains / The sugar plums are rancid / And the stockings are in flames.” Who knew that all Christmas needed was a little sexing up? But, like any Spinal Tap song, the subtle jokes hit the hardest. Epic chants of “NO BELLS IN HELL!” are backed by an ill-timed return of sleigh bells. It’s this perfectly ironic miscue that sums up the holiday season more accurately than any “Deck the Halls” or “White Christmas” ever could. It’s not all pristine perfection. Shit happens, even during the holidays, so shove it up your chimney hole.
Theocracy – “Wynter Fever”
Theocracy has a long tradition of funny and catchy Christmas songs. But the unquestioned crown jewel of their annual tradition is “Wynter Fever”. Released in 2012, “Wynter Fever” is absurdly ambitious for a one-off Christmas song. Eight distinct movements sprawl over ten and a half minutes, sleighing between genres as disparate as lounge jazz and prog metal as the uber-talented Matt Smith voices Santa and Festus Claus in a funny, modern, and surprisingly touching story. (I highly suggest you follow along with the lyrics as you listen.) “Wynter Fever” is legitimately one of the best songs in Theocracy’s entire discography — and Theocracy has certainly had their share of power metal epics. The engaging lyrics turn an entire canon of Christmas literature on its head. In the universe of “Wynter Fever”, Santa is a murderous racist who will stop at nothing to prevent his son, Festus, from defiling the family name by marrying Wynter — Frosty the Snowman’s daughter. Of course, love wins in the triumphant final movement, but what really brings the song together is the incredible amount of effort put into the jingle bells and whistles adorning the track. Listen, for example to how the sounds of drinks being poured, fingers snapping, cue balls rolling, sultry clean guitar ines, and Matt Smith’s rasp paint a crystal-clear image of a smoky lounge room at 6:47. It’s these effects — the backing shouts, Smith’s ventriloquistic sliding between characters, the sound effects (including hairdryer a la murder weapon), that elevate “Wynter Fever” far beyond Christmas kitsch into a genuinely excellent piece of music.
Trans-Siberian Orchestra – “Carol of the Bells”
Created from the remains of Savatage, Trans-Siberian Orchestra has taken on a life of its own, becoming a display of epic proportions across the world. Every year, two versions of the band embark on countrywide tours, one dominating the eastern part of North America and the other the west. Both, of course, offer incredible displays of musicianship, as well as a mind-boggling live performance replete with pyrotechnics, moving platforms, wireplay (a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and one of the most impressive light shows you’ll ever see. They even play enough music for two 90-minute sets, so you’re getting three hours of Christmas-themed rock during your holiday season.
As a project dedicated to its Christmas theme, how does one choose a single song to represent? It only seems fitting that the band’s version of “Carol of the Bells” comes to the forefront, easily being one of the most recognizable melodies in music history and made all the more massive by Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s grandiose sound.
Twisted Sister – “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)”
One of the last bands you’d be thinking of during the holidays is Twisted Sister. Somewhere between one hit wonders and 80’s glam darlings, Dee Snider and company straddled the line between the arena rock of the time and the anthems of teenage angst that spawned a generation of metalheads. Provided that context, it makes it all the more novel that these Gen X hair metallers decided to make their swansong a Christmas album. And while A Twisted Christmas is an album of the Twisted Sister leaning heavily into their own gimmicks, putting an 80’s spin on classics such as “Silver Bells” and “Deck the Halls”, even revising lyrics in the oddly endearing yet cringey ways; it’d be a disservice to say this album wasn’t an essential Christmas romp. Particularly, their rendition of “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” allows these guys to culminate their love for Glam and Christmas music to great effect. The song bobs along to drawn out gain-filled power chord progressions and a straightforward rhythm section, while a serenading Dee actually gives a charming and unique performance of this Christmas classic. It’s easy to picture a group of friends at a bar this holiday season, glasses held high, belting out “although it’s been said, many times, many ways MERRY CHRISTMAS to YOOOUUU”. While that has been said many times and many ways, Christmas would be a little less jolly without this track