Christmas music: you love it, hate it, or just try to tolerate it until the first of the year rolls around. Any way you slice it, you’ve got to put up with the jingle bells and sleigh rides and snowflakes for at least three months of every year, so why not try to make it as gnarly a time as possible?
That’s a good rule of thumb for any time of year — making it as gnarly as possible — so we’re helping you out with this list of tubular takes on holiday classics. They’re especially suited to those who might be stringing Christmas lights in shorts and a tank top this year due to El Niño, nary a flurry in sight. So leave the eggnog behind, grab a cold one, and kick back as the ceaseless twang of surf rock carries you on through to the New Year.
17. The Beach Boys — “Little Saint Nick”
Listen, this is probably the greatest song on this list, but it can’t get the top spot — or anywhere near it — because, just like the Beach Boys, it barely even counts as surf rock. But it’s just too damn good to be left off of the list. (The whole album is, really.)
16. The Crossfires — “Santa and the Sidewalk Surfer”
The Crossfires were perhaps the masters of penning original surf rock Christmas songs, mostly because they did it with the sense of humor of a ten-year-old beach rat, which is exactly what’s needed to create any enduring holiday jam. This one starts out with a little skateboarder asking for a “bottle of peroxide” for Christmas, and then basically does nothing but provide the Los Angeles band a venue for ridiculing what were then known as sidewalk surfers. Highlight? “Band-Aids!? Why would you want Band-Aids for Christmas?”
15. The Incredible Mr. Smith — “Alle Jahr Wieder”
An uncommon German Christmas carol done by an even more uncommon musician, this take on “Alle Jahr Wieder” is better suited for closing out the night than kicking it off. The guitar tone is more somber than celebratory, a perfect soundtrack for binge drinking straight through to the morning of December 26.
14. Man or Astro-man? — “Frosty the Snowman”
It seems weird that a surf band could come from Alabama, but if Man or Astro-man?’s twang is any indication, it could be for the best. There could be some more sci-fi thrown into this, given the band’s general pastiche, but that’s fine, as the track is bookended by vintage samples of Christmas specials. And removed from their place as cultural touchstones, those stories are weird as hell.
13. Thee Swank Bastards — “We Three Kings”
Before the shimmering guitar blocks out all that other noise, you’ll notice the creeping bass here, a device that manages to undermine the schlock of Christmas and highlight the fact that the holiday has been transformed into an awful capitalistic crusade. Or maybe not. Either way, once the squishy pedal effects come in you’ll be dreaming of jumping in puddles of slush, sunshine be damned.
12. The Pyronauts — “Carol of the Bells”
This is really just a beautiful rendition of a beautiful song that has become one of the sleepiest, most played-out Christmas classics. It rocks, but just a little bit, so that all generations of your family can appreciate the fingerpicking that’s happening here, so long as you’re not fighting about the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s presidential bid.
11. The Mermen — “Happy Christmas War Is Over”
John Lennon’s classic hasn’t worked its way into the holiday covers canon completely — fans of his are probably still wary to touch the work of an artist many consider to be a Songwriting God — but this rendition is worthy. It begins a little softly, so give it a minute or two, but once this thing gets fully going, it delves deeply into psychedelia in a way that would make Lennon proud.
OK — maybe it is just a little bit cheesy. But then, so was the original.
10. The Bomboras — “Lil’ Drummer Boy”
Seeing as one of surf rock’s defining characteristics is the rolling, amped up western drums, it makes perfect sense that “Little Drummer Boy” would be one of the most prevalent of all the surf rock Christmas covers. But this jam by the LA-based Bomboras is the grooviest version you’ll find online. It helps that, even though it was produced in 1996, it’s got the same fuzz-filled production that’s helped the stuff from the ’60s stand the test of time.
9. The Barbary Coasters — “Secret Santa”
A mix between surf and dead-awful a capella, The Barbary Coasters play a risky game. But in the end this comes off like something that could’ve been released as some B-side collaboration between Wavves and Best Coast, only without any of the dickish tendencies of those acts. It’s nerds playing as cool kids playing as nerds, and somehow that just works.
8. Wavves and Best Coast — “Got Something For You”
Speaking of Wavves and Best Coast, this is less surf rock than any of the other entries on this list, but it just feels right. Basically reliant on the percussion of sleigh bells and chimes, “Got Something For You” opts out of the twang game but somehow still manages to bring the track squarely into the world of the West Coast Holiday jam.
7. The Spotnicks — “Winter Wonderland”
That opening guitar, so precious it sounds almost like a toy, sets the tone for what might as well be an 8-bit version of this classic. It’s a beautiful tone, sure, but the real star is the spot-on (heh) voacal harmony. It’s no surprise it’s so good, given the pedigree of Sweden’s most famous surf rock band. And the whole thing comes off as a little Scandinavian, doesn’t it? A little bit twee and a lot-a-bit precious, but still entirely pleasant. It’s even got that sweet crunch of vinyl layered underneath, like it’s your own personal sonic fireplace.
6. Los Straitjackets — “Marshmallow World”
Forget the Zooey Deschanel-lite version that’s blaring all the time on those television ads: this is the definitive version of what must be the most metaphor-filled of all the Christmas songs. Only… without the metaphors.
5. The Vara-Tones — “The Nut Rocker”
Perhaps the gnarliest surf rock tone on this entire list, the production on this loooose spin of “The Nutcracker” is amazing, a present in and of itself. And it’s a rarity, too, to find a surf rock band that manages to stay true to the genre while sounding unique, even if just slightly. The fact that this band released one single in ’64 and didn’t produce an entire album of work until 2000’s Jetty Subject to High Surf probably helped to preserve the freshness.
4. The Ventures — “Sleigh Ride”
For surf rock instrumentals, it’s a little pedantic to demand a band beyond the Ventures. The creators of “Hawaii Five-O” have been going strong since 1958 and have produced two flawless Christmas albums that manage to be grade-A surf rock without dipping too deep into the holiday cheese that could easily suffocate its twangy soul. This is just one of their many masterpieces.
3. The Blue Hawaiians — “Christmas on Big Island”
The Blue Hawaiians, famous mostly for the fact that they provide the music for SpongeBob SquarePants, aren’t actually Hawaiian, but they sure do like to pretend. “Christmas on Big Island” is a stupid song from the perspective of a young kid on the heat-soaked Big Island. But it’s a fun time, and if American society weren’t so dead-set on making Christmas snow-filled, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear this jaunty tune at even the most boring of office parties.
2. The Surfaris — “Surfer’s Christmas List”
“I’ll give up the honeys, and the parties, too,” sings Ron Wilson, so dire is his need for a new surfboard. (His old one got swept away in last week’s surf, it seems. Bummer, dude.)
1. The Crossfires — “Livin’ Doll” & The Trashmen — “Real Live Doll”
These are two of the weirdest, best songs that surf rock ever made about Christmas: these surf rockers want girls for Christmas, and they talk about them in ways that are just clearly not acceptable in 2015. But Christmas classics are classics for a reason, and these songs are classics if only for their use as time capsules. The Crossfires’ take is not as outright creepy as the one written by the Trashmen, but give both of them a listen. It’s worth it, if only to remind yourself just how far we’ve come. And isn’t that the greatest gift of all?
BONUS: Meshugga Beach Party — “Jingle Bell Rock”
This is only a bonus because there’s no real good online audio of this track, but it must be included because of a) that band name and b) the fact that a band with that name is playing a surf rock version of a Christmas classic.