Holiday music isn’t for everyone. Jingle bells and the infinite versions of the same songs over and over wear us down, year after year. Here are 18 subtly on-point songs for the season: songs that you could play at a small holiday party, but that also wouldn’t be embarrassing to play before Thanksgiving. No jingle bells, no mention of specific holidays — just chill songs for winter.
In her classic Regina Spektor style, “December” features Spektor singing over piano, vocals oscillating between low and high. Spektor was born in Russia and started studying piano at the age of six.
I first encountered Stars in a NaNoWriMo CD swap that I participated in back in middle school. “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” was their second track and I fell in love. The Canadian based band released their first album in 2001. After almost two decades of creating music together, they are officially one of indie pop’s lesser-known gems.
Mumford and Sons
Admittedly, the background tambourine does give off a little bit of a bell vibe in this song, but since it’s technically not a bell, “Winter Winds” still fulfills my no-jingle-bell promise. Also featured are a beautiful brass accompaniment and trumpet solo. Found on “Sign No More,” the same album which featured Mumford and Sons’ popular tune “Little Lion Man,” “Winter Winds” is a wonderful addition to this playlist.
“Here Comes the Sun”
I seem to always find a place for this song on my holiday playlists. It’s a beautiful reminder that even though it’s cold now, the sun will inevitably come back. Once we pass the Winter Solstice, the days will get longer again and the Earth will warm back up.
The Head and the Heart
In addition to gorgeous harmonies, The Head and the Heart switches between vocalists seamlessly throughout their songs. Outside of classic duets, switching between vocalists can sound awkward. “Winter Song” is a perfect example of doing it well. The Head and the Heart is a Seattle-based folk group who released their first album of the same name in 2010.
“To Build a Home”
The Cinematic Orchestra
If you binged “Grey’s Anatomy” on Netflix, then you may recognize this song from season four. The Cinematic Orchestra was founded by Jason Swinscoe and their single “To Build a Home” accompanies poignant moments in countless other shows and films including “Criminal Minds” and “Orange is the New Black.”
Light and upbeat, Matt Pond’s “Snow Day” really does capture the feeling of waking up to a snow day. It conjures memories of middle school, just old enough to stay home alone and meeting up with friends to go sledding or get hot chocolate. Pond’s Winter Songs EP cover even features a painting of what appears to be three children out in the snow. Each and every song from the EP would be appropriate for this playlist.
“Valley Winter Song”
Fountains of Wayne
Fountains of Wayne gained popularity in 2003 when they released their hit “Stacey’s Mom.” Believe it or not, “Valley Winter Song” is on the same album. The two feel so different they almost feel like they aren’t from the same band, but listen to one right after another and you’ll start to pick up on the similarities.
“A Hazy Shade of Winter”
Simon & Garfunkel
It’s strange how one song can be fast, upbeat, sad, ominous and hopeful all at once. Leave it to Simon & Garfunkel to pull it off. Similar to “Here Comes the Sun,” “A Hazy Shade of Winter” is a must-have on winter playlists.
Winter blues aren’t just contained in December — they can extend up into January and February. The Decemberists somewhat ironically express the melancholy of winter in “January Hymn,” which is almost more about heartbreak more than it is about winter.
“The Fox in the Snow”
Belle & Sebastian
Unknown to most, Belle & Sebastian is a Scottish band and does not include any artist named either Belle or Sebastian. The band is known for their whimsical lyrics, to the point of sometimes not making sense. “The Fox in the Snow” is no exception. You may remember their song “Piazza, New York Catcher” which founds its way into the 2007 film “Juno.”
“Winter in My Heart”
The Avett Brothers
Unlike Belle & Sebastian, The Avett Brothers does actually contain two brothers with the last name Avett. Seth and Scott Avett, along with their friend John Twomey, are inspired by traditional folk and bluegrass. “Winter in My Heart” combines guitar and drawn out strings to create a lamenting tune about a longing for spring.
If you’re a fan of Fleet Foxes of Iron & Wine, then you’ll probably enjoy Sufjan Stevens’ avant-garde folk music. In addition to his own work, Stevens often works on collaborative projects with other musicians. Stevens has also been referenced in songs by Snow Patrol and Childish Gambino.
Kings of Convenience
Comprised of Erlend Øye and Eirik Glambek Bøe, Kings of Convenience seems to be channeling some serious Simon & Garfunkel vibes in this song. I was instantly reminded of that duo’s harmonizations when I first discovered Kings of Convenience.
Ben Howard has an unmistakable voice and style. He is also unmistakably talented. Howard was born in London and was inspired by artists from his mother’s record collection such as Joni Mitchell and Donovan. “Gracious” probably falls the furthest from the theme of this playlist, but this gorgeous ballad still appropriately fits the mood.
Nicolai Funch is a true independent folk artist. He writes, performs and records all of his music by himself. As he currently lives in Sweden, you probably won’t be able to see him perform any time soon. However, you can support him by listening to him on Spotify or on Soundcloud.
“White Winter Hymnal”
The song builds slowly as musical elements are added one at a time, layer by layer. First a single vocalist, then multiple vocalists are followed by a percussion beat and guitar. The layers of seemingly simple elements come together wonderfully. The music video for “White Winter Hymnal” was made with claymation and is definitely worth watching.
“Alaska – Acoustic”
Acoustic renditions of songs don’t always hold up to the original. This is not the case for Maggie Rogers’ “Alaska.” The acoustic version captures the melancholy of the song almost better than the original. It’s not better or worse, just different, in sort of a spectacular way.