Essay by Michael Berman
It's become fashionable to complain about Christmas music - it starts too soon, it's too syrupy, and now it's even sexist and rapey. For example, Robyn Hitchcock, who's one of the "patron saints" of this site, recently Tweeted:
Part of the problem is that it's a holiday that we're all expected to like, but we perceive differently. Many people don't even observe Christmas as a holiday, religious or secular, while some seem to really believe it's "the most wonderful time of the year" - kind of like there are people who think that Disneyland is the "happiest place on Earth". (I think there's a large overlap in the later groups... for them, Christmas at Disneyland must be the closest thing to an ecstatic experience...)
Then there are those of us - and there are many - who have a complex relationship with the holiday. I come from a non-religious background, with a Jewish father and a nominally Christian mother, and Christmas was an unavoidable family tradition. Some of it was fun - I especially treasure the joys of a Lionel electric train - and some of it was painful, as family members with complex and sometimes contentious histories were forced together, kind of like compressed gasses, resulting in the occasional explosion or at least sudden release of pressure. Intended as a lubricant, alcohol was instead an accelerant, enabling people to say what they really thought, which is sometimes a really bad idea.
So part of me has always dreaded Christmas, especially the expectation to look and act happy regardless of how I feel. And after more that 50 years of hearing the same songs over and over, yeah, I do get really sick of most of them. Even David Bowie can't rescue "The Little Drummer Boy" for me. But... I do like a good sad Christmas song, because that reminds me I'm not the only one with a penchant for holiday depression. Sometimes a good cry is what you need to cheer up!
Joni Mitchell - The River The classic and ever-champion for me is River by Joni Mitchell. While it's not as ubiquitous as Silver Bells, you probably know it. It's just one heck of a great lyric and beautiful arrangement, as so much of her work is... If you know the song well, enough said - if you haven't listened for a while or never really paid attention, please do - it's a masterpiece.
It's comin' on Christmas, they're cutting down trees,
They're putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace,
I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
Now that's a Christmas sentiment I can get behind, even though I've never skated on a river, and my history of skating mostly consists of trying to shuffle along without lifting my feet off the ice and hoping that a pretty girl might hold my hand to keep me from falling down.
And that dark, minor-key piano take on Jingle Bells at the start and end of the song is just so moving. I could listen to Joni Mitchell play her piano all day even if she didn't sing.
Phoebe Bridgers - Christmas Song I doubt that the next song will be able to stand in the canon of deeply depressed Christmas songs like River but it's definitely a new fave of mine. I became aware of Phoebe Bridgers about a year ago when I noticed her song Emotional Motionsickness. Anyone who can write a line like:
I have Emotional Motionsickness, somebody roll the window down...
is clearly a songwriter who means business. I got a chance to see her at an outdoor festival in LA and she's an excellent performer as well.ere to edit.
She's also put together a sort-of "indy super group" called boygenius - they are definitely worth checking out if you like smart songwriting and spot-on harmonies.
Between touring and writing songs she recently recorded Christmas Song. You should take a listen. (Thanks to Franny Thomas on SiriusXM for bringing this one to my attention.
When I first heard it I assumed she'd written it but it's actually a cover from a band called McCarthy Trenching which I need to check out. The song does a great job of capturing that man, I don't want to be here with these people "desperately trying to have a good time."
The song has the killer refrain:
You don't have to be alone to be lonesome,
It's easy to forget,
The sadness comes crashing like a brick through the window,
And it's Christmas so no one can fix it
Plus...the song features a spot-on harmony from Jackson Browne. I promise, I will not mention Jackson Browne every time I write on the blog...but damn he nails it.
No one can fit it...but a couple of good depressing Christmas songs can help me survive the season. Or—watch the Charlie Brown Christmas Special and the animated Rudolph story, whatever works for you! Just don't make me listen to Holly Jolly Christmas.
Eric Sandberg: My true opinion on everything is that it's splunge.