As a rule, I do not like Christmas songs. In fact, I hate them. I hate the way I can’t go into a single department store, restaurant, elevator, or outhouse without having to hear songs of the season every day after Thanksgiving until the last fa-la-la has been la’ed.
My problems with Christmas songs are myriad. They’re corny. Most of them have been done to death. I mean, do we need another version of Santa Baby, Jingle Bells, or Little Drummer Boy? And all the versions are so damn reverent and uninspired. You can almost smell the cash grab by the artist and their record label: “You know what we should do now that your successful? Make a Christmas album! We’ll print money every holiday season!” It’s grotesque.
And look, I don’t know what the seventh level of Hell looks like, but I’m pretty sure on the elevator down, DJ Beelzebub has Christina Aguilera’s Christmas album turned up to 11.
However, there are exceptions to my general rule. Songs that are (mostly) original, clever, weird, sad, or so well rendered that even a curmudgeon like me can’t resist.
The question I always ask myself is: “if I heard this song at any other time of the year, would I still want to listen to it? These fifteen fit the criteria.
So, without further adieu, here is the list (and remember before you come at me, the only list that matters is your own):
15 Lover by Taylor Swift:
Okay, it’s not really a Christmas song. At the beginning of the tune she sings about leaving the Christmas lights up until January and there endeth the connection. But you know what? I really like the song. It feels festive to me, and I think it’s an artistic breakthrough for her (for real, when I first heard it I would have sworn it was by somebody else). Besides, T-Swifty is in Cats. Which makes me feel sorry for her.
14 It’s A Wonderful Life by Fishbone
A ridiculously energetic blast of ska-punk from the greatest band of that genre (sorry, Red Hot Chili Peppers). The Bone (that’s what we kool kids in the know call them) uses the Frank Capra schmaltz classic as a take off point to sing about being poor, getting screamed at by your honey, and cursed at by your mama, but still finding joy in life.
The opening stanza sets the scene:
The ice was freezin’
My brother almost drowned
I jumped in to save him
On his way, way down
Now, that’s how you start a Christmas song! I am firmly convinced that every time this song is played, an angel gets their wings.
Prove me wrong.
13 Christmas Wrapping by The Waitresses
This is pretty much the greatest New Wave Christmas song ever. To those of us of a certain age, this shit matters.
The “I Know What Boys Like” band tells us a tale of woe, about missed connections and the intention to spend Christmas alone when a last minute chance encounter at the only open all night grocery store results in a meet cute that saves the season.
Not only is it delightful as hell, it’s got to be the only Christmas song to reference an A&P.
Again, these things matter.
12 Father Christmas by The Kinks
A hilarious, anti-consumerist, tongue in cheek rant about a father getting mugged by a gang of street kids while shopping for his own children.
While the kids are laying into dear old dad, they make some requests. A job for daddy, some money, or…
if you’ve got one, I’ll have a machine gun
So I can scare all the kids down the street
You gotta love a kid that will settle for a toy machine gun to keep the local toughs off his back. Or maybe he just likes scaring the shit out of his neighbors. Either way, it’s a pretty damn funny song and a pointed critique of the haves and have nots delivered in a way that only a great misanthrope like Ray Davies can.
11) Great Big Sled by The Killers featuring Toni Halliday
An outwardly cheerful song that masks a great deal of discontent beneath. It’s easy to get caught up in the rollicking, anthemic energy of the band, but if you listen to the words, it’s a wistful tune about wanting to be a kid once again, put the worries of the world behind you, and just go down a snowbank on a “great big sled.”
It even ends dolefully with Brandon Flowers singing…
I want to wish you merry Christmas
Can’t do that
How the GOP hasn’t misused this as evidence of the “War on Christmas” completely escapes me.
10) Soul Cake by Sting
When it was announced that Sting was going to do a Christmas album I thought “well, that could be interesting.” I mean, here’s a guy who convinced 80s high school kids everywhere to use a stalker anthem (every breath you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you) as their prom theme.
As it turns out, I was not disappointed. The best song from the collection is a Celtic folk tune called Soul Cake. What is a Soul Cake?
Let’s go to the Wiki!:
“A soul cake, also known as a soulmass-cake, is a small round cake which is traditionally made for Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day to commemorate the dead in the Christian tradition.”
Apparently, these motley looking cakes (look it up, that be motley) were given out to the poor and unfortunate around the holidays.
That’s right, ugly cakes for Christmas! Alms for the poor!
Now that’s a Sting Christmas song.
9) Christmas in Hollis by Run-DMC
Not only is it the best hip-hop Christmas song ever, it was also easily the best song on the first A Very Special Christmas album recorded for charity back in 1987.
While other artists sent in tossed off larks (like Bruce Springsteen with Merry Christmas Baby) or overly traditional dirges (like Bob Seger’s Little Drummer Boy), Rev Run, Daryl McDaniels and Jam Master Jay came up with a celebratory jam that rhymed Queens with collard greens.
How do you beat that? No one else on that album even came close.
8) Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth by Bing Crosby and David Bowie
Has there ever been an odder couple than Bowie and the Bing? The androgynous starchild, and the old fuddy-duddy wearing so much makeup on the set of this Christmas special that Bowie later remarked that he “looked like an orange.”
Who at CBS thought, “I know what Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas special needs! The guy who sang wham! bam! thank you ma’am!” It boggles the mind.
I’m not even totally sure this mash up of two traditional tunes and two very different generations works, but it’s so damn weird I simply can’t resist it.
7) Do They Know It’s Christmas by Band Aid
Written by Bob Geldof of The Boomtown Rats and Midge Ure of Ultravox, this is the song that pretty much fueled the charity single surge of the 80s. Horrified by the images of starving Ethiopian children on television, Geldof was moved to create this all-star collection of UK artists trading lines about helping those in need.
Not long after, Lionel Richie and Quincy Jones followed up with an American version, We Are The World under the name USA for Africa. It was a massive worldwide hit, but it must be said, the lesser of the two songs. More saccharin and less confrontational.
Geldof’s song aims for the gut. Never so much as when Bono roars…
Well tonight thank god it’s them instead of you!
Guilt was never so tuneful or effective. Not only did the two songs raise gobs of money for the cause, but it also lead to the multi-national superstar concert, Live-Aid, in 1985.
If you want to know who to blame for all those benefit songs and concerts, start here. Just remember, no one else did it better.
6) Christmas Lights by Coldplay
Aside from Taylor Swift, the next most popular artist to knock on my list has to be this foursome of soft-rocking Brits.
You know what? I don’t care.
Because when this sad bastard, I’m-so-lonesome-I could-cry-on-Christmas anthem takes flight after the first miserable verse, the heart doth soar.
How miserable is the opening stanza? Let me share:
Christmas night, another fight
Tears, we cried a flood
Got all kinds of poison in my blood
I took my feet, to Oxford Street
Trying to right a wrong
Just walk away, those windows say
But I can’t believe she’s gone
Of course, in typical Coldplay fashion, they still find a way to wish you a merry Christmas and relief from all your troubles through tear-stained eyes.
5) Another Lonely Christmas by Prince
Oh, if you thought it couldn’t get any sadder than Coldplay’s Christmas song, by all means, hold Prince’s beer.
Another Lonely Christmas is 4 minutes and 54 seconds of Prince wailing with both voice and guitar over the ultimate lost love. You know, the dead one. That’s right, Prince gets into the spirit by crafting a song about a guy’s girlfriend who died on Christmas therefore ruining every holiday season for life.
But my, how majestic is the song! It is desperate, pleading, with Prince practically shredding his voice on every line. If you hear one of your friends playing this song at Christmas, please stage an intervention. You simply can’t be too careful.
4) Fairytale of New York by The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl
The ultimate drunkard couple’s Christmas lament. A both heartbreaking and frequently hilarious singing argument between the Pogues’ toothless lead singer (seriously, the man has like three teeth) Shane MacGowan and guest singer Kirsty MacColl.
It begins with MacGowan in the NYC drunk tank (I suspect he’s singing from experience) lamenting his condition in a slow, boozy fashion. Then MacColl comes barreling in about how she was promised the lights of Broadway and ended with a drunken fool in the hoosegow on Christmas Day.
The barbs they trade are savage…
You’re a bum
You’re a punk
You’re an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead
On a drip in that bed
You cheap lousy (use your imagination, just remember this song is sung in character)
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God
It’s our last
Despite all that, the song feels joyous and ends on a note of resigned celebration. As if to say, “you may not be much, but you’re mine.”
3) Last Christmas by Wham!
A song that is both a “weepy” and a statement of resolve scripted and sung by George Michael. It’s a beautiful composition that undercuts its forlorn subject matter with a mid-tempo 80s synth-pop beat.
It should feel like an artifact of a dreadful decade, but it’s so smoothly sung, so heartfelt that it simply can’t be denied.
Over the course of the song, Michael defiantly swears he will spend this Christmas getting over the lover who jilted him the previous year. But his words give him away when he sings…
Well, it’s been a year, it doesn’t surprise me
“Merry Christmas” I wrapped it up and sent it
With a note saying “I love you”, I meant it
Now I know what a fool I’ve been
Still, he swears…
Last Christmas I gave you my heart
But the very next day you gave it away
This year, to save me from tears
I’ll give it to someone special
But don’t believe him. He’s got more heartache to go.
2) Happy Xmas (War is Over) by John Lennon
To me there is no song in the twin canons of Lennon and McCartney that better exemplifies the difference between the two.
Here, we have John Lennon’s song about considering the plight of others with a barely contained disregard for those who don’t. You can almost feel him seething against apathy, consumerism, and greed with every word.
Maybe that’s just how I hear it, but you tell me how the opening line isn’t – at minimum – an attack on the lethargy and carelessness of the average person:
So, this is Christmas
And what have you done?
Yes, what have you done in the months leading up to your festival of cheer? Did you help anyone, you sorry excuse for a human being?
Again, maybe that’s just me.
Still, contrast Lennon’s Happy Xmas with McCartney’s vapid, worthless, unlistenable Wonderful Christmastime. A song so painful to my ears it makes me grateful that school is largely out of session from Thanksgiving through the New Year, because every time I hear this song I look for a moving school bus to walk in front of.
This is why McCartney was so good with The Beatles. When John Lennon comes out of his room with “Come Together,” you can’t jump out of yours with “Silly Love Songs.”
As a post-Beatles songwriter, Paul McCartney saw the world as he would like it to be and it made him complacent. Lennon saw the world as it was and became angry enough to change it. There is no better example of my theory than the contrast between their two Christmas songs.
1) River by Joni Mitchell
I’ve got no pithy quotes to scratch out about this one. The other night I played this chestnut (not roasting over an open fire) for my wife and I swear, I barely survived it. I thought I might turn into a puddle.
The opening lines come on wistfully before aiming straight for your heart and landing dead center.
It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on
Every year I write a little post on my Facebook page about remembering that the holidays can be a very hard time for people. If you lack the friends, family, or means to enjoy the season, you might just want to find a river to skate away on too.
If you know someone like that, please reach out to them. Stop by. Have them over. Or, at least, call them up.
And when you do, tell them Joni sent you.
Alright! That’s the list! If you don’t like mine, share your own!