Anyone who’s worked in retail can tell you what a headache Christmas carols can be. You’re working eight hour shifts surrounded by irate customers who forgot the meaning of holiday cheer in a rush to get presents for their shitty boyfriends and picky sisters. These people have no regard for the fact that you’re stuck in a mall neatly folding the pile of t-shirts they just demolished instead of out getting sloshed with your friends or exchanging gifts with your loved ones. And all the while, that awful Mariah Carey song is just blaring. Over and over and over again.
I’m of the opinion that not even David Bowie could save “Little Drummer Boy” from being the most annoying piece of music ever composed, and that “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is basically a rape-carol. But that doesn’t mean the whole Christmas catalogue is a lost a cause. There have been a handful of songs (usually lesser known and therefore less overplayed) that can still manage to put me in the holiday spirit instead of making me want to gouge my eyes out with a nutcracker. These are my personal favorites.
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The Kinks – Father Christmas: Somewhere along the line, I stopped asking my parents for gifts around the holidays and started requesting practical things instead: a trip to the dentist, a gift card to Target, rent money. These things would keep me alive whereas candles from the Dollar Store would not. So I am not sure if I side with Ray Davies or the antagonistic children who mug him while he was playing Santa, but choosing sides isn’t the point. On the one hand, threatening violence is not cool, children can be terrifying, and machine guns are not appropriate gifts. But what these kids really want is jobs for their dads or the cold hard cash that will allow them to survive their harrowing, impoverished existences, rather than dolls or blocks or whatever. They’re just trying to check some volunteer Santa’s privilege (and ours) by reminding us that there are plenty of folks out there who can’t put food on the table at Christmastime (or any other time). But this isn’t some depressing ballad; the message comes in a catchy rock ‘n’ roll wrapping, its riffs Xmassed up with some cheery chimes that make a nice foil for Davies’ ragged snarl.
Sufjan Stevens – Christmas Unicorn: The thing about Sufjan is that all of his songs are about 10,000% better if you just imagine he’s a singing unicorn. And from the first line of this song, he presents himself as not just any unicorn, but a Christmas unicorn, with a mistletoe nose and a shield and a gold suit. Sounds cool right? But wait: Sufjan as the Christmas Unicorn is actually a symbol for American hypocrisy, out-of-control consumerism, Christians adopting Paganism, Baby Jesus, drug addiction and insanity. But this outlandish gem from last year’s epic (what isn’t epic with Sufjan?) Christmas-themed limited edition six LP vinyl boxset Silver & Gold doesn’t stop there. It goes on for twelve minutes and gets so weird it needs a play-by-play. After the introductory takedown of hodgepodge Anglo-American Christian-Pagan ideals, there’s an expansive instrumental break that falls somewhere between swirly space rock and something you’d imagine playing over loudspeakers at a Ren-faire, flutes and all. About halfway through, the meandering melody grows pegasus wings and starts flapping around all wildly a la those choruses from “Chicago”. And eight minutes in, it becomes a Christmasified cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. This song is the best kind of holly-jolly trainwreck.
Joni Mitchell – River: Easily one of the most gorgeous songs in Mitchell’s oeuvre (and of all time, pretty much), the power of “River” lies in Mitchell’s ability to evoke nostalgia via her contemplative lyrics and her timeless voice. She’s alone on Christmas due to perceived failures on her part, ruminating on a recent breakup and feeling detached from the festive mood of the approaching holiday. It’s an anthem for any adult’s first Christmas away from home, the first holiday where those carefree childhood days have faded and you can no longer escape all the grown-up responsibilities you have in the simple act of lacing up a pair of skates and taking to the ice. Extra points on the shout out to all the evergreens slaughtered for the sake of Christmas spirit.
The Waitresses – Christmas Wrapping: The Waitresses had two songs. One was the theme song for “Square Pegs” which famously starred Sarah Jessica Parker (before she was famous). And the other is this Blondie-esque narrative about a semi-Scroogey girl having a frustrating holiday/life. See, all year long she’s been bumping into this cutie, and because of her first world problems (like sunburn – ugh!) she’s never actually able to connect with him. The daily stresses keep piling up until she just, like, can’t even with Christmas. I mean, her turkey was all in the oven and she forgot cranberries! But in a fateful trip to the only all-night grocery, she finally finds love; her crush is in the check-out line, having also totally fucked up his grocery shopping. Bright brass and zippy guitar lines are the perfect accent for this tale of bitterness diminished by serendipitous Christmas magic.
The Sonics – Don’t Believe In Christmas: While it seems like any number of bands (especially those on the Burger Records roster) might write a song like this today, it was released in 1965, a decidedly un-scuzzy era for rock n’ roll. It’s snarky and skeptical and goes beyond greedy to straight up entitled, moving about a mile a minute all the while. When you don’t get cool presents or kisses from the ladies, there’s simply no reason to celebrate. Ironically, the single finds its home on an Etiquette Records compilation entitled Merry Christmas, also featuring The Sonics’ singular contemporaries The Wailers and Galaxies. Most of the songs are brilliant originals completely overlooked every December. It makes sense that they don’t play The Wailers’ scathing anti-consumerist romp “Christmas Spirit???” in Saks Fifth Avenue but “She’s Coming Home” and “Maybe This Year” evoke melancholic hope with a slightly psych-tinged execution. That sound carries over into the Galaxies’ unique covers of Christmas favorites. Elsewhere on the record, Santa stiffs The Sonics once again; lead singer Gerry Roslie asks the titular Claus to bring new guitars, money and babes in his sack but gets “Nothin’! Nothin’! Nothin’!”, according to Roslie’s embattled cries. Looks like not believing in Christmas didn’t stop the guy from trying.
John Lennon & Yoko Ono – Happy Xmas (War Is Over): Shortly before the rest of The Beatles started recording Christmas fluff, John Lennon furthered his anti-Vietnam War protest efforts by releasing this 1971 single featuring Yoko Ono and Harlem Community Choir. Lennon believed that coating the political content in sweet, sugary Christmassiness would make his message easier to accept (his Christmessage?). It was not an instant classic, but endures today as a reminder that we should all just get along. It also reminds us that the English say “Happy” instead of “Merry” which shouldn’t fuck with my head as much as it does. The track was produced by Phil Spector (who certainly did not get along with Lana Clarkson, the actress whom he murdered). If you’re going to listen to traditional carols, though, you can do no better than 1963’s A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records on Spector’s label. There’s even a bearable version of “Frosty the Snowman” by the Ronettes.
The Everly Brothers – Christmas Eve Can Kill You: It’s not just the twangy pedal steel that gives this song its melancholy mood. Its emotionally devastating lyrics are narrated by a sad hitchhiker trying to catch a ride on a frigid Christmas Eve, ignored by drivers in a hurry to get home to their families. The moral of the story is that you should really be kind to your fellow man, especially in the winter, and even more especially on holidays. But let’s also be real – it’s actually dangerous to pick up hitchhikers; they can kill you too.
The Fall – (We Wish You) A Protein Christmas: Okay, so this bizarre offering from The Fall is way more cryptic and terse than say, “Dashing Through The Snow” – what is a Protein Christmas anyway? We may never know. It’s a reference to (and a rewrite of) “Proteinprotection” but, just like a previous episode of Lost, we had no idea what was going on the first time around either and were basically left hanging without answers to the mystery. It might have something to do with DNA, or aliens, or both. But Mark E. Smith’s atonal poetics and Scizophrenic laughter punching through meditative, repetitive bass rhythms make for a great debate winner with your punk friends who think they’re too cool for Christmas.
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – There Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects: No one’s gonna make a fool out of Sharon Jones. Least of all her mother, with that trifling explanation of how presents wound up under her Christmas tree. Replete with a jazzy sax solo that revisits “Jingle Bells”, this groovy soul number from the prolific funk revivalists takes a cynical look at all the continuity errors in the Santa myth while simultaneously pointing out economic inequalities that don’t simply end with a lack of fireplaces in housing developments.
The Flaming Lips – Christmas at the Zoo: In this hazy, lazy jam from Clouds Taste Metallic, Wayne Coyne sings about freeing animals from the zoo Brad-Pitt-in-12-Monkeys style. Zoos are sad fucking places, it’s true, but something about listening to this song is akin to flipping through and filling in a coloring book with your most psychedelic crayons. Rubbery guitars waver like the bars bent back on peacock cages, trumpets sound like liberated elephants. Coyne’s Christmas obsession didn’t fizzle after the release of the song in 1995; they released a secret Christmas album in 2007, re-recording one of the tracks (“Atlas Eets Christmas”) four years later with Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band. And then there’s Christmas on Mars, a film Coyne wrote, directed, and starred in with other members of the Lips. It debuted at Sasquatch Festival in 2008.
Joey Ramone – Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight): This is the only worthwhile selection on Joey’s 2002 Christmas Spirit… In My House EP. It’s got to be one of the few Ramones-related songs that separates “want” and “to” instead of using the stylized “wanna”; I was under the impression that the Ramones had no idea such a thing could be done. Yet here it is, right at the intersection of Christmas cheer and heartfelt pleas to your significant other to end the bickering for once. The reason this song is listenable when the others on the EP are not is mainly because it hearkens back to Ramones glory days, only trading a bit of the usual grit for some shades of Doo-Wop and festive jangle.
Kishi Bashi – It’s Christmas, But It’s Not White Here In Our Town: In this short and swoony number, the multi-instrumentalist with a heart of gold longs for an idyllic, frost-covered wonderland, the reflections as dreamy and romantic as a tape on rewind. Kishi Bashi’s vocals are extra angelic, layered airily over sweet strings. It could have been a great opener for one of those claymation Christmas specials, maybe one in which the protagonist has to fight to save the town from a snow-less winter. But in a real-life heroic move, the musician donated all proceeds from sales of the snowflake-shaped flexi-disc to Ear Candy, a charitable organization that provides kids with used instruments.
The Pogues – Fairytale of New York: There really aren’t enough Christmas songs with the word “faggot” in them. JUST KIDDING, THERE’S ONE TOO MANY. Kirsty MacColl’s cavalier use of the epithet almost disqualified it from the list, but this song is a fixture on so many lists already because all anyone associates with it is ending up in the drunk tank on Christmas and those triumphant “And bells were ringing!” chorus declarations from Shane MacGowan. I considered including Wham!’s “Last Christmas” or The Vandals’ “My First Christmas (As A Woman)”, decided that the latter did more harm than good and that the former represents the kind of annoying things I hate about Christmas songs in the first place. Incidentally, there is no such thing as the NYPD choir. According to the song’s Wikipedia entry, the NYPD does have a Pipes and Drums unit but they didn’t know “Galway Bay” when they appeared in the video for “Fairytale”, playing the Mickey Mouse Club theme instead.
So there you have it. These songs go above an beyond the cloying carols dripping with good tidings. Whether political or personal, they represent a more thoughtful, far less narrow view of what Christmas is about, embracing the controversial and updating the conventional.
In other news, Iggy Pop wants you to have a happy holiday, or go swimming, or cuddle with his cockateel, or something.