Christmas music for the bah-humbug crowd

For some people, Christmas music has the tendency to spark that corner of the mind that triggers a mild form of temporary adult onset Tourette syndrome: excessive blinking, uncontrollable twitches, and random bouts of profanity. It is these people who fear the first sound of sleigh bells and “ho ho ho.” There are those like Marcus Kellis at the UI Argonaut who complains that Christmas music is nothing more than “the same songs year after year from the same performers.” Many true music fans (and I do consider myself a true fan of music) despise Christmas music; they believe that the soundtrack to the holidays is nothing short of atrocious.

I can empathize with them. During my days working at Old Navy, I dreaded the holiday shopping season. It wasn’t just the savage shoppers, slogging through tables of sweaters and rugby polos like Hurricane Santa. It was the awful Christmas music - think Bing Crosby meets the Macarena.

However, aside from the holiday music torture offered by stores like Old Navy, I typically enjoy Christmas music. Now, those of you that know me personally might find that to be a bit out of character – a hip-hop fan who grew up in a Seattle suburb at the height of grunge’s heyday. And I’m not a big holiday person. However, if it wasn’t for Christmas music, I don’t think I’d be able to cope with the Christmas season.

So, in an attempt of a small Christmas miracle, I am composing a list of those Christmas songs not often heard. Those kinds of songs that could make the hardest hearts grow three sizes, the music that I use to prepare me for what is supposed to be the most wonderful time of year. If you are a Scrooge (or Grinch) this list is for you.

Eager and hopeful yet melancholic. Jim Adkins (Jimmy Eat World's vocalist) admits his mistakes, but still wishes a merry Christmas to the girl he's wronged.

2000 Miles
Originally by the Pretenders and recently remade (with slightly altered lyrics) by Coldplay is about missing a loved one at Christmas. It is also an example of overstating the obvious in song: "2000 miles is very far through the snow. " Thank you Captain Obvious. I would have never figured that one out on my own. Aside from that statement, 2000 Miles is still a lovely song.

Blue Christmas
One of the most recognizable song on this list, Blue Christmas is also one of my favorite Christmas songs. It's been recorded by several different artists, but these three have the best versions: The King of rock & roll Elvis, bluesy rocker Sheryl Crow (who's recorded two different versions), and DIY indie rocker Bright Eyes

(Christmas Is) The Saddest Day Of The Year
Another song that blends loneliness and yuletide. For Jill Sobule, Christmas is filled reminders of a missing loved one.

Christmas Song
Most of us idealize the nativity with a cherubic baby Jesus with a halo above his head - the most peaceful baby in all recorded history. Dave Matthews (and frequent collaborator Tim Reynolds) sing what I think is more of an honest telling of the Christ child - "One healthy little giggling dribbling baby boy" who "Kept his mother Mary worried." Dave's song continues past the manger scene to tell the full story, a story filled with "Gamblers and Robbers, Drinkers and Jokers, all soul searchers like you and me." Like Dave's song, Jesus' birth is only the beginning of the story.

Happy Christmas (War is Over)
Another recognizable song. Although I think the only reason anyone knows this song is because of the singer who penned the lyrics: John Lennon. Since then Lennon's demise, many artists have re-sung "So this is Christmas, what have you done." Some versions work well (like the covers by Sense Field, Thrice, and Sarah McLachlan.), but most sound a bit pretentious.

Have It All
Isn't that every kid's Christmas wish - to have it all. And if not every kid's wish, then it is at least the wish of every true capitalist. Here, Ace Troubleshooter mocks that materialistic aspect of modern Christmases, "Squalor, impulse, crowding, 'tis the season." Yet what our culture has made profane still remains holy, and Ace Troubleshooter focuses there - "Though it's brazen and defiant, please be born in my heart."

Holiday Song (Happy Holidays)
One of my favorite songs on this list. Jason Martin (Starflier 59) begs a significant other to stay for the holidays in his trademarked brand of shoegazing blues-rock.

I Hate Christmas Parties
Matthew Thiessen says it all in the chorus of this anti-festive ballad: "I look under the tree, but there’s nothing to see, 'cause it’s a broken heart that you’re giving me."

If We Make It Through December
This is classic country, and classic pessimism. However, with today's economy, this 25 year old Merle Haggard song is more timely than any other on this list. While the songwriter asks "why my little girl don't understand why daddy can't afford no Christmas here" he believes that everything will be fine " If we make it through December."

In Like a Lion (Always Winter)
Relient K borrows some inspiration for this song from the Chronicles of Narnia - a place where it's always winter but never Christmas. C.S. Lewis would be proud.

In The Bleak Midwinter
Easily the oldest song on this list (written prior to 1872 and published in 1904). This is also the only hymn on the bah-humbug list. However, this beautiful hymn asks a simple (yet stunningly complex) question - "What can I give him, poor as I am." Both Jars of Clay & Sarah McLachlan have recorded a phenomenal version of this song.

Joey Had A Smoke
I always wondered what that conversation between Mary and Joseph was like after Mary was told by the angel that she was pregnant. My guess is that that conversations was slightly awkward. That's what Meg & Dia's song is about. And they do it from the perspective of a couple of modern day teenagers in an empty apartment.

Let Me Sleep
One of Pearl Jam's first fan club singles, Let Me Sleep is another of my favorite Christmas tunes. The chorus explains it all: "Oh when I was a kid, how magic it seemed, please let me sleep it's Christmas time."

My December
This song from Linkin Park really isn't a Christmas song, but I can't make it through the holidays with out hearing it at least once. Winter is my favorite season, and this song fits in with my preference for colder weather (not to mention the waist deep snow we have outside right now).

No Smiles on Christmas
Bleed the Dream's song seems true for too many people - Christmas doesn't hold any good memories. It' is kinda hard to look forward to Christmas when looking back is dismal.

Of Two Bearded Men
The two bearded men in this song are Jesus and Santa. This song by pop-punkers Number One Gun looks at what these two might think of the other.

Old Borego
Switchfoot is modern rock with a touch of intellect. Many of their lyrics would seem abstract without a basic understanding of classic liturature. In Old Borego, Switchfull describes their Christmas on the road as a Charles Dicken's poem.

The Only Gift That I Need
Dashboard Confessional seems to be the poster child for wearing you heart on your sleeve, and that tradition continues as Chris Carrabba sings of unrequited love as he has to wait till spring to get the only gift he needs. (hint: it's a girl)

Someday at Christmas
Stevie Wonder sings in his classic R&B style, Pearl Jam stays true to the original but adds a bit of distortion, and Remy Zero does their best U2 imitation. All singing a song (much like Lennon's War is Over) that longs for a utopian Christmas.

Sometimes You Have To Work On Christmas (Sometimes)
For a few years (between graduating high school and when Bekah and I got married) I had a tradition of going to the theater on Christmas day - after dinner of course. [Funny story, the year Tommy Steve and I went to see LOTR, a Boise news crew was out interviewing people coming in and out of the theater. I saw them coming for me, their cameras and microphones aimed at me like medieval weapons. I didn't feel like being on the evening news so I faked a cell phone conversation to avoid being interviewed.] Well, I spent six Christmases at the movies never thinking of the cineplex's employees - stuck working on Christmas. And that's what Harvey Danger's song is about - sung from the perspective of one of those poor souls who have to work on Christmas... in the theater. "The restaurants are closed. So are the record shops, the banks, and bars, and Bartel Drugs. And so's the half price bookstore. But the movies are always open."

What A Year For A New Year
More of a New Year's song than a Christmas song, Dan Wilson (of Semisonic) looks at the holiday season the same way we all should... a fresh start.

What We Call Christmas
When a song starts with the lyrics "Did they talk about your mom," no one expects a holiday message. However, Bleach pulls it off with a song about how hard Christmas can be for kids in broken homes and the parents (and step-parents) that try to make it all work.

What’s This
Some might consider Disney's Nightmare Before Christmas to be sacrilegious, others consider it classic. I'm in the latter group, and the music supplied by Danny Elfman is some of the most creative ever contributed to a Disney movie. In recent years, the Nightmare soundtrack has been remade twice with modern artists reinterpreting Danny Elfman's original songs. Out of the remakes, Fall Out Boy contributed my favorite version of What's This, a song sung from the perspective of someone who knows nothing about Christmas (but everything about Halloween) seeing the Advent festivities for the first time.

While You Were Sleeping
Casting Crowns is one of my favorites in the world of modern worship music. Time and time again their music not only draws you into worship, but also causes introspection. Definitely not worship music for the sheeple. Here they compare America to the Bethlehem and Jerusalem of Jesus' day.

Yule Be Sorry
Aaron Gillespie (UnderOath & The Almost) and Kenny Vasoli (The Starting Line) pair up for this song, which has a theme similar similar to the first song on this list. "Here I've made you a card, Not from the shelf, But straight from the heart, And here's what it says, I made some mistakes." Nobody's perfect, especially at Christmas.

That wraps it up. (Get it? Wrap? I know, I'm a nerd.) 26 songs roughly about 80 minutes worth of music sure to offset the absurd cheeriness of songs like Grandma Got Ran Over by a Reindeer. And if you're still feeling like a grinch, you should also check out Sixpence None the Richer's version of Thurl Racenscroft's You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:21 AM

    Nice list. James Brown, "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto" gets played in my house at least once every Xmas. I have a good collection of country christmas album. Hope you will enjoy it as much as I do…