Whether you experience Christmas as a spiritual curative or a wretched crucible likely depends upon your capacity to enjoy the Yuletide season’s truly disassociate spirit of insanity. Most of us may consider ourselves largely inured at this point to the curiously redundant recurring color schemes, the unnaturally oppressive nighttime lighting and deeply strange rituals, the whole notion of dwarves and deer running amuck with bounty and coal. On a conscious level, most of us just take that the whole thing in stride. Well, you might say, that’s just Christmas!
That’s all fine and good, but lets be clear, as well: this entire thing is essentially like a four week acid trip beginning with the conclusion of the 4 o’clock Thanksgiving Day football games and not culminating until you find yourself on December 26th surrounded by piles of empty boxes and patterned paper, puzzling with a far away stare at the large and stately tree that for reasons you scantly recall, you have dragged into your living room and decorated in the manner of a particularly flamboyant pro wrestler. As Oscar Wilde once put it – it’s the kind of thing you like if you like that kind of thing.
We like it! Christmas is a great, weird Lynchian kind of impasse in the otherwise cold, grey Soviet-style dirge that is yet another East Coast winter. But lord knows it comes with a soundtrack. Christmas carols are sort of the Eagles catalog of holiday songs. Some are pretty okay and some make you want to tear your head off and kick it down the street, but everybody knows every one from the first notes to the last “pa-rum-pa-pum-pum”. The ubiquity of Christmas songs can take on concentration camp-like cruelty, but they are a truly unique phenomenon, ranging from the transporting to the insipid, decade-after-decade and even century-after-century. Every year there are new Christmas albums, and on a rare occasion the new Christmas standard. Here are ten Yuletide-themed songs that, in our view, represent the best of contemporary music’s wrangling with that season’s complex cocktail of love, yearning, and guilt. May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be largely without irreparable harm.
10. The Magnetic Fields – “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree”
There are a few topics of significance that have not been addressed by the wry genius of The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt and this festive examination of the colossal emotional trainwreck that is the Christmas spirit is no exception. Here we have the rare misanthrope taking up the mantle for the hated Christmas character Ebenezer Scrooge, “If they don’t like you, screw them/ Don’t leave your fortune to them.” Merrit may love Christmas on his own terms, and those terms include a verse entirely in German, loosely translated as “Everything isn’t all a dream/ Is everything a nightmare?”
9. They Might Be Giants – “Santa’s Beard”
Narrowly getting the call over TMBG’s impeccably titled, Dial-A-Song-only masterpiece, “We Just Go Nuts At Christmastime,” “Santa’s Beard” is a classic dip into the deep end of the pool of Yuletide weirdness. Adopting some of the same conceit as the certifiably demented “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,”  this is an amusing if troubling narrative told from the perspective of a married man who can’t quite comprehend his wife’s affection for a friend who dresses as Santa: “Now I can’t help but feeling jealous/ Each time she climbs on his knee/ Why must she climb on his knee?”
This song is fucked up. The 1952 would-be standard written by Tommie Connor is evidence of some manner of deep Hitchcockian perversion, the nature of which would be inappropriate to explore on a family-friendly website such as this, but seriously, what is going on in “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”?
8. Palace Songs – “Christmastime In The Mountains”
This languid, gorgeous piece of country folk is typically mysterious for Palace Music in terms of attribution. It may be a long lost folkways-style gem or something directly from Will Oldham and company themselves – they aren’t telling and even with the magic of the Internet it’s difficult to find out for sure. Ultimately, its derivations are insignificant. This brief, moving testimony is a ghostly rendering of all of the beauty and resentment of a holy time – it conjures those that you hold most dearly and perhaps have harmed you most of all.
7. The Ramones – “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)”
Everybody knows that Christmas night is going to go one of two ways – either every longstanding criticism is going to be left aside in the name of the holiday spirit or else one drink leads to another and we’re all going to “talk.” The great Ramones anthem is an appeal to kick it over to the next day. Grievances on grievances are put aside because it’s Christmas. We all know that we’ll be fighting in the morning, so for the love of god, let’s wave a white flag tonight.
6. Belle & Sebastian – “Santa Claus”
We have come to expect many terrific things from Belle & Sebastian over the years: unforgettable melodies, clever wordplay, and a diverse palette of unique sounds. We have NOT come to expect Glasgow’s finest chamber pop outfit to deliver a convincing cover of garage legends the Sonics’ celebrated 1966 caveman stomp “Santa Claus,” complete with flute. But here it is on the Internet, so it must be true! It’s either a Christmas miracle, or Stuart Murdoch has been in the nog. Whatever the case, they should do this kind of thing more often.
5. The Minus 5 – “Your Christmas Whiskey”
Every Christmas Day is littered with important questions of itinerary: what time is the family coming, when are the presents being opened, and most crucially, when do we get to start drinking? On this cheerful tribute to literal Christmas spirits, Scott McCaughey and his merry friends in the Minus 5 make a tuneful and compelling case for sampling the goods early and often. Everything is better this way: greedy kids, crappy presents, and even the Vienna Boys Choir all take on a pleasant haze. Rock solid holiday advice from one of our most important philosophers.
4. Tom Waits – “Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis”
Tom Waits’ epistolary rendering of a lost soul becoming ever more lost is one of the greatest tragic holiday songs ever written. This is the story of a protagonist deluding herself on the occasion of a holiday, attempting vainly to paper over the profound sadness of addiction and loss that has become the purview of her existence. Christmas can be a redemptive time, but it can be a cruel one too. A cold assessment of who we are currently and what, under different circumstances, we might have been.
3. Big Star – “Jesus Christ”
Between the pure voice of Alex Chilton and the indelible melody that informs the Big Star classic, “Jesus Christ,” we are hard pressed to find a more moving and complete devotional than this one. Juxtaposed with the weary sadness that was characteristic of the final Big Star album, the spiritual ebullience can feel like something of an outlier, but such deep faith was more of a characteristic than an exception in Chilton’s writing. If Chilton seemed bitter at times, it often felt like the disappointment of a true believer.
2. John Cale, “Child’s Christmas In Wales”
John Cale has long been reputed for his brilliance as both an arbiter of the best contemporary music as well as an implacable champion of the avant-garde. Amidst the achievements of his fantastic solo work is one of the greatest seasonal songs ever, “A Child’s Christmas In Wales,” which remembers all of the mystery of childhood and the majesty of remembering years past.
1. The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl, “Fairytale Of New York”
What makes a great song a classic? And after that, what makes a classic a standard? This bitter, generously rendered song transcends time and place. “Fairytale Of New York” is unique and panoramic, somehow managing to wed a sweeping cross-Atlantic narrative to a crushingly intimate and believable character study. The dissonance between the swelling romanticism of the song’s melody, set against the malevolent backdrop of disintegrating lives is at once thrilling and heart rending, with Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl managing to continuously wring jet black humor out of their pathetic predicament. It is a terribly sad song, but in the manner of a true Christmas classic, there remain the slightest underpinnings of hope and redemption. One of the towering songwriting achievements of the past fifty years, and arguably the greatest Christmas song ever written.