No longer is ”depressing Christmas music” considered an oxymoron or a socially unacceptable subgenre. Most artists nowadays include at least one downbeat track on their holiday collections — and more and more frequently, that song is Joni Mitchell’s ”River,” which, while obscure a decade ago, is now almost as much of a cliché to cover as ”White Christmas.” But there are plenty of other sad, angry, or just mopey tinsel tunes that aren’t getting their due, and that’s why we’ve helpfully come up with this list of the 100 Greatest Christmas Downers of All Time. Because you’re going to indulge in so many things in the coming weeks…why not musical melancholia?
A few caveats about our criteria for the list. As much as we like Wall of Voodoo’s ”Shouldn’t Have Given Him a Gun for Christmas” and De La Soul’s ”Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa,” we tried to emphasize emotional realism over obvious novelty songs, so extreme tracks like these didn’t make it. We also tried to avoid windows of hope. Perhaps my favorite Christmas song ever — and David Letterman’s and Paul Shaffer’s too — is Darlene Love’s classic ”Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” But Love sings that with such ebullience that you have to believe there’s a chance her lover really will return. Charles Brown’s (or the Eagles’) ”Please Come Home for Christmas”? Seems like there’s a ray of optimism buried there. We wanted to focus on songs where you’re pretty sure the person in question ain’t coming back — either because he or she is dead (see the Prince and Vince Gill entries) or because the singers so convincingly convey loser-dom that you know they’re going to be in hell for the holidays.
We hereby disclaim responsibility for anything that might happen if you listen to too many of these bummer-ific cuts at once. But we did try to pick songs that don’t just have cleverly bitter titles, but that are actually good ‘n’ listenable enough to offer some kind of catharsis. Oh, and if all your local radio stations have switched to all-Christmas programming for the month of December, we urge you to call them, have them peruse this list, and urge them to flip to an all-holiday-bummers format. Wouldn’t the world be a better place with a little more ”All I Get for Christmas for Blue” and a little less ”We Need a Little Christmas”?
1. Judy Garland, ”Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (1944 soundtrack version)
If you think this is a cheerful song, you (a) have been listening to the wrong versions and (b) must have missed our article last year on the history of this perennial. (Get up to speed here.) The ballad was penned for a particularly sad scene in Meet Me in St. Louis where Judy Garland tries to convince her tearful little sister Margaret O’Brien that it’s okay they’re about to move away from their beloved home and friends. Of course, Garland does such a poor job of uplift here that the musical number ends with O’Brien running off and destroying a snowman. That’s our kind of sacrilege!
2. Merle Haggard ”If We Make It Through December”
It’s the economy, stupid. Will this laid-off dad be able to buy his kids presents for Christmas? Sounds like there’s gonna be nothing but loose almonds in those stockings.
3. Dwight Yoakam, ”Santa Can’t Stay”
Here, ”Santa” is a drunken, costumed ex-husband who has to be forcibly run off the property by Mom’s new boyfriend, while the distraught kids can’t fathom why Saint Nick is getting the bum’s rush. The ultimate dysfunctional anthem — yet, amazingly, this one you can actually dance to.
4. Joni Mitchell, ”River”
As recently covered by James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Aimee Mann, Sarah McLachlan, and half the celebrity-singing world. If Robert Goulet were still alive, he would be covering this one this year.
5. Bing Crosby, ”I’ll Be Home for Christmas”
Another one you mistook for upbeat? Do pay attention to that ”…if only in my dreams” kicker, plus the WWII-era copyright date.
6. The Who, ”Christmas”
Being deaf, dumb, and blind can actually be a big plus on Xmas morning — at least when you’re Tommy and you’ve got a shrewish mom ranting through this part of the famous rock opera.
7. The Everly Brothers, ”Christmas Eve Will Kill You”
Homeless for the holidays, Don and Phil try to thumb a ride in a blizzard, in vain. Despite being about to freeze to death, they pronounce forgiveness on all the busy family men passing them by, figuring they’d do the same thing. (This one’s currently out of print, but you can find it on a used copy of Rhino’s excellent Bummed Out Christmas collection, which also includes a few others on this list.)