Here is the thing to keep in mind about the depressing Christmas song, which is a category of craft unto itself: Some are absolute garbage and some are actually really good songs. Here are 10 of both kinds.
For 33 years (Hey, it’s the age of Christ now! Mazel tov, terrible song!), this emotional tire fire has animated not just the Scroogiest loathing of the most ebullient holiday enthusiast, but also a not-inconsiderable amount of guilt. It’s mawkish and ham-fisted and manipulative, but it is also about starving children in Africa, so you feel lousy about sneering at it. But it really is (purposefully) nightmare inducing, with lines such as: “And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime” (Wait, was there supposed to be? If not, weren’t African Christians uses to a snowless Christma--look, nevermind) and “But when you’re having fun/ There’s a world outside your window/and it’s a world of dread and fear” (I mean, fair enough). The gnarliest job went to Bono, at that time ascending into his role as rock’s scold-in-chief, who got trolled really hard by songwriters Bob Geldof and Midge Ure when he was forced to sing the hyper-ironic line “Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”. Probably much more of a radio burden in the UK than here -- tonight thank God it’s them instead of you. (JG)
Dolly Parton, "Hard Candy Christmas"
The thing about Saint Dolly’s most famous holiday tune is that it’s sort of a reverse “Catcher In the Rye.” Stick with me. You have to read that book when you’re 17, or else it’s unbearably annoying, what with Holden’s angst-indulgence walkabout. “Hard Candy Christmas” is inconceivably depressing if you’re a kid -- “Maybe I’ll hit the bars”! -- but as an adult, it’s the realist’s choice of carol. Pass the apple wine, Dolly. Stuff sucks. (EW)
Marvin Gaye, "I Want To Come Home For Christmas"
Written in the early ’70s despair-haze of the Vietnam War, Gaye collaborated with songwriter Forest Hairston. Hairston was futzing around with a song about the war, and Gaye was toying with the idea of a holiday song. So they birthed this, a Christmas song, complete with a (possibly obligatory) spoken middle, from the perspective of a P.O.W. Gaye struggled to get the thing released, but Motown found it a leeeeettle too real and vaulted it. It didn’t see the light of day until years after Gaye’s tragic death. In typical Gaye fashion, there’s emotional complexity -- “If I can't make it home in time/ I know you'll be keeping my spirit bright/ By wearing my name and trying to stop this fight/ Ah, but I'd give anything to see you the family/ And that little Christmas tree.” Brilliant, per usual. R.I.P. to one of the all time greats. (JG)
Newsong, “The Christmas Shoes”
Pack it up, load the car and leave your forwarding address. This schmaltz-bomb is the king of depressing(ly awful) Christmas songs. Ostensibly, “Christmas Shoes” is a parable about sacrificial giving, modeling the love of Jesus Christ, etc. All good things! Reasons for the season! (It’s also about the miracles of capitalism, maybe?) I listened to Christian radio in the early 2000s, and this joint was omnipresent. And somehow, it gained holiday immortality, despite the fact that it is utter ear-napalm. First: The narrative is all over the place. How close to death, exactly, is the mother in the song? Why is this kid spending mom’s last hours running around what I can only assume is a Kohl’s, or perhaps a Mervyn’s? What kind of shoes are we talking? Is the child trying to make this poor, infirm woman squeeze her feet into some plastic Payless heels on her deathbed? What kind of con is this kid running? Second: Are we supposed to celebrate the narrator’s begrudging generosity? Our hero watched the kid count pennies before reaching into his wallet to shell out some cheddar. So, essentially, he waited until the last possible minute to help an obviously impoverished child, only until the transaction had taken what “seemed like years.” Have a pat on the back, I guess. Third: The song manages to strain at the bar of “sound that comes out of a Hallmark card that plays music when you open it.” Oppressively depressing treacle. (EW)
UPDATE: The music video, as has been pointed out, contains scenes from the made-for-TV movie of the same name. This will either clear up the narrative or make it much more muddled. It will, certainly, make you thankful for Rob Lowe.
Celtic Thunder, “Christmas 1915”
Here’s another one about war -- as you perhaps might imagine from a band called Celtic Thunder, it’s less cool than the Gaye song. The tune is, of course, about the legendary Christmas truce during World War I. Not a bad topic, but unfortunately, some seriously cluncky lyrics get in the way: “They left their trenches and we left ours/ Beneath tin hats the smiles bloomed like wild flowers.” Yowch. (JG)
Sufjan Stevens, “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!”
Whaddya want, it’s all in the title, man. Sufjan Stevens -- he of sexually ambiguous, religious-themed folk music and recently of the “Call Me By Your Name” soundtrack -- is also the undisputed champ of Christmas song prolificacy (I had to look that word up). The man’s the O. Henry of Christmas songs! And sure enough, a few of them are weepies. This one contains both the lyrics “Our father yells/Throwing gifts in the wood stove, wood stove” and “Silent night/Nothing feels right,” so just crawl under the blanket now. (EW)
John Prine, “Christmas in Prison”
Here’s the thing: If you don’t tear up at least once during any given John Prine album, you might not actually be alive. This heartbreaker dates from Prine’ still-stunning 1973 album “Sweet Revenge,” where it has the extraordinary distinction of being a merely good song in the middle of an album full of great ones. Our man is sitting in prison, dreaming of his love, direct and specific in Prine’s hallmark way: “It's Christmas in prison, there'll be music tonight/ I'll probably get homesick, I love you, good night.” Listen and spare a thought for the fact that America’s incarceration rate is the highest in the world -- more than 2 million Americans will be spending Christmas in prison. (JG)
Red Sovine, “Faith in Santa (Billy’s Christmas Wish).”
To paraphrase a great line from “A Christmas Story,” West Virginia singer-songwriter Red Sovine worked the simpering tear-jerker country ballad the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium. To wit: This is a song about Billy, a tiny runaway who dashes into the arms of a local Santa, telling a tale of woe. Dad’s in jail, mom can’t stay out of the bars and new step-dad beats them both while hammered. Then, in Santa’s arms at last, the kid dies. If you like your Christmas songs cut with a heaping spoonful of Southern Protestant Calvinism, well, look no further. (JG)
Andy Williams, “Little Altar Boy”
Like me, you might be most familiar with this mournful piece of musical self-flagellation from the Carpenters’ 1984 version. Karen Carpenter’s flawless pipes are up to the job of hiding the lyrics; not so for Andy Williams, who recorded his version of the Vic Dana song in 1965. Basically, it’s about some creep unloading all his guilt on some poor, unsuspecting kid whose mom probably signed him up for a church gig when he’d rather be, I don’t know, playing kickball. Carpenter’s take is mournful and motherly; Williams’ sounds way too leering, and that’s all we’ll say about that. As I was reared in the evangelical church, I am perhaps behind on the intricacies of an altar boy’s duties. I’m pretty sure that they don’t include absolving sin. (EW)
The Pogues, “Fairytale of New York.”
Look, you can talk smack about how silly the Pogues are all you like: This thing is a straight-up standard. According to legend, this classic arose out of a bet between one Irishman (Elvis Costello) and two others (Pogues singer Shane McGowan and banjoist Jim Finer) that the latter two couldn’t write a decent Christmas song. So they CRUSHED it. Riding the thin line between corny and moving in the most Irish way possible, its sing-along-while -hammered potential near infinite, featuring singers who are in 2017 no longer with us or a pale shadow of their former selves, “Fairytale of New York” haunts best-pop-Christmas-song ever lists. There’s a reason: It’s the best kind of emotional wipeout, concerning two Irish immigrants to America who have become drunks and addicts (the “old slut on junk”) who are terrible for each other yet cannot stay away, broken on the wheel that is New York (“They've got cars big as bars/They've got rivers of gold/But the wind goes right through you/It's no place for the old”). MacGowan’s part is rich and raw, but it’s Kirsty MacColl’s gutsy voice that sells the thing. An ode to wasted potential, the slog of addiction and miserable Christmases everywhere, few songs have ever said God bless us EVERYONE as perfectly. (JG)