If you’re old enough to be reading this piece, then you probably already know certain depressing truths about Christmastime: Santa Clause was real but died in a freak tobogganing accident back in ’57 (since then, it’s been your parents); Grandma’s famous, homemade Christmas cookies are actually store bought; Christmas is just a divide-and-conquer corporate ploy to encourage the masses to bloodily slay each other at retail outlets over flat screens, dolls that enjoy being tickled, and next-gen gaming consoles; polar bears drink Pepsi, not Coca-Cola; and, most importantly, there is no such thing as a Norman Rockwell Christmas.
Of course, you wouldn’t know any of this from tuning into your favorite radio station during the holiday season, where the worst thing that happens is Grandma gets run over by a reindeer (karma for decades of cookie prevaricating) or Mommy gets caught necking with Santa. Yes, Christmas music has been an effective tool for distracting us from the seamier side of the season. However, while Bing and Burl have been insisting for decades that Christmastime is white and holly jolly, others have made a point to write and record songs that suggest the 25th of December isn’t only about jingle bells, chestnuts roasting, and talking snowmen.
Here are our 10 favorite songs that shed some light (and truth) on the less merry side of Christmas.
10. Lyle Lovett – “The Girl with the Holiday Smile”
After six eggnogs and a cursory listen, you might peg Lyle Lovett’s jazzy “The Girl with the Holiday Smile” as a bit of innocuous yuletide naughtiness. Hell, your girl might even lean into your ear and sing, “Whoa my, whoa me/ I look so good beneath a Christmas tree.” And while you’re fantasizing about what she might look like wrapped in nothing but a shiny bow beneath your tree—and debating whether or not a shiny PS4 would be a better gift—just be sure not to mention to her that the song’s about a hooker. –Matt Melis
9. Advance Base – “Christmas in Oakland”
Tank tops and board shorts don’t conjure Christmas like falling snow and sugarplums, especially when you’re stranded on the west coast, distant from family in both the literal and figurative sense. But hey, sometimes instead of presents you get laid. And that might be the greatest gift of all. -Randall Colburn
8. Roy Ivy – “A Tom Waits Christmas”
“Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” is everything you’d expect from an early-career Tom Waits song, all cocktail lounge piano and tear-in-my-beer lyrics. “A Tom Waits Christmas” is everything you’d expect from a late-career Tom Waits song. Except that it’s not sung by Tom Waits. Roy Ivy lovingly satirizes the singer-songwriter’s latter-day hallmarks: junkyard percussion, gravelly vocals, and vagabond non-sequiturs. However, the inclusion of yuletide elements makes it all the weirder, and thus, more like an actual Tom Waits song. “The reindeer had the taste of orphans” won’t send you out rushing to buy venison. But it might convince you to buy Real Gone as a stocking stuffer. –Dan Caffrey
7. Slow Club – “Christmas TV”
A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It’s not the content that keeps them airing in perpetuity; it’s the shared nostalgia, the reminder that you–the lonely, co-dependent depressive with career anxiety–once anticipated this holiday and all its yuletide trappings with every fiber of your jammies. What they conjure, these sloppy odes to simpler times, is lovely enough to temper age-old resentments and, more importantly, make everyone shut the fuck up for 30 minutes. —Randall Colburn
6. Harvey Danger – “Sometimes You Have to Work on Christmas (Sometimes)”
Each Christmas, without fail, I get stuck listening to some prick (usually a relative) explain to me how people don’t mind working on Christmas. They love that holiday pay, ya know. Here’s a little holiday math lesson for you: 1.5 x a shitty-ass wage = a shitty-ass wage. So, skip your selfish tradition of Domino’s and a trip to the Cineplex and have a heart this Christmas. As Harvey Danger so effectively demonstrates (with sleigh bells no less), all the vodka slushies and daydreaming in the world can’t salvage the miserable lot of working on Christmas. –Matt Melis
5. Run the Jewels – “A Christmas Fucking Miracle”
The jingle bells are interrupted by a subzero organ. But they’re still jingle bells. The song never mentions Christmas outside of the title. But it’s still a Christmas song. In fact, it’s the kind of Christmas song many of us need during the winter. It reminds us of the love inside ourselves, a confidence that can prevail in the face of hardship. Don’t let the dirty synths fool you; these are positive rallying cries from El-P and Killer Mike, two dudes who spurned major label ass-kissery to deliver one of the best hip-hop albums this year. Sure, Christmas is a time for selling out. But Run the Jewels chose to give the corporate world an icicle middle finger when many of their peers didn’t. That’s a fucking miracle. –Dan Caffrey
4. “Weird Al” Yankovic – “The Night Santa Went Crazy”
It’s a tireless, thankless gig. Keeping updated, to-the-minute naughty and nice data bases, delivering toys to ungrateful brats all around the world, and freezing your chestnuts off up at the north pole when you should be retired in Palm Beach. It was only a matter of time before Santa said, “Fuck it.” And elficide has never been more enjoyable to listen to. –Matt Melis
3. The Raveonettes – “The Christmas Song”
Kaleidoscopic bulbs burst to life around you. The smell of evergreen wafts from windows. It might be lovely were you not walking alone, having just left your paramour–oh shit, this song’s about an affair. —Randall Colburn
2. Archers of Loaf – “Assassination on X-Mas Eve”
Tragedy always seems to hit extra hard around the holidays. Fatal fires, child abductions, and school shootings have all happened in the month of December, reminding us that our collective snowglobe of family, presents, and good cheer is just that—mere glass that can’t protect anyone from the real world. Shit happens whether Santa wants it to or not. “Assassination On X-Mas Eve” drives this point home, chronicling how a political revolt is ruining everyone’s good time. The mixing of death and standard yuletide imagery (“They capped the hero under mistletoe”) adds extra unease, although the Archers‘ blizzard of hooky distortion urges the Christmas mixer to go on regardless. –Dan Caffrey
1. Tom Waits – “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis”
I’ll be home for Christmas ranks high among the most cherished sentiments of the holiday season. But, as Tom Waits reminds us with “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis”, it’s not always a promise you really want to see kept. Here, Waits tickles the familiar spots on the ivories while growling through a letter from a prostitute to some guy named Charlie. She tells him about her pregnancy, new man, and kicked dope habit, only to, by letter’s end, admit that she’s lying and needs money. The closing line might be the finest sign-off of Waits’s career: “Charlie, hey/ I’ll be eligible for parole come Valentine’s Day.”
Well, our holiday song list began and ended with prostitution. I’d say our work here is done, boys. –Matt Melis