The past couple of days I’ve been kinda down, and I don’t know exactly why. I think part of it is that I haven’t decorated the house for Christmas yet, and I just compiled my Christmas playlist on my iPod last night. I feel behind. Plus, every year I have a couple of days in December where I embrace the Charlie Brown in me. Y’know, those days where everything you touch gets ruined, and you just don’t feel like celebrating.
So, with that in mind, here are ten Christmas songs to help you embrace your inner Charlie. Misery loves company, so listen along with me, won’t you?
Ella Fitzgerald, “Good Morning Blues”
I adore this song and Ella. If Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas is not part of your Christmas playlist, fix that immediately. It’s a Christmas album I can listen to all year.
“Good Morning Blues” tells the story of a lady who wants Santa to bring her baby back. Yes, there are other songs with that theme, but Ella really sells it.
(Check out that album cover–look at that ginchy unicorn! That thing cured my Christmas blues right away.)
Joni Mitchell, “River”
This song may go on record as the saddest song ever. Seriously. It makes me cry every time I hear it. I could be in a room filled with unicorns, glitter, rainbows, and an endless supply of mint in package Princess of Power figures on top of a mountain of Chuck Taylor All-Stars in my size, and it would still make me cry. Save this one for your darkest moments, kids.
Judy Garland, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”
Look at that title. It seems so harmless! Listen to Judy Garland’s version of this song from Meet Me in St. Louis, and you’ll be sobbing under the Christmas tree. The lyrics are so sadly optimistic, like “Well, this Christmas has gone to hell, but there’s always next year. Y’know, if we don’t die or something.” And there’s a bit of guilt in it, like, “I’m in despair, but you go ahead and have a merry Christmas right now.”
The saddest lyric has to be “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” I think that’s why Frank Sinatra later changed it to “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” It’s slightly more optimistic, but I like to wallow in the misery that is the original version.
I submit to you two versions–the original, and a Frank Sinatra version that is equally as sad, even if it has the new lyric in it.
Dan Fogelberg, “Same Old Lang Syne”
This song is depressing. Not Joni Mitchell “River” depressing, but man, it’s rough. Even the weather is depressing in this tune about two former lovers who run into one another at the grocery store and reminisce and talk about how shitty their lives are. It’s not a happy grocery store encounter like the Waitresses’ tune, “Christmas Wrapping”.
Jim Croce, “It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way”
Continuing the depressing singer/songwriter ’70s tunes, here’s Jim Croce’s entry. In this one, Croce sings about a relationship that ended and how everything he sees during the holiday season makes him sad. He also posits that if he just drops by her house things will work out. It’s super sad, you guys. Like, can you imagine a lovelorn Jim Croce rolling up to his ex’s annual Holiday Pot Luck and Wine Tasting with a crock pot full of cocktail wienies, tearfully trying to reconcile? SAD.
The lyrics in this one, much like the lyrics in all of Croce’s songs, are gorgeously descriptive. I don’t know what a “tinseled afternoon” is, but I want one.
Interesting trivia about this one–the B-side to the 7″ single of this song was “Roller Derby Queen”. I guess Croce got over his lost love by falling in love with a refrigerator with a head.
Dolly Parton, “Hard Candy Christmas”
I’m sure there are a plethora of sad bastard country Christmas songs, but this is one of my favorites. This song is from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and was a part of the original play and the film in which Dolly starred. It’s about a lady in need of a change. It has a hopeful (ish?) message, like “Everything is shit right now, but I’m not going to let it get me down.”
According to Wikipedia, Henchmen 21 and 24 recorded a version of this for The Venture Brothers. I don’t recall this, but that’s pretty rad.
Here are both versions for your listening pleasure (misery?).
David Bowie and Bing Crosby, “Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy”
So maybe this isn’t the saddest song ever, but it has a slightly maudlin tone, especially “Peace On Earth”, since it’s saying, “Hey, we don’t have peace now, but maybe someday, right?” It also has the distinction of being the only version of “Little Drummer Boy” other than the Living Voices version that I can tolerate.
Band Aid, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
I’ve seen this pop up on a lot of “most hated Christmas songs” lists, and I don’t understand it. I love this song, but then, I’m a child of the ’80s that loves some large-scale collaborations, a’ la “We Are The World” and “That’s What Friends Are For”.
This one is sad, but also a bit preachy, like, “Hey, dummy, are you upset you didn’t get a keytar for Christmas? Be glad you didn’t get genocide or starvation!” It’s essentially the pop song version of Cecily Strong’s “The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party” on Saturday Night Live.
Now I kinda want to see Bono and Girl go on adventures where they try to make people feel bad for buying yogurt or pumping gas.
Vince Vance and the Valiants, “All I Want For Christmas Is You”
Before Mariah Carey’s song of the same title (though a different song), there were Vince Vance and his Valiants. I don’t know anything else they’ve ever done, but I know this song like the back of my hand. According to Wikipedia, they also had a hit in 1980 with “Bomb Iran”, a parody of “Barbara Ann”. Interesting.
Anyway, “All I Want…” sounds like a Juice Newton song to me, in that it has that blurred country-pop sound. I remember watching holiday video countdowns on both VH1 and CMT and seeing it sandwiched between things like Alabama’s “Christmas In Dixie” and Ray Stevens’ “Santa Claus Is Watching You”. The singer doesn’t want anything but her true love, even begging Santa to take back the tree and all of the holiday trimmings.
I love belting this song while baking cookies. It’s one of the lighter sad songs on the list, but it definitely has that vibe.
Angela Lansbury and the cast of Mame, “We Need A Little Christmas”
So maybe this song isn’t inherently sad, but it’s the product of hard times. If you’re not familiar with the plot of the musical Mame (or the non-musical version Auntie Mame, starring Rosalind Russell), Mame is a whimsical lady who tries to loosen up her uptight nephew, Patrick, by showing him that “life’s a banquet, and most poor bastards are starving to death.” She’s well-traveled, dresses well, and spends money like it’s going out of style. She’s a manic pixie dream girl, but older.
This song pops up during a particularly hard time in Mame’s life, when she is almost destitute due to the 1929 Stock Market crash. She decides, even though it’s barely past Thanksgiving, to “haul out the holly” and deck the halls like it’s Christmas Eve. (Clearly, this song exists in a world from the past, where the Christmas season started sometime in December, not in March like it does now.)
Incidentally, this song works year-round, any time you want a pick-me-up. Something about Lansbury’s boisterous voice and the thought of making things a little Christmas-y makes things seem less awful.
Honorable Mentions: “White Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”
Both of these songs have their roots in the WWII era, and are all about being away from home for the holidays. As for the best versions, you can’t go wrong with Bing Crosby.
So there you have it–a few sad bastard Christmas standards to get you through the season of joy and cheer. Compiling this list helped cure my Christmas blues. What about you, gentle readers? What sad holiday songs do you enjoy?
(And lest you think I’m focusing on the negative, I’ll have a post soon with my recommendations for the cheeriest Christmas songs.)