Christmas music is built on duality, a lopsided mix of saccharine falsity and genuine emotion. For every decent tune we don’t mind hearing every December, there’s more than a few others that make us want to overdose on spiked eggnog. But Christmas is about taking the good with the bad, the head with the heart, and the joy and humility of the season.
Classic Christmas tunes have dominated the charts for far too long, so don’t expect to see any of these ten tunes cracking radio playlists any time soon. In fact, some of these songs aren’t even about Christmas specifically; just more about the feeling of longing and nostalgia that accompanies the memories of bygone Christmases past. Some evoke happiness in their desperation, and some call despair to the forefront and parade it about. All are reflective and more than a bit downtrodden, so fair warning to those whose emotional state is perilous enough on frozen winter nights. But if you open your heart and let the good of the season in, there are more than a few songs that surface around Christmastime that can illuminate the beautiful and spiritual side of an otherwise commercially-ridden holiday. Here’s hoping you can identify with some of the purity put forth by these indie artists.
“Every Christmas” (Thief)
From Dan Bejar’s first album under the Destroyer moniker, “Every Christmas” is a staccato, lumbering, off-kilter piano number sans vocals. Musically, it’s a strange jarring number that comes in the middle of the rather uneven album, Thief. What it lacks in coherency, it makes up for in pure raw emotion. It’s a delicate image of someone plinking away at the piano in an effort to impress family and friends at a Christmas gathering. Bejar taps at the piano with a childlike wonder and finds a pseudo-melody to conjure up the innocence and simplicity of a slapdash song thrown together on Christmas Day. Nothing else sounds as foreign, yet so close to the heart.
“Snowflake” (50 Words for Snow)
If Bejar’s “Every Christmas” captures the simplicity of Christmas on the piano, Kate Bush’s “Snowflake” captures the complicated elegance and fractured delicacy of winter. Bush doesn’t necessarily “do” simple on “Snowflake”; her piano and voice are assured and seek to break down any vestige of merriment we may have conjured. The literal story of a snowflake being born (“the world is so loud”) and set adrift amidst a winter scene of “midnight at Christmas” is destructive in narrative and musicality. Bush’s voice reaches higher still, to the heavens, casting a dim glow down on a blizzard of inhabitants who could, in all likelihood, care much less for one single snowflake set loose in a cruel and temporary world.
Everything But the Girl
“25th of December” (Amplified Heart)
The rare Ben Watt song that eclipses those of his partner, Tracey Thorn, on Amplified Heart, “25th of December” is made even more nostalgic through Watt’s authenticity. A tale of Christmases where his “old man plays the piano” and everyone looks on, even the angels. Snippets of memory piece together the track: bags of newspapers and other detritus that go unrecognized, things directly in front of our faces. But what Watt is getting at is keeping a keen grip on how we handle ourselves in the midst of family — a serious theme that takes its toll on many of us during the holiday season.
Built to Spill
“Twin Falls” (There’s Nothing Wrong With Love)
The shortest of all the songs on the list, “Twin Falls” is as close to indie pop as we’ll get. It’s remained a staple of all Built to Spill lovers (even being covered by Ben Folds Five) and it’s easy to see why. A simple melody with simple guitar ringing behind it, direct in its lyrics: “Christmas, Twin Falls, Idaho / Was the oldest memory”. Doug Martsch runs through a litany of memories in places he remembers and people he may, in fact, wish to forget. But memory is tricky like that; that what we often wish to bury stays unearthed until we can truly confront it. In this case, the memories seem innocent enough, but frighteningly potent nonetheless.
Matt Pond PA
“Snow Day” (Winter Songs EP)
Matt Pond has always identified with the natural world and his brand of songwriting has always described the Robert Frostian scenes. The Winter Songs EP is exactly what its title suggests: songs written about and inspired by winter. A handful of covers and instrumental snippets comprise the EP, but Matt Pond’s lone original with vocals is a standout. (Though not nearly as good as his excellent rendition of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”.) Christmas isn’t mentioned, but the song may as well be an indie update on “White Christmas”, sans the ubiquity. Pond captures all the essences of the title, intoning about “the people we have become” and the blinding brightness of a day covered in frozen white. Those in the American Northeast may be sick of the frozen landscape come February, but Pond invites us all to rediscover the faith and the fun of childhood, when we learned that a snow day had come and we were all free, if only for a day.
Red House Painters
“Have You Forgotten” (Songs for a Blue Guitar)
Mark Kozelek has had quite a year in 2014. Earlier in November, he released an album of Christmas carols that are given the usual “Kozelek” treatment: somber vocals, melancholy strings, and, above all, earnestness. Kozelek is nothing if not sincere when it comes to his music. Even his loud, more aggressive tunes trade in the realm of the utterly personable. He weaves personal memories and friends and family, living and dead, into his tracks, bringing them closer to our ears and pointing them squarely at our hearts. “Have You Forgotten” is the serene opener from Songs For a Blue Guitar and a treasure trove of memory. There may be better songs to pick from the Kozelek catalog for Christmas, but “Have You Forgotten” is worth it for the Christmases he remembers from childhood; complete with “frozen farmhouse lanscapes” and “the sentiment of colored, mirrored ornaments”. Don’t let go of what made you who you are, Kozelek seems to suggest. It’s what keeps our jilted hearts going.
“Hard Candy Christmas” (Tinsel and Lights)
Tracey Thorn, the other half of Everything But the Girl, released an album of mostly contemporary holiday covers in 2012, and each selection is made magnificent in the only the way that Thorn’s voice can doso. Thorn has a special gift for finding the crux of emotion within a song, and her cover of Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas” takes it from a novelty Christmas number into serious track of self-doubt brought on by the loneliness of Christmas. “Maybe I’ll dye my hair, maybe I’ll lose some weight,” she sings without the slightest trace of irony, before assuring herself, “I’ll be fine”, as the song winds down in a sad, weary outro. Thorn worked some Christmas magic into her cover; it’s so heartbreaking that it’s painful to hear. But one listen and you can’t help coming back to it again and again. Hard candy never tasted so sweet.
“That Was the Worst Christmas Ever” (Songs for Christmas)
Picking a single Sufjan Stevens song from the massive collection the singer/songwriter has written is a daunting task. Where much of Silver and Gold was packed with oddities and misgivings of the electronic variety, Songs for Christmas is vintage Sufjan: acoustic folk grieving, somber takes on traditional carols, spirituality of the doubting Thomas variety, and all the heartbreak of Christmas dissected in the most vulnerable way possible. Stevens’ tale in “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever” seems far too personal to be fiction; it’s title giving away the sentiment that comes with the story. Yet, there’s hope in the worst Christmas ever, a darkness that comes from a father who burns gifts in anger and a sister running away out of sadness and torment. The solitude allows for reflection at Christmas, and the light ultimately wins out. And it all ends with a religious metaphor: “In time the snow will rise / In time the Lord will rise”.
“Long Way Around the Sea” (Christmas EP)
It’s difficult with each passing year to think of a Christmas without Low’s seminal Christmas EP. The band certainly didn’t break any charts or move any mountains with their humble offering of the season. But, in many ways, Low set a precedent for other indie artists to follow. In the wake of the overproduction of the ’80s and the instant gratification of the ’90s, Low made a simple album that was heavy on authenticity and minimal in instrumentation (like almost all of their work, really). The prize jewel in the crown of the EP is assuredly “Long Way Around the Sea”. Showcasing everything Low does better than anyone, they take the historical birth of Christ and turn it into a hopeful dirge, then let it ring in the air for minutes on end. Low have always been pioneers in one respect or another, and their longevity as a band speaks volumes about their creative spark. Low prove time and again what can be done with a song when you focus on the musical basics: melody, minimalism, and magnification. Every note in “Long Way Around the Sea” is perfect, an antidote to the heartless commercialization of the holiday.
“It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop” (“It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop” single)
By rights, Low should have taken the top spot on this list, but there’s something more tangible to Frightened Rabbit’s foray into Christmas misery that lingers longer than ever and has me coming back again and again each Christmas. Perhaps it’s the way the piano and the guitar riffs bounce off each other, or the way singer Scott Hutchinson’s bare-all lyrics come undone, or the go-for-broke choir that hums in the distance. Hutchinson nails the nuances of Christmas (“got some wine on our breaths and some love in our hearts”) and then aligns our goodness with temporality: “the next day life went back to its bad self”. Christmas cheer is fleeting and so is our celebration of it, but damned if that will stop us all from phoning it in each year. One year, the songs seems to suggest, we’ll get it right. But it won’t be soon enough; the hatchets of hatred remain unburied. Even though hope always persists itself in uncomfortable ways, Frightened Rabbit’s tune urges us to keep trying harder, even when the world is at its worst. Let’s not let any opportunity for peace slip by, there may not be many more.