A list of some Christmas-themed music by indie artists for your lonesome holiday nights.
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.
"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.
"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.
"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.