Aimee Mann, shown during her 2011 holiday concert in Los Angeles, sings… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” says one of the most popular songs of the season. Yet good cheer isn’t what everyone experiences during the holidays. With that in mind, Pop & Hiss hoped to compile a list of the saddest yuletide songs ever recorded.
We can’t claim these are definitively the saddest, because there are so many more available to choose from. Some are holiday standards, others may be less familiar because they typically don’t show up on shopping mall playlists and those 24/7 holiday-music radio stations. So here are two dozen of our favorite holiday downers, in alphabetical order:
Elvis Costello & the Chieftains, "The St. Stephen’s Day Murders." Costello collaborated with Chieftains leader Paddy Moloney on this macabre tale referencing the first Christian martyr and a less-than-idyllic holiday gathering of relatives: “For that is the time to eat, drink and be merry/Til the beer is all spilled and the whiskey has flowed/And the whole family tree you neglected to bury/Are feeding their faces until they explode." From the Chieftains’ 1991 album "The Bells of Dublin."
Fear, "F— Christmas." L.A.’s notorious punk outfit weighed in on what’s supposed to be the happiest season of the year in its jolting 1982 single in which singer Lee Ving wails: “Don’t despair, just because it’s Christmas/Children, they’re all so gay at Christmas/All the children on the street/Hope they get something good to eat/But for me it’s not so great.” Then the world explodes.
Rosie Flores, "My Christmas Tree Is Hung With Tears." This bluesy ode to a departed love tugs hard on the heartstrings. Her album also includes an inspired minor-key arrangement of "Blue Christmas," a twist that serves the mournful lyric beautifully.
Judy Garland, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." The "merry" in the title couldn’t sound more disillusioned than in the 1944 version by pop’s original diva.
Vince Gill, "It Won’t Be the Same This Year." The country-bluegrass singer applies his high lonesome voice to a song written after the death of his brother: “It's time to pack our bags and hit the highway/And head on out for Christmas holiday/I'll fall apart when I pull in the driveway/It's my first time home since brother passed away."
Vince Guaraldi Trio, "Christmastime Is Here." There are words to this cornerstone song from the 1965 TV special "A Charlie Brown Christmas," but Guaraldi’s original instrumental arrangement communicates all you need to know about the glum reverie inherent in the season for many people.
Merle Haggard, "If We Make It Through December." An unemployed blue-collar worker’s angst comes through powerfully in Haggard’s 1973 country classic: "I got laid off down at the factory/And their timing’s not the greatest in the world/Heaven knows I been workin' hard/I wanted Christmas to be right for daddy's girl."
The Kinks, "Father Christmas." Kinks’ lead singer and songwriter Ray Davies has always taken the side of the little guy, and that’s who he salutes in the band’s punk-infused 1977 holiday single: "Have yourself a merry, merry Christmas/Have yourself a good time/But remember the kids who got nothin'/While you're drinkin' down your wine."
Darlene Love, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." A girl begs for her love to return in this gem from Phil Spector’s celebrated 1963 collection "A Christmas Gift for You." As energetic and bright as Spector’s production shines, you can’t help but be moved by the yearning in Love’s voice as she sings "Please…please…please" to her absent objet d’amour.
Shelby Lynne, "Xmas." On this track from her 2010 album "Merry Christmas," the soulful country singer-songwriter goes for deep blues, wasting no time communicating what the season brings up for her: "Christmas makes me sad/That I’m being bad/Holiday cocktails make me forget/The gift that Daddy never opened."
Aimee Mann, "Whatever Happened to Christmas." Jimmy Webb’s song showed up on Mann’s 2006 album "One More Drifter in the Snow," which was less a conventional holiday album than a genuine exploration of the emotions of the winter season. Mann sings, "Remember the sights and the smells and the sounds/Remember the cheery cards/Remember how love was all around/Whatever happened to it all?"
Chuck Mead, "Will Santa Come to Shanty Town?" Country boy Eddy Arnold tapped his hardscrabble youth when he co-wrote this song questioning whether Santa would visit his underprivileged neighborhood: "He didn't stop last Christmas Eve/Doesn't he know we live here?/Will my mommy have to paint my toys -- The way she did last year?" Roots rocker Mead has recorded a bouncy but still melancholy new version for 2012.