Joni Mitchell, "River." The Canadian singer-songwriter’s 1970 song about a holiday breakup has become a contemporary classic, turning up on dozens of other artists’ seasonal albums. Still, nobody tops Mitchell’s sense of loss and hurt as she sings, "I'm so hard to handle/I'm selfish and I'm sad/Now I've gone and lost the best baby/That I ever had/I wish I had a river I could skate away on."
Tracy Newman, "Mama, I Know You Ain’t Santa." TV comedy writer-turned-songwriter Tracy Newman has crafted a gentle tearjerker (Dolly Parton said it made her cry) saluting a single mother who has to pull double duty as Santa Claus for her kids: "Billy don’t know you ain't Santa/How could he -- he's only 2?/Billy don’t remember Daddy/But mama, you and I do."
Over the Rhine, "All I Ever Get for Christmas Is Blue." Ohio husband-wife duo Linford Detweiler and Karen Bergquist included this on their brilliant 2007 holiday album "Snow Angels." Bergquist lays out the feeling of anyone who ever wanted to stay in bed and shut the world outside as she sings, "Strings of lights above the bed/Curtains drawn and a glass of red/All I ever get for Christmas is blue."
Buck Owens, "Blue Christmas Lights"/"It’s Christmas Time for Everyone but Me." The achingly beautiful steel guitar work of Buckaroos member Tom Brumley underscores the soul-deep pain in two songs from Owens’ sterling 1965 album "Christmas With Buck Owens and His Buckaroos." Owens borrows the melody of his own hit "Crying Time" for "It’s Christmas Time for Everyone but Me," singing, "All of everything is nothing dear without you/And it’s hard to live with just a memory/For I need your love to give each day a meaning/Oh it’s Christmastime for everyone but me."
Elvis Presley, "Blue Christmas." Billy Hays and Jay W. Johnson’s downcast tune has been recorded hundreds of times, most famously by Elvis for his 1957 Christmas album. The heartache is amplified by the Jordanaires' swinging "ooh-ooh-oohs" behind the King’s voice.
John Prine, "Christmas in Prison." The acclaimed Chicago singer-songwriter vividly conjures what the season might look like through the eyes of someone separated from his loved ones while doing hard time: "The searchlight in the big yard/Swings round with the gun/And spotlights the snowflakes/Like the dust in the sun."
Mindy Smith, "My Holiday." The Long Island-reared, Nashville-based singer-songwriter wrote an ode to her artificial tree in the title track from her exquisite 2007 holiday album. Dissonant chords and an unconventional melody add to the melancholy feeling behind her outwardly celebratory lyric: "Somebody'd say this tree's not real/'Cause it stands there every year/But it makes my holiday feel like Christmas/When Christmas time is here."
Sufjan Stevens, "Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well You Deserved It)." The prolific indie rocker has a lot to say about the holidays. If his 42-song box set "Christmas" from 2006 wasn’t enough, he’s just released "Silver and Gold," a five-CD set with 58 additional yuletide songs. This one from his 2006 collection looks at a downward-spiraling relationship that gets more dysfunctional during the holidays. "This time of year you always disappear/You tell me not to call… And when the door is closed you're wearing different clothes/Or hiding in the paper, pretending not to hear."
Barbra Streisand, "I’ll Be Home for Christmas." This World War II-era number first came to fame with Bing Crosby’s 1943 version, capturing the sadness of a soldier serving far from home at Christmas. Streisand delivered a gorgeous rendition on her 2001 album "Christmas Memories."
Dwight Yoakam, "Santa Can’t Stay." From Yoakam’s 1997 album "Come on Christmas," this rockabilly-steeped big-band arrangement sets the scene of the holiday for a split family: "Mama says Santa can’t stay/Says she told him that twice yesterday/Then a car just like Dad’s pulled out and drove away/As mama said 'Santa couldn’t stay'."
The Youngsters, "Christmas in Jail." A 1956 doo-wop-based R&B chesnut about a nitwit who drinks and drives on Christmas Eve, this one is more lighthearted than the rest: " 'Merry Christmas, happy new year,' they’re singing down the street/While everybody’s havin' Christmas turkey/They give me bread and water to eat."
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