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12 downer Christmas songs to make you a little less merry and bright

Breakups, loneliness, and prison are just some of the not-so-cheery themes featured in these holiday tunes.

Everybody loves Christmas... well, not everybody, at least not every year. Sad Christmas songs are a staple of the season and can be a nice break from the saccharine drone of "White Christmas" over the mall speakers. (Yes, "White Christmas" is a good song, but come on already.)

We've put together a list of 12 (get it?) downer X-mas tunes that are certainly guilty of being a little maudlin in their own way, but still make for a solid change of pace. This is by no means a "best of" list, because if it were, it would be led off by Elvis' "Blue Christmas" and Charles Brown's "Please Come Home for Christmas." (We like The Eagles well enough, but stop playing their crap cover of "Please Come Home for Christmas," consumer outlets across the USA. Thanks.)

We also did not include a number of songs, such as The Kinks' "Father Christmas" and James Brown's "Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto," because they are really a little more political than sad. And the one thing James Brown can't do is make you sad -- it all just comes out funky.

So, without further ado, here are 12 songs (in no particular order) to make your days a little less merry and bright.

1: Dwight Yoakam, ''Santa Can't Stay''

"Little Bobby stares down at the plate where cookies still lay."

One of the few real Country artists left digs deep into the fertile grounds of divorce, alcoholism, and actually dressing up in creepy suits for this legacy to "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." The rockabilly beat, overlaid bells, and cleverly dark lyrics make for a highly listenable downer. Best purchased on Yoakam's Come on Christmas (1997).

2: William S. Burroughs, ''The Junky's Christmas''

"'Yeah,' he snarled, ‘All the pushers are up on the Knob someplace. What they care about anybody else?'"

From the spoken word / studio trick classic Spare Ass Annie, this is Burroughs at his deranged best / worst for about 16 minutes as he reads the tale of Danny the Carwhipper, shambling around NYC looking for a holiday fix. Along the way, he steals a suitcase in which he finds a woman's severed legs -- Christmasey stuff. The track also was made into an animated short presented by Francis Ford Coppola.

3: Ella Fitzgerald, "Good Morning Blues"

"He was my lovin' baby, and I love him oh so strong. Oh Mr. Santa Claus, his arms are where I belong."

This uptempo Count Basie number probably won't bring you down, but it's an excuse to listen to an Ella Fitzgerald sing, so it's like a Christmas present to yourself. Go ahead, you deserve a little xylophone this season. From her amazing Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, which has the added cool factor of a psychedelic unicorn on the cover.

4: Loretta Lynn, ''Christmas Without Daddy''

"Just like the air at Chistmas, there'll be a chill upon the cheer."

If Loretta Lynn is singing it, it's going to hit you in the gut. A family is missing their dad, who is far away for some undisclosed reason. Does it really matter at Christmas? Best purchased on a remastered collection of Lynn's great Christmas hits, including "To Heck with Ole Santa Claus."

5: Shelleyan Orphan, "Ice"

"Hands ‘round this table full of lies, I feel you standing on some other's side."

Released as part of an otherwise forgettable Acoustic Christmas collection in 1989, this is one of the most haunting and lovely Christmas songs ever recorded. It has that rare quality of expecting the listener to actually listen to the lyrics -- otherwise, you can be mislead by Caroline Crawley's gorgeous voice, which is not so bad.

6: Kitty Wells, "Christmas Ain't Like Christmas Anymore"

"This lonely house don't need no mistletoe, ‘cause I‘m the only one that comes and goes."

There's nothing particularly remarkable about this song, other than the fact that one of the great ladies of Country sings it. Kitty Wells could make you break down over "Surfin' USA." Her man is gone, and that ain't good. Available on a collection of holiday standards to help lighten the mood -- just a little.

7: Son Seals, "Lonesome Christmas"

"I know you look lovely standing beneath the mistletoe. And I'd love to put my arms about you, tell you where I long to go."

This one is pretty much straight electric Blues, and it's darn good. As with most songs on this list, the lyrics here reflect pining for the special someone. But like most great Blues songs, it's not whiny -- Son is just telling you how it is. You can get this track on the spotty, but overall worthwhile, Alligator Records Christmas Collection from 1992.

8: Tom Waits, ''Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis''

"I'll be eligible for parole come Valentine's Day."

Honestly, Waits tries a little hard on this piano bar number, but then that's Tom Waits for you. Things are looking up, but not so much, for a hard-luck woman writing to her lost (what else?) jazz musician boyfriend at the holidays. From early in his career, this track is best purchased on the Used Songs (1973-1980) compilation covering that era.

9: John Prine, ''Christmas in Prison''

"It was Christmas in prison, and the food was real good. We had turkey and pistols carved out of wood."

From Prine's Sweet Revenge (1973), this takes the "missing you" theme to the limit, as a prisoner pines for his girl who "flows in his veins." Prine is one of the best lyricists of modern American music, and his raspy voice is a perfect match for his darkly charming storytelling, as always.

10: Brenda Lee, ''Christmas Will Be Just Another Lonely Day''

"Soon it will be time for Santa Clau-a-u-a-us, and surely he will bring you back becau-a-u-a-se ..."

Miss "Jingle Bell Rock" was a holiday album machine, but she really had only one gear. The weird juxtaposition of strings and Supremes-grade background harmonizing made this 1964 rockabilly number about a missing beau just odd, in addition to a little sad. Which is how it feels to be sad at the holidays. (For an added veneer of unease, check out the Blackstone Valley Sinners' version from their 1993 holiday album.)

11: Johnny Cash, "Ringing the Bells for Jim"

"I'm sorry I'm crying, but my brother Jim's dying."

From his very religious The Christmas Spirit (1963), Cash does here what he does better than anyone -- takes the morbid and finds some light at the end of the tunnel. A clergyman finds a little girl ringing the church bells for her brother, who is dying during the Christmas holiday. Even though there is a happy ending, that's not what you will remember.

12: The Posies, "Christmas"

"It's not the darkest night that I spent alone. Not the only one that I will ever see."

Another Christmas breakup song, but an exceptional one, primarily because it doesn't dwell entirely on the holiday as a source of misery. The refrain "Christmas means little me" sums it up pretty well, and the wilting instrumentals and vocals still impart a sense of determination. Available on the very good Just Say Noel collection of cool kid bands from 1996.

And now, if we've got you feeling a little down, go check out this YouTube video of kids dancing to Syd Straw's incredible "The Christmas Twist." See, we're not totally Grinched out.

About

Ken Hardin is a freelance writer and business analyst with more than two decades in technology media and product development. Before founding his own consultancy, Clarity Answers LLC, Ken was a member of the start-up team and an executive with TechRe...

31 comments
Computer Dave
Computer Dave

by ELP They said there'd be snow for Chrsitmas They said there'd be peace on Earth But instead it just kept on raining A veil of tears for the virgin birth It's my favorite cynical/see thtough the BS song. Then there's the Pretender's version of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" wherein Chrissie Hynde comes as close to crying as I've ever heard her. A couple more River by by Joni Mitchel (or anyone else) Christmas In Vietnam by Johnny & Jon Christmas Eve Can Kill You by The Everly Brothers

Solenoid
Solenoid

I borrowed Shuggie54's suggestion of Miles Davis. Tom Waits and "Little Boy that Santa Claus Forgot" were carryovers from the last mix. Also new this year is the song by Donovan, which I only recently heard for the first time. The mix is simply titled Anti-Xmas 2012, and it's mostly alt-punk and comedy themed, with eclectic variety. A mix CD is a cheap gift for acquaintances, and more lasting than a card. This year's track list: 01 Father Christmas by Action Action (The Kinks cover, original is better) 02 The Season's Upon Us by Dropkick Murphys, (released this year) 03 Merry Christmas I don't Want To Fight by The Ramones 04 I Won't Be Home for Christmas by Blink-182 05 Yule Shoot Your Eye Out by Fall Out Boy 06 You Ain't Getting S**t For Christmas by Red Peters 07 Homeless on the Holidays by Bob Rivers 08 A Christmas Carol by Tom Lehrer 09 Another Christmas Song by Stephen Colbert 10 I Don't Believe In Christmas Anymore by Donovan 11 Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern) by Miles Davis & Bob Dorough 12 Christmas Without Weed by Phish 13 I Wish You Would Roll a New Blunt by Afroman 14 December Is for Cynics by The Matches 15 Christmas Sucks by Tom Waits & Peter Murphy 16 This Time of the Year by Project 86 17 It's A Wonderful World by Nick Cave & Shane Macgowan 18 The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot by Unknown (Perhaps Nat King Cole?) 19 Silent Night/Christmas Card from a Hooker In Minneapolis by Tom Waits

junk
junk

My favs: "Christmas at Ground Zero" (W. Al), and "It's hard to be a Jew on Christmas" (Southpark)

Dr. Solar
Dr. Solar

Seems there should be recognition of the "stealth downer" songs.... the ones that get played over and over as if they happy, uplifting songs; that is, until you listen to the lyrics. I'm thinking of.... "Last Christmas" by Wham! "We Need A Little Christmas" from Mame (lyrics: "Put up the tree before my spirit falls again....For I've grown a little leaner, Grown a little colder, Grown a little sadder, Grown a little older") the abovementioned "So This Is Christmas" (or is it, "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)"?) Back to the un-stealthy ones, "Do They Know It's Christmas" is worth mentioning. And coincidentally enough, all the above have been on Glee Christmas albums. Hm.

ssmurray
ssmurray

You should be as good at what you do as Tom Waits is.

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

is conspicuous in its absence, if you ask me. It was on a blues/R&B X-mas compilation in the 70s....I think it was by Freddie King. It's still part of my set this time of year (along with Chuck Berry 'Run, Run, Rudolph', J. Prine 'Christmas in Prison'---see above, and Royal Guardsmen 'Snoopy's Christmas'). Remember to tip your waitresses and bartender, and enjoy the rest of the show......

CaptLaser
CaptLaser

Merle Haggard -- "If We Make It Through December" should top your chart as the tear-jerker of all time. A classic gut-wrencher with that glimmer of hope that those in such a position cling to. If you want to feel sad (and sometimes, right? That's what this article is about so admit it!) this is a "go-to" country song.

drbayer
drbayer

And we shouldn't forget Jethro Tull's "A Christmas Song". "How can you laugh when your own mother's hungry? How can you smile when your reasons for smiling are wrong?"

RipVan
RipVan

What about "And So This Is Christmas?" At least I think that's the title. Nothing like hearing that to bring you down. Sux. And that Paul McCartney attempt at a Christmas song "Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time." It isn't supposed to be a downer, but the synthesizer and his mindless pop lyrics and singing take all of the humanity out of the song. It rings as empty as the opening notes and never brought me any joyl It just sounds so empty! Don't worry if you don't agree with me on that one, I have mentioned that lifeless song to others and they don't feel the same way. Oh well... Edited for speeling.

Tumbleweed_Biff
Tumbleweed_Biff

"Chipmunks roasting on an open fire" is a nice change of pace from the saccharine as well.

josmyth
josmyth

I vote for John Prine.

jpirrong
jpirrong

"Christmas In Jail" 1956, The Youngsters. Probably on youtube, but not sure.

smutqueen
smutqueen

Great list! I just listened to John Prine this weekend. I got a strange thrill out of it. Also good: "Please Daddy Don't Get Drunk This Christmas." This song may be funny for some people; for others, it's a page from the family photo album. I have to agree about "Christmas Shoes" too.

bpgluckman
bpgluckman

When The Pogues teamed with the late, great, and dearly-missed Kirsy MacColl to record "Fairytale of New York", a class was born: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrAwK9juhhY "You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot, happy Christmas my arse"

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

None of them belong on the same list with 'Christmas Shoes' http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJcPVB-we7g I've never heard a more manipulative piece of deliberate heartstring yanking. Unlike 'Bells for Jim', there ain't no happy ending. Anything else I could say would be spoiler.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"The Night Santa Went Crazy", although that one won't get any play this year due to current events.

poisson59
poisson59

Every time I hear that song, I cannot help but think "Do they CARE it's Christmas?". Christmas is a Christian tradition. To the Muslim, it's a pagan holiday. Not only do they not participate in it, they avoid it altogether (well, the Muslim I know, at least, my next door neighbors included). In mostly Muslim areas, Christmas must be like Ramadan for Christians: if they know it's the Season, they certainly don't care. This attemp at tear jerking is supposed to entice generosity, but to me it simply shows utter ignorance of other cultures.

RipVan
RipVan

I should have included that in my list above. HOWEVER, I have the excuse that they play the other two songs on the radio every season. I don't hear Tull's song at all anymore, but I think I'll give it a listen, since it has been so long. But I agree, and put this one right next to John Lennon...

Solenoid
Solenoid

This weekend on a radio show, American Routes, I heard an interview (and this song too) with Bob Dorough. Notably, I learned that he is the same guy behind all of the old Schoolhouse Rock songs.

Flat_Stanley
Flat_Stanley

"And So this is Christmas" has been rumbling around in my head as well. Quite depressing, blues without the blues.

chris.leeworthy
chris.leeworthy

For me that song (simply having a wonderful christmas time) is vacuous, tedious and mediocre. Not only is it not joyous, it actively removes joy from my soul when I hear it. It may as well be a washing powder jingle or lift (elevator) musak

Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

"Chiron Beta Prime". Ah, Christmas and Soylent Green, is anything better?

JimWillette
JimWillette

I too fully expected to see this one on the list. "Christmas eve in the drunk tank ..." starts the song out. There are threads of hope, but it is an emotional roller coaster, mostly down.

Tumbleweed_Biff
Tumbleweed_Biff

I have disliked, nay despised, "Christmas Shoes" since the first time I heard it. What young(ish) child is going into a store - alone - with a pocketful of change to buy shoes for his dying mother? How did he get there? How is he getting to the hospital after? I can't check my brain at the door. The whole scenario screams "SCAM" and the cashier/other customers as being "marks". This is one song on my "turn the radio off, I'm gonna heave" list.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

does Weird Al's 'Nature Trail to Hell' count? After all, it opens with, "Coming this Christmas to a theater near you..."