The second category is perhaps the saddest, since there are so many great songs out there that are neglected in favor of beating the same dozen or so compositions to death with repeated covers, particularly when somebody has the bright idea of doing a "fresh" version of a classic by adding some cheesy new background instrumentation (drum machines, jazz horns, R&B backups singers, heavy metal guitars, it's still the same damn song, get over it).
But in spite of the rampant commercialism, family blowouts and extra-long lines everywhere, I still love Christmas. I love the idea of Christmas, and the timing of it, especially how the Christian holiday came to take its place in the dead of winter, using the old, old symbolism of rebirth and redemption in the darkest, coldest part of the year, and the wish for peace and sanity in troubled times. Underneath all the plastic and tinsel you can still find that bit of warmth and light.
And in that spirit I give you a half-dozen songs that you're NOT likely to hear in the shopping mall any time soon (in the US at least, I've heard one of these in Ireland at Christmas). Most of these selections are a bit of the dark side, thematically, which I think counteracts the artificial sweetness of the more mall-worthy hits. Besides which, with one in ten Americans either out of work or not able to find enough work to get by, it's all about seeing the light in the dark times.
6. John Prine - "Christmas in Prison"
Prine has always had a knack for mixing sentiment and humor, and portraying hard times without coming across as whining at all. Number six on the list is his "Christmas in Prison."
The best line is probably the first: "It was Christmas in Prison and the food was really good/ we had turkeys and pistols carved out of wood."
John Prine "Christmas in Prison" video
5. Tom Waits - "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minnneapolis"
Like Prine, waits has always been one to portray the dark side of life with wit and dark humor. This bit of talking blues is no different from his others, and what it lacks in holiday cheer, it makes up for int twisted genius.
Best line: "And Charlie, hey/ I'll be eligible for parole come Valentine's Day."
Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis
4. The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl - "Fairytale of New York"
If you're a fan of Anglo-Irish Folk Rock (and who isn't) you know this song. It's extraordinarily popular in the rest of the English-speaking world, yet gets no airplay in the U.S., possibly because of it's politically incorrect lyrics. It's the story of a couple who's youthful romance was destroyed by drugs and poverty (yes, there's a lot of Christmas songs about that, and yes, there's more than one on this list) and features the late, great Kirsty MacColl singing a duet with Shane MacGowan. The video was filmed in NYC and features a bunch of actual police officers and one fake one, who is really Matt Dillon.
What probably makes this song so great is that there is still some tenderness found underneath the bitterness, as seen in the last verse:
"I could'a been someone." "Well so could anyone/ you took my dreams from me when I first found you." "I kept them with me babe, I put them with my own/ can't make it out alone, I built me dreams around you."
Fairytale of New York
3. Gordon Lightfoot - "Circle of Steel"
Another tale of crime, poverty and desperation, this time from Canada. Unlike some of the others on this list, there isn't much hope for the characters here. Lightfoot contrasts the "sights and sounds of the people going 'round" with a dingy room where "the rats run around like they own the place." At the same time, his vivid imagery and knack for melody make it a compelling song, and an argument for compassion towards those born in to hard circumstances.
"Christmas dawns and the snow lets up, and the sun hits the handle of her heirloom cup
she hides her face in her hands for a while, says 'look here child
your father's pride was his means to provide, and he's serving three years for that reason."
Circle of Steel
2. John McCutcheon - "Christmas in the Trenches"
In December of 1914 Britain and Germany were fighting in what would become known World War I. Soldiers were dug into trenches all long the Western Front, in France and Belgium, and in many cases, had fought to a standstill. Then, on the night of December 24, something strange happened. The artillery stopped, the rifles stopped, and men from both sides started singing Christmas carols. Eventually, soldiers wandered out into No Man's Land to trade small gifts of brandy, tobacco and chocolate and even in some cases put together impromptu soccer games. For one night, maybe a little longer, they laid down their guns and greeted each other as brother men.
Does thinking about this make fighting over parking spaces and rushing out to "one day sales" at four A.M. seem a bit hollow and stupid? Yeah, it does.
Best Line: Every single one. But try this on for size
"Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more
With sad farewells we each began to settle back to war
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night
'Whose family have I fixed within my sights?'"
Christmas in the Trenches (including a great slideshow of photos from the actual Christmas Truce)
1. Stephen Colbert and Elvis Costello Christmas Duet
Every now and then under the Stephen Colbert persona a bit of sentiment and sincerity slips through. This song is a pretty good example. Just as Stephen and Elvis tell us, "there are much worse things to believe in." Enjoy the season, everybody.
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|A Colbert Christmas: Colbert/Costello Duet|