Back a million years ago in the year 2008 I had a bit of a sad Christmas. There were no terrible reasons for it, I just couldn’t find much Christmas Spirit in myself or the world. I was lonely, and felt a bit useless, like I was failing at everything. As I often do, I found some solace in music. Not in happy songs to cheer me up, but sad songs to normalise not being happy.
If I’m feeling sad or lonely or heavy with despair at the state of the world or my life it’s always art that reflects that that I turn to. I need sad songs in my sadness; lonely songs in my loneliness. I know not everyone works like this. Sad songs make me feel less alone in my sadness – they remind me that though my problems may be particular to me the emotions I am feeling are far from unique. Maybe I need to go into the darkness to come out of it. Maybe it’s a musical preference – I always preferred the carols in a minor or modal key. Maybe it’s just that I can’t bear enforced cheerfulness – there is nothing more likely to make me feel miserable than being told to be happy. This can make Christmas difficult – isn’t it the season of jollity? Of goodwill? What if your goodwill well has run dry?
In 2008 I made a Christmas Meltdown playlist and I played it over and over, and it helped. It gave me an everlasting love for those particular songs.
In 2009 I picked a few of my favourites from it and made an advent CD and sent it to my friends. They’re not all downbeat (some are quite jingly and jangly and jolly) but they’re all about loss or longing in some way, about the imperfectness of real Christmasses in a way I found and still find comfort in.
I think this was the playlist (though I don’t think this is the right order – I found a copy of the liner sheet I made a couple of years ago then lost it again, and my itunes garbled it). I do remember ‘December’ was a pre-advent treat; ‘Ipod Xmas’ had to be on the tenth because it’s in the song (‘you left on the tenth of December’); ‘Wintersong’ for Christmas morning etc. I added ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ for post-Christmas come-down, but I think that was the following year.
December by Regina Spektor
December Will Be Magic Again by Kate Bush
Christmas is Coming Soon by Blitzen Trapper
Why Can’t it Be Christmastime All Year? by Rosie Thomas
Maybe This Christmas by Ron Sexsmith
Calling on Mary by Aimee Mann
All That I Want by The Weepies
The Christmas Sound by The Swimmers
River Joni Mitchell
Here it is, Christmas by The Old 97s
Ipod Xmas by Hello Saferide
Christmastime is Here Again by The Flirtations
Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas by Carla Thomas
Lo, How a Rose ere Blooming by Feist
Christmas Wish Book by The Fentones
Xmas Curtain by My Morning Jacket
Donna and Blitzen by Badly Drawn Boy
Listening to Otis Reading at Home During Christmas by Okkervil River
Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) by Darlene Lowe
It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop by Frightened Rabbit
Sister Winter by Sufjan Stevens
Hey, Santa Claus by The Moonglows
The Christmas Song by The Raveonettes
Christmas by Rogue Wave
Xmas Cake by Rilo Kiley
Christmas Eve by Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci
Wintersong by Sarah McLachlan
That was the worst Christmas ever! by Sufjan Stevens
Every year at least one of them tells me they’ve been listening to it again.
Last year I wanted to make a ten-year anniversary edition but I couldn’t work out how to do it easily, how to share songs now I don’t burn CDs for people, but without having to make anyone sign up to an app or something. And I gave up.
But this year I’ve been thinking of a Corona Christmas playlist: one about togetherness and not-togetherness, about surviving another year, about muddling through somehow. This is my Covid-Christmas Survival Playlist.
If you like this selection, you might want to check out the great Leather Canary Xmas Mixes, and Line of Best Fit’s Ho Ho Ho Canada albums. They’re on their 12th edition in 2020 so there is a lot of back catalogue, all available to download for free.
1. I began December with ‘This Winter I Retire’ by Said the Whale as a constant earworm. There’s no snow here, but it certainly feels like a long cold December. A mighty-cold getting-old-quick one. I hope it’s not a make-you-sick one.
2. Home for the Holidays by Emmy the Great and Tim Wheeler
This song was already full of bittersweet nostalgia for me when I first heard it – it makes me think of that bit in your early 20s, when everyone you knew at school has moved away from home, but not settled into their adult lives, so still comes home for Christmas – and I was past that stage. For most of us, there’s no going home this year, whether we want to or not, so it’s especially poignant this year. Did you ever make it out of here?
3. Carry Me Home by Hey Rossetta
This is one about not being at home at Christmas, and wishing you were.
4. Winter Eclipse by Beta Radio
This song takes us from Solstice to Christmas. This year we got a Great Conjunction instead of an eclipse on the Solstice of course.
5. Through December by Laura Veirs
For when all you’ve got is this old guitar to get you through December.
6. The Longest Night of the Year by Mary Chapin Carpenter
This is really a solstice song of course, but this year has felt a bit like one long night, and not in a great party kind of way. It’s a tad schmaltzy, but sometimes it’s good to be reminded:
Keep me safe and hold me tight,
Let the candle burn all night,
Tomorrow welcome back the light.
7. A Change At Christmas by The Flaming Lips
Can you imagine if mankind did actually reveal its truest potential, and if there was widespread sympathy for the suffering? That is a change I would like to see. I don’t know how we’ll get through it without.
8. Sometimes You Have To Work On Christmas (Sometimes) by Harvey Danger
‘I’m working for a holiday wage/My family is two time zones away’ … The version I own of this is by The Long Winters, from a charity Christmas album Peace on Earth. I hadn’t realised it was a cover of a Harvey Danger song (it makes sense – there are band links). It’s a great narrative song, and I love the details in the lyrics and the half-rhymes. We don’t all get a day off to spend with family. Even if we did, we might not be able to be with them. For more thoughts on sad songs at Christmas read this interview with The Long Winters’ John Roderick.
9. Half Price by Jim Bryson (featuring Amanda Rheaume)
On the other hand, no sales shopping this year for those of us keeping away from other people, or under severe restrictions. Also a shout out for those who won’t go back to college, and all those who know what it’s like to run out of gas and light, or run out of fight.
10. I’m Coming Home (this Christmas) by Jim Guthrie
Another one about wanting to be home at Christmas. Okay, so it’s unlikely for most of us in 2020. Try changing the lyrics to ‘I’m coming home next Christmas’ and it works better.
11. Last Winter by Tony Dekker
This is a cover of a song by The Burning Hell about a terrible ice storm a few years ago. It’s a different kind of lockdown they’re having in the song, but it resonates differently now when they sing ‘there’s no need to ever go outside if we make the right decisions now’. Not strictly a Christmas song, but a winter song – it’s on both my Christmas playlist and my Songs for Long Dark Nights list.
12. Talking of which, I have to squeeze ‘Gonna make it through this year’ by Dekker’s band The Great Lake Swimmers in here, though again, more of a winter song than a Christmas song. Never have the lyrics felt more pertinent.
13. Let the Snow Fall by Andrew and the North American Grizzly
This one embraces being snowed in with a loved one, incase you need cheering up at this point.
14. Downtown Christmas Eve by Jenn Grant
This has a bit of the wishful longingness of the original recording of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ for me. There’s a promise of future togetherness. You might shed a tear, but it will be a hopeful tear (I hope). It’s like a musical hug.
15. It’s Christmas Time (let’s just survive) by Kathleen Edwards
Released Christmas 2019. It’s about surviving in a different way than we might be thinking of this year, but the chorus holds tight: it’s Christmas time, let’s just survive.
16. Calling on Mary by Aimee Mann
I know this was on my original advent list, but I keep coming back to it as my favourite song about being alone at Christmas, and I felt like it had to be here too. A lot of people will be feeling like comfort isn’t possible this year. At my lowest at Christmas somehow singing along to this really lifted me.
17. Everyday will be like a holiday by William Bell
Christmas is a state of mind, not just a day, isn’t it? Maybe everyday can be like a holiday, if we can be together again. Here’s to other years, other days. Nothing has to be ruined. We’re going to make it through, and some day will find us just were we are meant to be. Let’s keep going till then x