Saturday, November 2, 2013

Must-hear Holiday-Themed, Non-Holiday Songs

People seem particularly drawn to mournful, weepy, nostalgic songs to get them through the holidays. Maybe it’s the zeitgeist of these violent times, maybe it’s just being reflective as another year comes to a close, or perhaps just gluttony for punishment, but who hasn’t lost a friend or loved-one along the way, and aren’t the holidays the mandatory time for remembering the joy and pain that accompanies these complicated memories? Whatever your seasonal symptom, the songs collected here follow this motif. And to the best of my knowledge, not one of these tunes was written as a holiday song, specifically, although some have wriggled their ways into the canon, and all have found their ways onto my Yuletide playlist. So take a listen with me, gentle readers, grab a glass of eggnog, and let the holidays begin…

Photographs and Memories,” by Jim Croce: I think had Croce lived, he might be on his third or fourth holiday album by now. In many ways, his mellow, acoustic-driven song stylings are perfect for bummed-out tributes to the Yuletide. “Photographs and Memories” is taken from Croce’s 1972 album, You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, and while never released as a single (it was the B-side to the title track for the album, which was released as a single and reached #8 on the Hot 100), it remains a perennial holiday favorite. Croce had a penchant for writing tunes that, while not Christmas songs, per se, embraced the season, like the melancholy, “It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way,” which sets the tone in the first line: “Snowy nights and Christmas lights, icy windowpanes, make me wish that we could be together again.” Sigh…

Barandgrill,” by Joni Mitchell: Mitchell’s “River,” from her legendary 1971 album, Blue, would have been the obvious choice for this list, but it’s become so commonly covered by artists for their holiday collections in the last few decades (e.g., James Taylor, Sarah McLachlan, Shawn Colvin, and Linda Rondstadt, to name but a few), that the song is now effectively co-opted for the season. But “Barandgrill,” taken from Mitchell’s overlooked 1972 masterpiece, For The Roses, provides a stream-of-consciousness, lyrical snapshot of time spent in a local truck stop café around the holidays, where waitresses are talking about zombies and exotic cocktails and “…the guy at the gas pump, he's got a lot of soul; he sings Merry Christmas for you just like Nat King Cole.”

Love Is Stronger Than Pride,” by Sade: Taken from her super chill, lighter than air 1988 album, Stronger Than Pride, this icy breakup song was culled as a single in the spring of that year, but (sadly) failed to gain much radio play, losing ground to disposable radio crap like “Never Gonna Give You Up,” “Could’ve Been,” and “Get Outa My Dreams, Get Into My Car.” Tragic, that, as the lugubrious, frost-bitten lyrics fashion the perfect atmosphere for heartbreak: “Sitting here waiting for you would be like waiting for winter, and it's gonna be cold; there may even be snow…”

The Hounds of Winter,” by Sting: Taken from his 1996 album, Mercury Falling, this wintery, tormented song about lost love is perfect for the holiday season. Sting thinks so, too; he re-recorded the track as a Renaissance period madrigal for his own holiday collection, If On A Winter’s Night, 13 years later. The album sounds like it was recorded in a candle-lit, haunted castle by the ocean and, at times, seems more fitting for a Celtic Samhain celebration than for Christmas. 

Brick,” by Ben Folds Five: Catchy as it is, this is the only pop hit in my recollection that recounts the impact of abortion for two young people: in this case, Folds and his high school girlfriend (and the procedure in question happens to take place on the day after Christmas, the day for returning unwanted gifts…). Not exactly something you’d expect to hear from the Biebs or Katy these days, but in 1997 it was a moderate hit for the band, reaching the top 20 on a number of charts. I saw Ben Folds in concert (remarkably good) in the early 2000s, and if my memory serves me correctly, he made a point to disavow any political leanings when he introduced the tune. Huh.

Late-Great Johnny Ace,” by Paul Simon: Where were you when John Lennon died? I was 9 years old and at home on that frigid December evening in 1980. I remember hearing about the assassination on television that night after dinner and the radio being flooded with Lennon songs after that for the next several months. I really wasn’t such a John Lennon fan, but I felt bad all the same. And I still do. “…On a cold December evening I was walking through the Christmas tide, when a stranger came up and asked me if I'd heard John Lennon had died. And the two of us went to this bar and we stayed to close the place - and every song we played was for The Late Great Johnny Ace…”

Same Old Lang Syne,” by Dan Fogelberg: “Met my old lover in the grocery store. The snow was falling Christmas Eve…” So begins one of the most bummed-out, nostalgic odes to ghosts of lovers past ever. A bold move for Fogelberg, to use the frozen foods section of a grocery store as the setting for a holiday-themed love song, but that’s how it actually went down on that Christmas Eve night in the convenience store at the top of Abington Hill in Peoria, Illinois in the mid-1970’s. The actual “old lover” came out of the shadows decades later, after Fogelberg’s death and after the end of her own, ill-fated marriage to the architect, a man of whom she’d like to have said she loved, but she didn’t like to lie. 

Levon,” by Elton John: “He was born a pauper to a pawn on Christmas Day, when the New York Times said, ‘God is dead,’ and the wars begun…” A peripheral reference to Christmas, to be sure, but Levon’s son turns out to be named “Jesus,” after all, (apparently Levon really liked the name). And sadly, as it so often goes, the boy wants to leave home, leaving Levon far behind…to slowly die, which, again, pretty much sums up the holiday season; am I right? *I kid, I kid; I’m a kidder...

My Favorite Things,” from The Sound Of Music: In the film adaption of the play, the song is sung to the Von Trapp children to calm their fears during a scary thunderstorm. “Favorite Things” suggests the best way to find peace in difficult times is simply to think about your favorites. In this case, things like, “warm woolen mittens, brown paper packages tied up with string, sleigh bells…silver white winters…snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes.” While never mentioning the holidays outright, the imagery is a nice fit for the season, which is, no doubt, why the song started finding its way onto holiday albums as early as 1964, a year before the film was even released. While the original version is upbeat, the melancholy lyrics and the wistful melody were highlighted in even the earliest cover versions, accentuating the inherent sadness in what has become a perennial holiday classic. 

What A Wonderful World,” by Louis Armstrong: Released in October of 1967, in the midst of the Vietnam conflict and an ever-tumultuous North American political landscape, “Wonderful World,” like “Favorite Things,” spoke of optimism and hope in difficult times, definitely a theme for the season. Not initially a hit upon release, this unforgettable track was impossible to ignore, finally making it’s way onto a pivotal scene in the 1988 film, Good Morning, Vietnam, where it struck a chord with listeners and reached #32 on the pop charts that year, over 20 years after its initial release.

Don’t Miss You At All,” Norah Jones: Norah Jones took the world by storm with her self-titled debut album, which sold a bajillion copies in 2002, swept the Grammys, and catapulted the musician kicking and screaming into superstardom. This heartrending song drips with irony, with Jones singing, “As I sit and watch the snow falling down…I don’t miss you at all.” This song closes her second album, Feels Like Home, and provides a perfect postscript to this endearing collection of songs. It also works perfectly on my “Melancholy Holly” iPod playlist and is my go-to song on the years when I can’t make it back to the farm for Christmas.