Welcome in the festive season with these wonderfully dreary, authentic holiday songs, carefully compiled by Pearl Jam’s Vs. author, Clint Brownlee.
Were Ebenezer Scrooge hoarding coins this winter, he’d be nauseated by the treacle ringing from every holiday radio station, storefront, and pair of AirPods. He’d finally have good moral footing for his scorn, too.
For generations, popular (read: secular) Christmas tunes have come in two singalong flavors: blithely saccharine jubilation and syrupy “blue” lamentation. Elvis and his backing vocalists showed the way in 1957 with “Blue Christmas” and mainstream holiday music has only grown more homogenized since. It’s all jingly and sugarplum-shiny.
At this late hour of the year, though, doesn’t your heart ache to be understood rather than patronized? Don’t you want to believe that existential wintertime ennui isn’t yours alone? Mariah Carey might make you feel like a rosy-cheeked kid, but it’s a three-minute high. “Make my wish come true” is for those who don’t know better.
Well, hark! I bring you a ratty sack of atypical Christmas songs that ring wonderfully true in dreary December. When you’re pining for the unreachable. Scared of a new year’s challenges. In a holiday funk. Feeling none too merry.
“To Heck With Ole Santa Claus” & “Christmas Without Daddy” – Loretta Lynn
Lynn’s 1966 Country Christmas puts a charming spin on the already trite singalongs and adds new classics to the canon, so she gets a two-fer. The faux-bitter “To Heck…” might be an invitation to line dance in red velvet, but there’s edgy humor (“I’d like to hit him in his ho ho ho / With a bunch of big snowballs”) and a real childlike disappointment in learning Santa’s magic is a myth. In “Christmas Without Daddy,” a mother’s sorrow for her son and daughter’s father-free holiday elevates the “blue” trope gracefully. Lynn spotlights the broken home without schmaltz, commentary or judgment.
“Gone For Christmas” – Amanda Shires
’Tis the season for wishes, and Shires counts off a relatable bunch in this lively blues-backboned tune off her 2021 curveball, For Christmas. Maybe it’s the juice you need to ring in a long-overdue breakup, it’s identifying with Shires’ request to be “taller than five-foot three,” or discovering you’re not alone in crushing on Larry David. (Shires is a brilliant, twinkly-eyed but honest songwriter.) There’s a lot to latch onto here, even if you know you’ll never wish your partner “gone.” You’ll laugh, you might cry, you’ll play it again.
“Time Of The Season” – Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan
Sure, this almost instantly gets you humming along like any Christmas radio tune. But the lyrics, outlining a sweet relationship on the brink of demise, are so colloquial and authentic and beautifully sung by this honey/whiskey duo that you’re sucked right into their characters’ possible last gasp of love. After the closing line, “And pair me with a circus clown / At this time of the season,” you’ll worry over their wintertime fate — and then start the song over again, hunting clues. (Campbell and Lanegan made three albums, each a delight. This song is from 2010’s Hawk.)
“So Much Wine” – Phoebe Bridgers
This measured cautionary tale about alcohol’s effect on a relationship, set on Christmas Day, is a chilly cover of The Handsome Family’s country/folky original. The couple’s bond is broken by the end of the song, but the somber Irish fiddle and whistle that close things out sadly underscore the message: that a heart broken in the winter of addiction may never heal. Make this your entry point for Bridgers’ melancholic collection of Christmastime covers.
“Santa God” – Pearl Jam
Eddie Vedder wistfully recalls the innocence of equating Santa Claus with God in this 2007 vinyl gift to Pearl Jam’s fan club. Though the band gallops through the tune, Vedder holds his vocal reins tight throughout except for one brief shift into gravelly garage mode; the effect amplifies his nostalgic, conflicted lyrics. (“Even though he was a lie / We all were satisfied.”) Was believing in Santa a parent-serving trick? Did it shape who we became as adults? He comes to no conclusion, perhaps ironically closing the song with “Sleep tight, oh little ones.”
“The Season’s Upon Us” – Dropkick Murphys
Come for the punk Celtic sound, stay for the raw Christmas list of complaints—from family member foibles to annoying holiday traditions. There’s drinking, hurt feelings, and a “gift-wrapped box full of shit.” It’s not a feel-good affair, but neither are some of those late-year get-togethers you smile your way through. By the end, you may want to down three fingers of Jameson and boogie, which could end up being the best Christmas night ever.
“Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas)” – John Denver
Every other song on Denver’s 1975 Rocky Mountain Christmas is warm and glowing as a wood stove… but not “Please Daddy.” It might invite you in with its opening bass notes and immediate chorus, but this story song is profoundly sad. Dad’s an alcoholic, Mom’s barely holding it together, and the seven-year-old narrator already knows his family is broken. There’s no winking humor here, no sense the kid and his mom are going to be just fine. And yet the song is a damn delight—just as all of our difficult lives are when the candles flicker and the turntable spins.
“Christmas Eve Can Kill You” – “Dark Mark” Lanegan
First released by The Everly Brothers in 1972, this uber-melancholy song follows a hitchhiker plodding through snow the night of December 24th. When a driver passes without a glance, the hitcher acknowledges human nature’s indelible flaw: “The saddest part of all is knowin’ if I switched with him / I’d leave him stumblin’ ragged by the road.” This darkness is the perfect palette for Lanegan’s voice and sensibility; if you’re familiar with his troubled, sadly abbreviated life, you can see him trudging along that cold road, eyes downcast, back hunched against the world. The vocalist’s verses slightly echo atop Sean Read’s spare organ—a departure from the original’s bright steel guitar—and conjure a truly bleak night in Nowheresville.
“Taking Down The Tree” – Low
This gentle, melodic 1999 tune recounts the inevitable bummer of removing the holiday’s decor. Vocalist Alan Sparhawk’s few lyrics narrate the denouement with quaint detail—“Another broken reindeer”—and close with, perhaps, a bit of good cheer. “We set the star so high,” he sings in a sweet nasal tone. You might also take that last line, repeated in haunting harmony with Mimi Parker, as a desperate attempt to cling to the season’s faded joy. Parker succumbed to cancer in 2022, giving her vocals ghostly depth.
Clint Brownlee is a copywriter, sometime music journalist, and would-be novelist. He has lived in the Seattle area for over two decades and written for Seattle Weekly, Sound Magazine, Northwest Music Scene, Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber, and other outlets. His ’90s hair is history, but he still wears flannel every day. You can follow him on Instagram at @tenaciousc. Read Clint’s deep dive into the CD and LP photography of Pearl Jam’s Vs. (with a little help from bassist Jeff Ament), here.
Pearl Jam’s Vs. is available to buy in bookshops and online (including at Bloomsbury.com).