Most of us love to celebrate the holidays with traditional Christmas songs. But, what about songs of the season for those with blue souls, unique insights, and unusual tastes and associations. Sure, I have my favorite Christmas music that requires review; however, I find myself enjoying new songs and new interpretations of songs not normally played over and over during the Christmas season. Here are twenty music videos that can make you laugh, cry, upset, or show some other unique response.
I have tried to include videos with live performances where possible. Sometimes, I have chosen cover songs because of the distinct content of the video. And, sometimes I have chosen songs because I thought you may have never heard or seen them. So, in no ranking order, here are twenty unique holiday songs.
1. "Same Old Lang Syne" Dan Fogelberg
The melody phrase at the beginning of each verse ("Met my old lover at the grocery store...") was taken by Fogelberg from Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture."
Smooth Jazz giant Michael Brecker played soprano saxophone on this song. His part is featured in the ending, and is an improvised, jazzy snippet of the classic holiday tune "Auld Lang Syne."
As Fogelberg tells it on his official website, the song is totally autobiographical. He was visiting family back home in Peoria, Illinois in the mid-'70s when he ran into an old girlfriend at a convenience store.(www.songfacts.com)
After Fogelberg's death from prostate cancer in 2007, the woman whom he wrote the song about came forward with her story. Jill Greulich dated in Fogelberg in high school when she was Jill Anderson. As she explained to the Peoria Journal Star in a December 22, 2007 article, they were part of the Woodruff High School class of 1969, but later went to different colleges.
After college, Jill married and moved to Chicago, and Dan went to Colorado to pursue music. On Christmas Eve, they were each back in Peoria with their families when Jill went out for egg nog and Dan was dispatched to find whipping cream for Irish coffee. The only place open was a convenience store at the top of Abington Hill at Frye Avenue and Prospect Road, and that's where they had their encounter. They bought a six pack of beer and drank it in her car for two hours while they talked.
Five years later, Jill heard "Same Old Lang Syne" on the radio while driving to work, but she kept quiet about it, as Fogelberg also refused to reveal her identity. Her main concern was that coming forward would disrupt Fogelberg's marriage.
Looking at the lyrics, Jill says there are two inaccuracies: She has green eyes, not blue, and her husband was not an architect - he was a physical education teacher. It's unlikely Fogelberg knew his profession anyway. Regarding the line, "She would have liked to say she loved the man, but she didn't like to lie," Jill won't talk about it, but she had divorced her husband by the time the song was released.
2. "If We Make It Through December" Merle Haggard
The song was also covered by Alan Jackson, Marty Robbins, and Faron Young.
Not technically referred to as a Christmas song, "If We Make It Through December," was written and released by Merle Haggard in 1973. It treats with Haggard's simple poetry the desperate optimism of a working-class man dealing with economic hardship. Having been laid off from his factory job just prior to the holidays, the man becomes depressed over his predicament during what normally should be a "happy time of year." At one point, he observes that his little girl "don't understand why Daddy can't afford no Christmas cheer." (Roland, Tom, The Billboard Book of Number One Country Hits, 1991)
The chorus, "If we make it through December/Everything's gonna be alright I know" expresses hope, the protagonist telling himself that hope exists if he wants to deal with "the coldest time of winter" and the cold, lonely feeling he experiences while watching the snow fall ("and I shiver when I see the falling snow").
3. "River" Joni Mitchell covered here by Sarah MaLachlan
The cover versions of "River" are too numerous to relate. It is used in the 2000 film Almost Famous and in episodes of Alias, thirtysomething, and ER.
Released on Joni's Blue album (1971), the song opens to an off-key rendition of "Jingle Bells." It captures a unique essence of Christmas: moping, escapist fantasies, scorning people who have the audacity to pursue seasonal cheer, and ice skating.
"I've known it from the time it was written, and I've always loved it," says James Taylor, who included it on his James Taylor at Christmas album.
"Most Christmas songs are light and shallow, but 'River' is a sad song. It starts with a description of a commercially produced version of Christmas in Los Angeles . . . then juxtaposes it with this frozen river, which says 'Christmas here is bringing me down,"' Taylor told The Washington Post.
"It's such a beautiful thing, to turn away from the commercial mayhem that Christmas becomes and just breathe in some pine needles. It's a really blue song," he said. (The Washington Post, December 24, 2006)
4. "Christmas Card From a Hooker In Minneapolis" Tom Waits
Renowned singer/songwriter of "Downtown Train" and "Old '55" fame, Tom Waits release the album Blue Valentine that contained "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis."
The song comes almost verbatim from a Charles Bukowski poem, and when paired up with Waits' broken growl and his somber piano it becomes one of the most achingly beautiful songs ever written. Not many movies can retain the surprise of a twist ending on repeats, but somehow this song never loses the pure punch to the gut that comes with the final reveal. "Christmas Card" is on the short list of the most torturous and beautiful songs relating to the season. (www.sputnikmusic.com}
The song begins, "Charlie, I'm pregnant/ Living on 9th Street/ Above a dirty book store..." Listen to the rest of the letter.
Click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxVo5mjK4eg
5. "Christmas In Prison" John Prine
From the hilarious and clever mind of one of the best singer/songwriters alive, John Prine's "Christmas In Prison" was originally released from the 1991 album Sweet Revenge. It is Prine's dark yule epistle to the woman who haunts a lonely inmate. "She reminds me of a chess game with someone I admire," Prine quotes, adding sorrowfully, "I dream of her always, even when I don't dream."
His compositions have been recorded by numerous other artists, including Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, John Denver, Joan Baez, Carly Simon, and Bette Midler.
Great stories of Prine abound. One is that visitors to his den can view his Christmas tree year round. (Against his wishes, the tree is artificial.) It's supposedly been up since Christmas 1989. It seems he left for Ireland that holiday and didn't return until February. "I came back, plugged it in, sat down with a drink and said, "This looks pretty good." Now, Prine's friends bring ornaments from their new travels, and if the lights go out, John leaves them on and strings a new set.
6. "Fairytale of New York" Pogues and Kirsty MacColl
Co-songwriter of the song, Shane MacGowan, was born on Christmas Day. This song was inspired by JP Donleavy's 1961 novel of the same title. The author told The Daily Mail December 18, 2009: "Technically I could have taken legal action for piracy but as I know Shane MacGowan - I believe his father is a fan of my work - I decided not to bother." (www.songfacts.com)
"Fairytale of New York" is about the Irish who emigrated to America in the 19th century to escape the potato famine in hopes of making it as entertainers in New York. Many didn't, however, and ended up homeless.
"Fairytale of New York" is considered by many in the UK and Ireland to be the best Christmas song of all time ( 2004 VH1 poll, it was voted the UK's favorite Christmas song of all time.) It was released on the album If I Should Fall From Grace With God.
The basics of the song are about a drunken man thinking back to past Christmas celebrations while incarcerated in a New York City jail. The man remembers a failed relationship and much of the song involves words of bickering and crushed dreams. The recording of the song by the band the Pogues and singer Kirsty MacColl was released in 1987.
Kirsty MacColl was producer Steve Lillywhite's wife.On December 18, 2000, Kirsty MacColl died in a boating accident.
7. "Put the Lights on the Tree" Sufjan Stevens
Detroit-born Stevens is best known for his 2005 album Illinois, which hit number one in the Billboard Top Heatseekers chart, and for the song "Chicago." Stevens began his musical career as a member of Marzuki, a folk-rock band from Holland, Michigan.While in college, he studied the oboe and English horn, which he also plays on his albums. He also plays guitar, piano, drums, and several other instruments in multi-tracking his music.
Back in 2001, Stevens began making annual EPs of traditional carols and songs mixed with his own holiday-themed tunes in order that he could better celebrate Christmas in his own style. Sufjan's Songs For Christmas has five EPs in one box. On the songs, Stevens uses a variety of instruments and writes music in various time signatures.
So, what do you get when you mix super cute vintage-style animation and sweet holiday cheer? “Put the Lights on the Tree” sung by Sufjan Stevens and animated by Tom Eaton. This song has a nostalgic feel that could easily become part of many Christmas traditions.
In 2007, Stevens' encouraged his musically inclined fans to email Stevens their best, original Christmas songs. The winner, in the spirit of gift-giving, would receive the full legal rights to an original Sufjan Stevens Christmas song in trade for rights to the winning song. Here’s a quote from the site:
Of late, beginning with Michigan, Stevens announced an intent to write an album for each of the fifty U.S. states.
8. "Pretty Paper" Roy Orbison
Written by Willie Nelson and released by Roy Orbison in 1963, "Pretty Paper" was also recorded by Willie as the title cut of his first Christmas album in 1978. "Pretty Paper" has been recorded by dozens of artists, including Chris Isaak, Carly Simon and Kenny Chesney. Its message of folks getting too caught up in holiday shopping and failing to spread good will during the holidays rings true in any economy.Willie admits it's a "crying in your beer" song, but the song is also a holiday classic.
Click Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Knj9jg6TuDY
9. "Love Again" John Denver
"Love Again" was featured in the Christmas movie The Christmas Gift (1986).
John Denver was for years on top of the world, but the success faded in the eighties. Indeed, Denver in the mid-1970s was arguably America's most celebrated male entertainer. His 1973 Greatest Hits album remained on Billboard magazine's chart of top album sellers for about three years. In 1975 and 1976, Denver won four American Music Awards—honors that measured the sentiments of music buyers rather than industry figures. Of his 24 albums released on the RCA label during his lifetime, 14 were eventually certified gold (for sales of 500,000 copies), and eight of those reached the platinum or million-seller mark.
"That was very hard. In that period also my father died. Those were sad years, but it was nothing compared to the hurt and pain from my recent divorce from Cassandra."
"The last few years were difficult for me. I divorced my second wife Cassendra last year. That pain is not over yet. Divorcing is something terrible."
He looks very vulnerable for a short moment. His whimsical attitude seems an armor to hide the pain, that is still there. The man, who wrote beautiful lovesongs like "Annie's Song" wasn't lucky in love himself.
"After fourteen years my marriage with Annie ended, for whom I wrote that song Annie. That was very hard."
"With Cassandra it seemed I was going to be happy again, but that marriage went over also. Thank goodness I still see my daughter Jessey from that marriage. She is eight years now. For her I have bought a house in Carmel, so I am close to her."
So love hurts for the singer of the romantic country song. Doesn't he have a new girl friend at the moment? "Talking about love is difficult for me", he says. "I don't give my self so easily any more. I have girlfriends, but I am cautious to bind myself again. But love is important in my job. It inspires me to write again."
That's what Denver is asking himself after all disappointments. Will he ever really fall in love again? It seems like he is afraid of binding himself again.
Denver continues,"You are of course a lot on the road. That's not good for your family life. It asks sacrifices. In fact I have started disliking travelling. It is so weary. The singing and performing, that I still enjoy always.But the travelling... Terrible!"
9. "Christmas 1915" Celtic Thunder
The song was composed by Cormac MacConnell.
Much has been written about the Christmas Day truce of 1914 during World War I, but Bertie Felstead, a member of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who died at age 106 in 2001, talked about his own experience of a similar truce in 1915. He recalled the sound of German soldiers singing "Silent Night," barely 100 yards away, which encouraged the British to respond with "Good King Wenceslas." (Diana Condell, "Last Survivor of a Famous First World Christmas Truce," The Guardian, August 3 2001)
The following day there was an impromptu kick-about with a football, and the seasonal fraternization went on for about half an hour, until brought to an abrupt end by a furious British officer, who ordered his men back to the trenches, telling them in no uncertain terms, the brutal truth of their situation. Namely, they were there "to kill the Hun, not make friends with him"
Felstead made a telling comment which explained why the military authorities reacted so strongly against friendly contact with the enemy. Recalling the carols, sung in the trenches on Christmas Eve, he said: "You couldn't hear each other sing like that without it affecting your feelings for the other side?"
And, in fact, the first Christmas truce lasted until January 1915, and there were real worries on the part of the commanders on both sides that there might be difficulty in getting the war started again.
Exquisitely covered by Celtic Thunder on their second album, "Christmas 1915" ends on a fairly optimistic note, but it’s still a horribly depressing song about war’s ability to strip people of their humanity. It starts off incredibly heartening, as “on the Western Front, the guns all died away.” British and German troops lay down their arms to spend the holiday peaceably interacting with one another and reveling together in the beauty of the hymn "Silent Night" despite the language barrier. By song’s end, however, the truce is over, and the men who were friends yesterday are back to killing each other again. Devastating, with the delicate harmonies of the singers reflecting the desire for harmony in the world.
Click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ATZOYOEwQu4
10. "The Cat Carol" Meryn Cadell
The song is possible the worst tear-jerking holiday song of all time. Well, suffice it to say the cat dies in the end. Listeners either love or hate this song - very little middle ground.
The Cat Carol is a Christmas song, written by Bruce Evans, and performed by Meryn Cadell. It also features performances by talented artists such as Ken Myhr (guitarist from Cowboy Junkies, Jane Siberry), Erica Buss, and Tyler Stewart (Barenaked Ladies).
The Cat Carol has a traditional appeal, but, granted, there’s an underlying humor which keeps it from getting too sucky. It crosses boundaries of age and audience, and has become a Christmas classic.
11. Merry Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight) Ramones
The Ramones… legendary "I Wanna Be Sedated" rockers. In a nutshell, they were four dudes from Queens, New York who all had a musical admiration for bands like the Stooges, the Beatles and Mad Magazine. The band played stripped down no frills anti-corporate rock akin to stuff like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. But also when put together, they became as volatile as a bleach and ammonia cocktail in a badly ventilated room.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine in his review for Rhino's Weird Tales of the Ramones boxset said, "The Ramones represented both extremes simultaneously -- sure, they celebrated bad taste and danced with danger, but their music was smartly stupid, knowing, and knowledgeable about pop music. In their heyday -- and, truth be told, also in the years just after their heyday, when they trudged through the '80s as a working band, turning out muddled records yet still retaining their '70s mystique -- being a Ramones fan meant that you were an outsider, something different from the norm."
12. "The 12 Days of Christmas" Straight No Chaser
Originally formed over a dozen years ago while students together at Indiana University, the group has reassembled and reemerged as a phenomenon - with a massive fanbase, more than 20 million views on YouTube, numerous national TV appearances, and proven success with two holiday releases, 2008’s HOLIDAY SPIRITS and 2009’s CHRISTMAS CHEERS as well as WITH A TWIST, released this spring.
If the phrase “male a cappella group” conjures up an image of students in blue blazers, ties, and khakis singing traditional college songs on ivied campuses… think again. Straight No Chaser (SNC) are neither strait-laced nor straight-faced, but neither are they vaudeville-style kitsch.
"The 12 Days of Christmas," which incorporates Toto's "Africa," went Top 5 on the Adult Contemporary chart and was Top 10 on the Christmas radio chart.
13. "Christmas In Capetown" Randy Newman
From 1983's Trouble In Paradise album, legendary recording artist/songwriter Randy Newman offers "Christmas In Capetown," a view of his darker side which reconstructs the holiday through the eyes of an Afrikaner racist, so the tale gets told from the point of view of one of those who "went along with the status quo" of the time.
“Christmas In Capetown,” one of the grimmest holiday songs ever, he gives voice to this aging white racist from South Africa who can’t understand that history is very quickly passing him by. Smart, savage, and still a lot more relevant than it should be, this one is ideal for when the season starts to curdle.
Newman's songs include "Sail Away," "Short People," "Mama Told Me Not To Come," "You Can Leave Your Hat On," "I Love L.A.," "Louisiana 1927," and tons of film scores like Ragtime, The Natural, and Toy Story.He has been awarded an Academy Award, three Emmys, four Grammy Awards, and the Governor's Award from the Recording Academy. Nwman was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2002. And, in 2007, Newman was inducted as a Disney Legend.
14. "Silver Bells" Paul Simon and Steve Martin
The famous pair are in rare form on this rare classic parody.
The origin of this semi-legendary bootleg is a bit of a mystery. Most sources claim that it’s an outtake from an episode of Saturday Night Live, but Martin and Simon were never on the same show at the same time. Further complicating things, Billy Joel—in a magazine interview from 2001—claims that it’s him playing the piano, and that it wasn’t for television at all, but merely the three of them, lubricated on wine, goofing around in a recording studio. Whatever the case, it’s hands-down the funniest version ever made of this classic carol.
15. "In a Christmas Duel" The Hives and Cynid Lauper
Recorded as a special Christmas duet in 2008, Swedish rock band The Hives and singer/songwriter Cyndi Lauper offer another unique take for the holiday season. Let's just say that the pair get a little scrappy. The song juxtaposes sweet music with nasty lyrics.
The Hives explained, "It may sound weird and come as a surprise to some, but we had to. It came to us. It landed in our lap and was way too good to shake or toss. We knew we had to record it. A sign if you will." Cyndi Lauper offered "this goes to show even rat sideswipers can have a good Xmas too."
After a sweet, slow opening, the song kicks into Phil Spector wall of sound style. "I bought no gift this year and I slept with your sister, I know I should have thought twice before I kissed her," Pelle sings on the track, with Lauper responding with lyrics like "I bought no tree this year and I slept with your brother, I wrecked your daddy's car and went down on your mother."
16. "Merry Christmas From the Family" Robert Earl Keen
There's no place like home for the holidays . . . which is a good thing when you have a family like Robert Earl Keen's. As Keen tells it in this wry send-up of all those impossibly sweet, "not like our family" Christmas carols, Mom and Dad got drunk at the Christmas party, sister and brother brought their dubious significant others, the relatives' motor home blew out the Christmas lights, and a convenience store supplied all the goodies.
Robert Earl Keen is a Texas-based singer-songwriter whose ten critically acclaimed albums include Farm Fresh Onions, Gravitational Forces, Walking Distance, Picnic, and No. 2 Live Dinner.A dynamic live performer who averages 125-140 days on the road every year, Keen has been selling out shows from Maine to Mexico and from Washington, D.C., to Seattle for the past ten years.His songs have been recorded by the Dixie Chicks, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, Kelly Willis, George Strait, Gillian Welch, and Johnny Cash and the Highwaymen, among others..
17. "Back Door Santa" (Cover) Black Crowes
Originally a blues song written by Clarence Carter in collaboration with Marcus Daniel, and originally performed by Carter, "Back Door Santa" was released on a compilation album Soul Christmas in 1968. Also covered by the likes of Bon Jovi and B.B. King, the song makes no bones about Santa's intentions.
Younger listeners might recognize Carter's original version as the basis for the sample on Run D.M.C's "Christmas in Hollis."
This version is a simple, rocking tune by the Black Crowes.
Click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9hEGitOni4
18. "Must Be Santa" Bob Dylan
19. "Just For Now" Imogen Heap
Londoner Imogen Heap is a Grammy Award-winning British singer, composer and songwriter. She is known for her work as part of the musical duo Frou Frou and her solo albums, which she writes, produces, and mixes. Her two Grammy nominations include a win for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical.
A skilled multi-instrumentalist, Heap extensively uses manipulated electronic sounds as an integral part of her music. She also mixes ambient sound into her music (such as the sound of a frying pan in use cooking food, in the background of her song "Hide and Seek").
20. "Music Box Blues" Trans-Siberian Orchestra
A very special tribute. The video and song speak for themselves.
21. "Lonely This Christmas" Mud
Mud was an English glam band formed in 1966. "Lonely This Christmas" has become something of an annual fixture on British radio and television. Of course, the echoes of Elvis are apparent here.