Every year around the start of December I publish a list of “Canadian atheist seasonal music”; a list of songs to help stave off the madness threatened by the endless stream of repetitive, treacly, monotonous music virtually every station, store, and party plays. This year, I’m soliciting suggestions a little bit in advance.
As always, let me start by defining the problem I’m trying to solve, and the criteria for inclusion on the list.
The problem is twofold. The first part is simple, and fairly obvious: musically, Christmas sucks. For a month-and-a-half or more, everywhere you turn, everywhere you go, you will hear the same small selection of songs – interminably reinterpreted by just about every artist on the map – repetitively played ad nauseum. As others have noted, the “sound” of Christmas music was essentially fixed in the late 1950s, and everything since has been self-consciously trying to ape the sound of that era. Even artists who should know better seem to lose all sense of taste, and artistic integrity, when it comes time to record a seasonal song or album.
The second problem is that Christmas music essentially comes in two flavours: religious, or terrible. There are some really good, and beautiful, Christmas songs, but they tend to be the extremely religious ones. The non-religious ones tend to be so much garbage. Finding good seasonal music, that doesn’t assault your brain with religious crap, is a challenge.
Hence, my yearly alternative holiday playlist.
My goal is to create a list of songs that are good – good enough that they could be played anytime, not merely tolerated for a few weeks a year – with lyrics that are generally inclusive to all Canadians, not just Christians.
Here are the criteria in detail. Note that these are closer to “preferences” rather than “requirements” – I’ll accept songs that miss a criteria or two if they satisfy the others very well.
- It wouldn’t make sense to make a list of seasonal songs that aren’t actually seasonal. If you make the requirements loose enough, it’s possible to say just about anything is “seasonal”, so I tried to be strict: it doesn’t actually need to mention Christmas or the holidays, but if it doesn’t, it has to be about winter, December, or something else obviously relevant to the Canadian holiday experience.
- Not overplayed
- If there is a decent chance of hearing the song within an hour or two after flipping to a random radio station, it got ruled out. That cut dozens of candidates, including songs from Bryan Adams (“Christmas Time”), Anne Murray (“Snowbird”), Paul McCartney, Wham!, and others. If you already know of it from constant radio play, you hardly need to hear about it from me. (This is also why I have much less Canadian content than I’d like. Good Canadian music tends to get a lot of airplay by default.)
- The working definition of “Christmas music” seems to be “made before the 1960s, or at least seems like it”. Even some of our best modern musicians seem intent on embarrassing themselves by releasing tracks where they are self-consciously putting on a Bing Crosby or Brenda Lee affectation. (Either that or they just release half-assed middle-of-the-road pap with some jingle bells overdubbed.) I set a loose restriction that all the songs on my list either had to have been made after I was born (so, 1980s or later) or at least sound like they were. That also rules out straight remakes of songs that everyone knows have been around since before electricity (even things as motherfucking awesome as Christopher Lee doing a heavy metal “Little Drummer Boy” – yes friends, that is Dracula/Saruman/Lord Summerisle growling out “pa-ruh-puh-pum-pum”).
- A mention or two of God/Jesus/whatever won’t ruin a song, but if it’s a major theme, it can be distracting and creepy. Even songs that are blatantly intended for a particular holiday, or openly pro-religious can be tolerable if done well. I preferred songs that didn’t mention anything religious at all, but still allowed those that did, so long as it wasn’t too goddy. This actually turned out to be far more a restrictive requirement than I thought it would be. For example, pretty much everything by Trans-Siberian Orchestra was ruled out, along with stuff by Queen, and many others. For some bizarre reason, Canadian artists seem to go absolutely god-crazy when making Christmas music, even if they’re completely secular the rest of the time (look at what happened to 54•40, for fuck’s sake!).
- The previous requirement covered covered the “atheist” part of “Canadian Atheist”, so this requirement seemed obvious. I don’t rule anything out for being non-Canadian, but Canadian content is worth bonus points. Things that directly contradict the Canadian seasonal experience without any other positive merits won’t make the cut.
- Nice to listen to
- This was an obvious requirement. Whether the song is musically or lyrically brilliant, or just unique and interesting, or even just fun to listen to or sing along with, the whole point of this list was to give people something pleasant to listen to.
One other requirement I had was that I had to be able to link to videos of the songs, so you could hear them. There are some songs whose rights holders have been vicious about taking down every appearance of their songs that they don’t get paid for – for those songs, I just don’t bother to include them on this list.
Also, for the sake of diversity, I tried to limit it to one song per artist.
Here is last year’s list:
- 50. “Get Behind Me, Santa!” – Sufjan Stevens
- 49. “Nissepunk!” – Markedskrefter
- 48. “Is This Christmas?” – The Wombats
- 47. “Christmas At The Zoo” – The Flaming Lips
- 46. “Oi to the World” – The Vandals
- 45. “I Have Forgiven Jesus” – Morrissey
- 44. “Under the Tree” – The Water Babies
- 43. “Father Christmas” – The Kinks
- 42. “Snow ((Hey Oh))” – Red Hot Chili Peppers
- 41. “Mistletoe” – Justin Bieber ?
- 40. “It Doesn’t Often Snow at Christmas” – Pet Shop Boys
- 39. “A Spaceman Came Travelling” – Chris de Burgh
- 38. “Wintersong” – Sarah McLachlin ?
- 37. “Red Water (Christmas Mourning)” – Type O Negative
- 36. “I Want an Alien for Christmas” – Fountains of Wayne
- 35. “Footprints in the Snow” – Emerson, Lake & Palmer
- 34. “Christmas with the Devil” – Spın̈al Tap
- 33. “Carol of the Bells” – George Winston
- 32. “Christmas in Paradise” – Mary Gauthier
- 31. “Let Me Wrap You In My Arms” – The Merrymen
- 30. “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” – Savatage/Trans-Siberian Orchestra
- 29. “White Love” – SPEED
- 28. “Stop the Cavalry” – Jona Lewie
- 27. “Christmas in the Trenches” – John McCutcheon
- 26. “December Will Be Magic Again” – Kate Bush
- 25. “It’s the Holidaze” – Westside Connection
- 24. “Footsteps in the Snow” – Bill Monroe
- 23. “Hazy Shade of Winter” – The Bangles
- 22. “Christmas in Hollis” – Run–D.M.C.
- 21. “Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)” – The Darkness
- 20. “Shake Up Christmas” – Train
- 19. “Christmas in Prison” – John Prine
- 18. “Don’t Shoot Me Santa” – The Killers
- 17. “2000 Miles” – The Pretenders
- 16. “Christmas Tree” – Lady Gaga ft. Space Cowboy
- 15. “Everything’s Gonna Be Cool this Christmas” – eels
- 14. “Christmas Lights” – Coldplay
- 13. “The Night Santa Went Crazy” – “Weird Al” Yankovic
- 12. “Proper Crimbo” – Bo’ Selecta!
- 11. “Christmas Wrapping” – The Waitresses
- 10. “Christmas Rappin’” – Kurtis Blow
- 9. “All Join Hands” – Slade
- 8. “Elf’s Lament” – Barenaked Ladies ft. Michael Bublé ?
- 7. “Chiron Beta Prime” – Jonathan Coulton
- 6. “River” – Joni Mitchell ?
- 5. “The Christians and the Pagans” – Dar Williams
- 4. “Fairytale of New York” – The Pogues ft. Kirsty MacColl
- 3. “Merry Xmas (Says Your Text Message)” – Dragonette ?
- 2. “White Wine in the Sun” – Tim Minchin
- 1. “Song for a Winter’s Night” – Gordon Lightfoot ?
I got a bunch of suggestions last year that I’ll be reviewing along with any new suggestions offered. Not all of these will make the cut, but here they are anyway:
- “Mistress for Christmas” – AC/DC
- “Viking Christmas” – Amon Amarth
- “23 décembre” – Beau dommage ?
- “Driving Home for Christmas” – Chris Rea
- “Kidnap the Sandy Claws” – Danny Elfman (though I’ll probably use the KoЯn version)
- “Winter Song” – Dreams Come True
- “I Believe in Father Christmas” – Greg Lake
- “Stripper Christmas Summer Weekend” – GWAR
- “Huron Carol” – Heather Dale ?
- “Snow” – Loreena KcKennitt ?
- “Christmas Day” – The Elders
- “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” – Tom Waits
So if anyone has any other suggestions that fit the criteria, mention them in the comments, and in a few weeks I’ll post the 2015 list.