It’s officially the holidays and what’s ostensibly the, “most wonderful time of the year.” For some, though, it’s an unending blur of loneliness, bleak weather, and that awful feeling that you’re not as good as everyone around you. Whether it’s heartache, family issues, or overall disenchantment with what whatever the holidays have turned into, sometimes “Blue Christmas” on repeat just won’t cut it. Thankfully, there’s a plethora of artists who have captured the dark and dismal doldrums of winter. Here’s a list that will fill the sad, gaping hole in your soul in a way that Christmas cookies and Netflix binges just can’t.
1. “Here’s to Nostalgia,” Parenthetical Girls
Portland’s Parenthetical Girls have three Christmas EPs under their belts and are aces at capturing the more melancholy aspects of the season. This particularly song, with Zac Pennington mournfully crooning “memories decline/ I know I’ve lost mine/ and that’s just fine,” is about losing someone but getting to a place where you are leading your own life. Your own life is super sad, but at least it’s yours.
2. “Cold White Christmas,” Casiotone for the Painfully Alone
This song, off the 2006’s Etiquette, perfectly captures the millennial malaise of being ass-kicked into “the real world,” and its cold, indifferent feelings toward you. Have you ever ignored the smell of mold as you fold down your sheets? Metaphorically? Owen Ashworth’s unrelenting synth provides perfect soundtrack for your new sucky life, filled with lonely mornings, uncertainty of the future, and a miserable dead-end job over the holidays. Also you live in St. Paul so it’s cold as balls.
3. “River,” Hurray for the Riff Raff
said that writing her seminal 1971 album Blue, she “felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes.” Merry Christmas! “River” is one of many breakup songs from the album (and one of the best winter breakup songs ever) that stands the test the time. But Mitchell’s original—its ironic “Jingle Bells” intro, her earnestness appeals for a “river to skate away on”—seems downright cheerful compared to Alynda Lee Segarra’s 2013 cover. Segarra is a formidable musician to carry Mitchell’s folk mantle, and here her lonely guitar and powerful phrasing give the song a whole new air of anguish.
4. “Christmas Time Is Here,” Mark Kozelek
Why not take the saddest Christmas song and have it song by one of the saddest-sounding singer-songwriters? All the melancholy of the Vince Guaraldi classic pairing with the signature haunting guitar of Red House Painters/Sun Kil Moon frontman makes this song a standout on Kozelek’s 2014 compilation Sings Christmas Carols (which is mostly filled with other renditions of holiday classics that are as straightforward as the album title). Before you get too blue, however, Kozelek places some self-aware Charlie Brown Christmas banter in the middle that snaps you out of your feels and reminds you that you’re listening to the sexist grinch who recently sang, “Laura Snapes totally wants to fuck me / Get in line, bitch.”
5. “Sister Winter,” Sufjan Stevens
When Sufjan Stevens has seasonal songs like “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever” and “Did I Make You Cry On Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It),” it can be easy to forget some of his other depressing seasonal fare. But “Sister Winter,” off his 2006’s 42-track Songs for Christmas, is one dismal ditty you shouldn’t sleep on. Toward the end, when the otherwise quiet song explodes into a full-blown symphonic fanfare you get a sense that the timpani, xylophone, and tidings for a “Merry Christmas” are nothing but a sardonic gesture.
6. “It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop,” Frightened Rabbit
Some people want a new iPad for Christmas, or a stress-free travel itinerary, or snow on the ground. Not Scott Hutchison. The only thing on his list this year? Stop the rot for just one day. Imploring you to forget the names he called you Christmas eve (“in fact forget the entire year”), it’s an anthem for a feeling we’re all familiar with—put away the bad feelings for now and tell yourself they won’t come back, at least for a little while.
7. “Will You Still Love Me in December,” Julie Doiron
If your feelings were a fire, this song is the log you would throw on it to really make it flare up. Maybe it’s because she’s from Canada, but Julie Doiron has a lot of great, sad songs involving the winter and snow. From her days fronting the lo-fi Eric’s Trip, to collaborating with Wooden Stars, to her solo career, Doiron’s music and voice have always been thoughtful and urgent. She revitalized this 1999 song 10 years later for this Daytrotter session, and the atonal strumming and backing vocals provide a whole new way to get your gut wrenched.
8. “Plastic Mistletoe,” Aidan Moffat
This one-off holiday song from Scottish musician Aidan Moffat is about sitting in a bar, soaking wet, pining for someone who’s not there. Amid happy couples and fake decorations, Moffat mourns his position over a slowly plucked guitar. Its only match for desolation may be his old band Arab Strap’s 1996 song “Christmas (Please Come Home),” in which Moffat sounds just as forlorn and equally snockered.
?9. “Christmas Eve Can Kill You,” ??Dawn McCarthy & Bonnie “Prince” Billy ??
The song, originally performed by the Everly Brothers, begins as the picture-perfect winter’s night (“Winter’s flaking snow…brushing through the pine wood trees”), but you soon realize you’re listening to a sad man walking along the highway, growing more and more resentful about the cars passing him by. At one point he dryly observes, “A car goes runnin’ by; the man don’t even turn his head/ Guess he’s busy bein’ Santa Claus tonight.” And the worst thing? He knows “If I switched with him/ I’d leave him stumbling ragged by the road.” BLEAK AF. For maximum disenchantment with your fellow man, avoid watching the video, where McCarthy and Oldham merrily sing and banter by a cozy fire, surrounded by friends, family, and cherubic flaxen-haired children.
10. “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” Neko Case
This cover of Tom Waits’ song off of the 1978 Blue Valentine is a heartbreaking seasonal ballad. Case’s understated version (off the Waits cover compilation New Coat of Paint released in 2000) gives the nameless narrator a dignity that the original—with its lounge-piano riffs and crude title—ultimately could not. With nothing but an organ to accompany her, Case captures the humanity of a woman whose every friend—except Charlie—“is dead or in prison,” an addict who can’t escape her demons but still vividly imagines a better life where she has a decent man and owns a used car lot. The song’s bittersweet ending, where she fesses up to her charade, is a reminder that your own problems are actually small and petty.
11. “Gift X-Change,” Calexico
Made it this far? Done enough self-hating to last you through the New Year? Here’s a cleansing song from Calexico’s 2001 Aerocalexico that will bring it all home. Joey Burns sagely observes “The path is overrun, you can’t move forward and now nothing gets done,” but that this time you can’t blame it on your family, or your ex, or The Man. This is about coming home—to yourself. This isn’t about peace on earth; it’s about peace within. This thoughtful, tough-love track will give you plenty to chew on in those bleak mornings after Christmas.