It’s that time of year again when shop windows fill with red-and-green dioramas, city sidewalks bristle with shopping bags and sharp elbows, and the pressure to reach strictly enforced levels of good cheer can turn the season into one giant, holly-covered bummer. Sometimes it can feel like there’s just no eggnog strong enough to take the edge off.
That’s why it’s so nice to have music that understands how you may feel (or not feel) about the whole holiday thing. For every unwelcome tiding of joy, there’s another song that captures the melancholy side of the season, the alienation felt by anyone whose experience of the holidays doesn’t align with a rosy fantasy of cozy contentment as spun by Hallmark Christmas TV movies and radio stations that cruelly play nothing but “Joy to the World” 24 hours a day.
Perhaps the most lovably caustic of the holiday-themed classics, “Fairytale of New York” is an especially valuable counterpoint to all that. First released a few weeks before Christmas of 1987 and later included on the Celtic folk-punk faves’ third album, If I Should Fall From Grace With God, the classic song united The Pogues with their friend Kirsty MacColl for a tale of star-crossed lovers whose romance began on a more hopeful note “on a cold Christmas Eve” only to shatter like an ornament dropped from a great height. Singer and co-writer Shane MacGowan casts himself as a wreck reminiscing about good and bad times while spending the big night in a Big Apple drunk tank. MacColl appears as the voice of the other half of this romantic calamity. Hard words are exchanged (a few of them too hard for some stations), and God only knows what misdeeds could’ve inspired lines like “Happy Christmas your arse, I hope it’s our last.”
As rancorous as the song may be — and poignant, too, all the more so after MacColl’s tragic death while on a pre-Christmas holiday in Mexico in 2000 — it’s an accurate snapshot of the big emotions that the season elicits in many of us. In fact, “Fairytale of New York” is full to the brim with the same feelings expressed in the rest of this playlist’s special selection of bittersweet holiday fare.
Christmas cheer be damned. Go ahead and revel in the loneliness conveyed by Boyz II Men’s “Cold December Nights,” the unrepentant bleakness of Sufjan Stevens’ “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” or the dread and despair that fill the full-on Santa-pocalypses described in Johnny Cash’s “Ringing the Bells for Jim” and Nat King Cole’s “The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot.” To borrow a phrase by LCD Soundsystem’s endearingly Scrooge-y curmudgeon James Murphy, Christmas can break your heart in oh so many ways.