STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's the season of happy music, Christmas music, songs of joy, sleigh bells, Santa Claus, goodness and light.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLLY JOLLY CHRISTMAS")
BURL IVES: (Singing) Have a holly jolly Christmas...
INSKEEP: But something about this season inspires a different sort of song. Listen carefully, even to supposedly happy tunes, and there may be an undercurrent of sadness. Grim Christmas songs are so popular, they seem to capture the way many people actually feel. We have team coverage from NPR's Stephen Thompson and Travis Larchuk who start with this classic performed here by the band Hem.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS")
HEM: (Singing) Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light. Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.
INSKEEP: Stephen Thompson, the lyrics there are about having a Merry Christmas. And yet it's a very, very sad song. What's going on there?
STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Well, there's something in the delivery but there's also - somewhere along the way a lot of holiday music contained very strong notes of melancholy. A lot of these songs - "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "I'll Be Home For Christmas," "White Christmas," are all around World War II, where people started writing songs about missing your families and Christmas not being exactly what you expect it to be.
INSKEEP: This is actually a wish for a merry little Christmas that maybe will be around in a year but probably not this year. That's the acknowledgment here.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I think so. I mean, Christmas is the one day a year when we're all supposed to be happy and so you're hyper-aware when you're not.
INSKEEP: Well, let's listen to another song here and this is one that has been selected by our colleague Travis Larchuk, Harvey Danger, "Sometimes You Have to Work on Christmas."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO WORK ON CHRISTMAS")
HARVEY DANGER: (Singing) ...work on Christmas. Sometimes you have to work on Christmas. I doubt I'll miss this next year.
TRAVIS LARCHUK, BYLINE: This song is one of those songs that it tells a story and the story is about a guy who - he's by himself and he's working at this movie theater where a bunch of other people who are also by themselves are coming in to spend Christmas alone together.
THOMPSON: Harvey Danger, which is actually one of my favorite bands, confined being miserable working on Christmas. Another one of my favorite singer-songwriters is a guy named David Mead, who has a song called "The Smile of Rachael Ray." And it's about how he is stuck in the airport, missing his family, trying to get home to his family.
And Rachael Ray is on a magazine cover sort of taunting him. And his family life is incredibly tenuous and he's weaving in this narrative about how home may not even be there when he gets there.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SMILE OF RACHAEL RAY")
DAVID MEAD: (Singing) Now may the season keep you warm. May your memories never fade, like the smile of Rachael Ray.
INSKEEP: I love the tone.
THOMPSON: Oh, my god. When you get to that point in the song, it's so much sadder than it sounds.
INSKEEP: Now, you've got a song here, Travis Larchuk, Garfunkel and Oates, "Year End Letter."
LARCHUK: Right. This song is about those year-end letters that some families send out that are sort of bragging about the accomplishments and milestones of the past year.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YEAR END LETTER")
GARFUNKEL AND OATES: (Singing) You're right. Your family is better than mine and you seem to make a lot more money. You put your long-winded bragging in a Christmas design and the puns you use are so, so funny. You tell me everything...
LARCHUK: At the end of the year my friends will post look-backs at all of their accomplishments, and, you know, I met this amazing new person this year and we fell in love and all of this stuff. And, you know, when that's not you it can be a little bit like good for you. Thanks.
INSKEEP: And you've got a song here on your list, Stephen Thompson, "Blue Christmas."
THOMPSON: Oh. Well. This is a song about Christmas being incredibly sad. And this version of it is from actually from my favorite holiday album of all time. It's just called "Christmas." It's by a band from Minnesota called Low.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE CHRISTMAS")
LOW: (Singing) I'll have a blue Christmas without you...
INSKEEP: It's very different than the Elvis version, where it's sad but he doesn't mean it.
THOMPSON: You know, so many of these things in the way you perform them, you know, if you sing it with a little wink and a smile, you've basically taken that sadness and made it light.
INSKEEP: And then there's the song "Dead, Dead, Dead."
LARCHUK: This is my nuclear option on grim Christmas music. This is from "South Park's" Christmas album and it may be as far as you could go.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAD, DEAD, DEAD")
TREY PARKER: (Singing) So look long at that Christmas tree. It may be the last one that you see. Decorate your house in green and red because someday you'll be dead. Dead, dead, dead. Someday you'll be dead. Dead, dead, dead...
LARCHUK: I love that.
THOMPSON: The children's chorus is what really nails it.
INSKEEP: So this is one you play every year, then.
LARCHUK: I have had to stop playing it at my Christmas parties because it makes people very uncomfortable. But, I mean, it has a point.
INSKEEP: After listening to sad Christmas music do you feel better?
THOMPSON: If I'm actually sad I can't listen to sad music.
LARCHUK: I'm with Stephen on this one. The songs I picked are not overtly sad, they're more sarcastic. And that's kind of how I deal with things.
THOMPSON: Well, sarcasm is a total defense mechanism.
LARCHUK: For sure.
THOMPSON: That's how you distance yourself from feeling bad.
LARCHUK: It may be my only mechanism.
INSKEEP: OK. This is the most wonderful time of the year, as one of the songs does say.
LARCHUK: Sure is.
INSKEEP: Do these sad Christmas songs actually catch something of the spirit of Christmas, whatever that might be?
THOMPSON: Oh, I think so. Absolutely.
THOMPSON: Even if you are having a perfect Christmas and all your family is gathered around, you're still thinking about people who you wish were there. You're still thinking about memories of a childhood that you are no longer experiencing. Bundled up in Christmas is hopefully a lot of joy and a lot of family and a lot of happiness, but also, you know, that's always going to be touched with an element of sadness.
INSKEEP: NPR's Stephen Thompson and Travis Larchuk with some sad holiday selections. Thanks very much, gentlemen.
THOMPSON: Thank you.
LARCHUK: Thank you.