Christmas songs or carols that aren't triumphant or especially joyful
December 8, 2014 11:11 AM   Subscribe

I want to put together a couple playlists of good Christmas songs and carols that are sad, wistful, somber, or maybe just quietly reverent. The key is that they not sound triumphal or celebratory. I like Joy to the World and its ilk, but I'm actually happier listening to something a bit more melancholy. I want to make one list of popular songs and another of carols. Do you have any suggestions?
posted by Area Man to Media & Arts (86 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
 
Little Drummer Boy, Silent Night.
posted by Melismata at 11:15 AM on December 8, 2014


Fairy tale of New York
posted by Captain_Science at 11:17 AM on December 8, 2014 [3 favorites]




Carols:
In the Bleak Midwinter
Lo, how a rose ere blooming
Lulay my liking
O come, o come, emmanuel

The one I'm totally spacing the title to, but the second verse starts "And through the cloven skies they come, with peaceful wings unfurled..."...something about angels...

Maybe:
The first noel
Silent night
posted by leahwrenn at 11:18 AM on December 8, 2014


Have yourself a merry little Christmas is quite sweet.

"We'll have to muddle through somehow", etc. This version, in particular.
posted by simulacra at 11:18 AM on December 8, 2014 [4 favorites]


Are you talking about SONGS or PERFORMANCES? Low's version of "little drummer boy" (and in fact all of their Christmas EP) hits your requirements.

"Have yourself a merry little christmas" is kind of a downer, lyrically.
posted by softlord at 11:19 AM on December 8, 2014




How about Vagabonds at Sea as a nontraditional choice. I've heard it as part of a German tv ad a couple of times, and it's quite melancholic but also somehow soothing.
posted by wallawallasweet at 11:21 AM on December 8, 2014


Also, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" by Death Cab for Cutie.
posted by jbickers at 11:21 AM on December 8, 2014


"We Three Kings of Orient Are" is the canonical somber Christmas carol for me.
posted by dfan at 11:21 AM on December 8, 2014


My very favorite carol is God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:22 AM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


Joni Mitchell River.
posted by firstdrop at 11:23 AM on December 8, 2014 [8 favorites]


Do you hear what I hear?
posted by bottlebrushtree at 11:23 AM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


Carpenters, Merry Christmas Darling.
posted by JanetLand at 11:23 AM on December 8, 2014


sting's version of gabriel's message has a very old-fashioned somber liturgical feel to it.
posted by poffin boffin at 11:24 AM on December 8, 2014


She Won't Be Home (Lonely Christmas) - Erasure
posted by JoeZydeco at 11:24 AM on December 8, 2014


Mary did you know
posted by fermezporte at 11:25 AM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


Leahwrenn already hit on most of my favorites, but I would add O Holy Night, Candlelight Carol, Noel Nouvelet, Carol of the Bells, and, umm, Wham's Last Christmas.
posted by karbonokapi at 11:25 AM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


Sufjan Stevens has a lot of Christmas song that fit the bill. Some are original and some are carols. I think everything is on Amazon or Itunes.

e.g.:
Justice Delivers It's Death (Silver and Gold)
Sister Winter
Christmas in the Room
posted by sevenless at 11:26 AM on December 8, 2014


Mojave 3 Candle Song:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DrwvpDu8OaA

God, that one makes me curl up into a ball of weepy
posted by Annika Cicada at 11:29 AM on December 8, 2014


Hey Rosetta's Carry Me Home is from their Christmas EP, A Cup of Kindness Yet and fits your requirements.
posted by delezzo at 11:29 AM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


Sufjan Stevens has a lot of Christmas song that fit the bill.
I concur with this, greatly. Sufjan makes the regular rotation this time of year in our household. Silver & Gold and Hark! Song for Christmas are the two that jump to mind.

Also, check out hymns for Advent. The season of Advent is more contemplative and reflective that Christmas, and the hymns definitely capture that spirit. Many of them are recognizable as holiday music. Here is a very quick and cursory Google result.
posted by slogger at 11:33 AM on December 8, 2014


Toyland by Johnny Mathis. Seriously.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 11:34 AM on December 8, 2014


My favorite, I Wonder as I Wander
posted by greta simone at 11:34 AM on December 8, 2014


Oh boy, do I have the perfect song for this, Joy by Tracey Thorn. I realize it's called Joy, but it doesn't sound triumphant, it's more like burrowing in somewhere warm on a cold, dark night and just being damn glad you're inside with hot chocolate and some people you love. Here are the lyrics:

When someone very dear
Calls you with the words everything's all clear
That's what you want to hear
But you know it might be different in the New Year

That's why, that's why we hang the lights so high
Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy,
You loved it as a kid, and now you need it more than you ever did
It's because of the dark; we see the beauty in the spark
That's why, that's why the carols make you cry
Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy

Tinsel on the tree, yes I see
The holly on the door, like before
The candles in the gloom, light the room
the Sally Army band, yes I understand

So light the winds of fire,
and watch as the flames grow higher
well gather up our fears
And face down all the coming years
All that they destroy
And in their face we throw our
Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy

It's why, we hang the lights so high
And gaze at the glow of silver birches in the snow
Because of the dark, we see the beauty in the spark
We must be alright, if we could make up Christmas night.
posted by diamondsky at 11:34 AM on December 8, 2014 [5 favorites]


Aimee Mann's version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" has always been my favorite rendition of this particular song because it's so laid-back and laconic--it sounds truly genuine to me.

Also, Keb'Mo's "Jingle Bell Jamboree." Again, it's about the understatedness and the honesty (I love that he includes watching TV as part of a family Christmas celebration, because it's just what people do).

For the less traditional, Tim Minchin's "White Wine in the Sun" reduces me to a pulp.
posted by dlugoczaj at 11:35 AM on December 8, 2014 [3 favorites]


My favorites are Walking in the Air from The Snowman and Christmas Time is Here by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, from A Charlie Brown Christmas.
posted by Poegar Tryden at 11:35 AM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


More re: Sufjan Stevens...It looks like you can stream all his albums at his website.
posted by slogger at 11:36 AM on December 8, 2014


Oh, forgot Sarah McLachlan's "Wintersong." Sad and beautiful (and I don't always have the patience for her).

Seconding diamondsky's recommendation of "Joy."
posted by dlugoczaj at 11:37 AM on December 8, 2014


The Huron Carol/Jesous Ahatounia.
posted by snorkmaiden at 11:38 AM on December 8, 2014


Nthing Sufjan Stevens' Christmas music. I think his Christmas stuff is about evenly split between what you're looking for and more upbeat/bizarre songs.

My favorite non-carol Christmas song is Frightened Rabbit's It's Christmas So We'll Stop. I also recommend checking out I Am Fuel You Are Friends' Christmas mixes.
posted by yasaman at 11:38 AM on December 8, 2014


O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Some of the songs on The Bells of Dublin album by the Chieftains (and others) should work - O the Holly She Bears a Berry, for instance
posted by Redstart at 11:39 AM on December 8, 2014


The only version of Silent Night I can appreciate is the somber Mannheim Steamroller version. So non-triumphant it's almost post-apocalyptic.
posted by Flexagon at 11:41 AM on December 8, 2014


"Red Water" by Type O Negative
posted by starbreaker at 11:42 AM on December 8, 2014


Personent Hodie, usually "On This Day Earth Shall Ring" in English.
posted by chainsofreedom at 11:43 AM on December 8, 2014


Peter Paul and Mary's Christmas Dinner is incredibly wistful, though ultimately happy.
posted by needs more cowbell at 11:45 AM on December 8, 2014


I wonder as I wander
posted by decathexis at 11:46 AM on December 8, 2014




O Come O Come Emmanuel by the Civil Wars (could go under either carols or popular songs since it's a carol but sung in a more contemporary style)

What Can I Give - Mahalia Jackson
posted by rainbowbrite at 11:55 AM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


Seconding Coventry Carol. It's about the Massacre of the innocents. I can't think of many other Christmas carols about infant slaying.
posted by onehalfjunco at 11:56 AM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


"And through the cloven skies they come, with peaceful wings unfurled..." is from It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, which is a beautiful song and definitely meets your criteria.

Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis may be too far afield, and really only the title has to do with Christmas, but it's still awesome.
posted by Flannery Culp at 11:56 AM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


I listen to mostly melancholy Christmas music, and for me Vince Guaraldi's "Christmastime is Here," from the "Charlie Brown Christmas" soundtrack, is as good as it gets (there's also a vocal version you may remember from the special). I bought the whole soundtrack a few years ago and love it around this time of year (lovely low-key jazz; "What Child Is This?" is a classic sad-sounding Christmas carol that they cover).

Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" is not somber, but it is sad and also possibly the greatest Christmas song of all time.
posted by honey wheat at 11:57 AM on December 8, 2014


Oh, and We Three Kings! How could I forget? Verse four is the best Christmas hymn text of all time.
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone cold tomb
posted by Flannery Culp at 11:59 AM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


Hard Candy Christmas, Dolly Parton
The Christmas Waltz
The Secret of Christmas, Ella Fitzgerald or Julie Andrews
Christmastime is Here, Vince Guaraldi
River, Joni Mitchell
When the River Meets the Sea from Emmett Otter's Jug-Band Christmas
Emmanuel, Tori Amos
In the Bleak Midwinter, Cyndi Lauper
Auld Lang Syne
Carol of the Kings, Alison Brown Quartet
Winter's Carol, Tori Amos
Red Ribbon Foxes, A Fine Frenzy
Walking in the Air from The Snowman
La Nanita Nana
This Child, This King
"Café" (Danse arabe) from The Nutcracker
posted by lampoil at 12:06 PM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


Christmas Song, Jethro Tull
I'll be Home for Christmas, especially the Bing Crosby version
posted by ChuraChura at 12:13 PM on December 8, 2014


Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:18 PM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


Seconding "River" and "White Wine In The Sun" (although, listening to "River" if you've recently had a breakup could be REEEEEAAAAAAALLY dangerous).

Nearly the whole of Sting's album If On A Winter's Night also would do, as he flat-out says in the liner notes that offering a more introspective, melancholy album was his whole point for the album. I also tend to favor the more pensive songs, and that album's on heavy rotation at my house now - some favorite cuts include the aforementioned "Gabriel's Message", a folk song called "The Snow It Melts The Soonest", and "Christmas At Sea", which is a gorgeous adaptation of a Robert Louis Stevenson poem with a Scottish Gaelic song as a countermelody (I love it so much I'm trying to learn the Gaelic part phonetically so I can sing the whole thing).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:21 PM on December 8, 2014


Song for a Winter's Night; Sarah McLachlan's take on the Gordon Lightfoot original.

Also: 1 million internet points to anyone who takes all these suggestions, compiles them into a Spotify playlist, and shares it here.
posted by jeffjon at 12:23 PM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


I was lucky enough to be taken by a Swedish friend to the Swedish Carol service at St Paul's, where I heard the beautiful Sankta Lucia sung for the first time.
posted by tardigrade at 12:23 PM on December 8, 2014


I knew I was forgetting one - Sting also does a lovely rendition of The Cherry Tree Carol.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:24 PM on December 8, 2014


Oh, and speaking of "River", if you're not a Joni Mitchell fan for whatever reason, Robert Downey Jr. did a surprisingly good cover of it (on an episode of Ally McBeal, of all places).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:30 PM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot
Nat King Cole version
Vera Lynn version
posted by mefireader at 12:51 PM on December 8, 2014


Another Christmas Song - Jethro Tull
Cool Yule - Louis Armstrong And The Commanders
Santa Done Got Hip - The Marquees
Santa Baby - Eartha Kitt
Deck Us All With Boston Charlie - Lambert, Hendricks, And Ross
Dig That Crazy Santa Claus - Oscar McLollie And His Honey Jumpers
Boogie Woogie Santa Claus - Mabel Scott
Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern) - Miles Davis
'Zat You, Santa Claus - Louis Armstrong And The Commanders
We Wanna See Santa Do The Mambo - Big John Greer
Five Pound Box Of Money - Pearl Bailey
Be-Bop Santa Claus - Be-Bop Santa Claus
Christmas Night In Harlem - Louis Armstrong And His All-Stars
To Heck with Ol' Santy Claus- Blackstone Valley Sinners
Gift of the Blues - Blackstone Valley Sinners
posted by Gungho at 1:02 PM on December 8, 2014


'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime
posted by mermily at 1:21 PM on December 8, 2014


No Christmas in Kentucky—Phil Ochs
posted by misteraitch at 1:24 PM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


I apologize in advance for the weeping...Cat Carol
posted by Billiken at 1:27 PM on December 8, 2014


A la Nanita Nana, Still, Still, Still, and one of my all time favorites, Riu, Riu,Chiu - here performed by the Monkees!
posted by rekrap at 1:57 PM on December 8, 2014


Stan Rogers' "First Christmas" [Away from Home]. Knocks me out every single time.
posted by mmiddle at 1:59 PM on December 8, 2014


Oh, I thought of another one - Maria Wanders Through the Thorn, here sung by Chanticleer and paired with What Child is This.
posted by rekrap at 2:03 PM on December 8, 2014


Tom Waits: Silent Night + Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis
posted by blob at 2:10 PM on December 8, 2014




Seconding Aimee Mann, there are several songs on her christmas album "One more drifter in the snow" that you might like. And, though maybe not strictly a christmas song, here's the the wonderful "Soon after Christmas" by Stina Nordenstam.
posted by Petersondub at 2:36 PM on December 8, 2014


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem Christmas Bells, as sung by John Gorka. It gets me every time.
posted by brushtailedphascogale at 2:42 PM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


Stop The Cavalry - Jona Lewie
posted by comealongpole at 3:19 PM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


”It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” by Sam Phillips; very somber
posted by coldhotel at 3:32 PM on December 8, 2014


Jackson Browne and Bruce Cockburn: Crystal Ball
posted by blob at 3:35 PM on December 8, 2014


Bruce Springsteen: The Wish
posted by blob at 3:37 PM on December 8, 2014


I was seriously considering asking this exact question after I heard Dolly Parton's Hard Candy Christmas twice today!

How about Elvis Presley's Blue Christmas?

Also, here is one of my favorites that while not exactly sad, has a kind of melancholy tune--Natalie Hemby's Perfect Gift
posted by msbubbaclees at 3:40 PM on December 8, 2014


A Snowflake Fell (And It Felt Like A Kiss) by Glasvegas. youtube link
posted by misanthropicsarah at 4:40 PM on December 8, 2014


"The Rebel Jesus" by Jackson Browne (on the Chieftains album cited above).
posted by rikschell at 4:52 PM on December 8, 2014


The original lyrics of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas were so depressing that the original lyrics were changed, and even the rendition that is popular today has been changed to be less depressing.
posted by AppleTurnover at 5:10 PM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


O Little Town of Bethlehem
Real by Nichole Nordman
Its in Every One of Us - John Denver (and the Muppets!)
posted by SyraCarol at 5:58 PM on December 8, 2014


Paul Kelly's How To Make Gravy is a wonderful sung letter from a man in prison to his family. Like all Kelly's music, it's good any day of the year.
posted by firstdrop at 6:02 PM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm fond of Blues Traveler's Christmas, which does sort of grow more celebratory as it goes on, but still strikes me as more wistful/melancholy than fa-la-la.
posted by DingoMutt at 6:07 PM on December 8, 2014


Because I want the internet points all to myself and because I am impatient: the Metafilter Melancholy 'Mas Mix, available in Spotify URI or HTTP. All of the tunes listed above that are available on Spotify, plus a few discovered in the process.
posted by jeffjon at 6:14 PM on December 8, 2014 [9 favorites]


Several people have mentioned Sufjan Stevens, but there is one song in particular off of his album Songs for Christmas called Come thou fount of every blessing. I didn't know this particular hymn before, and I don't think it is particularly holiday-related, but I think it is sad and wistful as anything I've ever heard.
posted by msali at 6:49 PM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


Joshua James' version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen is my absolute favorite. If you like it, there are other Christmas songs on that album (Fields & Floods). I like the darker, slower take on such traditional songs.
posted by peep at 9:59 PM on December 8, 2014


Morphine - Sexy Christmas Baby Mine
posted by Elysum at 10:31 PM on December 8, 2014


In the Bleak Midwinter is beautiful but not outright melancholy.
Sing We Now of Christmas (it's in the first medley, at about the 40 second mark).
posted by gox3r at 12:56 AM on December 9, 2014


Gift X-change: Calexico
Noel, Christmas Eve, 1913: John Denver (John Denver's voice is divine in this song)
Feast of Lights: They Might be Giants

N'thing Sarah McLaughlin's Song for a Winter's Night. It was my wedding song!
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 6:30 AM on December 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


Came in to post Joy by Tracey Thorn, see that it's taken care of already. Her take on Maybe this Christmas also fits the bill.
posted by mikepop at 6:50 AM on December 9, 2014


Blues For Christmas - John Lee Hooker.
Lonesome Christmas - Son Seals
Cherry Tree Carol - Mark Lanegan
Christmas in Prison - John Prine
Christmas Ain't Like Christmas Anymore - Kitty Wells
25th Of Last December - Roberta Flack
All I Ever Get for Christmas is Blue - Over the Rhine
If We Make it Through December - Merle Haggard
1913 Massacre - Woody Guthrie
Christmas Morning Blues - Victoria Spivey
posted by fourpotatoes at 7:27 AM on December 9, 2014


You might like Peace on Earth (Silent Night) from Disney's Lady and the Tramp, sung by Peggy Lee.
posted by bryon at 2:55 AM on December 10, 2014


Warlock's Bethlehem Down.
I can't remember the composer but there is astunning piece called Bring not a crown.
Basically any christmas lullaby sounds sweet but actually starts talking about the crucifixion looming in the future - the joy is always coloured by this.
posted by kadia_a at 10:05 AM on December 10, 2014


The Roches - Star of Wonder
posted by tommyD at 9:20 AM on December 11, 2014


25th of December - Everything But the Girl
posted by LynnDee at 1:41 PM on December 14, 2014


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