‘Tis the Season to Be Melancholy: Sad Songs for the Holidays

Sad Music To Listen To During The Holidays

What do you listen to during the holidays? Christmas music? That one CD your mom won’t take out of the minivan? A carefully curated playlist of seasonally appropriate anthems? Any and all music designed to get you feeling good because you now have the holiday spirit? Better question: What do you listen to if this time of year doesn’t make you feel good? If your family doesn’t fit into a Christmas cookie cutter shape? If the season itself brings up the fractured parts of your heart in particularly sharp ways?

On top of everyone else expecting me to feel happy, I have to field near-constant questions about my plans to travel home, what I’m getting for my mom and dad, and the assumption that I meet this time of year with a default cheeriness.

I don’t.

Christmas makes me feel sad because for most of my life, the season was marred by particularly dark events in my family. And it turns out I’m not alone in this, not even in the slightest! Maybe you don’t notice other people suffering through your holiday cheer because you’re so happy and assumed they were, too. This year, you could try picking up on the tiny clues some of us have been trying to give you all along. So, instead of keeping those feelings to myself this year, I decided to cater entirely to that demographic. Here’s a new list of sad, soothing, and tempestuous music for those of who feel fucked up around the holidays. Not everyone is a goddamn Hallmark card of perfection, I promise you.

10. The Avett Brothers — “The Ballad Of Love And Hate” + “I And Love And You”

I love this song because it really gets at the kinship between love and hate, how close they are, how they interact, and how they can’t really exist without each other. Most of all I love it because love wins. No matter how sad and depressed you are right now, remember that. Love wins. You make it win by believing that. The one below is a little different, but same idea. “I And Love And You” functions like a journey song, and the destination is Brooklyn. But really, the destination is the strength it takes to say I love you. It’s okay if you’re not there yet, you can keep practicing.

09. Fleet Foxes — Helplessness Blues

Yes, all of it. Yes, Fleet Foxes. Put away your snide lip curl for one second, and listen to the whole fucking album. I’m not sure if there’s a better or more beautiful record in the last 20 years about the struggle of situating the self in the context of society at large, or in smaller microcosms like family and region. Robin Pecknold holds nothing back, his writing is precisely personal and existential in the grandest sense of the word. This is exactly what you need to sift through your shit as the year comes to a close. Should you leave the poisonous gloom of New York and go work in an orchard? Dude, maybe you should. Why should you wait for anyone else?

08. Enya — “Only Time” + “Echoes In The Rain

You knew this was coming. Enya held us down through 9/11 and whatever other personal crises we were facing in 2001 with “Only Time,” and it seems like that song has only picked up momentum as a source of comfort since. Her new album Dark Sky Island is a tour de force, and includes a song that really reminds me of “Only Time” called “Echoes In The Rain.” Lucky us, we can use both to wallow this holiday season — or her new album in its entirety.

07. Port St. Willow — Syncope

Some people don’t find comfort in soft, acoustic music, so for those folks, here’s a different kind of gentleness. Port St. Willow aka Nick Principe has released a gorgeous, electronic tribute to life’s more intimate emotions. Stream the whole thing below for glossy synths and beats spiked with occasional jazzy/brass freakouts and Principe’s crowing, delicate falsetto topping it all off.

06. The Carpenters — “Merry Christmas Darling “

Karen Carpenter can’t sing a note without a hint of sadness in it. No matter how lovey-dovey her songs got, there as always something in the back of her throat that suggested heartache was on the way. That’s why I love “Merry Christmas Darling,” it’s not fully a love song, it’s half a love-still-lost song. For her, that’s because she doesn’t get to spend Christmas with the one she loves the most. That’s probably the case for a lot of people who are sad this season. For me, I like to imagine the song about a person I will be in love with but haven’t met yet. Merry Christmas darling, wherever you are.

05. Jack’s Mannequin — “Annie Use Your Telescope”

Andrew McMahon has been through the fucking wringer. This dude began making music as the frontman of Something Corporate (Drive-Thru Records forever), formed his own wildly successful band after that Jack’s Mannequin, fought off leukemia and even came back last year for a successful solo album called Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness. If anyone knows how to write a song about anger, despair and recovery, it’s this dude. As such, I’m including my favorite song from his work under the Jack’s Mannequin moniker, “Annie Use Your Telescope.” I used to listen to it when I was a confused teenager in Malibu, trying to stave off the cloying cobwebs of wealth and warped body image that surrounded me on every side. This song suggests that wherever you’re stranded, you can use your own tools to look toward a more hopeful future. I’m also embedding all of Glass Passenger–the album this song is taken from–below, because it’s soothing, weirdly nostalgic way only pop punk is for people my age. Yes, this is a post directed primarily toward millennials. Suck it, Trebek. (That’s a joke *only* millennials will get)

04. Yann Tiersen — The Amélie Soundtrack

In my ever so humble opinion, Amélie is the best movie on earth. When I was in high school my two favorite movies were Amélie and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind which should tell you a lot about my love life and overall demeanor. Ha. Anyway, back to you: This soundtrack is perfect because it is utterly French and quaint and will lift you up out of your own life without demanding mile markers like words or lyrics. It kind of just flows and floats along, and there is something rather wintry about the whole thing, too. Yann Tiersen is such a stunning composer, and he does a great job of balancing the ache of loneliness and the thrill of hope that someone will come along to take it all away.

03. Florence + The Machine — Lungs

This is a good one if you don’t feel calm at all, but feel like wailing. Maybe add in some sackcloth and ashes if you grew up reading the Bible a lot and liked how dramatic that shit sounded. If there is anyone who is going to scoop you up in the mist of your most dramatic, tear-stained and merciless windswept trauma, it is Florence fucking Welch. You can’t outstrip her propensity for turning sadness into a hurricane of force. There’s comfort in that. Even if it’s just you and Florence, someone else out there knows the extent of your grief! Her new album is great, but Lungs remains set apart from the rest of her discography. If you’re feeling torrential, this is your jam.

02. Soft Cat — All Energy Will Rise

There is power in numbers, and no one has proved that to me more this year than Soft Cat. The Baltimore folk collective quietly put out their album All Energy Will Rise in April, but it’s stayed with me clear till the end of the year. It’s a gauzy, pastoral record built off skeletal riffs and sweeping, majestic movements that you rarely hear outside of strict, orchestral compositions. Soft Cat faced their own particular form of trauma this year in the form of a massive fire, but this is music opaque enough to project your own sadness onto. I’m confident there’s nothing band leader Neil Sanzgiri and his cohort would love more than to be a solace during this holiday season.

01. Michael Martin Murphey — Cowboy Christmas

I never made it out to Texas while my Grandpa Bill was alive. But I knew he was from Texas, and therefore, I thought I knew quite a bit about the place. For instance, I knew with deep certainty that Grandpa Bill was a cowboy. This gave me a sense of entitlement whenever I listened to anything that was about the west and cowboys–my grandpa was one, therefore this was my culture. Not to mention my mom was from Wyoming, so I lumped that in there too, boosting my trail-hand credentials.

Whatever the reason, Michael Martin Murphey’s Cowboy Christmas resonated with me deeply as a ten-year-old girl, schlepping around the lower-middle-class suburbs of a small Oregon town. It’s one of the only Christmas albums that I listened to as a child that I can still stomach as an adult. Maybe that’s because it’s mostly about loss and hardship, the way humans fuck each other up, and how much it hurts to want to be with someone when you just can’t, whether it’s distance, time, or pain that separates you. Throw on “Pearls In The Snow” if you don’t believe me, and let yourself be devastated. Say what you want about country, say what you want about cowboys, say what you want about Christmas–this is a brilliant record. It helps me make it through the season. I hope it can help you too.


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