John Roderick (the Long Winters) Talks the Criteria for a Good Christmas Song

He also shares some of his favorite carols (that don't suck), written by good songwriters with either a sense of humor or a bottomless well of sorrow.

The criteria for a good Christmas song are as follows:

1. No unreflective overuse of holiday trope words. Most of them are seductively easy rhyming words, like “merry” or “holly” or “cheer,” but easy rhymes with cheesy. Good holiday tracks should find new meaning in these old saws or eschew them altogether. Easier said than done, as I cannot think of a single instance where the word “merry” exists outside of carols, except as a Hobbit name.

2. Why are you writing Christmas songs anyway? Is it a cynical money grab? Did someone at your label think it was a good idea? Or did you really feel something about the holidays that needed saying? Don’t try to fake us out. For instance: “Jingle Bell Rock” is not a rock song, it’s just a toss-off with the word “rock” in it to capitalize on the new rock & roll fad of 1957. Don’t make stupid music and foist it off on everyone under the guise of theme lyrics. (See also: Bush’s “Glycerine.”) There are some exceptions to this rule, primarily involving Run-D.M.C.

3. I’m being serious now: are you religious? Like, deeply religious? That is a good reason to make Xmas music, but let me caution you against vanity. Please consider that you are singing about a child, baby Jesus, and you shouldn’t turn up the bass too loud. If you are making country music, let me humbly suggest that you not sing in a fake cowboy accent for once in your goddamn life and show a little respect for your messiah. Also, don’t over-sing with lots of unearned soul baloney. It’s right there in the Bible.

4. Christmas is sad, and if your song isn’t sad you’d better have a good reason for it. Are you seriously trying to convince us that everything about Christmas isn’t an orgy of melancholy? You’re going on a sleigh ride? Really? Well, guess what? The girl you like is going too, and she’s snuggling under a horse blanket with that smug bastard whose dad owns the feedlot and probably giving him a handjob, so jingle jingle jingle to you too.

5. Is your song a little bit metal? All the good Xmas song are stealth metal songs because Xmas is the most metal of all holidays. “Little Drummer Boy”? Metal as fuck. “Do You Hear What I Hear”? Deeply metal at its core. “We Three Kings”? Hella metal. “The Little Match Girl” is impossibly metal. The whole story of an out-of-wedlock baby being born to a virgin in a stable is so metal it’s almost Juggalo. If your song doesn’t have heavy metal in its heart, it’s probably a St. Patrick’s Day song instead.

6. Why are there so many Christmas songs but not a single Halloween or Thanksgiving song? Because Christmas is just an excuse for us to worship our Old Gods, Trees and Fire, and to try to appease them by singing metal songs while rattling bells. Somewhere in your holiday song there had better be an offering to the Old Gods or you will find weevils in your corn. Get thee back to the piano and insert a lyric about the damn trees before you doom us all!

Here are some Christmas songs that don’t suck, written by good songwriters with either a sense of humor or a bottomless well of sorrow. Sometimes a Christmas song will fake you out and make you think it’s one kind when it’s actually the other. That’s how you detect the true songwriting hand of Jesus at work.

1. Run-D.M.C. — “Christmas in Hollis”
2. Aimee Mann — “Calling on Mary”
3. The Pretenders — “2000 Miles”
4. AC/DC — “Mistress for Christmas”
5. John Roderick & Jonathan Coulton — “Uncle John”
6. Liz Phair — “Ho Ho Ho” (Listen here)
7. The Waitresses — “Christmas Wrapping”
8. Crass — “Merry Crassmas” (Listen here)
9. The Kinks — “Father Christmas”
10. Donny Hathaway — “This Christmas”

Editor’s Note: This isn’t the first time that John Roderick has written about Christmas music for the Talkhouse. Check out his excellent piece from last holiday season below.

Every year at the beginning of September my publishing company used to ask me if I had any Christmas music to send them. I never did. They’d chastise me in a friendly way that Christmas music was always in demand, good for some easy licensing dollars, and I’d promise myself that the following year, sometime in June, I’d make a rollicking holiday music EP that would shock and delight everyone and then just sit back and watch the royalty checks roll in. The following September my publishing company would ask again and I’d slap my forehead and say, next year for sure!

Was it crass and commercial to think about making a holiday record just for money? Well sure, but come on. What was I supposed to do? Make a holiday record filled with the real spirit of Christmas? I’d be recording it in June, first of all. But secondly, the spirit of Christmas is for culpable children, alcoholic moms and Republican congressmen. It’s not a thing that motivates actual people except in rare moments when the lights are twinkling and the bourbon is kicking in and maybe you start crying because nothing ever really worked out the way you planned but you still love everybody, goddammit. The spirit has definitely never motivated songwriters of Christmas music, all of whom were Jewish men writing in buildings with no air-conditioning during the summer, and sung by people high on cocaine.

Finally, in 2012, I really did start thinking of making a Christmas record in June and I enlisted my friend Jonathan Coulton to help me, envisioning cutesie-pie ukulele covers of hoary old standards with just the right admixture of contemporary-sounding slapdash production and couldn’t-give-a-shit oversung vocals. Jonathan proved against this plan. His creative engine burns hotter than mine, damn him, and he maintains old-fashioned ideas about blah blah blah “hating garbage culture” and blah blah blah “wanting to make something he can stand behind.” All of a sudden the simple project of coasting through some clichés and making big bucks went out the window and Jonathan and I had egged each other into making an entire album of all-new Christmas music.

Not just Christmas music, mind you, but Christmas music that rejoiced in all our misgivings about Christmas. We were not about to sacrifice our artistic integrity (quoting Jonathan here) just to cash in on a holiday neither of us actually celebrated in mind or spirit! We would write ten songs that were the equivalent of an uncle just back from Vietnam fighting with your mother’s younger brother who just returned from five years living in a squat in Utrecht. Jonathan made a list of words he refused to consider using, including “merry,” “cheer,” “jolly,” “holy,” etc. We were excited about making this record! It was about time somebody had the guts to really put it to Christmas! I didn’t even bring my ukulele to the studio.

The record we made was really cool, really heavy and real, and we had that amazing feeling when you make a piece of good art that you’re also certain will be a commercial hit smash. We sent it to my publishing company with a cover letter that basically said, “Hope you guys are ready to buy houses, because here’s your down payments.” The response we got back from them was fairly muted, in that they said, “thanks” and then we never heard from them again. Turns out, I think they just wanted the cliché music thingy. We were undeterred and went to release it into the world, at every step, from manufacturing to tie-in merchandise, overestimating demand by a factor of ten. Our album of clever, insouciant indie-pop Christmas originals went over in the marketplace like a wet stocking full of onions.

“Just wait,” I told Jonathan, in the confident tone of someone whose albums have never really sold but who still believes in the possibility that some Northern Soul-like movement of the future will one day lift them from obscurity, “it takes time for new classics to assume their place in the pantheon.” Two years later I can only say that the album is now received like a two-year-old wet stocking full of onions.

All by way of saying, I was both cheered and dismayed to watch an advance showing of a new documentary by Mitchell Kezin called Jingle Bell Rocks! Cheered because it’s a film about an underground network of aging hipster record collectors who express their myriad peculiarities, in part, by making mix tapes of underappreciated or forgotten Christmas music. Dismayed because clearly, despite bringing all the magic of cinema to bear in service of making the characters in the film sympathetic and charming, there was no mistaking that only weirdos and creeps care about old Christmas music. No matter how slamming the ’60s soul groove on that ultra-rare 45, the lyrics are eventually going to start being about Santa, and that is a buzzkill unless there’s something broken in you.

The only way a middle-aged man can properly approach Christmas is with a soldierly resolve, like birthing a foal during a snowstorm. You should perform your shopping, cooking and decorating rituals dutifully, with cheerful resignation. Do not fight, but neither exult. Christmas falls squarely in the middle of the grin-and-bear-it spectrum. I mean, the reason they say Christmas is the most magical time of the year is that it falls right after the darkest day of the year, and magic always happens in semi-darkness because if you could see it in the daylight you would realize it’s fake. A 50 year old guy super-excited about Christmas is the same as a  50 year old guy super-excited at a Criss Angel: Mindfreak show. It’s like, “Really, guy?”

Most of the characters in this movie were record collectors and completists first, then moved beyond completism to the higher plane of collecting Christmas records because the whole manic hobby of record collecting encourages obscurantism and incorrigibility. The director, Kezin, began obsessing over Christmas music at a very young age, when a particular Nat King Cole track spoke directly to his plight as a fatherless child. I can’t fault a young person for forging an emotional connection with Christmas music. It’s not nearly as indefensible as forging an emotional connection with Kiss, for instance, and besides, that’s what Christmas music is for: to sneak up on terrified children as they shiver in fear of drunken fathers and winter storms and welcome them back to the fire in order to give them the Amway pitch for Christianity. The problem is that when grown-up people like Christmas music, or Kiss, it means that the scared little child inside them is still soothed by lies. That’s only a problem in that their vote counts the same as yours.

Earlier this year I was in upstate New York and had the occasion to attend a day-after-Thanksgiving record fair with a friend who was up on the local scene. He tried to prepare me for the spectacle, but when the whistle blew and the doors were flung open it was like a Bruegel painting come to life. A couple hundred people in their fifties and sixties swarming dusty boxes of Anne Murray LPs, scarves tangled, grey-flecked hair and beards shining dully in the fluorescent gloom, reading glasses down their noses, shabby winter coats rustling like nylon waves against a corduroy shore. I got emotional watching from the wings, only because I could feel the cold hand of death on my shoulder. I saw wraiths cursed to search endless graveyards for their own headstones. None could rest until they found the stone with their name, but all the stones said “Anne Murray.”

So, ha ha, anyway, obviously I’m not a record collector! Whoo-boy! But I am a collector of useless ephemera, so I have tremendous empathy for this passion, or compulsion. I can appreciate that if the choice is between living in a sterile new apartment with Scandinavian fiberboard furniture and laughing a little too loud at desperate comedies chosen for me by Netflix, or to be down in a basement surrounded by boxes of baseball cards and comic books that I would never part with and which have no monetary value but which establish my bona fides to other members of my ham radio club, I prefer the latter. I get it. And if you’re a fan of something in America today eventually someone will make a film about it that basically equates your fandom with a sacred practice. I get that too. I’m just waiting for a film about my candlestick collection, and for my Christmas record to start selling in Manchester.

John Roderick is the singer of the Long Winters. He has a podcast called Roderick on the Line.