Well, the holiday season is finally here. Of course, it’s a nice idea to lean heavily into whatever vibes of comfort and joy we can generate over the coming weeks. Overall, it’s been a shitty year in more ways than you could count, and 2024 doesn’t exactly look like it’ll be all rainbows and parade floats, either. So, bring on the fluffy slippers, velvet bathrobes, hand-knitted sweaters, brandy cocktails, comfort foods, and classic movies. Gather about you the family and friends who will bring you some warmth and good cheer in these cold, cold times, and enjoy all the splendors the season has to offer.
For me, one of the greatest pleasures that the holidays bring comes in the form of music. I am an absolute sucker for Christmas tunes. From medieval carols to cocktail jazz, from The Three Tenors to the Love Actually soundtrack, I relish it all, no matter how schmaltzy it may be.
Still, when curating the perfect playlist for the season, I make sure I toss a few dark gems into the mix along with all the musical tinsel and bon bons. Listening exclusively to all those sweet, romantic, nostalgic songs has a way of making me feel like I’ve washed down a family-sized box of Pot of Gold chocolates with a four-litre container of supermarket eggnog. I need the bitter and the sour to balance it out.
After all, many of the greatest joys of life involve contrast. Food tastes so much better when you’re hungry. The feeling of warming yourself beside a fireplace is the most exquisite after you’ve just come inside from a snowstorm. The tension between shadow and light adds dramatic depth to paintings and photographs. Likewise, the contrasting and intermingling of different flavours brings food to life. (And, as any dominatrix worth their salt can tell you, the judiciously applied balance of pleasure and pain can be an exquisite experience!)
Why not, then, take the same approach when compiling the perfect December playlist? At this time of year, do I want to hear Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney singing my favourite Xmas classics? Naturally I do. But I also want the non-seasonal likes of The Smiths, PJ Harvey, Lou Reed, and Nick Cave to be somewhere in the mix, reminding me that there’s also beauty and catharsis to be found in the darkness before and after all the dazzle of the holiday lights.
Above all this year, in honour of the recently deceased and much lamented Shane McGowan, lead singer and songwriter of The Pogues, I want to listen over and over again to “Fairytale of New York.” From the immortal opening line “It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank,” to the final “And the bells are ringing out/ For Christmas day,” it is, for my money, the most honest, haunting, and wise song ever written about the hopes and disappointments of life – so magnified for many of us by the expectations and emotional intensity that this time of year brings – and the fragile shot at redemption to which we stubbornly cling.
So, wherever you are right now Mr. McGowan, you wild man, you genius, you punk, you poet, I have no doubt you are singing with the Eternal Choir, with perfect pitch and the truest of voices.