Santa Claus is coming to frown! Why the best Christmas songs are sad and slow

‘Your father said it was pneumonia, your mother said it was stress’ … Prince.

‘Your father said it was pneumonia, your mother said it was stress’ … Prince. Photograph: Ilpo Musto/Alamy

Who says festive numbers have to be merry? Marvin Gaye’s prisoner-of-war lament is a touching treat – while Prince’s track about a guy getting over a yuletide death with banana daiquiris is the jewel of the genre

The loss of Low’s Mimi Parker last month, at the age of 55, got me thinking about the power of sad songs. With her husband and band partner Alan Sparhawk, Parker was responsible for one of the most downbeat festive albums ever made: Christmas, from 1999. From its spectral version of Little Drummer Boy to a cover of Blue Christmas sung at what sounds like half-speed, its eight tracks remained faithful to the Minnesota band’s melancholic indie sound. The opener begins with this harrowing observation about Jesus’s birthday: “If you were born today, we’d kill you by age eight.”

It’s one of the most sorrowful-sounding seasonal albums ever – but also one of the best. Little surprise if it has passed you by: we don’t pay nearly enough attention to the gift of truly sad Christmas songs. When compiling yuletide playlists, we prefer the manically jolly over the miserable. We’re happy to hear Noddy Holder screaming like an axe-wielding killer, but something approaching the true loneliness, grief and weltschmerz of the darkest time of the year? Many of us would rather scroll on by.

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