Music

The Top 15 Christmas (& anti-Christmas) songs that you’ve never heard of

Looking for some new tunes to spice up your Xmas playlist?  You’ve come to the right place.  While I like the holiday classics as much as the next guy, part of my Christmas tradition is also to blast some songs that don’t traditionally get played at a lot of Christmas gatherings.  Despite their sometimes questionable content, these songs are no less qualified as Christmas music than Die Hard is as a Christmas movie (Full disclosure: I just saw Die Hard for the first time last weekend, but I can nevertheless confirm, it’s a frickin’ Christmas movie #BruceWillis4Santa). 

What follows is a list of some of my personal favorites of lesser-known Christmas (& anti-Christmas) songs that can perhaps provide a soundtrack to your upcoming holiday festivities. And with a week-and-change to go until the big day, there’s still plenty of time to learn the lyrics and impress all your friends and family at your holiday gath…I mean, Google Meet! #COVIDChristmas

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Honorable Mention: Tom Waits – “Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis”

The title of this tune provides a bit of foreshadowing for the style of songs that you can expect to find on this list—songs about festive, holiday things like a hooker sending an ex-client a Christmas card to notify him of his impending paternity.  But, hey, at least you know this list will be objective.  The song is set in Minneapolis, and it didn’t even crack my top 15! #ObjectiveAnalysis #NotAHomer

Honorable Mention: Billy Squire – “Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You”

A song full of holiday cheer that provides the unsolicited response to the rhetorical question, “Who says Christmas songs can’t rock?”  Side note: I once saw Billy Squire perform live as part of Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band, and I rocked out so hard that I made the Star Tribune concert review.  I am the air guitar player in the front row!!! #TrueStory

Honorable Mention: Spinal Tap – “Christmas With The Devil”

Leather-laden elves, rancid sugar plums, and flaming stockings?!?!  Christmas with the devil sounds frickin’ sick!  Like, literally, if you eat those sugar plums…And no invitation necessary!  Your ticket is your SOUL!!!

Honorable Mention: The Handsome Family – “So Much Wine”

Read my past write-up here!!!

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15. Fountains of Wayne – “I Want An Alien For Christmas”

It’s a song about a kid that wants an alien for Christmas.  What more do I need to say?

14. The Band – “Christmas Must Be Tonight”

For those of you that insist on putting the “Christ” in Christmas, this is the best I can do for you.  I’m more of an Xmas guy myself, but it’s the frickin’ Band.  Only they could make the three wise men cool. 

13. Matt Costa – “I Bet On Flying High”

This song would be “high”er on my list if Matt Costa sang about drinking something other than martinis.  How about a gin and tonic or a mezcal margarita?  Or anything that comes in a real glass?  Whatever.  As long as we’re getting wasted, I guess I’m down. 

12. blink-182 – “I Won’t Be Home For Christmas”

This song is me summoning my seventh-grade self (#DudeRanch #WhatsMyAgeAgain?).  I actually love most of my relatives, so I can’t relate to the lyrics all that much, but I’m a sucker for immaturity.  And for those of you for whom this song isn’t immature enough (I know you’re out there), allow me to recommend another blink-182 holiday hit, “Happy Holidays, You Bastard”.  

11. Adam Sandler – “The Chanukah Song”

If you don’t want this song on your Christmas playlist, it’s probably because you’re one of those xenophobes that gets pissed off when someone wishes you a “Happy Holiday” rather than a “Merry Christmas”.  If you haven’t figured it out yet, this list isn’t for you.  I hope you have a terrible “holiday” (purposely trolling), and that your Bing Crosby record gets scratched to shit. 

(HOWEVER!  If the reason you don’t want this song on your Christmas playlist is because you’re a former Seattle Supersonics fan and any reference to that team gives you PTSD, then that’s totally fair.)

10. She & Him – “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”

Sometimes the best deep cut Christmas songs are lesser-known covers of certified holiday classics.  “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has received some fair albeit overblown heat in recent years for its creepy/rapey undertones, but some modern remakes have offered a different spin that could help this catchy tune maintain its popularity in a culture that’s passed it by.  My personal favorite is the She & Him version in which the girl plays the creeper, but for those who can’t stomach these lyrics no matter who’s singing them, allow me to recommend the Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski version which hilariously turns rape culture on its head.

9. Tom Petty – “Christmas All Over Again”

What’s that you say?  You’ve already heard of this song, and therefore do not believe that it belongs on a list of Christmas songs you’ve never heard of?  Well, get bent.  I love Tom Petty and I will put him on any goddamn list I want. 

By the way, if your Christmas playlist doesn’t have every single song from the Home Alone 2 soundtrack—including and especially the theme music—then it’s not a real Christmas playlist.  #JustSayin

8. John Prine – “Christmas In Prison”  

Also a suggestion for your “RIP 2020” playlist, and any playlist that you make for any reason ever.  John Prine is the frickin’ man.  Of the 300,000+ lives that COVID-19 has claimed thus far this year in the U.S. alone, there’s no doubt as to who was the best songwriter.  “Christmas In Prison” is my personal favorite, but “Everything Is Cool” and “Silent Night All Day Long” should make your holiday playlist, too.  It’s Christmas at my house, there’ll be John Prine tonight, your songs are forever, I’ll miss you, goodbye. 

7. Steve Earle – “Christmas In Washington”

Steve Earle had a rough 2020, as well, losing his son Justin Townes Earle to causes you’re probably well aware of it you’ve ever listened to more than a few Justin Townes Earle songs.  But this politically charged Xmas anthem is a great example of why Steve Earle is one half of one of the most underappreciated father-son duos in rock-n-roll history.  The lyrics can cater to the politically disaffected of various ideological leanings, but with references to historical figures like Woody Guthrie, Joe Hill, and Malcolm X, the song is primarily directed at socialist sympathizers like myself.  But if you think that means you can’t play this song at holiday gatherings full of your conservative family members, fear not…It’s a country song! Plus, I’m confident that your MAGA hat wearing uncle will have no idea who Emma Goldman is.

6. Weird Al – “The Night Santa Went Crazy”

I go back and forth on Weird Al. Sometimes I think his songs are too dumb. Other times I think his songs are not dumb enough. But in “The Night Santa Went Crazy”, Weird Al gets the dumbness recipe just right, and that recipe includes reindeer sausage.  The holidays are all about bringing joy, and there is nothing on my Christmas playlist that brings me more joy than the idea of a drunk and disgruntled St. Nicholas terrorizing the North Pole with an assortment of military grade weapons. In spite of the bloodbath that ensues, the story does have a happy ending. The elves get new jobs, Vixen’s therapy seems to be going well, and psycho Santa has been sent to prison (unless, of course, you’re listening to the “extra gory version”).

5. OutKast – “Player’s Ball”

Even though I’m more of a rock-n-roll guy, I wanted to include at least one rap song on this list, and it also happens to be a song that put one of the most legendary duos in hip hop on the map. OutKast’s “Player’s Ball” doesn’t sound like any Christmas celebration that I’ve ever been a part of, but I can think of worse ways to spend a holiday than rolling around Atlanta in some gangsta-ass rides.  And while there may not be any chimneys in the ghetto on which to hang your stockings, there’s apparently no shortage of smoke.  #WhenInRome

Post script: If you’re looking for a hip hop flavor that’s a little more family friendly, give a listen to these classics by some of the genre’s pioneers:

4. Kacey Musgrave & Willie Nelson – “A Willie Nice Christmas”

How about a great American songwriter who didn’t die this year? At the ripe age of 87, Willie Nelson is still cranking out the hits, including this tropical Christmas carol recorded with Kacey Musgrave in 2016.  For those of you who have found my list thus far to be entertaining but distasteful, this song might be an exception. The Mariah Carey formula suggests that it might not be possible to create an immediate Christmas classic, but a few decades down the road, it would not surprise me in the slightest for this inclusive tune to receive some regular radio play on the KOOL 108 of the future (#LocalRadioReference, #Homer). Maybe Willie will still even be around to witness it.

3. The Killers – “Don’t Shoot Me Santa”

Back to the distasteful. It’s hard to imagine a Christmas song more quintessentially American than one that so seamlessly intertwines our national love affair with both Santa Claus and gun violence. This is not a repeat of the cartoonish massacre depicted by Weird Al, but instead a much more (unfortunately) believable narrative of a young victim of bullying who has reached his breaking point and decided to seek revenge on his antagonists. But in spite of his attempts to justify his violent behavior, the actions of this tortured soul have also landed him on Santa’s naughty/hit list, hence the title of the song. Weird Al is silly. The Killers are art.

2. Rockford Mules – “Merry Christmas South Dakota”

This song hits deep. There’s a big part of me that wanted to put it at #1, but I’ve begrudgingly accepted it as the runner-up. I know very little about the Rockford Mules (I mean, they don’t even have a Wikipedia page), other than the fact that they’re from Minneapolis (#DefinitelyAHomer), and that they wrote one of the most sadly relatable and sentimentally powerful Christmas songs of all time. Everybody has lost somebody, and as much as we love being around our loved ones during the holiday season, we also feel the absence of those who are missing. A good Christmas playlist should reflect the spirit of the holiday. It should be celebratory, cheerful, and fun.  But it’s important and therapeutic to create moments to honor that longing for those no longer with us. “Merry Christmas South Dakota” gives us that space. It’s four-and-a-half minutes of soulful, southern rock in which we can wish a “rest in peace” to those passed on, and pray a silent night for all of us still here. We wish you were here, too.

  1. The Kinks – “Father Christmas”

This song always makes me think of the scorching criticism I’ve received over the years from friends and family regarding the decision I’ve made not to subject my own kids to the charade that is Santa Claus (if you’re reading an air of superiority into the way that I wrote that previous sentence, then you can probably empathize with their hostility). “How can you be so selfish and cruel,” they say, “robbing your children of the magic of Christmas just to give some comfort to your own unbearable ego?!” (#FairPoint) My defense is always something to tune of the billions of children and families around the world who don’t even celebrate Christmas (cause they’re not Christians), let alone get a visit from Santa, and they seem to be doing just fine (cue *eye roll*). Also, even for many Christians that do celebrate Christmas, Santa might not visit their households if they live in a poor neighborhood (cue *even bigger eye roll*). And while by this point in the conversation my adversary is too annoyed with me to even continue, I take solace in knowing that the Kinks have my back.

“Father Christmas” is a reminder that there are a lot of boys and girls in the world who “Santa” will not visit this year. What is more, it’s a reminder that if Santa were to visit those households, toys would not be the first thing on their Christmas lists. They would want money for their impoverished families. They would want a stable job for their daddy, whose got a lot of mouths to feed.

But aside from allowing me to preach from my anti-Santa soapbox, the main reason that “Father Christmas” takes the place of top song on this list—other than the fact that it frickin’ rocks—is its ability to speak to the true meaning of the holiday (at least for the secular), that being the spirit of giving.

There are plenty of reasons to criticize the commercialization of Christmas (and I’m confident that I could do it with the utmost condescension), but underneath the exchange of those gift-wrapped material goods lies an earnest desire to make others happy.  No one should have to apologize for having the economic means to earn a visit from Santa that puts a smile on the faces of their children. Even a Scrooge like me can admit that opening presents on Christmas morning created some of the fondest memories of my childhood.  But in the spirit of “Father Christmas”, what if those gifts also carried with them something for the families so often forgotten? What if every toy gifted to our children was paired with a donation to a charity for the boys and girls of the world who aren’t quite so fortunate? What a great lesson to teach to our kids. What if every Amazon Prime purchase for an adult family member or friend was accompanied by a contribution to their favorite nonprofit? What a great way to fulfill the spirit of giving for those people on Earth who are truly in need. 

I don’t think that the Kinks intended “Father Christmas” to be read into as a serious song, particularly with the pretentiousness that I’m employing here. The song is fun, funny, and ironically festive. However, the sad truth remains that there are many children/families who won’t have what they want or need this holiday season, unless some kind of “Santa” steps in. What a better holiday it would be if we could all use the Kinks as an inspiration to be somebody’s “Father Christmas”.  But remember, if you’re going to donate this holiday season, don’t mess around with those silly toys. That’s not what the poor kids need most. Instead, give ‘em some money. Or they’ll beat you up. #MerryChristmas

Click here to access my ever-evolving Xmas playlist in its entirety

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Songs w/ Substance #8 – John Prine – “Lake Marie”

Lyrics: https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/johnprine/lakemarie.html


Every place has a history. Every river, hill, valley, and tree has bared witness to an endless array of mankind’s collective moments.  Thanks to the diversity of the human experience, that history rarely has a coherent narrative—it is a random collection of happenings that may share nothing in common other than a pair of geographic coordinates that mark the place in which those happenings unfolded.  Nevertheless, part of the same narrative those happenings remain, and it’s up to us to decide what that narrative means.

No song in the history of music better illustrates this phenomenon than John Prine’s “Lake Marie”. The lyrics recount a history—part-actual and part-fictional—that describe a few of the events observed by the lake’s “peaceful waters”.  These events include a tale of two abandoned babies that gave the real-life Wisconsin lake its name, a fictionalized but highly-believable story of a struggling marriage seeking to find salvation in the fond memories formed on the lake’s shorelines, and a pair of mutilated, murdered bodies discovered in the forest that surrounds the water.

The disconnectedness of these events is challenged at the end of the third verse, when the song’s narrator, who is learning about the area’s latest double-homicide through the “TV news”, connects those murders back to the marriage that he could not save.  He finds in those murders an unmistakable symbolism of his own lost love that had been “slammed up against the banks of old Lake Marie.”  To the narrator, Lake Marie is a place of unfulfilled promise—a love set to the soundtrack of “Louie, Louie” that could not endure the test of time…A serene and secluded body of water that could not hide from nor escape the world’s ugliness.

John Prine once said that, in his songwriting, he likes to “try to look through someone else’s eyes,” and give his audience “a feeling more than a message.”  “Lake Marie” is reflective of that effort.  It’s a song about a certain place with a certain story, but it’s also a song about all of the places that us humans name, occupy, and experience.  It’s a song about the public history for which a place is known, but it’s also about the more intimate connections that form between that place and certain individuals.  It’s a song about the different meanings that we attach to a place depending on that place’s significance in our own stories—both for better and for worse.

We all have our own Lake Marie’s.  They’re the towns where we grew up and the parks and playgrounds where we made our first childhood memories.  They’re the buildings of education and employment that shaped and molded us into the people that we are today.  They’re the various scenes and settings that have played host to our lives’ greatest triumphs and tragedies, and the personal relationships that we have formed with those places as they become a part of our history and we become a part of theirs.  That’s why in John Prine’s song, even if we don’t know Lake Marie personally, we all know how Lake Marie feels.  Aah baby, we gotta go now.

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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below

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Songs w/ Substance #7 – The Handsome Family – “So Much Wine”

Lyrics: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/handsomefamily/somuchwine.html

Some songs find a way to say the least profound things in the most profound ways.

It’s no secret that people use alcohol as an escape—a tool for a temporary departure from whatever reality they wish to leave behind.  It’s also no secret that alcohol often fails to offer a real remedy, and instead, serves to compound the problems facing the person on the other end of the bottle.

Countless songs have been written about the struggle against alcoholism.   Many of these songs are deeply personal and powerfully depressing, lending credence to the idea that, sadly, tortured artists are often the greatest artists.

The Handsome Family has a bit of “tortured” to them.  One commentator described their music as “a safe place to express terrifying things.”  Perhaps this explains why their song “Far From Any Road” was chosen as the theme for the eerie HBO series True Detective.

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“So Much Wine” isn’t all that terrifying, but it is ugly.  The lyrics tell a story of a plastered significant other who spends her Christmas chugging wine, wrecking shit, and passing out on the floor (been there).  The verses describe the events as they unfold, while the refrain contains the advice that the singer whispers to his drunken companion.  The advice itself isn’t all that revolutionary:

Listen to me, Butterfly,

There’s only so much wine

 You can drink

 In one life

But it will never be enough…

But what gets me about this song is not what the singer says but the way that he chooses to say it:

…To save you from the bottom of your glass.

To save you from the bottom of your glass…What a gorgeous way to say something so depressing.

To me, that single line showcases the immense power that music has to shine light on the darkness.  It can take a depressing topic like alcoholism—a disease that has painfully affected nearly every person on the planet either through their own struggles or the struggles of a loved one—and turn it into something beautiful.  The beauty, in this case, lies not in the disease itself, but in the truth that’s expressed about the disease, so plainly and so simply.  Alcohol may seem to offer a temporary solution to whatever it is you are hiding from, but once the glass is empty and the buzz fades, the whatever still remains. Accompany that truth with a melody, an acoustic guitar, and a harmonica, and it’s almost enough to make you cry.

Like most songs, “So Much Wine” can speak to different people in different ways. For those who struggle with alcoholism, this song can offer both company and comfort, reassuring the struggling that they don’t struggle alone.  For those who have overcome alcoholism, this song can offer redemption and a reminder of the journey that led to sobriety, and hopefully, a more meaningful existence.  And for those who don’t struggle with alcoholism but still like knocking a few back, perhaps this a song to ironically enjoy a glass of wine to.  After all, music always plays better to the tuned up ear.

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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below.  

 

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Songs w/ Substance #6: Eels – “Line in the Dirt”

Lyrics: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/eels/alineinthedirt.html

You don’t need to be in the midst of a break-up to enjoy a good break-up song. I’ll rock out to Motley Crue’s “Don’t Go Away Mad” or Alannis Morisette’s “You Outta Know” any day of the week. But it does take one hell of a break-up song to reach down and rattle you the way a real break-up can.

In Eel’s “Line in the Dirt,” singer/songwriter Mark Oliver Everett doesn’t try to create some sappy dramatization of departed lovers. This break-up is real, raw, and reflects the idea that life is never quite like the movies, not even the sad ones. There are no grand crescendos or culminations, just a last fleeting gasp of a relationship that has been fading for some time. The falsetto whimper when “she says that I don’t want to be alone, but I think that you do,” possesses a sadness so palpable that it can bring you to your knees—a line sung so tragically that it can make you feel alive.

The song doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for hope, and it shouldn’t. Break-ups hurt and don’t often leave you in a very hopeful place. He “drew a line into the dirt, and dared her to step right across it, and she did.” Now it’s over. Now what’s next?

Yet, in some ways, the song still comforts. It comforts in the sense that whenever we are sad or lonely or hopeless, we know that we’re not alone. Suffering is a part of life, and sometimes music can alleviate that burden by reminding us that that suffering is shared. He may be “driving straight into the night,” but if he drives for long enough, he’ll eventually reach the dawn. Hopefully the radio is blasting some good break-up tunes to keep him company until he gets there.

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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below.  

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Songs w/ Substance #5: Josh Ritter – “The Curse”

Not every song with substance needs to have some deep, coded meaning or take a righteous political stand. Some times a good song just tells a good story

In his song “The Curse,” the storytelling skills of singer-songwriter Josh Ritter are on full display. Perhaps there is some metaphorical symbolism embedded in the lyrics, but I tend to think that anyone who finds any is probably overthinking it. To me, this song is nothing more than a beautifully creative love story about an archeologist and the mummy she unearths and revives. If there is any deeper thinking required, it probably revolves around the question of who is actually “cursed”—the mummy who appears to be trapped in some kind of inescapable purgatory between living and dead, or the woman he once loved, who has since become “just one more rag now he’s dragging behind him.”

What’s for sure is that Ritter is an absolutely masterful songwriter. He hasn’t gotten a ton of mainstream love over the years, but if that recognition ever comes, a lot of music fans will be spending a lot of time digging through Ritter’s lengthy discography, uncovering all the buried treasures so underappreciated in their time. Perhaps this heartwarming waltz will be one of them.

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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below.  

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Songs w/ Substance #4: Rage Against the Machine – “Maggie’s Farm”

 

I’m going to start this post off with a statement that, in certain rock-n-roll circles, might be labeled as blasphemous: “Maggie’s Farm,” by Rage Against the Machine, is the single greatest cover song of all-time.

Bold, I know.

I understand why other rock-and/or-rollers might disagree. It could easily be argued that “Maggie’s Farm” is not even the greatest Bob Dylan cover of all time, let alone the greatest cover. Rolling Stone magazine essentially made that argument itself when it snubbed the song in their top-10 list of Dylan covers—a list that understandably culminated with Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower.” But while that and other songs on the list would admittedly check more boxes in any attempt at objective analysis, good music is a subjective phenomenon, and there’s still no other cover that I’d rather hear blasting through the speakers of my Ford Fiesta than Rage’s version of “Maggie’s Farm.”

Rage is the perfect band for Songs w/ Substance. Their music oozes substance—radical substance—and “Maggie’s Farm” is no exception. The song is the last track on their 2000 Renegades album, an all-covers release in which the band pays homage to the musical revolutionaries that came before them, refurbishing some old classics in their unique thrash-metal style. It shouldn’t be surprising that a “renegade” like Bob Dylan made the cut.

There are several interpretations of the lyrics that Dylan wrote for “Maggie’s Farm.” Some think that is a personal narrative about Dylan’s gripe with the record industry. Others say it’s a more generic hymn about the evils of capitalistic exploitation. But no matter who or what Dylan was trying to take on with these lyrics, there’s no doubt that the song carries a message of empowerment. Be it a struggling musician, a factory laborer, or a campesino on a hacienda, this song is an anthem for the downtrodden who have the courage to rise up, break free from their chains, tell their boss to “get fucked,” and defiantly refuse to take anymore of his shit.

“Maggie’s Farm” has a cool backstory too. This is the song that Dylan played at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival in which he first infamously “plugged-in.” The performance was met with boos and jeers at the time, but has since come to be known as one of the most transformative moments in music history.

It’s wild to think that this sound was so upsetting to people back in the day, especially when listening to Rage’s 21st century interpretation. But if you believe the rock historians, it’s that moment that made groups like Rage Against the Machine possible. When Bob Dylan plugged his guitar into that amplifier, he fused the heart of folk music with the sound of rock. He turned the electric guitar into a vehicle that could deliver a political message. He made it cool for rock-n-roll to say something.

That’s why I’ll stand by my claim of “Maggie’s Farm” by Rage Against the Machine as the greatest cover song of all-time. It may not get the radio play or written acclaim of a Jimi Hendrix or a Guns N’ Roses, but the song has undeniable substance. It’s got the history, it’s got the message, and it’s got a crescendo that will knock your fucking socks off. That’s the stuff that counts. Rage on.

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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below.  

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Songs w/ Substance #3: The Mountain Goats – “Dance Music”

Lyrics: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/mountaingoats/dancemusic.html

I’m always surprised that I like this song. It’s a quirky song sung by a singer with an annoying, whiny voice, but for some reason both the lyrics and the beat still find a way to reach out and grab me.

Maybe that’s because this song is about something that we have all at times experienced—the medicinal properties of music—the ability of music to heal in times of sadness or pain.

Unlike the singer, I never had an abusive stepfather or a girlfriend with a “special secret sickness” (or maybe I did?), but like everybody else, I’ve experienced struggle, and I know that during those times of struggle, music has often been incredibly therapeutic.

Dance music wouldn’t be my first choice. I’m more of a rock-country, indie slow-jam kind of a guy. But that’s another great thing about this song. Even though parts of the lyrics refer to the personal narrative of the singer, other parts are purposefully vague so that we can make our own connections and bring our own narratives into the song too.

“So this is what the volume knob’s for”—got to be one of the greatest lyrics of all time. Turn this one up.

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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below.  

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Songs w/ Substance #2: Ben Harper – “Call It What It Is” (A Response to Baton Rouge & Falcon Heights)

A lot of times we lack the evidence. Questionable police shootings culminate in ‘he said-she saids’ that ultimately fail to gain criminal indictments of police officers in a court of law. But for anyone who has ever questioned or failed to fully understand black narratives of police shootings in cases like Michael Brown or Jamar Clark (myself included), the last 48 hours have given us a lot to think about.

The video don’t lie. Sure there are still unanswered questions: Where exactly was Alton Sterling’s gun when the officer opened fire? What preceded the appalling footage taken by Philando Castillo’s girlfriend? But to me, the answers to these questions will likely do very little to convince me that what I saw in those videos is anything other than one word:

Murder.

Like the cell phone footage, Ben Harper’s song is pretty straightforward. What we saw in those videos are inexcusable slayings. It does not matter that the killer wore a badge. It does not matter if the killer’s ostensible intentions were to protect and serve. No matter what those two black men did or did not do to bring themselves into contact with law enforcement on those fateful nights, no matter what further details from their stories emerge, those two black men did not deserve to die.

The New York Times has a headline calling the Falcon Heights incident a “police shooting.” CNN ran a story where an officer was simply “involved.” In an NPR headline, a police stop in Minnesota mysteriously “ends” in a black man’s death. But Ben Harper is right. If we really want to address the problem of the destruction of black bodies at the hands of law enforcement, than in cases like these where the evidence is so apparently clear, we need to call that problem exactly what it is: Murder.

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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below.  

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Military, Music

Songs w/ Substance #1: Pink Floyd – “A Gunner’s Dream”

“The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” – Joseph Stalin

Everybody knows a Pink Floyd song even if they don’t know that they know one. Hits like “Another Brick in the Wall” and “Wish You Were Here” are universally recognizable even to those who rarely venture beyond the comfortable, unthinking realms of mainstream pop and bro country. But “A Gunner’s Dream” is a song that is perhaps even unknown to many people who would fancy themselves as Pink Floyd fanatics. And for a snobby, self-proclaimed rock-n-roll connoisseur like myself, that alone makes it the perfect selection to be my favorite Pink Floyd song of all-time.

Like all of Pink Floyd’s music, “A Gunner’s Dream” is a pretty thought provoking track. The lyrics offer a unique perspective on warfare by exploring what Floyd frontman Roger Waters imagines to be a fallen soldier’s final dream. The song focuses on the thoughts that are running through that soldier’s head as he floats down through the “space between the heavens and the corner of some foreign field,” descending into what will assuredly be his final battle. While a few of the lyrics require some historical context (such as the real life London “bandsmen” blown-up by the IRA), most of this song is metaphorical—a representation of a fictionalized “gunner” that could be applicable to any war in any era.

The soldier’s dream begins with his own funeral—the “tolling bell,” his saddened mother…but in the second verse, the dream moves beyond himself. He dreams of a world in which everyone has “a place to stay” and “enough to eat”—“where you can speak out loud about your doubts and fears,” and where people “on both sides of the tracks” live peacefully and comfortably.   Perhaps most notably, he dreams of a world in which “no one kills the children anymore,” a world that, considering this young man’s fate, currently ceases to exist.

I love protest songs, but this one stands out to me among many of the rest. That’s because “A Gunner’s Dream” attempts to lend war a face. So often when we talk about war, we reduce it to death tolls and generalizations—names of countries and competing factions. This song, on the other hand, focuses on the experience of a single soldier—his final thoughts, his final dream. Surely, to every soldier, this is what war is. It is not some objective phenomenon to be rationalized or philosophized or strategized or detested—it is their experience.

I also appreciate the ending of the song and the onus it puts on the listener. The soldier is gone; “what’s done is done.” But “we cannot just write off his final scene.”

Soldiers sacrifice. Throughout history, millions of soldiers have given their lives for what most would consider noble causes—surrendering what is left of their existence so that those who remain may inherit a better place. But in order for that better place to become a reality, those who remain need to build it. The soldier is gone. He has given everything that he has to make that better world a possibility, and now it is our job to make it happen. We must “take heed” of his dream.

That is one of the things that a song with substance does. It gives the listener something to think about. It challenges the listener to be better. But even if, in “A Gunner’s Dream,” all of that is lost on the listener, at the very least, we can all still appreciate the moment when Water’s bone-chilling scream damn-near seamlessly fades into a saxophone solo. Substance aside, that part is fucking awesome.

Official Video Linked Here

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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below.  

Follow me on Twitter!!!

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