reviewing emo christmas songs
Happy three days til Christmas! If you were anything like me in high school and early college, you were probably the type of annoying person who snuck your more palatable emo & pop-punk Christmas-themed songs into the mix of corporate-approved winter-time pap during the holiday season so you’d be able to listen to at least a few things to keep you sane during the seemingly endless eight-hour-shift-that-always-ends-up-becoming-twelve-hour-shift days and nights at Starbucks. If you identify with anything I said in that unwieldy, lengthy sentence, hopefully you find this little newsletter fun and/or amusing. Try not to take it all that seriously.
“Yule Shoot Your Eye Out” - Fall Out Boy. Starting off with a stone cold fuckin’ classic here. It really is a shame that this never ended up on any of the deluxe editions of Take This To Your Grave or From Under the Cork Tree, since it’s probably the epitome of Fall Out Boy’s overall ethos during this era. As Pete Wentz has explained, for the middle-class suburban punk kid during the early aughts, Christmas represents both the height of American monoculture and the magnification of all the dark loneliness that infects your thought process during all other times of the year but feels especially out of step during the cheeriness of the season. Though perhaps not as trenchant in insight as that analysis might suggest, this song is hooky and mean-spirited in that special “my pen is the barrel of the gun” early Fall Out Boy way, even if “Merry Christmas, I could care less” feels a bit overbearing and zealous in retrospect.
“I Won’t Be Home for Christmas” and “Happy Holidays, You Bastard” - blink-182. “Happy Holidays, You Bastard” obviously only made it to the playlist in instrumental form, but “I Won’t Be Home for Christmas” is my personal favorite pop-punk Christmas song. It’s the spirit of “Yule Shoot Your Eye Out” delivered in much more pointed form, with all the spitfuck energy of Scott Raynor-era blink and cigarette-Mark-era lyrical ambivalence. The lyrics in the verses about attacking Christmas carolers with a baseball bat and getting thrown in jail feel a bit rote, but by the time we get to the observations about “being nice to the people you can’t stand all year” in the chorus, we’re keying into some ever-relatable sentiments about familial tensions that hold true for a lifetime. Plus the bridge has an all-time blink bass line and a wonderful candy-cane melody rush.
“All I Want for Christmas Is You” - My Chemical Romance. Mariah Carey’s holiday standard is probably the single most inescapable song during the months immediately following Halloween, and there’s a worry that My Chemical Romance’s cover won’t just fail to distract from the monotony, but will also become kitschy in an uncomfortably overbearing way. Luckily, rather than sticking too closely to the arrangement of the original, My Chem admirably convert this song into a Three Cheers-era post-hardcore banger. Gerard Way’s vocals are as vomit-adjacent as ever, and the way he mumbles his way through the second verse like even he has trouble remembering it is very relatable. That “I’m Not Okay”-esque bridge is absolutely relentless.
“Last Christmas” and “12.23.95” - Jimmy Eat World. Jimmy Eat World’s take on “Last Christmas” is much better than it has any right to be, despite being far more faithful to the original than My Chem’s Mariah Carey cover. Jim Adkins’s ever-earnest vocal inflections serve the song well, as does the restrained performance from the rest of the band. Of course, “12.23.95” is one of the best songs from Clarity, and probably the most credible answer to the question of a pop-punk or emo Christmas song that doesn’t expressly feel like a novelty cut. Again, it’s the complete lack of irony or pretension that saves it; in the hands of anyone else, that keening “Merry Christmas, baby” overture would come off absolutely unbearable, but Jimmy Eat World manage to make it sound precious in the good way rather than the irritating way.
“Alone This Holiday” - The Used. By this point in the list, the sleigh-bell introduction is unbelievably overplayed, and the fact that The Used play this one completely straight actively works against it. It feels plodding in a way that doesn’t normally apply to the frantic, spastic energy of this early era of the band. But by the time Bert ushers in the screams and the ass-beater riff comes in, they’ve managed to win me over. This was during the era where Quinn’s noodle riffs were the rule rather than the exception, and Bert’s overdramatic caterwauling only becomes more welcome the more he indulges. The Kelly Osbourne-assisted coda is just about the most 2003 thing of all time, but that’s kind of a good thing, too?
“Christmas at 22” - The Wonder Years. As I’ve talked about before, any number of early Wonder Years throwaway tracks are better than most bands’ entire discographies. We’re knee-deep in the tr00 pop-punk wave of the late-aughts and early-10s, and The Wonder Years literally invented every single one of the cliches that these bands would use— the way the vocals crescendo into an incredible howl, the over-specificity of the lyrics, and the fixation on friends-as-chosen-family— and this song indulges in all of them in the best way possible. (For an example of a band leaning into all these things in a way that comes off a bit too maudlin, the Real Friends Christmas song “I Had A Heart” comes off as a pale imitation of this track.)
“Decemberism” - Man Overboard. The other formative band of the tr00 pop-punk era, this song might actually be in my top 5 Man Overboard songs? It’s so stripped-down and earnest that in the hands of a less-hungry band it would probably come off as embarrassing, but this was early Man Overboard, so instead it comes off as appealingly, honestly adolescent. I love the way that neither vocalist has really learned how to sing yet but it doesn’t stop them from trying, and that lends this song a real sense of persevering-in-the-face-of-failure melancholy that’s way more endearing than if they actually could sing. I still bust this one out every year.
“Ex-Miss” - New Found Glory. This comes off a 2012 Christmas-themed EP that included three covers and another original, “Nothing for Christmas,” but this is definitely the better of the two, despite the mildly-overbearing lean of the Christmassy guitar riffs. Jordan Pundik, by this point of New Found Glory’s career, was at his peak as a vocalist, and the verses and chorus both strike that perfect balance between early-NFG energy and late-NFG jadedness. I think this one is often a little overlooked since it came out right after Radiosurgery, which is one of the lesser NFG full-lengths, but it’s worth seeking out. (EDIT: As Andrew Sacher points out, I’ve committed a shocking factual error. This song was actually originally featured on the first Atticus compilation, making it of a much earlier vintage than I’ve implied here. My opinion on the song itself remains unchanged.)
“Deadbeat Holiday” - Green Day. I’ve heard people say that Warning is actually a bad Green Day album? That is a patently ridiculous sentiment; it’s an anomaly in their discography since it came in between two radically-different but messily-ambitious and shockingly-successful full-lengths, and instead of falling into early-Green-Day guitar pop or late-Green-Day alterna-stadium-pap, it indulges the band’s enthusiasm for 60s British Invasion a la The Kinks in the most blatant manner of their career. (As has been often noted, Warning’s title track is literally just “Picture Book.”) But it’s a marvelous little pop record with some of Billie Joe’s most underrated lyrical work, which is perhaps best exemplified in this song. Out of all of these bands, Green Day is by far the most adept at channeling working-class loving-family-dysfunction, and “Deadbeat Holiday” plays that to the hilt from the opening couplet of “Wake up, the house is on fire/and the cat’s caught in the dryer” to the nicely-observed aside about Christmas lights in the middle of August. It doesn’t hurt that it’s bar none one of their catchiest post-Insomniac tracks.
“Forget December” - Something Corporate / “The Lights & Buzz” - Jack’s Mannequin. I came to the work of Andrew McMahon a bit later than most, and my favorite songs of his are often the ones where he leans into his weirder fixations (that absolutely bizarre “hope you made it home in time to masturbate” line in “If U C Jordan” is part of what makes it my favorite Something Corporate song). That being said, unfortunately, neither of these songs are very good. “Forget December” is the more palatable of the two based on the injection of some much-needed energy in the chorus, while “The Lights & Buzz” is the absolute epitome of low-energy directionless plodding, but neither is much of a standout and both rely too heavily on rote observation to be particularly memorable.
Like A Gift from God or Whatever - Chris Farren. Rather than closing out on a disappointing two-hander from Andrew McMahon, I’d like to spotlight an underrated offering from the scene’s beloved uncle, Chris Farren. This is an entire Christmas-themed album, stocked to the brim with his characteristic wit and a boatload of appetite-whetting features (Sean Bonnette! Laura Stevenson! Jenny Owen Youngs! Jeff Rosenstock! Mae Whitman?), but surprisingly, my pick for the standout is probably the instrumental cut, “Emo Revival Christmas 2014.” It’s exactly what it says on the tin— a vaguely Christmas-tune-influenced twinklefest with some horn accompaniment from Matt Aggrella— that feels both timeless and extremely of-its-time.
That’s all for this newsletter. I’ll see y’all next week with a writeup on Motion City Soundtrack.
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