Artist: Joni Mitchell
Album: Blue (1971)
There’s usually a little melancholia in every Christmas music rotation, and certainly enough of these downcast songs qualify as classics –whether it’s Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne”, your quintessential, heartsick ode to ‘the one that got away’, or Wham!’s whiny, 1984 smacking synth-ballad, “Last Christmas”. The best Christmas grump jams aren’t always related to love-loss, either; sometimes they’re just about shunning the holiday cheer–Joni Mitchell takes both approaches on her wintry, withdrawn single off the 1971 EP Blue, “River”.
“It’s comin’ on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees/ They’re putting up reindeer, And singing songs of joy and peace…oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on…”, Joni reveals over a muted, “Jingle Bells”-entwined piano instrumental. Seeking isolation from the flashy decor and holiday hype, she eventually reveals the relationship that left her this way. Though she holds responsibility for the turnout (“I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad/ Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I ever had”), decorations and Christmas anticipation only worsen the blow.
Since the late ’60s, Joni’s mastered the folky ballad, and “River”s no exception. Her tendency for pensive thought leaks through the Christmas song-disguised lament, while a likely over-worn holiday classic repeats–a sorrowfully ironic contrast to Joni’s words.