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3 New Holiday Songs Tap Into The Cheer — And Despair — Of The Season

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHOEBE BRIDGERS SONG, "CHRISTMAS SONG")

GROSS: Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, usually does his annual roundup of new Christmas music. But he wasn't surprised to find slimmer pickings during this pandemic year. Ken says that, like so much else right now, the musical moods have been pushed to extremes, both very sad and very cheery. His roundup consists of new music from Nick Lowe, Phoebe Bridgers and The Bird And The Bee. Here's Bridgers and her original composition, "Christmas Song."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS SONG")

PHOEBE BRIDGERS: (Singing) Coming back from the country for the good food and lousy beer. This winter's so dry and the dirt road so dusty. At the lightest fall of rain, the bacteria bloom. You don't have to be alone to be lonesome, it's easy to forget. The sadness comes crashing like a brick through the window. And it's Christmas, so no one can fix it.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: In this year like no other, the old musical phrase I'll be home for Christmas can seem less like warm assurance than cold despair. The holiday season has never felt more ambivalent, if not downright sad. And Phoebe Bridgers has written a soundtrack for these times. This past June, Bridgers put out a strong album titled "Punisher," which has earned her a Best New Artist Grammy nomination. Now she's written a beautiful new Christmas song that is, in fact, called "Christmas Song." And I'm greatly moved by the immense ache in her voice and the lovely hopelessness in her lyric.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS SONG")

BRIDGERS: (Singing) The desire for annihilation is as common as it is unkind. And it's hard to recognize the situation when you're desperately trying to have a good time. You don't have to be alone to be lonesome. It's so easy to forget. The sadness comes crashing like a brick through the window. And it's Christmas, so no one can fix it. Yeah, it's Christmas, so no one can fix it.

TUCKER: The Bird and the Bee are the Los Angeles pop duo of Greg Kurstin and Inara George. They've released an album called "Put Up the Lights" that mixes original material with standards. Their light, airy sound is one excellent way to approach holiday music making. And I really like The Bird and the Bee's smooth, jazzy new composition "You And I At Christmas Time."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU AND I AT CHRISTMAS TIME")

THE BIRD AND THE BEE: (Singing) You put up the lights just before Christmas night. And I count our blessings as our halos stargaze. We're in this together, through all kinds of weather. You and I. 'Tis the season of giving. All the loving and living for you and I.

TUCKER: Finally, it seems we can always depend on Nick Lowe. For a number of years now, Lowe has been releasing lovely covers of familiar Christmas songs. And this time around, he and his regular back-up band, Los Straitjackets, have done a splendid job on "Winter Wonderland."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WINTER WONDERLAND")

NICK LOWE: (Singing) Bells are ringin'. Are you listening? In the lane, snow is glistenin'. It's a beautiful sight, happy and bright. Walkin' in a winter wonderland. Gone away is the blue bird. In his place is a new bird, tweetin' a song as we stroll along, walkin' in a winter wonderland. In the meadow, we will build a snowman. And we'll dress him like Parson Brown. Should he ask, are you married, I'll say, no, man. But I'm tryin' to talk my baby 'round. Out in the snow, it's so thrillin', but your nose is gonna get a chillin'. We'll frolic and play the Eskimo way, walkin' in a winter wonderland.

TUCKER: Listening to Nick Lowe's croon, you can almost fool yourself into thinking that holiday season 2020 is indeed a wonderland. I think that this year, we're all somewhere between the despair of Phoebe Bridgers and the cheeriness of Nick Lowe and hoping for a brighter new year.

GROSS: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed Christmas music from Nick Lowe, The Bird and the Bee and Phoebe Bridgers. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the billionaires who became even richer during the pandemic and how some of them aren't even spending the money to protect their workers from COVID. My guest will be Chuck Collins, who runs the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies. He knows about wealth because he inherited wealth as the great-grandson of Oscar F. Mayer, as in Oscar Mayer wiener and the Oscar Mayer Food Corporation. But Collins gave away his inheritance at age 26 and started working against inequality. I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer this week is Adam Staniszewski.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICK LOWE AND LOS STRAITJACKETS SONG, "WINTER WONDERLAND")

GROSS: Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WINTER WONDERLAND")

LOWE: (Singing) Bells are ringin'. Are you listening? In the lane, snow is glistenin'. It's a beautiful sight, happy and bright. Walkin' in a winter wonderland. Gone away is the blue bird. In his place is a new bird, tweetin' a song as we stroll along, walkin' in a winter wonderland. In the meadow, we will build a snowman. And we'll dress him like Parson Brown. Should he ask, are you married, I'll say, no, man. But I'm tryin' to talk my baby 'round. Out in the snow, it's so thrillin', but your nose is gonna get a chillin'. We'll frolic and play the Eskimo way, walkin' in a winter wonderland.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this review, we incorrectly say “Christmas Song” was written by Phoebe Bridgers. In fact, it was written by Dan McCarthy.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 23, 2021 at 11:00 PM CST
In this review, we incorrectly say "Christmas Song" was written by Phoebe Bridgers. In fact, it was written by Dan McCarthy.