A Christmas song as Song Of The Year? Well, why the heck not? In my world, that means it's in heavy rotation for a solid month and likely gets more listens than any other song I hear that year.
And why not a Christmas song? A great Christmas song likely has staying power in another way--in years to come, we will hear other (lesser) versions by other (lesser) artists who figure out what a good song it is when they are searching for fresh material for their Christmas cash-in CD. Cover Sufjan and you've got instant cred "with the young people."
And why not a Christmas song? For such a bloated genre, there have been precious few new compositions that have added anything to the canon. There have been precious few new compositions. Few compositions have been precious. So the accomplishment of writing a "keeper" in the Year of Our Lord 2012 is really something.
"Christmas In The Room"? It's a stunner. Built around a simple, repetitive, but nifty indie guitar riff that hooks the listener immediately and then becomes the anchor (you get the feeling Stevens comes up with this kind of thing in his sleep), the song uses that negating approach, you know, telling you all of the things that something isn't. In this case, that something is a Christmas experience between two people:
No travel plans, no shopping malls
No candy canes or Santa Claus
For as the day of rest draws near
It's just the two of us this year
No silver bells or mistletoe
We'll kiss and watch our TV shows
No traffic jams, no ice and storm
Far in the house the fire is warm
No Christmas tree, no great parade
It's just an ordinary day
No parties planned, no place to go
It's just the two of us alone
And in the house we see a light
That comes from what we feel inside
Stevens strips away all of the adornments of Christmas in a way that lets us know that none of those things matter. He does it in a most tender and loving way. Why the couple hasn't gone in for even a Christmas tree or a decoration in the house is not explained. It doesn't even seem to matter. It isn't necessary. After all, it's "just an ordinary day" that Stevens is writing about.
But is this a song about Christmas? Maybe not. Or not exclusively. With the simple trick of making Christmas a simile, an abstraction, he makes his point more universal:
I'll come to you, I'll sing to you
Like it's Christmas in the room
I'll dance with you, I'll laugh with you
Until it's Christmas in the room
Until it's Christmas in the room
The song of the year is a love song, a love so encompassing and powerful that it can create the complex joys of one of each year's greatest days (if not the greatest) just from two people being together, singing, dancing, loving.
All of that might not make my case, though, without the music, instrumentation, production. I heard an earlier version of this song last year, built around piano chords, with the same lyrics and melody, but in a different arrangement, and it came off as not bad, but kind of meandering. The vocals aren't as breathy, there are unnecessary Sufjan-esque instrumental breaks between verses, and, most of all, that lightly-gizmoed acoustic guitar isn't there. Add the guitar and you hear in the vocals how Stevens believes what he's singing.
So this year's best song was a song last year, apparently, but it wasn't this song. The rewrite has taken most of the same basic pieces and compressed them into a tight, sharp focus. It will likely be a "song of the year" for me for many years, at least during the month of December.
You can get "Christmas In The Room" for free as part of Paste Magazine's Holiday Sampler here.