Why Okkervil River’s “Listening to Otis Redding at Home During Christmas” Might be the Actual Best Christmas Song

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The odds of calling a Christmas song this relatively new – the album that contains it was released in 2002 – my all time favorite, let alone the one I will spend this essay arguing is actually the best Christmas song seem pretty much impossible on paper. After all, few things connect so many of us to warm, and fuzzy childhood memories than certain Christmas songs. Yet, over the years this one has bested all of my childhood favorite carols, The Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “Christmastime is Here,” Wham’s “Last Christmas,” Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s “Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth,” and Joni Mitchell’s “River,” to name but a few classics that are still pretty high up there. I also still consider Christmas to be my favorite holiday and that time from the week of Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day (the Holiday Season if you will) to be my favorite time of the year. So how is it that I’ve come to consider this spare, indie folk song that’s more than kind of a bummer when you get right down to it as the ultimate Christmas song?

We can start with the subtle structural nod that it makes to the actual Otis Redding song, “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” that also lends this song its lyrical apex. It’s a fine example of what Okkervil River’s front man Will Sheff can do when given permission to “communicate with another artist over generations” in his beloved folk music tradition.” This song is built by lovingly taking apart Redding’s track, which is not a Christmas song, but clearly tied to Christmas visits back home in the narrator’s memory. Repurposing that song’s major titular refrain, this guy tells a story that’s heartbreaking in a completely different way, and in this case so perfectly captures the thoughts, feelings, memories, and regrets that can flood your mind when you’re “home” for Christmas. Or, as it’s more eloquently expressed in the song; “to a room that’s not mine, but it’s just like I left it before.”

It’s funny how the Redding song is actually titled “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” but it’s kind of vague as to what those dreams might entail in his relatively straightforward “woman done me wrong” narrative. It’s still brilliantly evocative, of course, because it’s Otis Redding, who imbues every note with the soul of the world. But somehow the specificity of the story in the Okkervil River song makes that line feel deeply relatable. The thought of your own adult dreams and pursuits clashing against your childhood ones will become amplified due to the song’s perfectly captured feeling of how foreign your childhood home feels when you don’t live there anymore. Even if so many comforts still abound.

There are no false steps in this song; not a word, instrument, breath or pause that feels unnecessary or out of place. In fact, one of the most powerful moments comes in the just a little too long, but ultimately just right instrumental break between the line, “your dad says your living in Georgia, since last September…” and the “Yeah? Well, I’ve got dreams to remember” that follows. His story is your story, his dreams are your dreams. They are because they’re not. His wanting of a quiet small town life with a high school sweetheart vs. his resolve to remember what he’s actually trying to do with his life probably isn’t exactly the same as your own “road not taken vs. a re-commitment to the life you chose” story, but just try to listen to this song without whatever your versions of those things are flashing through your mind. Try making it through a holiday season on any given year without that strange swirl of love, comfort, reflection, disappointment, what ifs, and determined resolve to keep remembering (and hopefully further realizing) those dreams for at least one more year. Sorry Linus (and Jesus), but that’s really what Christmas is all about.