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Music

The definitive Thanksgiving playlist, with no apologies to Adam Sandler

  • These songs evoke the emotions, love and gluttony associated with Thanksgiving
  • Artists include The National, The Byrds, Sly and the Family Stone, Jan and Dean, and Green Day
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 November, 2018, 11:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2018, 10:09am

Thanksgiving is not a holiday known for its music – and that’s a shame.

Trapped between the novelty spook songs of Halloween and the incessant treacle that is modern Christmas music, Thanksgiving music – like the holiday itself – has somehow remained more pure: sincere, heady, and emotional.

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Like the music that celebrates it, Thanksgiving is uniquely American and celebrates those uniquely American values: irrational optimism, profound tragedy, longing, family, God, and reckless overindulgence.

Here are 11 songs that honour the deeply contradictory American soul, on this most American of days – with Adam Sandler’s The Thanksgiving Song mercifully nowhere to be found.

Thanksgiving Song – The National

A song from a cartoon covered by one of America’s most successful rock bands might seem an unlikely pick for a modern Thanksgiving classic, but this cover of The Thanksgiving Song from Bobs Burgers by The National is precisely that. Pass the cranberry sauce. Thank you for loving me. Kill the turkey.

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving – George Winston

For many Americans, this instrumental by George Winston, a cover of Vince Guaraldi’s music from the 1973 TV special A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, is the sound of Thanksgiving. This song is the reason that piano music still makes a whole generation of Americans’ mouths water.

I Am a Pilgrim – The Byrds

The pilgrim is the eternal symbol of Thanksgiving – just ask anyone who had to play one in their school’s Thanksgiving Day play. They are also an evergreen trope in American music (we’re looking at you Kris Kristofferson, The Pixies, The Shins and many others). Still, no song quite captures the weary searching and enduring faith of the pilgrim quite like this proto-alt-country classic from The Byrds.

Thank You – Sly and The Family Stone

Ultimately, Thanksgiving is about just that: giving thanks. No list of Thanksgiving music would be complete with this classic anthem to gratitude. Not a day goes by that we’re not thankful for Sly and The Family Stone.

Come On in my Kitchen – Robert Johnson

Yes, we know, this song is about sex. But being Robert Johnson it is not just about sex, it is about coming together in every way. This American blues standard is about longing, displacement, homesickness, and finding sanctuary in a troubled uncertain time. If that doesn’t speak to Thanksgiving in 2018, we’re not sure what does.

Let’s Turkey Trot – Jan & Dean

Thanksgiving is such an emotionally charged holiday that it can get a bit fraught, especially when spent with family. This surf anthem by Jan & Dean should help you remember to have fun, this is a celebration after all and no holiday couldn’t be improved with more dancing.

Macy’s Day Parade – Green Day

This acoustic ballad by Bay Area pseudo-punks Green Day almost didn’t make the cut. Is it cloying and interminable? Or profound and moving? Ultimately the same could be asked of the holiday itself. Also, no discussion of Thanksgiving could be complete without a mention of the Macy’s Day Parade, a corporate display elevated to the status of an almost religious observance, which is perhaps the most American thing about Thanksgiving of all.

Thank You for a Life – Kris Kristofferson

This classic paean to gratitude for a not-always-easy life never fails to bring tears to our eyes. Whether he’s singing to his wife or to Jesus doesn’t really matter. This year, play it for your mom for some guaranteed cathartic weeping into the mashed potatoes.

Be Healthy – Dead Prez

With so much liquor and food gathered in one place, the holidays are ripe for overindulgence. Look to this ode to healthy living from New York City hip-hop duo Dead Prez before making choices that you might regret. Or at least bob your head to it while tucking into that second pie.

My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying – Buffy Sainte-Marie

Not to mince words, but what Thanksgiving is really celebrating is the first contact between two cultures that would ultimately lead to catastrophe, and one of the largest and most brutal genocides ever committed. This poignant song from Cree singer-songwriter and activist Buffy Sainte-Marie might make you lose your appetite, but it is honest, essential listening.

Harvest Moon – Neil Young

While not overtly a Thanksgiving song, no song better captures the feeling of the season than this classic from Neil Young. Decay and renewal, abundance and desolation, love and loss, this love song – simple and crisp as a cold apple – somehow contains multitudes. We’re not crying – you’re crying.