Here it is, the 2015 version of Indi’s alternative playlist. Last year I didn’t do the blurbs for each song, but this year by popular demand I’ve brought them back. Because this makes the list rather large, I’ve put everything below the break.
If this is your first time reading my annual holiday playlist, I’d suggest you read the announcement/solicitation posted last month. It explains the purpose behind the list, and the criteria for choosing the songs.
But for a very brief explanation: I wanted to offer Canadian nonbelievers a list of songs they can listen to during the holiday season that are non-religious, and different from the usual fare that floods the airwaves and shopping malls. Naturally, as with any list of “songs worth listening to”, the choices are somewhat subjective, but I tried to get a representative sample from across the musical map (obviously while avoiding stuff that sounds like like all the “usual” holiday songs).
This year, as with last year, I aimed for 50 songs. But when all was said and done, there were several awesome candidates just below the cut. I decided to bite the bullet and let the list spill over a little.
If you have any songs in mind that you think should be on the list, but aren’t, feel free to leave suggestions in the comments. They might make the cut next next year.
GWAR is a heavy metal band cut from the cloth same as acts like Alice Cooper, KISS, and Marilyn Manson, though arguably far more extreme than any of them. It’s actually less of a band in and of itself than merely the most well-known musical aspect of a collective of artists (including not only musicians, but also film-makers) known as Slave Pit Inc.. They perform in grotesque monster costumes, and their stage shows include graphically eviscerating caricatures of celebrities and political figures, and hosing gallons of fake blood and slime onto the audience. Despite these antics, or, in some cases, because of them, the band did achieve some mainstream success in the 1990s – though this was mostly because of the attention brought on them by politicians stirring up moral panic. They did get a Grammy nomination for the movie Phallus in Wonderland, which is vaguely based on the battles between said moral crusaders and the band.
This song is hard to date. It was released in 2009 (though may have been available for some time before as a fan club exclusive), but it has the sound of their mid-1990s period, when they temporarily experimented before finally returning to their heavier thrash metal roots. As you can guess from the title (not to mention GWAR’s reputation) that this isn’t a particuarly politically correct holiday song, but it’s nevertheless quite fun to listen to.
Mary Gauthier’s life story reads like a Dickensian melodrama. She was found as a baby abandoned at a Catholic hospital in New Orleans, and eventually adopted by a right-wing, fundamentalist Catholic couple. They didn’t take it well when their 12 year-old adopted daughter came out as gay. She stole her adopted parents’ car and ran away at 15, and spent the next several years couch surfing in the homes of drag queens she met at a local gay bar. Soon she was drinking heavily and into drugs, ending up in rehab but running away with a stripper named “Evangeline”, and eventually ending up in jail at 17. Then she enrolled in university in Louisiana as a philosophy major… only to drop out and go to culinary school and open a Cajun restaurant. After ten years, she had her partners buy her out, and became a full time musician. Since then, she has achieved widespread recognition for her powerful, raw songwriting, even getting a nod from Bob Dylan himself.
I could go on about Gauthier’s story, but let’s turn to the song itself. The “paradise” in the title is obviously meant sarcastically, but the lyrics describe a pair of very poor people finding a way to make a happy Christmas for themselves, despite having next to nothing. It’s a marvellously spun vignette, where the narrator casually describes being homeless, broke, and having to beg and steal in pleasant, almost cheerful terms, simply by refusing to say anything negative and focusing on the positive.
Sufjan Stevens is an American songwriter whose work strays all over the genre map. He found some acclaim with 2005’s Illinois (the second album after Michigan in his “50 States Project”, where he promised to release an album for each US state; and also the last, after he admitted that claims about the project were merely a publicity stunt). Though it’s not true in this case, his songs often include explicitly Christian allusions and messages, but he doggedly insists that he is not a Christian artist – likely because that would be commercial suicide (although it’s the wrong holiday, I am reminded of Peter’s insistence he wasn’t a disciple in the crucifixion story).
The first year I made this list, I wanted a song with some swing to it to kick it off – one that wasn’t too challenging musically or thematically but still off the beaten track – and this track seemed ideal. It’s a nice, off-beat song with a complex structure, and lyrics that aren’t too challenging – just a back and forth between some guy and Santa Claus. Mostly, I find the title amusing.
The California punk scene produced an astounding number of headlining bands over two periods of a few years, and The Vandals have the rare distinction of being associated with both of those periods. They first broke out alongside Bad Religion, Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, and Social Distortion in the early 1980s, standing out from the crowd by being the clowns of the group rather than tackling the same serious social issues the others focused on. They started to fade away in the late 1980s after some lineup changes, but reemerged in the 1990s along with an entirely new wave of Cali punk bands that included Blink-182, Green Day, and The Offspring.
This song comes from an honest-to-goodness Christmas album that they made in that second period (albeit one that comes chock full of their trademark humour). The verses tell the story of a brawl between a possibly-Muslim/possibly-Sikh punk-rocker-wannabe (“Oi” is a subgenre of punk, usually associated with British racists, nationalists, and football hooligans – it’s also an interjection that can mean either “listen up!” or “what the fuck!?”) and a racist thug that attacks him because… well, apparently just because. It doesn’t go well for the thug, who gets his ass kicked and is left for dead by his friends. Finding the spirit of Christmas or something, the punk saves the thug and the pair escape from the cops, then head to the bar to drink together. Happy ending, I guess.
When I first listed this song in 2013, I commented mainly on the hilariousness of the lyrics. Some people walked away unsure if “Red Water” was actually a serious representative sample of doom metal that I just found funny, rather than one actually intended to be tongue-in-cheek. Well, it comes off Type O Negative’s October Rust album, the first track of which is called “Bad Ground”… and is actually 40 seconds of speaker buzz (the sound a speaker makes when the speaker cable has a bad ground, natch). A previous album was called Origin of the Feces, and the cover featured a closeup on front man Peter Steele’s anus. Their greatest hits album – called The Least Worst Of – opens with “The Misinterpretation of Silence and Its Disastrous Consequences”… which is just 40 seconds of silence and is actually one of the two best-known tracks from their first album (yes, silence is literally is one of their greatest hits). Yeah, this is not a band that is adverse to horseplay.
This has to be the most depressing Christmas song ever written. It is relentlessly morose – both lyrically, with lines like,
the table’s been set for but seven… just last year I dined with eleven, and musically, even turning “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” into a funeral dirge. That said, with lines like
the stockings are hung / but who cares? / preserved for those no longer here…, it’s still loads of fun to sing along to. In fact, I have a friend who – whenever something goes horribly awry – likes to break out wailing, “woe, mistletoe!”
From the FLips comes this off-beat Christmas song about a guy who decides that he’s going to let the zoo animals out of their cages for Christmas, only to be foiled when the animals say, “thanks but no thanks, man”, they’d rather free themselves, though they appreciate his concern.
Almost unbelievable but true, The Flaming Lips are the official rock band of the state of Oklahoma. This, despite antics like releasing a single on a flash drive encased in a blob of bubble-gum flavoured gummy-bear material shaped like a foetus. (A previous release was even more elaborate, encased in a gummy brain which in turn was encased in a gummy skull that was over three kilograms in total.) They are particularly famous for their live shows, and in fact were first signed to a major record deal after a record company executive observed them damn-near burning down the legion hall they were performing in with their pyrotechnics.
King Diamond is the stage name of Danish metal pioneer Kim Bendix Petersen, who fronted one of the first black metal bands, Mercyful Fate. It wasn’t the music of Mercyful Fate that set the tone for future acts, but rather their showy embracing of Satanism and the occult. In fact, King Diamond was one of the first metal artists to use corpse paint. When Mercyful Fate split up in 1985, King Diamond formed a new band from (some of) the members, naming it after himself.
This song, believe it or not, was the very first release by the band King Diamond, released 25 December 1985. (Their first album would follow in mid-Februrary 1986.) It remains one of their most well-known songs. The lyrics frankly make no damn sense, with random shout outs to cartoon characters, and never any explanation for why there are “no presents” (other than vague comments about Santa needing a hand). But the real fun of the song is the absolutely demonic tone set by King Diamond’s shrieking falsetto vocals and maniacal laughs. It doesn’t matter that it really means nothing; your conservative Christian relatives are still going to think you’re possessed by demons when you sing it. Which, really, is reason enough alone to bust it out.
Way back in 1975, Chris de Burgh had just signed his first record deal, but was still broke and crashing at a friend’s. There he read Erich von Däniken’s “classic” work The Chariots of the Gods?, which hypothesized that aliens built the Giza pyramids and influenced most of the world’s major religions, later inspiring Stargate. Never one to pass up a balmy idea, de Burgh hypothesized: What if the star of Bethlehem were an alien spacecraft? What if Christianity itself was simply a bastardized message of peace left behind by alien travellers? The thoroughly silly notion became this song, wherein Chris de Burgh earnestly tells a completely loopy version of the Christmas story involving glowing aliens, questionable science (just like Han Solo, de Burgh seems to think light-years is a measure of time), and an eschatological finale, all over delightfully spacey synthesizers and a backing choir. It’s simply glorious.
The song comes by its loopiness genuinely; I almost don’t want to break the spell for fans of “Lady in Red”, but de Burgh is a well-known kook. He started his musical career singing in a castle – an actual castle in Ireland – that his family owned. He’s a self-confessed Christian but SBNR, believes in the power of prayer as medicine, and claims to have actually healed by the laying on of his own hands.
#49. ? “Mistletoe” – Justin Bieber
2015 has been a good year for the Beib. Travel back with me to 2011, when Justin Bieber was still a squeaky-clean, fresh talent. His debut album had topped the Billboard charts, making him the youngest artist to accomplish that since Stevie Wonder in 1963. Despite his age, he was a genuine cultural phenomenon – it’s easy to forget now, in light of all that’s happened since, just how damn talented he is. At the time, in 2011, his voice was beginning to crack, and this song was one of the first singles to feature the change. It’s a somewhat silly pop ballad, but Bieber tackles it masterfully, though perhaps a little too straight-faced given the tongue-in-cheek nature of the song.
A year or two later Bieber would flame out spectacularly, in perhaps the most horrifying public career implosion of the 2010s besides Shia LaBeouf’s. It’s hard to say what was to blame for it. It could have been the ridiculous “swagger coach” Usher assigned to him, to try to teach a white suburban bumpkin how to be hip-hop cool. On the other hand, his mother is Christian nutcase, and Bieber seemed to have inherited that. Nevertheless, the Bieb seems to have bounced back, though time will tell if this will last.
The British Invasion of the 1960s is basically a list of bands that came across the pond and swamped the airwaves with hits, but there’s one black sheep in the mix. The Kinks are usually considered one of the most important acts of the British Invasion, but they never enjoyed the same success in the US as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Troggs, or The Yardbirds. Turns out one of the main reasons for that is that they were actually banned from touring in the US. The exact reason why has never been made public, but according to legend it was because their live shows were too rowdy.
This tune is about a mall Santa getting mugged by a bunch of kids, but all is not what it seems. In fact, the mugger-kids make a very cogent point (while beating shit out of the guy). They say that toys are useless to them, and tell the faux Santa to give them to the rich kids instead… what they want is something they can actually use: money. One of the kids even asks for a job for his father for Christmas. It’s a very different take on the whole Christmas gift fairy idea. Nice chorus that’s easy to sing along to, too.
AC/DC is an icon of rock and roll, but they haven’t had an easy job of it. Several times over their 40+ year career it looked like their time was up, but each time they can roaring back. They formed in 1973, but had a bit of a rough start before finally releasing their first album, High Voltage, in 1975. They hit big right away, but even then things didn’t exactly go smoothly for them. Lead singer and co-songwriter Bon Scott died after heavy drinking in 1980 (famously by choking on his own vomit), and for a while there was talk of disbanding. Instead, the band recorded Back in Black as a tribute to Scott… which became one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. But it wasn’t long after that that things went downhill once again, after drummer Phil Rudd was fired in 1983 for getting into a fistfight with Malcom Young.
This song is off of 1990’s The Razor’s Edge, which spawned hits like “Thunderstruck” and “Moneytalks” and triggered yet another comeback. It’s not one of the better songs on the album, but it’s classic AC/DC, tossing up a barrage of holiday themed sexual references (
I can hear you coming down my smokestack) that would impress even Lady Gaga. The revival set off by the album lasted all the way to 2014, but now with Malcom Young retiring and Phil Rudd facing charges for hiring a hitman, it doesn’t seem likely that AC/DC has any more comebacks up their sleeves.
In the late 1990s, SPEED was a phenomenon in Japan – indeed, all of Asia. They were a creation manufactured by the “Queen of J-Pop” Namie Amuro – Hiroko Shumabukuro (who goes by “Hiro”) was 11 at the time. While other girl bands emerging at the time tended to go for a very sexualized, feminine look, Speed took their influence from Western hip-hop acts like TLC. Their debut single “Body & Soul” hit the charts hard and clung to them for over seven months. They would go on to become the most successful all-women act in Japanese history, creating records and feats that still haven’t been broken, but here’s the crazy part… they did it all in three years. Their debut album was released May 1996, and they disbanded in October 1999 – to go to school. (They have since reformed, but have found themselves competing against a whole new crop of Korean imports like 4Minute and their own imitators, and haven’t quite had the same success.)
“White Love” comes from their second album, Rise, and it sold a whopping 1.845 million copies (for perspective, the best selling single of all time in Japan has a little over 4.5 million, but the #10 has only around 2.5 million). It was a different, more mature and less dance-pop, sound for the group. If you don’t understand Japanese, it works as a catchy pop song with a danceable beat. If you do understand Japanese, the lyrics are beautiful, evoking images like a forlorn lover staring out the window at the stars while thinking of their partner, only to have the view fogged up by their breath on the windowpane, causing them to be anxious about the clarity of their relationship despite the distance and time apart. I got some flak last year for using the original version, rather than the actual Christmas-themed 1998 re-release version, so I’ve changed the link this year. The Christmas version is much more densely produced; your mileage may vary as to which is better.
George Winston’s piano interpretation of “The Holly and the Ivy” is the definitive instrumental version of the song. If you hear a piano version of the song on the radio, odds are it’s Winston’s. It comes from his 1984 winter-themed (though, really, Christmas-themed) album December, which is one of the best Christmas instrumental albums of all time. If you’re looking for nice, low-key background music for your seasonal-themed dinner or party, I highly recommend it.
But for my money, an even more interesting piece on the album than “The Holly and the Ivy” is his haunting take on the “Carol of the Bells” – which was originally a Ukrainian pagan chant named “Shchedryk” that celebrate the coming of a new year before it was co-opted by Christians and turned into a hymn. Winston’s interpretation is more evocative of falling snow on a winter’s night, using minor harmonies and bright falling trills to create a sense of tension, mystery, and wonder.
It would be a criminal understatement to call Bill Monroe merely a bluegrass legend – the genre is literally named after the man (he was usually billed as “Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys”). Originally the oldest song on the list was 1967’s “Song for a Winter’s Night”, but this year Monroe takes the prize by a landslide: this song is from 1945. This song actually predates the period where Monroe crafted the sound we now know as bluegrass style, but you can already hear some elements of what was to come.
The song itself is up tempo and fun. The lyrics suggest a man reminiscing on a particular incident that occurred in his youth, where the girl he had gone to visit one night (presumably he was a-courtin’ her) had stepped out for a while. Rather than wait, he follows her footprints in the snow to find her. The song is too chaste to say what happens when he found her, but it must have been pretty memorable to be singing about years later even after her death.
Tom Waits is an icon of American music. He is doggedly non-commercial, and has always turned his back on musical trends to pursue his own, distinct style, which hearkens back to the sounds of pre-rock-and-roll days, incorporating elements of blues, jazz, and folk. He is most famous for his voice, which reminds of the gravelly, bourbon-soaked drawls of some of the early jazz greats.
Waits’ lyrics often tell stories of picaresque and seedy characters. “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” is pretty much what it says on the tin: a Christmas card being narrated by a washed-up hooker, to some past, beloved john. There are some hauntingly soulful images, like the hooker wishing to buy a used-car lot, not to sell the cars, but just for the freedom to drive whichever one matches her mood. But the twist ending is gorgeous and sad: After describing what is hardly the most dreamy life to the recipient of the card, she fesses up that even that was all just a fantasy… a lie; the truth is even sadder still. Despite all this, she ends on a note of wistful, bittersweet hope.
The Wombats are an indie band made up of three musicians from Liverpool who were actually trained by Paul McCartney. They were originally supposed to be an unfunny joke, going on stage wearing jesters’ hats and acting nuts – the kinds of antics you’d expect from a band that wanted to cover up their lack of musical talent. Then something happened: the EPs they released started getting big attention. Songwriter Matt Murphy tried his hand at writing some more mature songs, and they found themselves offered a record deal. Next thing they knew, their first album almost breaks the UK top ten (hitting #11) and goes platinum. You won’t find them wearing jester hats anymore, though their live shows still do include stand-up breaks and random facts.
This song has some very clever lyrics over its raucous guitars, describing a Christmas that’s less than perfect. There are money problems –
Christmas is here. / It’s about not extending to the overdraft / to scrape out what is left / at the end of the year. – the same old movies being rerun on TV, nasty snow, a bit of drinking, and family squabbles (
The red wine plummets down, / and we should all be in our beds. / But it’s right wing versus left / until the wings fall off our heads.”). Norman Rockwell-esque it ain’t, but it’s all the more relatable for it.
It might come as a surprise to most Canadians that Sarah McLachlin didn’t release a Christmas song until 2006 – almost 20 years into her career. That year she released the album Wintersong, of which this is the title track, which went on to become the biggest Christmas album of the year in both Canada and the US. Unfortunately for our purposes, all the songs on that album (and her subsequent Christmas singles) are religious carols, with the exception of a decent cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River” that became the lead single off the album, and this song, which was never even released as a single.
“Wintersong” has a beautiful, slow, melancholy melody, covered by McLachlin’s dreamy vocals. However, there’s not much to it, and the lyrics aren’t particularly creative either. It’s often said that artists sleepwalk through Christmas albums and singles, and that certainly seems to be true here. On the other hand, when an artist of McLachlin’s talent sleepwalks, the results are still a length ahead of what many other artists can do on their best days. The lyrics seem to be about someone who has passed, with McLachlin reflecting on the memories as she looks over the winter scene.
I honestly have very little info about the band or the song. It was apparently written by songwriter Peter Lawlor, commissioned by Vodaphone for a commercial in 2005. The band apparently had a bunch of song demos up on a website with a promise of an album – Six Days in Late Winter –
in the New Year (which would have been 2006). I see no sign of that album, and the website vanished in 2008.
As you might expect from a song written for an ad, it’s light and poppy, but catchy nonetheless. There is nothing to the lyrics, and the tune isn’t really unique or challenging. It should be perfect radio fodder, but for some reason, this song remains obscure. Pity, it’s not bad at all. Interestingly, the opening and closing lines are sung by Lawlor’s 11 year-old daughter Cressida, which would make her the youngest featured vocalist on the entire list – younger even than SPEED’s Hiro.
If you don’t believe me when I say the Pet Shop Boys are the most successful UK musical duo ever, here’s a fun fact that might help. David Tennant, who played the Tenth Doctor on Doctor Who was not born with that name. He was born David McDonald. He named himself – later legally changing his name – after Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys.
This song was originally a fan club exclusive released in 1997. It wallowed in obscurity, passed around on bootlegs by hardcore fans for over a decade. It was finally rerecorded and properly released in 2009 on their Christmas EP. As with many of the songs on this list, it gives a less rosy, more realistic view of what the holidays are like for many.
Even death metal fans get into the holiday spirit! And… Vikings? Amon Amarth takes its name from Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings, as rendered in the fictional language of the elves. They’re a Swedish death metal band famous for using Viking themes in their lyrics and imagery, with album titles like With Oden on Our Side and the song “Twilight of the Thunder God” describing the final battle between Thor and the world-serpent Jörmungandr at Ragnarök. This song fits with the theme, but plays with it in a hilariously clever way.
The song is sung by a band of self-proclaimed Vikings, who remark on their disdain for Christianity and its traditions… then admit that they nevertheless enjoy the holiday. The lyrics are deliriously funny:
Most of the year, we are but heathens, / sailing, fighting, plundering, and crushing skulls. / We confess to fight for Odin; we pretend to be his horde. / But when the year draws to an end things get kind of bizarre. At which point, the Viking skull-crushers start singing about how sentimental they get over their childhood holiday traditions such as presents and gingerbread (with daffy imagery like
Five bearded vikings reenact the Nativity scene.), with the chorus ending:
Nobody can escape the magic of Christmas. (This same band also did an insanely death metal take on, of all things, “Jingle Bells”.) Definitely a tune you’ll want to bring out while celebrating the holidays at the grandparents’.
This cut is attributed to either Savatage or Trans-Siberian Orchestra – it was written for Savatage, but first released by TSO (which, really, is more or less all of Savatage anyway). It is sometimes mislabelled “Carol of the Bells”, because it uses that song’s main motif heavily, but is actually a thundering prog-rock original that also gets influences from “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”.
It was inspired by the story of Vedran Smailović. Smailović was the lead cellist of the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra at the time of the Bosnian War. After a mortar killed dozens of people lined up for bread on the 27th of May, 1992, he despaired at the state Sarajevo had fallen into. As an act of protest, or an act of hope, he began going to ruined buildings – dressed in the same formal wear he would perform in – and playing his cello… right out in the open, in plain sight, where anyone could listen for free, while the bombs and bullets flew around him. He continued until December 1993, when he finally fled the country. “Carol of the Bells” was one of the signature pieces he played, and it inspired this piece (it also inspired a piece by John McCutcheon, incidentally).
Bo’ Selecta! was a British comedy show that is… hard to explain. The main character is a completely insane celebrity-obsessed stalker who keeps his dead mother in a closet. There are a number of skits featuring impersonated celebrities – impersonated (badly) by show creator Leigh Francis wearing horribly deformed rubber masks only vaguely resembling the celebrities, and for some reason wearing thick glasses. In the video below, that character wearing the Santa hat on the CD cover pictured is supposed to be Craig David (who was reportedly not pleased with the way he was portrayed – the series is actually named after the 1999 Artful Dodger single “Re-Rewind (The Crowd Say Bo Selecta)” that features Craig David). There is also a perverse bear puppet with an enormous pop-up phallus.
That first verse is supposed be sung by Craig David, the second by Michael Jackson (and the voice at the end talking about “the magic” is David Blaine) – impersonated by Francis, of course. Other “celebrities” and characters from the show chip in from time to time. The lyrics largely refer to jokes from the series – Craig David’s peregrine falcon, and Michael Jackson’s pet Bubbles not actually being a monkey (in the series, she is a hot blonde woman that lives with “Jackson”). All that aside, the song is an awesomely catchy and fun pop song, with a chorus that’s hard not to sing along with. Without knowing the references, the lyrics are delightfully absurd, all delivered in a silly argot, and the song works as a funny spoof of any of the countless Christmas songs about being excited about the holiday… with the amusing catch that the singer in this song is so excited he can’t control his bladder.
Most people know that the band Spın̈al Tap is a fictional band created for Rob Reiner’s classic 1984 comedy mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap. That wasn’t always true – when the movie was first released, it was such a perfect parody that many moviegoers were fooled into believing the band was real. Eventually, art became life. The actors who played the band have actually gotten together and played real shows – and released real singles and albums – in their Spın̈al Tap personas. In fact, it can be difficult to figure out which songs and albums (and drummers) are real and which are fictitious.
This song is actually the first real single they released after the film, and – unsurprisingly – the song is a spot-on parody of metal (and Spın̈al Tap’s alleged shamelessness at being willing to try to cash in on any trend), with some howlers in the lyrics:
There’s a demon in my belly and a gremlin in my brain. / There’s someone up the chimney hole, and Satan is his name. Throw up the horns and bust this sucker out at a family gathering – that’s my idea of a Christmas party.
This song should have been utter crap, tossed out by writer Chris Butler just to satisfy the demands of the record company (literally written partly in the cab ride to the studio to record it), and slapped together with whatever musical licks he happened to have lying around. And it might have been crap, even with it’s fun, bouncy beat, and left utterly forgotten in the dustbin of musical history. That might have been, were it not for vocalist Patty Donahue.
Patty Donahue was not so much a singer as she was a vocal actress. She could put on a persona perfect for a song, and play it out in a vocal performance with astonishing verisimilitude. In the band’s first hit “I Know What Boys Like”, she plays a flirty, narcissistic, manipulative jerk… but she does it beautifully, with wry humour and a sly, knowing wink-and-nod with the listener – which adds brilliant metahumour to the song, because it’s almost as if she is telling them about how she toys with “boys”… while toying with the listener at the same time. In this song, she plays a cool, hip yuppie – I’ve heard it aptly described as “your too-cool-for-school older sister”. She’s even above singing (actually, they were trying to reference rapping, which was just beginning to become a thing at the time – this is also referenced as a pun in the song title). Just as a real cool big sister would, she tells the story with a kind of wry detachment, twenty-something drama, and loads of dry humour. But she brings it all together in the uplifting finale in a beautifully complex and layered way, where you can believe that even as she mocks the idea of a Christmas miracle, she might just believe in it anyway… just a little, maybe.
“A Hazy Shade of Winter” was originally written and recorded by Simon & Garfunkel in 1966, but garnered little attention. In the early 1980s, The Bangles covered it often during their early live shows, before they developed their own original repertoire. In 1987 they were asked for a song for the soundtrack to the film Less Than Zero. By that point, the band was falling apart (they would break up a few months later), so rather than go through the headache of crafting a new original, they opted to simply record this song they already knew well. The result became the definitive interpretation, far outstripping the original.
The original song is a somewhat navel-gazing thought piece as a man looks back on the seasons of his life and reminisces about what else he might have accomplished, if he’d taken the plunge and published the songs he’d written. The Bangles strip away all the pretension and turn the whole thing on its head. Partly because they were pressured to drop lyrics alluding to alcoholic beverages, the more melancholic lyrics get stripped, and the result, sung in a 4-part harmony over a driving rock beat, becomes a defiant ode to pushing on even after failure.
This song was never intended to be a Christmas song. It was intended to be an anti-war protest song, but the mention of wanting to be home by Christmas – as well as the brass band interludes and jingle bells – has turned this song into a holiday classic. The lyrics are deceptively simple, apparently the plea of a World War Ⅰ soldier to stop the fighting so he can go home, but there are other references that make the actual time period impossible to determine. In fact, according to Lewie himself, the soldier is meant to be timeless – a representation of the soldiers fighting all wars across time.
Jona Lewie is mostly known for offbeat novelty songs like “You’ll Always Find Me in the Kitchen at Parties” and “Seaside Shuffle” (released under the band name “Terry Dactyl and the Dinosaurs”). He’s also found some success in other countries, but is essentially unheard of in Canada.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) could either be a Christmas movie, or a very rare example of a Halloween holiday movie. In the film, each holiday has its own “town”, and the denizens of Halloween Town stumble on Christmas Town, and are awed by it and its leader Santa Claus… whom they interpret as “Sandy Claws” and assume must be a truly horrifying monster. It’s a classic Tim Burton film, naturally scored by his favourite collaborator Danny Elfman. In one scene, the minions Lock, Shock, and Barrel (one of whom is voiced by Elfman) have been ordered to “kidnap the Sandy Claws”, and they sing a gleefully demented song discussing various horrible ways to accomplish this, and celebrating their status as minions. Black humour abounds – for example, at one point one of the minions suggests blowing Santa up, an idea which another minions describes as “stupid”… but only because if the blow him to bits they run the risk of losing some of the bits.
The version of that song I’ve chosen to highlight is from the 15th anniversary cover/tribute album Nightmare Revisited (2008), which has the film’s songs covered by various contemporary bands. This cover is by nu-metal band KoЯn, who turn the quirky and cute little ditty into something positively sinister and psychotic. In particular, because lead singer Jonathan Davis is singing – alone – what was originally an argument between three characters, it gives the impression of a deranged lunatic arguing with the voices in his head.
Technically, the “snow” in this song is cocaine – it’s a song about overcoming cocaine addiction (among other addictions) and starting over. Drug addiction famously plagued the Red Hot Chili Peppers for years – particularly founders Anthony Kiedis and Flea, but also John Frusciante, the replacement for founding guitarist Hillel Slovak, who had died of a heroin overdose. Despite that, the symbolism of a blanket of snow symbolizing a chance for a fresh start with a clean slate works beautifully as a winter/holiday/new year theme.
This song came off of their multi-Grammy winning Stadium Arcadium album, the third of a straight hat trick of #1 singles on the Alternative chart from that album, setting a record of eleven #1 hits on that chart for a single act. Linkin Park matched the feat seven years later in 2014 (with Foo Fighters are nipping at their heels with ten), but by that time the Peppers had already extended it to twelve with 2011’s “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie”. They recorded their 11th album this year, but the release has been delayed until next year, so don’t be surprised to see that record grow even further in 2016.
#29. ? “23 décembre” – Beau dommage
This song has been a contender for this list from the first iteration. The thing that’s kept it off the list until now is that I don’t want to add songs that get a lot of airplay, and I’ve always suspected (though I’m not sure), that this gets a ton of airplay in francophone regions. This year, though, I’ve changed my mind: Even if it does get overplayed in French-speaking areas, the readership of this blog is primarily English-speaking, and the song is almost never heard there.
The song is by legendary Québec folk rockers Beau Dommage, off their 1974 self-title debut. I confess that there’s quite a bit of the song that goes over my head, mostly because many of the references refer to early 1970s Québec culture. (I’ve heard that “Dupuis Frères” was a major department store in Montréal that closed before I was born, and I presume that “Monsieur Côté” refers to a hockey player of the time.) Nevertheless, the tune is fun and catchy, and the lyrics that I do get are amusing, capturing the spirit of a hockey-crazed kid tolerating the chintzy holiday pantomine and family obligations, all while focused on the coming hockey season and his own little problems (
Fée des étoiles, je peux-tu avoir un autre hockey? J’ai perdu le mien, beau sans-dessein. Je l’ai échangé contre une photo où on voit rien. Une fille de dos qui se cache les fesses avec les mains.).
Although they had been generating buzz for a couple years due to word-of-mouth from their live shows, The Darkness had a hell of a time getting signed to a record deal. It seems the record execs didn’t know what to make of them – many wrote them off as a joke. When they finally did get signed, their debut album, 2003’s Permission to Land, roared up the charts – breaking in at #2 and then holding #1 for four weeks – and the single “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” hit #2. But it’s not hard to see why the record execs might have been a bit baffled. Just check out the video for “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”, which features the band hamming it up in their own take on Star Trek – cheap, 1960s era special effects and all – culminating in a battle with an alien tentacle monster where they use the power of rock and roll to fire blasts from their guitars like Ghostbusters proton packs. It’s a thing of beauty.
This song was their swing at the prestigious Christmas #1 position in 2003, a tongue-in-cheek glam rock piece that almost functions as a spoof on holiday music. On the surface, it’s almost like an ode to Christmas day itself – just the day; all the trappings like the gifts and the merry-making are shrugged off with disdain. The band has subsequently admitted that much of the song is an elaborate yet subtle dick joke.
#27. ? “Snow” – Loreena McKennitt
Lorenna McKennitt may be Stratford’s best musical offering to the world (Justin who?). She specializes in Celtic music, with traditionally styled vocals over decidedly contemporary-flavoured music, but she doesn’t shy away from including flavours from just about every cultural music tradition. Her biggest hit is almost certainly “The Mummer’s Dance”, from 1997. By all rights it should have kicked off a major career surge for McKennitt, but the following year her fiancé died in a boating accident with his brother and a friend. McKennitt was deeply affected by the loss, and wouldn’t release another album for almost 10 years. That would be 2006’s An Ancient Muse, which went platinum, and earned a Grammy nomination.
But McKennitt is really only half of the story here. The lyrics to the song are actually a poem: “Snow”, written in 1895 by Archibald Lampman (1861–1899). Despite dying at the young age of 37, Lampman is widely considered to be the best English-language Canadian poet of the late 19th century. (Sadly, he was not exactly friendly to atheism. But that’s pretty much standard for Canadian authors and poets of the time.) McKennitt took the poem in almost its entirety (skipping the second verse, and making some minor word changes) and wrote music for it, then rendered it in this beautifully haunting track. I’m honestly surprised more Canadian artists haven’t thought of doing something like this. The results are certainly lovely.
If you’re looking for something that is both irreverent and downright fun, Lady Gaga should always be one of the first places you check. Unsurprisingly, her take on Christmas music is not something you should expect to find on the Pope’s playlist. “Christmas Tree” is a synthpop mishmash of some traditional carols and other Christmas music, and some common Christmas tropes, all under some hilariously decadent lyrics that use “Christmas tree” as a metaphor for Gaga’s ladyparts. It’s hard not to giggle deliriously at the subversive and overt sexualization of Christmas tropes and classic songs. In this song, the fun comes in pulling the stockings down, not putting them up, and the idea of “spreading” Chistmas cheer takes on an interesting new dimension. The “pa-ra-pa-pum-pum” from “The Little Drummer Boy” becomes the sounds of vigorous coitus, and even Handel’s “Messiah” gets skewered, as the classic “Hallelujah” chorus gets replaced by shout outs to Space Cowboy and Lady Gaga.
It’s very rare that the biggest complaint about a song is that it’s too short, but at two-and-a-half minutes you’re just getting into the pulsing beat when it’s abruptly over. I can only hope that there are some remixes out there that extend it enough that it can turn into a really great party song – oh man would it make my holiday to see a mass of people jumping up and down to the pounding beat while chanting:
Ho, ho, ho… under the mistletoe. Yes everybody knows… we will take off our clothes.
Run–D.M.C. are widely considered to be the best hip hop group ever. Their arrival on the music scene signalled the end of (what is now called) the “old school” of hip-hop – relatively simplistic rapping over grooves that were largely sampled from disco and funk, with the artists wearing flashy, flamboyant outfits (what we would now call “pimp style”) and rapping about partying and having fun. At the time, a lot of people writing off hip-hop as a fad, and announcing that its time had passed. Then came Run–D.M.C.. Gone were the theatrics – now the artists wore regular street clothing (albeit with some “bling”), and with much more advanced and experimental rap styles over sparse drum-and-bass beats they rapped about political and social issues. Run–D.M.C. were at the vanguard of this change, and their list of accomplishments is jaw-dropping.
“Christmas in Hollis” is probably the best known hip-hop Christmas song. It isn’t meant to be taken too seriously. The first half is a fairly silly story of Run finding a wallet full of cash belonging to Santa Claus, then finding out as he goes to return it that it was actually intended as his Christmas present. The second half – mostly done by D.M.C. – is much better, giving a picture of Christmas as it was done in Hollis, Queens, New York.
There are artists of middling talent that seem to rack up awards, and then there are artists widely acknowledged to be awesome but who have received next to no official acknowledgement. Kate Bush falls into the latter category. Despite being nominated for a handful of Grammys and BRIT awards, the only major award she has ever won is a single BRIT Award in 1987 for Best British Female Solo Artist. Bush did finally get some recognition, though – in 2013 she was appointed Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by the Queen in recognition of her contributions to music.
Bush has a very unique style, and this esoteric tune is hard to classify, or even describe. The lyrics touch on several Christmas tropes – Santa Claus going down the chimney, Bing Crosby singing White Christmas – but I couldn’t tell you for sure what it’s about. My guess is it’s the point of view of a snowflake falling on the city. Whatever it’s about, it’s a pretty song, and Bush’s unique vocal performance is unforgettable. There are two versions; the second has a very different vocal performance and features a bongo drum track. That version (more or less) was used for a 1979 BBC Christmas special – the video, featuring Bush dancing in a big chair in a her PJs, has to be seen to be believed.
There was a period in the early 1970s when rock music became expansive, operatic, experimental, and – many would say – absurd in its excesses. It was a time of concept albums, ambitiously flamboyant life performances, and sprawling opuses displaying both virtuoso-level musicianship and complex structures with shifting movements and time signatures. Rush is the one of the bands from that era, but one of the biggest, most influential, and first, was the supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer. In the early 1970s, ELP was the poster child for progressive rock’s excess – one of their songs runs thirty minutes long and had to be split over two sides of a record. Aside from going on to inspire future prog rockers, their textured, synthesized sound (they actually pioneered the use of synthesizers, particularly live) has some other curious influences. They have been listed as inspirations by both Nobuo Uematsu – the legendary video game composer who originally scored Final Fantasy – and Nintendo’s Koji Kondo (Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Brothers, and Star Fox).
ELP fell apart in the late 1970s, but reformed briefly in the 1990s – this song is from the comeback album released during that period. This song is nothing like the kind of stuff one would normally associate with ELP, but it is a beautifully rendered acoustic ballad with some gloriously operatic lyrics about how love can pull someone out of dark times:
Take my love into your breast, / commit my spirit to the test. / You will see him like a knight; / his armour gleams. / We’ll fly upon his angel’s wings / above the clouds in rainbow rings. / We can sail a ship of dreams.
The eels are one of the most interesting bands on this list, mostly due to the story of Mark Oliver Everett, who goes by the name E. eels is E and E is eels, really, backed by a rotating group of musicians (the best place to see them is as the background band in the hilarious Jim Carrey anti-gun video “Cold Dead Hand”). His father was Hugh Everett ⅠⅠⅠ, the physicist who came up with the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics as his PhD thesis. If you know physics, you know Hugh Everett was ridiculed for his theory, which was disdained as pseudoscience, and it hurt him so much he quit physics and dropped out of sight (actually, he started working for the US government on top secret projects, designing nuclear weapons). That’s the public side of that story… the private side is that Hugh Everett became a bitter drinker, and died at 51 (ironically, just when his theory was beginning to capture popular imagination). The Everetts had a hands-off approach to child-rearing that bordered on abandonment; when 19 year-old Mark found his father’s body, he realized as he desperately tried to resuscitate him that it was the very first time he and his father had ever touched. Oh, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When he was 11, he was home alone (as usual), and an aeroplane crashed on his neighbourhood. No, seriously. A fucking aeroplane crashed on his neighbourhood. He walked outside and wandered through the burning wreckage and body parts for a while, then… just went back home, figuring, as he later put it, “Hey! It’s Wednesday, must be a plane crashing outside.” Oh, there’s more. His older (and only) sister, who had been institutionalized for schizophrenia and treated with electroconvulsive therapy, committed suicide in 1996. Then in 1998, his mother died, after a long battle with cancer. Think I’m done? Nope. In 2001, his cousin was a flight attendant on American Airlines flight 77; her husband was also on board. If that flight number sounds familiar… it’s the plane that hit the Pentagon on 9/11. By that point, Everett had dealt with so much shit in his life, that the thing he found himself wondering about the incident was whether the plane had actually hit his father’s old office.
So you might expect that his entry would be a dark and depressing song. Not in the least. The lyrics have the narrator reminding someone who is down in the dumps that he has friends, and they’re all waiting for them to join in the festivities… then also adds a verse saying how much it means to the narrator to have that person as their friend. What a perfect, humanistic holiday message. Knowing Everett’s story makes the song’s message that much more amazing.
The Elders are an American band formed in 1998 from a group of seasoned musicians. They’ve never had any mainstream success of note, but they are often first-choice headliners for Celtic and Irish music festivals. Their unique sound blends the poetic storytelling and sparkling melodies of traditional Irish music with a very contemporary folk-rock sound, sometimes described as “Ameri-Celt”, and the result works astoundingly well. (The closest equivalent I can think of off the top of my head would be Great Big Sea, minus the latter’s distinctly maritime flavour, but with the addition of a hint of bluegrass.)
This tune doesn’t quite have The Elders’ distinct sound; it trades the traditional Irish flavour for a more standard pop-rock groove. Despite being uptempo with a nice, catchy melody, the lyrics are strangely depressing. They seem to be describing a family where everyone’s either dead or dying. The family gathers for the holiday, raises a toast to the departed/departing, then… just agrees to meet at the next holiday and do it again. If it sounds kind of Sisyphean to you, you’re not alone. Regardless, it’s a nice tune, and nice to sing along with if you don’t dwell too deeply on the meaning.
Santa Claus is a ridiculous fantasy, so if you’re going to ask a ridiculous fantasy for a favour, what is the logic in asking for mundane things like toys, a chance to see a lover, or even one’s two front teeth… you might as well make a ridiculously fantastical request to stay in the spirit of things. That’s the logic here, as Fountains of Wayne asks Santa Claus for… an alien… for Christmas. Yes, an alien. A “little green man”, apparently just to hang out with and watch Twilight Zone reruns. The lyrics are cheerfully absurd, and the song is catchy and easy to sing along to.
It’s a mystery to me why this band isn’t bigger. They had modest success with the Grammy-nominated novelty song “Stacy’s Mom”, but they have consistently cranked out catchy, fun songs for almost two decades, without much mainstream notice. It’s not like they’re a secret in the industry, either; songwriter Adam Schlesinger has a wall full of Grammys and Emmys from songwriting-for-hire work he’s done for Hollywood and so on. He wrote the Grammy-nominated title song from That Thing You Do!, the Emmy-nominated and Grammy-winning A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!, two Emmys for songs on Sesame Street, and two more for the songs they wrote for Neil Patrick Harris to perform at the Tony Awards.
Westside Connection was a supergroup made up of Ice Cube, Mack 10, and WC, as a sort of protest against the snubbing of West Coast rappers. They made their point damn well with 1996’s “Bow Down”, off the album of the same name, then the three artists went back to their solo careers. They would reunite for one final album in 2003 before their breakup in 2005, but in the meantime, they released several compilation and soundtrack singles, mostly from films featuring Ice Cube. This single is from Friday After Next, the third film in the Friday franchise, which were all written by Ice Cube.
You can probably guess that this is not going to be a bunch of treacly platitudes to Burl Ives-esque visions of the holidays. Sure enough, Cube comes out of the box swinging:
Holla if ya clear n***r, it’s Ice Cube and you can call me the Grinch. I got your Christmas list, but I ain’t buying you shit. The song’s about a bunch of guys that intend to relax and have some fun for the holidays, “fun” being mostly lots of getting laid and high (hence the “daze” in “holidaze”), which actually doesn’t sound like a bad Christmas to me.
There are a lot of people who would name John Prine as one of the greatest American songwriters, and when one of those people is Bob Dylan, you should probably take notice. “Christmas in Prison” is, on the face of it, a love song by someone who is separated from their lover for the holiday and thinking about them – the same kind of thing you’ll see in a thousand seasonal songs. But Prine renders it with astounding pathos. Prine’s voice is gravelly and strained, over a spare guitar melody – it works perfectly at evoking the image a convict in prison musing away in his endless free time. The slowly flowing waltz adds to the sense of time slowly passing, dreamily and drearily.
There’s another, more amusing interpretation to the lyrics. Recall that the narrator is a guy who’s been in prison a long time and probably expects to be for a while longer –
wait a while, eternity, old Mother Nature’s got nothing on me – and he’s pining about his love. What, exactly, do you think he’s doing? Consider lines like
come to me now, we’re rollin’, my sweetheart, we’re flowing, by God. I’m not sure if Prine intended for that implication to have been made. Nevertheless it’s a popular interpretation of the song.
You probably know the band Train best for their 2002 Grammy Best Rock Song winning “Drops of Jupiter”, but they’ve been no stranger to both critical and chart success over their entire career. They’re also known for their stance against LGBT discrimination: In 2012, they went after a New Zealand anti-gay-marriage group for their use of the song “Marry Me”, and in 2013, they and Canadian Carly Rae Jepsen backed out of performing for the Boy Scouts of America over their discriminatory policies (they were replaced by 3 Doors Down).
I almost don’t want to tell you this, but this driving pop anthem was actually commissioned by Coca-Cola – it was originally “Open Happiness” by Cee-Lo Green, Patrick Stump (from Fall Out Boy), Brendon Urie (from Panic! at the Disco), Travie McCoy (from Gym Class Heroes), and Janelle Monáe, released as part of the Coca-Cola “Open Happiness” campaign. Train basically took the music, reworked it slightly, and wrote their own lyrics over it. Coca-Cola has a long and storied history of manufacturing Christmas tradition – they are the reason Santa wears red and white – so one can hardly begrudge them this.
Of all the parody songs “Weird Al” Yankovic has done about Christmas, this one is by far the best. Based on Soul Asylum’s “Black Gold”, it’s not hard to listen to – even Yankovic’s nasally voice isn’t too irritating here. The theme is pretty typical Yankovic, describing a scenario where Santa Claus goes postal, and the chaos that follows. This song is not one you want to be playing for the younger kids. Yankovic pulls no punches here, and the song is relentlessly graphic – at one point Rudolph gets ground into “reindeer sausage”. The black humour is also brilliant, with likes like
… and he picked up a flamethrower… and he barbequed Blitzen… and he took a big bite and said: ‘It tastes just like chicken.’ and Mrs. Claus in the aftermath of the massacre trying to negotiate the movie rights. But if you’ve been swamped by the saccharine blandness of most of the seasonal music, belting this one out can be pretty cathartic.
Another Weird Al number worth mentioning is “Christmas at Ground Zero”. Like “The Night Santa Went Crazy”, it’s a dark take on a holiday song, this time about a nuclear apocalypse about to happen. It’s a clever idea, but in my opinion, it’s not as lyrically clever as “The Night Santa Went Crazy”, and the nuclear threat scenario is a little dated (the song is from 1986). Yankovic’s singing is at its worst there, too. It’s worth a listen, though.
When Rolling Stone asked its readers to name the best artists of the 2000s, they picked Coldplay as #4, after only Green Day, Radiohead, and U2. It’s not hard to see why – they practically bookended the decade with a pair of the most original rock songs for the whole period: “Clocks” and “Viva la Vida”. So of course when they took on the task of writing a Christmas song, they came up with one of the most original-sounding rock songs on this list.
In a rarity for mainstream music “Christmas Lights” has two distinct movements. What’s really amazing is that either of the two could have been spun out into a song on its own and been successful. Combined as they are here, they work well together, with first movement building up tension and drama, then the second exploding into a vibrant release. Not many modern, mainstream bands would try something as bold as a multi-part song with shifting time signatures. Fewer still could actually pull it off. The video is also worth watching for being loaded with easter eggs in the shifting scenes. The brief shot of people releasing balloons from a boat is actually a hundred of their fans, who got the privilege of being in the video. One of the three violin-playing Elvises is actor Simon Pegg, and the text above the stage reads (in Latin) “I believe Elvis lives”. (There’s also something on the piano, but I can’t make it out.)
There is a lot of interesting history behind this song. The first major hit to feature rapping was, famously, the Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 classic “Rapper’s Delight”, but that was an independent release. Kurtis Blow was the first rap artist to be signed to a major label that same year, and the following year he would release 1980’s The Breaks – with its seminal title track (released only a few weeks after this song). But the first track Blow released under Mercury was this song; releaesd for Christmas 1979, it is the first song to feature rapping from a major label.
Hip-hop was a very countercultural thing at first (and still is, somewhat), and this track thumbs its nose at the standard Christmas trobes. It opens up with Blow cutting off a recitation of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by saying “that’s played out”, then breaking down into the beat. Being old-school hip-hop – just about as old as old-school hip-hop gets – there’s not much in the way of social commentary. Instead, the lyrics basically retell “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, except that St. Nick happens to drop by the house while it’s in the middle of a party, and joins in.
Stan Rogers may be one of the most intriguing “what if?” questions in Canadian music. Rogers was a Hamilton native, but his parents were from the Maritimes, and he spent many summers of his youth visiting there. He started his musical career as a folk artist in 1970, but it was cut short when he died in a fire on board an Air Canada flight in 1983 (blame fell on the pilot, who assumed the smoke belching out of the bathroom was due to someone secretly smoking and improperly disposing of the butt – a common occurence back then – rather than an electrical fire, but is anyone surprised that Air Canada managed to murder a national musical treasure?). He only managed to release four albums of original music during that time – one posthumously – and never earned significant acclaim in his lifetime, but has since been claimed as a genius and national treasure, largely by politicians who find his lyrical focus on Canadiana appealing. Even Stephen Harper called “Northwest Passage” an alternative Canadian anthem (but take that with a grain of salt; King Steve just seems to have a massive raging hard-on for anything involving the Franklin Expedition). One wonders if such acclaim would have been heaped on Rogers had he not conveniently died so early in his career.
While Rogers’ stature maybe somewhat overhyped, there’s no denying that he was a damn good lyricist. In “First Christmas”, Rogers paints three portraits of people spending their first Christmas day away from their home: first a young man trying to make it on his own, forced to work over the holidays; then a young woman from an abusive family whose run away, and is panhandling, ultimately forced to make do at the local Salvation Army shelter; then an old man whose wife has passed and who has had to move in to a retirement home, and is coping with the unfamiliarity of it all and hoping one of the kids might call.
The “Christmas Truce” of World War Ⅰ is one of the most enduring myths about the war, and it’s not hard to understand why. It’s a perfectly romantic story of humanity managing to find a way to emerge even in the bleakest of situations. The reality of the Christmas truces (plural) is actually far more interesting… and much more humanist. First, the truces actually had little to do with Christmas itself: Soldiers all across the Western Front routinely found ways to avoid fighting, and to fraternize with the enemy. It became such a problem that by the time Christmas 1914 rolled around, military commanders on both sides were taking active steps to prevent the large-scale, widespread truces they knew were coming around Christmas day. They tried planting false intelligence that the enemy would attack, and desperately tried to suppress any word of the truces making the papers. In the end it didn’t work; the truces happened, and the New York Times defied the publication ban. Ironically, though, one of the biggest impacts of the truces was that military leadership learned how it important it was to utterly dehumanize the enemy before sending troops out to face them, because contrary to conventional “wisdom”, without extensive provocation human nature tends to lead people to prefer chumming around and partying, rather than killing each other.
When McCutcheon performs this song live, he usually prefaces it with a story. These stories have become as much a part of the fabric of the song’s tale as the lyrics. He has several variations, ranging from the story of how he heard of the truces from a janitor, to one about meeting actual German WWⅠ veterans who had been involved in the truces. You can find several of them in the various YouTube versions of the song.
Chrissie Hynde was a girl with a dream – she wanted to be in a band, badly. So badly that she moved from Ohio to the UK to be part of the London music scene, even going so far as to beg Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols to marry her so she could get a visa to stay. It didn’t work out and she had to go back to Ohio after two years, but she later came back to London to try again a year later. She still couldn’t quite get any luck, and was just about ready to go back home again when finally in 1978 something clicked. She got a band together – The Pretenders – and managed to get critical attention with their first release, followed by a successful album. Success was coming so fast, in fact, that they hadn’t even yet written enough songs to keep with the demand – their second album had to include previously released material.
But then in 1982, everything fell apart rapidly – very rapidly. Bass player Pete Farndon was fired for his drug issues… and two days later guitarist James Honeyman-Scott dropped dead of heart failure due to cocaine use. He was 25, the youngest member of the band. 10 months later, Farndon was found drowned in his bathtub after an overdose – he had been the second youngest member of the band. After all those years of working to put it together, and despite the fact that their average age was only in the late-20s, after only four years and two (more like one-and-a-half) albums, half of Hynde’s band was dead. A lesser woman would have just packed it in at that point. Instead, Hynde wrote “2000 Miles”. With its spare, allegorical lyrics, the song is often mistaken for a love song. But it’s actually about Honeyman-Scott’s death. (Farndon died while the album was being recorded, after the songs were written, so his death isn’t reflected in the lyrics. However, the next album – written after even more chaos that left Hynde the only original member remaining – would turn out to be an even bigger hit.)
Every year around Christmas, The Killers release a holiday-themed song whose proceeds go to Project Red to fight AIDS in Africa. This song, from 2007, was the second in that series, and thus far the most successful. This song loaded with droll humour, as front man Brandon Flowers pleads for his life while making a less than stellar case for himself –
No one else around believes me, but the children on the block, they tease me. I couldn’t let them off that easy. – with a holiday chorus in the background cheerfully repeating threats of violence to the strains of Christmas trumpets.
But the spotlight is unquestionably stolen by comedian Ryan Pardey as a gravelly-voiced, Southern-accented Santa who looks and sounds two sips away from rehab. Pardey has since performed the song with the band on tour. He even reprised his role in The Killers’ 2012 Christmas single “I Feel It In My Bones”, which is a sort of sequel where Santa now hunts down the whole band. The song isn’t as good, but the video is way funnier – in one goofy scene parodying stereotypical preparing-for-battle montages, Pardey arms himself with a nunchaku made out of candy canes. He’s reprised the role yet again for this year’s release, “Dirt Sledding”, which I haven’t heard yet but is supposed to be the final part of the “vengeful Santa” trilogy.
Today the Barenaked Ladies are recognized as one of the premier names in Canadian music, but the tale of how they came into the spotlight is as chock full of silliness as many of their most famous songs. In 1991 they recorded a five-song demo tape – now known as the Yellow Tape – containing the masterpieces “Be My Yoko Ono”, “Brian Wilson”, and “If I Had $1000000” (and, bizarrely, a short cover of Public Enemy’s classic protest song “Fight the Power”). They sent this tape out to every record studio in Canada… and were rejected by every one. But they caught the media’s attention when they were bumped off the bill for the 1991 Nathan Philips Square New Year’s Eve concert because some city hall staffer didn’t like their name. The tape went viral, and became the first independent release in Canada to go platinum. Needless to say, a record deal soon followed.
This song comes from their first independent release since the Yellow Tape, a holiday-themed album called Barenaked for the Holidays, and it highlights why Ed Robertson is among the best songwriters in Canada today. Robertson crafts a tale about the elves going on strike with such brilliant and dense lyricism it makes your head spin.
A full indentured servitude / can reflect on one’s attitude, / but that / silly red hat / just makes the fat / man look outrageous. And:
We’re used to repetition, / so we drew up a petition: / We the undersigned / feel undermined, / let’s redefine / employment. It’s an amusing counterpoint to Yankovic’s “The Night Santa Went Crazy”. The conditions at the North Pole are intolerable, but while Yankovic has Santa flipping out and going on a killing spree, the Ladies have the elves throwing down their tools and forming a labour movement. Which, honestly, just seems more Canadian, right?
This song is a devilishly clever comedy song – the humour here is far more witty than you’ll find in your average “Weird Al” song. It purports to be a holiday message sent from “the Andersons” to unspecified family or friends. The Andersons have been captured by evil robot overlords and are being forced to work in their mines, and in the song/message, they try to put a cheery face on it – meanwhile the subtext hints with some brilliantly genre-savvy references that the song might actually be a coded distress message:
Now it’s time for Christmas dinner. I think the robots sent us a pie. You know I love my Soylent Green.
Incidentally, there’s also an unofficial “original” version floating around with some slightly different lines:
They tried to decorate and make it look more Christmasy, but what they did looks more like Christmas in Hell. They nailed a Santa to a cross in front of everyone. It wasn’t pleasant but I’m sure they meant well. Apparently the person who commissioned the song was offended by the crucifixion symbolism, so Coulton changed the verse to the one with the red-eyed Santa robots. Personally, I find the original words more clever and subversive.
It’s my opinion, of course, but all the songs on this list are great for listening to during the holiday season. But they’re great for listening to in different ways. Some work as dance tunes, some work as songs you can play in the background of dinners or cocktail parties, some are good for singing along with in the car. What’s really missing, though, are songs that a whole party – the whole group of you and your friends and family – can all sing together. A lot of the traditional songs like “Deck the Halls” are excellent for sing-alongs: the lyrics are simple, the tune isn’t challenging, and it’s just something that works well when shared – it sounds even better when shouted by a thousand people together, than it does as a solo piece. Most of the songs on this list, while good, don’t have that quality. This one does.
Picture a party with a few dozen – maybe a hundred people – and someone starts playing this song on a piano, or just belting out the lyrics. One by one, all the guests join in, and by the time the chorus starts, everyone in the room is holding hands (or, more likely, only holding one hand and holding a drink in the other), swaying back and forth, and roaring out, “We alllll join hands! And we alllll join hands! So let’s alllll join hands, here and now!” not so much singing the words as shouting them, not caring one whit about tune or key. Wouldn’t that be awesome? We need secular anthems. We need songs we can all join in on and sing together – simple songs, but songs with unforgettable melodies and lyrics – songs that, when enough people join in and sing together, can shake a stadium. This piece by Slade is a perfect example of what we need. The lyrics are excellent, too – simple, which means they’re easy to remember, but at the same time they’re also inclusive, and clever. Like the pair,
have the time of your life, when you’re younger / and have the time of your life, when you’re old… perfect lyrics for whatever age group is singing it.
There are plenty of songs about mismatched family holiday gatherings, but perhaps none carried off as deftly as this one. Dar Williams tells the tale of Wiccans Amber and Jane – heavily implied to be a lesbian couple – who are travelling during the Solstice season, and need a place to stay. So they call Amber’s “Christ-loving” uncle, who is initially wary, given that they had planned to celebrate a very Christian Christmas, but invites them over regardless. All is pleasant at first as they share a nice meal, but then the Uncle’s child, Timmy, innocently starts asking questions that disturb the fragile facade:
Is it true that you’re a witch? Everyone starts falling over themselves to work around the faux pas… when Amber’s girlfriend Jane suddenly opens up and replies frankly to Timmy.
Jane’s response is frankly astonishing. Brilliant, witty, insightful, and gloriously lyrical, she explains to young Timmy that, yes, they are “witches”, and yes, they are different… but also that, in many ways, they’re also the same. Her beautiful response defuses the tension, and inspires everyone to take another look at the whole situation. By the end of the song, the two groups have found kinship with each other by rediscovering the things they share, rather than the things that make them different, and Amber’s Uncle is even considering reconnecting with Amber’s father, whom he has become estranged from. But this is not a song that sweeps things under the carpet and tosses up the fuzzy, feelgood implication that we can all get along perfectly, and religious differences don’t really matter. At the end of the song, while the two groups manage to get through their shared holiday peacefully – and even manage to connect as a family despite their differences – the divide between them doesn’t just magically go away. In the last lines of the song’s final verse, little Timmy asks his father if he can be a pagan, too, prompting the awkward response: “We’ll discuss it when they leave.” Clearly there is still a ways to go, but the song points out how far we’ve already come, and how it is possible to overcome the challenges if we focus on the things we all have in common.
This song was original written by Austrailian comedian Tim Minchin, and performed as part of his musical comedy tours. Minchin is an outspoken skeptic and atheist, and many of his songs reflect his tongue-in-cheek disdain for credulity and respect toward institutions and traditions that have no sense behind them, and horrible track records of doing any real good. “White Wine in the Sun” is no exception, but the brilliance of this song is that it balances its skepticism and criticism with a feeling of sentimentality toward the traditions associated with Christmas (
Some of the hymns that they sing have nice chords, but the lyrics are dodgy.), and caps it off with a soaringly beautiful message to an infant daughter about what the holiday is really about.
There are about as many Minchin versions of the song as there are shows it was recorded at (usually with different third verses), but this version comes from fellow Aussie Kate Miller-Heidke. Miller-Heidke replaces Minchin’s solo piano backing for a guitar, and plays the song straight-faced. Yet such is the brilliance of the song, it works; and it’s hard to decide whether it may even work better than the more organic Minchin versions.
#4. ? “River” – Joni Mitchell
1971’s Blue is routinely ranked as one of the greatest albums of all time – occasionally even as the greatest ever by a female artist, and the greatest ever Canadian album. “River” was not among the singles released from the album – those were “Carey” and “California” – but it has become one of her signature songs.
Sometimes people ask what makes a vocal performance great. That’s not an easy question to answer. Technical perfection is important, but ironically, depending on the song it may actually detract from the overall picture. There’s actually a good illustration of that here: compare Mitchell’s performance with Sarah McLachlin’s – McLachlin’s performance is technically better… but the technical imperfections in Mitchell’s performance are what elevate it to greatness – the rawness of her emotion really bleeds through. Just about the only thing that keeps me from giving this song the number one spot is that the subject matter is a bit of a downer. It’s utterly authentic and emotionally real, but I don’t think the ideal message of a godless Canadian holiday season should be, “I want to fade away”.
Several music writers have declared this 1987 classic by The Pogues to be the greatest Christmas song ever written. (For example, Dave Bidini of the Rheostatics.) On the surface, such declarations seem bizarre. This is not a song about a happy family enjoying presents and turkey, or even a pair of lovers enjoying each other. This is a song about a dried up drunk in a cell, listening to the morbid lamentations of his cell mates, then losing himself in fond reminiscences… of bitter and acrimonious arguments, him and his lover cussing each other out viciously, and lying around washed out on hard drugs.
Merry Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last. This can’t be a Christmas song; it shouldn’t work as one.
And yet it does. It’s not a single element either; in what seems almost worthy of calling a “Christmas miracle” everything just… comes together, and often in the most astounding ways. It’s a song of contrasts at just about every level. The slow, melancholy first movement contrasts against the upbeat, soaring melodies of the second, almost as if they are two different songs (they were). Shane MacGowan’s gravelly, slurring vocals contrast against Kirsty MacColl’s sparkling, punchy responses, and both artists give as good as they get in the back-and-forth insults. The sad tale of misery and failure, and the bitter fights that followed, are contrasted against the heady joy of their early days, and, in what might just make everything come together, the hope that MacGowan’s character has for a happier future.
In the first iteration of this annual list, I named Gordon Lightfoot’s 1967 classic as the perfect non-religious Canadian holiday song, and I stand by that conclusion. The lyrics manage to pull of the delicate balance between specificity and universality with perfect precision. And while the song uses the familiar trope of reminiscing over a distant love, it manages to do so without either becoming maudlin or or glorifying the suffering. Instead, the narrator embraces the pain of separation as a sign of love, and looks forward with hope to reuiniting. And because all of this is done without any religious references, any references that date the scene, or even any indication of the ages or genders of the characters, the lyrics are almost universally inclusive, modulo only the references to snow and winter (and, of course, reading a letter).
The only reason this has slipped down a notch on my list is because I felt that after the rough year that 2015 has been, we needed something a bit more upbeat. This song is hopeful, in the end, but in a sentimental, wistful way. This year, I wanted something more unabashadly joyous and, yes, maybe a little gleefully subversive and defiant, to take the top spot. Nevertheless, I would still say “Song for a Winger’s Night” is the best all-round non-religious Canadian holiday song.
Dragonette is a Toronto-based synthpop band fronted by Martina Sorbara, daughter of former Ontario Minister of Finance Greg Sorbara. Sorbara was one of the talents groomed by now-disgraced CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi, although unlike Lights she had parted ways with him years before the scandal broke. Dragonette has yet to find significant independent success, though they had modest success with the cheeky “I Get Around” in 2007. On the other hand, they have had some fairly big hits fronting for other acts like Martin Solveig, Mike Mago, and Don Diablo. They’re worth keeping an eye on, because on top of some generically alright beats, their lyrics are a cut more clever than most of the competition’s, yet still eminently singable (witness the chorus of 2012’s “Let It Go”:
We don’t need a cure for the weight of the world.)
Of all the holiday break-up songs on this list, none has the cathartic fun of this track. While Mitchell mopes about fading away, Sorbara defiantly flips off her ex-lover and says she’s having a much better time without him, along the way tossing out some brilliantly nasty one-liners:
And all the candy cane you got? It doesn’t equal sweet when you’re just plain nuts. By all rights this song should be flooding the Canadian airwaves over the holiday season, but it’s not hard to see why it remains somewhat obscure, with the chorus’s punchline being Sorbara dropping the f-bomb like a tactical nuke.
- ? “Merry Xmas (Says Your Text Message)” – Dragonette
- ? “Song for a Winter’s Night” – Gordon Lightfoot
- “Fairytale of New York” – The Pogues ft. Kirsty MacColl
- ? “River” – Joni Mitchell
- “White Wine in the Sun” – Kate Miller-Heidke
- “The Christians and the Pagans” – Dar Williams
- “All Join Hands” – Slade
- “Chiron Beta Prime” – Jonathan Coulton
- ? “Elf’s Lament” – Barenaked Ladies ft. Michael Bublé
- “Don’t Shoot Me Santa” – The Killers ft. Ryan Pardey
- “2000 Miles” – The Pretenders
- “Christmas in the Trenches” – John McCutcheon
- ? “First Christmas” – Stan Rogers
- “Christmas Rappin’” – Kurtis Blow
- “Christmas Lights” – Coldplay
- “The Night Santa Went Crazy” – “Weird Al” Yankovic
- “Shake Up Christmas” – Train
- “Christmas in Prison” – John Prine
- “It’s the Holidaze” – Westside Connection
- “I Want an Alien for Christmas” – Fountains of Wayne
- “Christmas Day” – The Elders
- “Everything’s Gonna Be Cool this Christmas” – eels
- “Footprints in the Snow” – Emerson, Lake & Palmer
- “December Will Be Magic Again” – Kate Bush
- “Christmas in Hollis” – Run–D.M.C.
- “Christmas Tree” – Lady Gaga ft. Space Cowboy
- ? “Snow” – Loreena McKennitt
- “Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)” – The Darkness
- ? “23 décembre” – Beau dommage
- “Snow ((Hey Oh))” – Red Hot Chili Peppers
- “Kidnap the Sandy Claws” – KoЯn
- “Stop the Cavalry” – Jona Lewie
- “Hazy Shade of Winter” – The Bangles
- “Christmas Wrapping” – The Waitresses
- “Christmas with the Devil” – Spın̈al Tap
- “Proper Crimbo” – Bo’ Selecta!
- “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” – Savatage/Trans-Siberian Orchestra
- “Viking Christmas” – Amon Amarth
- “It Doesn’t Often Snow at Christmas” – Pet Shop Boys
- “Under the Tree” – The Water Babies
- ? “Wintersong” – Sarah McLachlin
- “Is This Christmas?” – The Wombats
- “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” – Tom Waits
- “Footsteps in the Snow” – Bill Monroe
- “Carol of the Bells” – George Winston
- “White Love (Christmas Standard)” – SPEED
- “Mistress for Christmas” – AC/DC
- “Father Christmas” – The Kinks
- ? “Mistletoe” – Justin Bieber
- “A Spaceman Came Travelling” – Chris de Burgh
- “No Presents for Christmas” – King Diamond
- “Christmas At The Zoo” – The Flaming Lips
- “Red Water (Christmas Mourning)” – Type O Negative
- “Oi to the World” – The Vandals
- “Get Behind Me, Santa!” – Sufjan Stevens
- “Christmas in Paradise” – Mary Gauthier
- “Stripper Christmas Summer Weekend” – GWAR