It’s that time of year again! Here’s the 2016 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
Here is 2016’s version of a list of songs you can spin this holiday that aren’t all Jesusy, and that don’t make you want to jam candy canes in your ears to make it stop.
For details on the criteria used to create this list, see the post requesting suggestions a few weeks back. In addition to those criteria, I had some special criteria this year: I wanted to focus first on Canadian songs, then on new songs.
The result of that focus is really cool. The top 19 (almost 20!) songs are all Canadian, and 41/50 – a solid 82% of the list – are new to the list. And while several classic songs did get bumped due to this focus, the overall quality of the list hasn’t really dropped.
The upshot of this is: if you’ve checked all the songs on this list in years past, this is going to be a whole new ball game.
So, here it is – the 2016 Indi’s alternative holiday playlist:
🍁 = Canadian
★ = New this year
50. ★ “i hate december” – Ivy
Ivy is one of the many projects of Andy Chase and Adam Schlesinger. Chase is a producer who has contributed songs to a number of TV and film projects, most notably several Farrelly brothers films. Adam Schlesinger has done the same, and is also guitarist for the band Fountains of Wayne. The two collaborated on the Oscar-nominated title tune from the Tom Hanks film That Thing You Do!. The pair discovered singer Dominique Durand, who provides the vocals for Ivy.
You may have heard Ivy songs already, if you watch a lot of TV and film. For example, “Worry About You” was used as the theme to Kingdom Hospital, and appeared in other places. “i hate december” is actually the only single off their very first EP, Lately, from back in 1994. It’s technically not a holiday song, but rather seems to be about the fear of mortality, with lines like: “All I know is what I dream. But lately dreams have been such scary things, of suicide and frozen ice over my pale body.” Not exactly holiday cheer, but the music is lovely.
49. ★ “Fallen Snow” – Au Revoir Simone
Au Revoir Simone is notable for their off-beat movie director connections; their name comes from a throwaway line in Tim Burton’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, and they have a close relationship with David Lynch – even performing together. Their music is certainly unique: they combine their honey-like vocal harmonies over bright synthesizers and drum machines, to create a dreamy, casual sound.
This song is a single from their second album, 2007’s The Bird of Music… though it’s arguably their first real album, because 2005’s Verses of Comfort, Assurance & Salvation was only a half-length album, and it was recorded in their manager’s basement shower stall. It’s technically not a holiday song, but rather a song about loneliness and memories of lost, young love, but it does include the symbolism of a barren winter. It hides some really nice, depressing lyrics under its sunny organs: “Depressing things are empty beds and lonely dinners, and women who are middle aged with naked fingers.”
48. ★ “Santa’s Got a Self-Driving Sleigh” – Lex Ventura
Lex Ventura is a relatively new band – a project of musician Lauron Lewis – out of Santa Barbara, California. Their eponymous debut album came out . They have a very unique sound, difficult to pin down; if pressed, I’d call it R&B/soul filtered through classic, 1960s rock-n-roll, with a modern synth pop aesthetic. They specialize in upbeat, catchy tunes – the kind that’s excellent for dance parties.
This tune was only released a few weeks ago, their first official release since their debut album. It’s a goofy idea, capitalizing on the hype about self-driving cars that hit the media this year. Santa’s elves decided to gift him with an upgrade to his sleigh – a self-driving system – giving him the freedom to kick back and listen to holiday music while he travels. An amusingly cute image, to be sure.
47. ★ “Let Me Sleep (Christmas Time)” – Pearl Jam
Some acts hit fast, have huge success, then just fade away into history; Pearl Jam did exactly the opposite. When they first released their debut album Ten in 1991, it didn’t make much of a splash. In fact, they were accused of being derivative and riding on the coattails of Nirvana’s success … even though Ten was both recorded and released months before Nirvana’s classic Nevermind. That might have been the end of the story, but Pearl Jam just sorta… survived. And kept building momentum. Almost a year after its release, Ten finally broke into the top ten – it ultimately never hit #1, peaking only at #2 (held off of the #1 spot by Billy Ray Cyrus), but ultimately staying in the charts for 256 weeks, making it one of the top 15 charting albums ever. It not only went on to outsell Nevermind, it went on to become one of the most acclaimed records ever – and Pearl Jam themselves have been called the greatest American rock band ever in polls. The reason for their staying power and success is not only their music itself, it’s their tireless dedication to doing what’s best for their fans and not their pocketbooks or celebrity status – such as an almost decade long boycott of the monopolistic Ticketmaster, after they were caught gouging fans.
This song is the first of many Christmas releases sent to their fan club. It dates from after the release of Ten, but before it took off in the charts. Now, with decades of hindsight regarding Pearl Jam’s musical diversity, there’s little surprising about it, but it probably sounded very different from what fans might have suspected, given what they heard on Ten. It’s an amusing song – the plaintive pleading of a parent that just wants to sleep in, while being hounded by excited kids. Something many of us can relate to, I’m sure.
46. ★ “Dance ’Til We’re High” – The Fireman
In 2008, shortly before this track was released, one of the biggest open secrets in music was finally officially confirmed. For fifteen years, the members of The Fireman had been anonymous… sorta. Everyone knew who they were: a duo of producer Youth – who has produced several classic albums from the likes of P.M. Dawn and The Verve – and Paul McCartney. Yes, the Paul McCartney – who is still making unique and interesting music despite his death in 1966.
The Fireman is a sort of side project for both artists, where they experiment with ambient electronica and psychedelic rock. It’s definitely not really intended to be particularly commercial stuff. “Dance ’Til We’re High” is the most recent release from the duo, from 2009. However, because the band is such an on-and-off thing – a side project the pair does on a lark, sometimes with a decade between releases – it’s impossible to say whether it will be the last of The Fireman.
45. ★ “The Christmas Song” – Weezer
Weezer has been around since the early 1990s. They have a very distinct sound that is usually classified as alternative rock – a fuzzy sort of melodic rock. You can hear it, for example, in their biggest hit, 1994’s “Buddy Holly” (fun fact, that video was actually included on the original Microsoft Windows 95 CD). You can always tell a Weezer song, and this song is no exception. The lyrics tell a tale of someone who’s apparently been dumped by a partner who had promised to be with them for the holidays, and is now alone and moping about the broken promises.
One of Weezer’s many quirks is their penchant for eponymous albums. By my count they now have four albums named Weezer, all identified primarily by their colour: blue (1994), green (2001), red (2008), and most recently, this year’s white album. But apparently they’re not done yet. They’ve recently announced a new album, slated to be released next, which they’ve implied will be their “black album”.
44. ★ “Christmas is Coming Soon” – Blitzen Trapper
Blitzen Trapper might seem like a gimmick name specifically for a Christmas release, but they’re actually a legitimate band trading in a sort of folk-rock with a very modern sensibility, with a number of critically-acclaimed albums under their belt. This song is off their 2003 eponymous debut album, and is – perhaps surprisingly – the only Christmas song they’ve ever recorded. The lyrics are a set darkly funny of vignettes about Christmas in the American midwest, set over warm, sparkly guitar arpeggios with gentle vocals.
Blitzen Trapper has apparently released this song for free on several occasions, with a “pay-what-you-can” model to collect donations for various causes.
43. ★ “Mookie’s Last Christmas” – Saosin
It’s not obvious from the lyrics, but “Mookie’s Last Christmas”, written by lead singer Anthony Green, is about (former) lead guitarist Justin Shekoski’s father. During a tour with Story of the Year, Shekoski’s father – who just happened to be in the Maryland area on business at the same time Shekoski’s tour was in town – visited with Shekoski and caught a pair of shows. But on his drive to the airport, there was an accident and Shekoski’s father died at the scene. Despite this, Shekoski played a show that same day, and went on to complete the tour. (Mookie, incidentally, was the Shekoski family dog.)
Shortly after writing this song, Anthony Green left the band. He was replaced by Cove Reber, apparently on the strength of an acoustic demo of this very song – the difference between the two vocalists’ styles is fascinating to hear. Recently, Reber has left the band, and now Anthony Green is back… but now Justin Shekoski has left. This new/old lineup is still finding their legs after a long hiatus, but it should be interesting to hear where Saosin goes in the next year or two.
42. ★ “Christmas is Cancelled” – The Long Blondes
The Long Blondes were a five-piece English indie rock group – none of whom were blonde – that showed tremendous promise in the early- to mid-2000s. The released a series of singles – of which this song was one – that achieved critical acclaim, and won major awards, all before they were ever signed to a label. They finally were signed in 2006, and released their well-received debut album Someone to Drive You Home. Two years later they released their second album – “Couples” – and a compilation of their earlier singles – “Singles” – both of which also were widely well-received, but nothing ever quite recaptured the excitement of those early singles. Sadly, guitarist Dorian Cox suffered a debilitating stroke in mid-2008 that potentially prevented him from every playing guitar again, and the band split up.
This song is one of their early, pre-signing singles, and it showcases the sparkly, punchy energy the band had in its early days. The narrator returns home to discover their ex – who never returned the key – is waiting for her inside, looking to make small talk and rekindle the romance they shared before he walked out on her on Boxing Day. But the narrator is having none of it. “So she’s turned you out, has she? Well, I can’t say I’m surprised. After last year’s festive fuss, I find it hard to sympathize.” She finds his smarmy intentions to get into her pants now are laughable, and announces that as far as he’s concerned, Christmas is cancelled – she’d rather spend it alone than with him.
41. ★ “My First Xmas (As a Woman)” – The Vandals
The Vandals have been on these lists since the beginning, but so far only for “Oi to the World”, the title track from their 1996 Christmas album. The album is full of The Vandals’s trademark irreverent humour – they have the rare distinction of being associated with both of punk’s golden ages, in both eras as the class clowns of the movement.
This year, in the spirit of change, I wanted to pick something else, and this track nicely matched one of themes of this year, and its idiotic “bathroom bill” battles. While the sentiment may have been intended as a joke, the song can be interpreted as a cheerful celebration of finally transitioning to the gender one’s always felt themselves to be. And of course, how can one resist the cathartic subversiveness of a Christmas song with the lines: “Chop it off! Chop it off! My penis, chop it off!”
40. ★ “The Christmas Song” – The Raveonettes
2016 has been a busy year for the Danish indie rock duo The Raveonettes. Every month this year they have recorded and released a new track. As of the time I’m writing this, up to November’s release – “Fast Food” – is out. It’s been called an “anti-album”, and is just one of the many peculiar gimmicks The Raveonettes have tried over the years, such as releasing an entire album full of songs in the same key. Even their origination was a bit of a gimmick: the story goes they were discovered at a music festival by a respected critic… the reality is they got wind the critic would be there, and hastily slapped a band together just to catch his eye.
While the band is pretty big in Denmark, they haven’t had huge success elsewhere. That is, except that their songs are frequently used in movies and commercials. This particular song may be one of their biggest hits, if you’re counting by how often it’s been used in other works (for example, Christmas with the Kranks). That’s hardly surprising, given the song’s pleasant, gentle sound, and the wonderful harmonizing between Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo.
39. ★ “Christmas Night of the Living Dead” – MxPx
MxPx started out back in 1992, releasing their first album, 1994’s Pokinatcha, while the band members were still in high school. They were originally intended to be a punk rock band, but when pop punk became huge in the late 1990s, they became part of the wave. Interestingly, for most of their early years, they were considered a Christian punk rock band – they have three #1 albums on the Billboard Christian charts… hardly a feat to sneeze at for a punk group. They’ve walked away from their Christian roots though, with singer Mike Herrera saying in 2015 that he wasn’t a Christian anymore.
This song is an amusing mashup of holiday cheer and a Romero nightmare. As to be expected in such a scenario, there’s plenty of blood and guts, shotguns and axes to the head, all described in high-energy punk attitude. It doesn’t sound like it ends well for the narrator though… or anyone else for that matter.
38. ★ “Player’s Ball” – OutKast
OutKast is one of the most critically acclaimed hip-hip groups of all time. They’ve racked up six Grammys, including Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group (twice), Best Rap Album (twice), and even Album of the Year (for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below). They are most famous for popularizing “Southern Hip-Hop” – André 3000 and Big Boi hail from Atlanta, Georgia – and for their memorable stage personas.
Most of OutKast’s success comes from their Stankonia (2000) and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2003) albums, but this tune is actually their first single. It was released a few months before their debut album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, in 1993, and included on a Christmas compilation album. It was actually the most successful single from the album, though I believe the album version of the song removes many of the Christmas references.
37. ★ “It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop” – Frightened Rabbit
Most holiday songs that get popular airplay are either upbeat and cheerful or sentimental schmaltz. You may have noticed that several of the alternatives on this list take a somewhat darker, more thoughtful look at the holidays. Here we have Scottish indie rockers Frightened Rabbit pleading, “let the rot stop for just one day”, saying “were it not for the tick of the clock and the spin of the Earth in space, we could always be this way”, closing with the repeated observation: “the next day life went back to its bad self”. All this unfolds with a slowly growing crescendo, including an actual chorus, until its final chaotic climax.
Frightened Rabbit’s greatest strength is probably their lyrics – often dark and introspective assessments of the human condition, phrased with wit and pathos. The best visual illustration of this idea, in my mind, has to be their video for “The Woodpile”, which confronts us with the shockingly banal responses of a group of onlookers to an apparent grisly death scene.
36. ★ “X-mas Time (It Sure Doesn’t Feel Like It)” – The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones had a bit of a rough start back in the mid-1980s. Their then-unique blend of punk rock and ska miffed the fans of both genres – the punk rockers wanted less ska in their punk rock, and the ska-heads wanted less punk in their ska. They didn’t seem to be showing much promise, but a record label gave them a shot anyway. Even that didn’t seem to pan out – the album, 1989’s Devil’s Night Out – didn’t really make much of a splash (it has since come to be one of their most popular). But slowly they built up steam, and by 1997 they had the platinum Let’s Face It, with its most famous track “The Impression That I Get”, and their sound was defining a whole new genre: ska punk.
Over their long history, the Bosstones have released several decent holiday tracks, so I’m sure future lists will probably feature then again. They’ve also done an awesome cover of The Pretenders’s classic “2000 Miles”. This track is actually another cover, originally written by Paul O’Hallaran of the Boston band The Dogmatics. Tragically, O’Hallaran died in a motorcycle accident at age 26, two years after releasing this song.
35. ★ “(It’s Gonna Be a) Punk Rock Christmas” – The Ravers
This song is widely miscredited to the Sex Pistols (for example, here), probably because they’re mentioned in the lyrics, and for someone who doesn’t know the Pistols, it can sorta-kinda sound like them. It’s less widely miscredited… but still miscredited… to a band that would later become known as The Nails. The Nails had a novelty hit in 1984–5 with 1982’s “88 Lines About 44 Women”, but before they became The Nails, they were calling themselves The Ravers. As The Ravers, they recorded a single EP in 1977 before changing their name (because of another band named Raver). However, I believe this song is not by those The Ravers, who hail from Colorado, but by another band named The Ravers from Los Angeles. That band was based on a duo known as Daddy Maxwell, made up Lou Maxfield and Graham Daddy – when they teamed up with producer Harold Bronson (future founder of Rhino Records), they called themselves The Ravers. Whew!
This song is a bit of a novelty song in its own right, imagining what Christmas might look like if the punk rock bands (of the late 1970s) got to celebrate it the way they wanted. While it’s clearly a bit tongue-in-cheek, there’s no doubt it’s just dripping with punk attitude. For example, among the things wished for are a nice sweater all ripped to shreds, a colour TV so it can be kicked in, and a Sex Pistols album with a picture sleeve… yeah, with a picture sleeve!
34. ★ “I Won’t Be Home for Christmas” – Blink-182
Pop-punk hit its peak between 1990 and 2005, with The Offspring’s Smash (1992, 6×-platinum) and Americana (1998, diamond), Green Day’s Dookie (1994, diamond) and American Idiot (2004, 6×-platinum), Good Charlotte’s The Young and the Hopeless (2002, 6×-platinum), and Montréal’s own Simple Plan with Still Not Getting Any… (2004, 6×-platinum). These bands – indeed, the entire genre – were all characterized by a more melodic flavour of punk, topped with irreverent, juvenile lyrics and themes. Blink-182’s 1999 Enema of the State (5×-platinum) is often identified as the mainstream peak of the genre. But don’t count the genre – or indeed even Blink-182 themselves – out just yet. Just this year saw the #1 release of California, complete with the hit single “Bored to Death” – and even Green Day is still kicking, having released their own #1 album this year: Revolution Radio.
This song is pretty typical Blink-182 and pop-punk fare – high energy, irreverent, and juvenile – with a narrator who is fed up with Christmas complaining about having to force smiles and play along, then flipping out and attacking carollers, ending up arrested with the obligatory prison rape joke.
33. ★ “Christmas Rules Everything Around Me” – Murs
Just a few weeks ago, rapper Murs set a Guinness World Record for the longest freestyle rap, going for 24 hours (with 5 minute breaks each hour – here’s how it looked as he crossed the finish line); I believe the previous record was just over 17 hours. Murs probably isn’t a name most people would recognize – his only album released on a major label is 2008’s Murs for President, which came along with a mockumentary Murs Administration, about his fictional struggles to become the president of hip-hop.
This song comes from around the time Murs was working as part of The White Mandingos – an experimental rock supergroup that released a concept album in 2013 called The Ghetto is Tryna Kill Me, a rock opera about a young black artist trying to maintain his artistic integrity after being discovered. It’s packed with call-outs, such as the leitmotif from “Carol of the Bells”. The name itself alludes to the Wu-Tang Clan classic “C.R.E.A.M.” (“Cash Rules Everything Around Me”).
32. ★ “Listen, the Snow is Falling” – Galaxie 500
This song has a very interesting history. It was written by Yoko Ono – yes, that Yoko Ono – back in 1969, right at the beginning of her rather messy relationship with John Lennon. Lennon may or may not have had a hand in writing it, but the song itself was used as a B-side for multiple projects featuring Lennon, Ono, and/or the Plastic Ono Band. Most notably, it was the B-side for the way-overplayed classic Happy Xmas (War Is Over) by John Lennon & Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band.
Here it is covered by Galaxie 500, shortly before their 1991 break-up. Galaxie 500 wasn’t around long, but they were quite influential. Their sound has been described as “lo-fi slowcore” or “dream pop”, later taken up by the likes of Low and Lorde. They’ve interpreted this song as a straight cover, but Naomi Yang’s vocal work is much more soothing – and thus more appropriate for the song – than Ono’s, and they ditch the organs for a beautifully echoing guitar.
31. ★ “Winter Paradise (I Miss You This Christmas)” – Liam and Me
There are a lot of bands with tales of depressing struggles they faced while bringing their music together, but there are probably very few more frustrating than the story of Liam and Me. In 2006, Liam and Me was soaring high after their self-published album There’s a Difference made a huge splash, and several major labels were interested in signing them. After being turned off by contracts from labels like Virgin that allowed the label to simply buy out the band’s entire catalogue on a whim, they signed with Thrive, and went into the studio to record what was intended to be a fall 2007 release. But then things went sideways, when the label’s advance check bounced. Turned out the label couldn’t afford to pay them anymore. But the label also wouldn’t give them back ownership of their songs. A court battle ensued. Meanwhile, the band was tapped to open for Boy George in his 2008 US tour … and if you know about Boy George, you can probably guess what happened next: his visa was denied due to charges that he imprisoned a male escort (and he was convicted shortly after).
I think Liam and Me eventually won their legal battles and finally released their album in 2012. I say think because I’m not even sure the band still exists. I haven’t heard anything about them in years now (it doesn’t help that web searches for their name just turn up articles about Oasis). It’s a pity, because as this 2008 song illustrates, they definitely have a gift for writing catchy tunes.
30. ★ “I Wish It Was Christmas Today” – Julian Casablancas
You may not recognize the name Julian Casablancas right away, but Casablancas is the lead singer and songwriter for The Strokes. When The Strokes came onto the scene in 2001, their debut album Is This It was hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time. At the time, the music industry was losing interest in the pop-punk sounds of Green Day and Blink-182, and moving away from guitar rock in general and more toward DJ music – electronica, dance, synth pop, and so on. (For example, even U2 was walking away from their rock roots with 1997’s Pop.) Is This It hit the industry like a slap in the face, and started what’s now called the “post-punk revival”, creating a whole new industry for garage-flavoured indie rock which spawned acts like The Killers and Arctic Monkeys. The Strokes, along with The White Stripes, have been called “the saviours of rock”.
When The Strokes took a break in 2007, Casablancas started a solo career. This song is from the period between The Strokes going on break and his first solo album. Actually it originally comes from a recurring Saturday Night Live skit featuring Jimmy Fallon, Horatio Sanz, Chris Kattan, and Tracy Morgan trashing other holidays in favour of Christmas, dating back to 2000. This version, however, I believe was recorded by Casablancas in 2009, and eventually included as a bonus track to his debut solo album Phrazes for the Young.
29. ★ “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” – Belle & Sebastian
Belle & Sebastian may be the ultimate hipster band, that band that anyone who knows music knows, but practically nobody else. They live on the cusp of greatness, always seeming just on the verge of a breakthrough to mainstream success and recognition, but always still firmly indie and obscure. Their flirtations with celebrity have become a source of much amusement for the band, who seem to enjoy their subversive, underground success.
This song was actually originally done by James Brown in 1968, but I’ve opted to go with the Belle & Sebastian version. It’s a straight cover, but it smooths out the rougher edges and the bravado of the Brown version, giving the song a more modern sound, and – in my opinion – better meshing with the lyrical message about putting the focus of the holidays on the people who need it most.
28. ★ “Sleigh Ride” – TLC
This song is occasionally billed as a remake or interpretation of the 1948/1950 classic “Sleigh Ride” (the tune was written in 1948, the lyrics were written in 1950 for The Andrews Sisters to perform). I don’t see it; certainly it borrows the name, and even a couple phrases, but the song is wholly different on every other level. I would call the borrowed lyrics a shout-out, rather than saying the whole song is meant to be an interpretation of the original “Sleigh Ride”. This “Sleigh Ride” was originally released as part of the soundtrack for Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, and features the sparkly harmonies of the three singers over a funky bass line.
TLC has been called the best-selling American girl-group of all time, and is routinely counted among the greatest musical groups. What’s remarkable is that they pulled that off despite criminal charges – Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes threw a bunch of her football player boyfriend’s shoes into a bathtub and lit them on fire after a fight, and the fire went out of control – being screwed over by the record label and filing bankruptcy – they were only making 0.56¢ per album, split three ways, off of the biggest selling album by a girl group ever – and bickering between the members. Tragically, Left Eye died in a car crash in 2002 while filming a documentary – the camera was actually rolling during the accident. T-Boz and Chilli have carried on ably since, though they’ve only released one album – 2002’s 3D, which mostly eulogized Lopes. However, they have announced that their next album, slated to be released next year, will be the last TLC album.
27. ★ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” – Ramones
The Ramones did not invent punk rock, but they defined it. They are easily one of the most influential bands in history – it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if a third of the artists on this list mentioned the Ramones as an influence. Their bombastic, two-minute songs were filled with both attitude and – surprisingly – melody, inspired by their fucked up childhoods. In fact, if anything killed the Ramones – other than their interpersonal strife – it would have to be the attempt to make them more commercially appealing. Today most people think of the Ramones with a sort of counter-cultural, almost anarchistic aesthetic, but they thought of themselves as a slightly less talented version of The Beatles, and were actually seeking mainstream success. They never really recovered from a disastrous attempt to work with legendary producer Phil Spector – by then, long past his prime, and now just creepy and crazy.
This song is a B-side from the single “I Wanna Live”, from 1987’s Halfway to Sanity. By then the band was long past their peak – although, their next album, 1989’s Brain Drain was a brief light in an otherwise unimpressive time (this song was included on that album). Years later, Joey Ramone rewrote and recorded an entirely new interpretation of the song. None of Joey Ramone’s solo work was released during his lifetime, but I believe that single may be one of the first released after his 2001 death.
26. ★ “All I Ever Get for Christmas is Blue” – Over The Rhine
Over The Rhine is a husband-and-wife duo originally from the similarly named Cincinnati neighbourhood. Their sound is evocative of the classic image of a dimly-lit piano lounge, with a sultry singer crooning breathily over a slow, jazzy piano, or small backing band. The highlight of their repertoire, so far, has to be the stunning “Ohio”, their 2003 album of the same name, but “All I Ever Get for Christmas is Blue” is a good sample of their style. The band is actually crediting with saving the once crumbling, crime-riddled Over-The-Rhine neighbourhood, based solely on the evocative power of their songwriting.
It doesn’t show up often in their music, but Over The Rhine’s Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist are actually very Christian. One of their albums is actually named after a C.S. Lewis book, and they’ve told stories of their move into a 170 year-old house outside of Cincinnati where they’ve had their marriage restored by planting a garden, found a snake in the attic – which they naturally took as a Biblical omen of sorts – and had the house
quake with the power of musical healing.
25. ★ “Santa Stole My Lady” – Fitz & The Tantrums
Fitz and the Tantrums are best described Motown-style soul music re-imagined through modern indie-rock – to hear what I mean, check out “MoneyGrabber”. The band consciously eschews the standard indie guitar sound, opting instead for a brass sound, mixing it with a look and style that calls back to the dapper showmanship of classic soul groups.
Here Fitz has a beef with Santa Claus, who is apparently not quite as chaste as the stories would have you believe. Apparently, Santa’s got a girl down every chimney, and she might be yours (or you, if you’re lucky, I suppose). “Better hide your mistletoe, break out your fire hose, better hold your lady close.” It makes a kind of sense, really – who ever believed that Santa was only coming down the chimney because of the milk and cookies?
24. ★ “Space Christmas” – Shonen Knife
A lot of the songs on this list are pretty depressing. You won’t find any of that here. Shonen Knife are famous for their goofy and light lyrics, singing about things like candy, good times, and… well… being a cat. Thing is, they sing about all of these things over a flavour of underground, indie, pop punk heavily inspired by acts like The Ramones. (In fact, they moonlight as a Ramones tribute band called The Osaka Ramones – Osaka being the part of Japan they hail from, which is basically “the south” of Japan both literally and in the sense of the American South.) Their combination of cutesy-girly imagery and raucous punk has made them perennial favourites, and even inspired an entire aesthetic known as “cuddlecore”. This song is typical of their style. It has no deep meaning – don’t even try to look for one – it’s just fun and silly and hard not to enjoy at face value.
Shonen Knife were around for almost a decade, with some of the biggest names in English music covering many of their songs, but it wasn’t until the legendary Kurt Cobain of Nirvana took them under his wing in 1991 that their popularity outside of Japan really exploded. By all accounts, Cobain and Shonen Knife hit it off swimmingly. In fact, Shonen Knife were touring with Nirvana at the end of 1993, and scheduled to join them again later in 1994 (Nirvana was actually touring with the Melvins at the time of Cobain’s disappearance and death). By my estimates, this song was released shortly after they met Cobain for the first time, and a few days before their first (two-week long) tour with Nirvana. At any rate, it was their first new release to chart in the US, and represents the very beginnings of their major English-language success.
23. ★ “What You Want for Christmas” – Quad City DJ’s, The 69 Boyz, and K-Nock
I’ve always considered Run–D.M.C.’s “Christmas in Hollis” to be the seminal hip-hop Christmas tune. Well, I got schooled last year, when someone pointed out this track. It’s a high-energy, old-school jam that you can’t help but move to. The lyrics are fun, too: basically a couple of wish lists for gifts, each formatted in a way that alludes to “The 12 Days of Christmas”, with some amusing items mentioned, such as “8 Sega tapes”, “8 male strippers”, “7 bus passes”, and of course, “2 girlfriends”.
If you don’t recognize the name Quad City DJ’s (yes, the apostrophe is in their name), don’t be surprised. They’re actually just a pair of producers (with some common associates) who have actually been in a bunch of other acts… notably the 69 Boyz, who are responsible for the classic “Tootsee Roll”. There were also in 95 South, of “Whoot There It Is” fame, along with rapper K-Nock (the rapper who wants a man “with a whole lot of cash flow” in this song). That’s not to say they haven’t and any success under the Quad City DJ’s name: there was the multi-platinum single “C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train)”.
22. ★ “All I Want for Christmas is Halloween” – Happy Fangs
I’m far from the only atheist whose noted that the traditions associated with Christmas are far less fun than those of Halloween. And it’s only natural to connect the two holidays – they occur around the same time, close enough that some stores literally take down the Halloween junk and put up the Christmas junk at the same time; that was the inspiration of the Tim Burton film The Nightmare Before Christmas. The San Francisco trio Happy Fangs apparently agree with me about which holiday is superior. (Interestingly, they also seem to think that even Thanksgiving is superior to Christmas, if “Fangsgiving” is to be believed, which they insist is “more than just a portmanteu, bites better than cookie dough, gives December a new glow”.)
Happy Fangs has a dirty-but-fun sound, with Michael Cobra’s raucous guitar over Jess Gowrie’s pounding drums, topped by Rebecca Bortman’s cheery vocals. Bortman has a blast creeping up Christmas traditions, intimating that when Santa is checking who’s asleep or awake he might be up to something else, and addressing the listener after an evil laugh: “I bet you thought this song was going to be jolly”.
21. ★ “All That I Want” – The Weepies
I didn’t know much about The Weepies before I stumbled across this tune. (I was later informed that if I’d not dismissed the show Gossip Girl (2007–2012) out of hand, I would have discovered them sooner, shame on me. I think it was worth the wait, if it meant giving the show a miss.) When I checked their Wikipedia page, it mentioned they’d been described as
subtly intoxicating folk-pop. I found myself nodding in agreement; it was surprisingly appropriate.
This song is not the least bit insistent or energetic, but it’s nevertheless slyly catchy. It actually comes off their first album, 2003’s Happiness. Like many of The Weepies’s tunes, it doesn’t appear to have had any kind of chart success, but it has appeared in numerous soundtracks and commercials.
20. ★ “Xmas Cake” – Rilo Kiley
For the last few years, the most depressing song on this list has arguably been Type O Negative’s “Red Water (Christmas Mourning)”. This year, I think Rilo Kiley takes the (Xmas) cake. This song is depressing on its face, with its haunting string/piano melody and vocals that might be better called crying into a microphone than singing. But it goes deeper with that. Jenny Lewis’s lyrics are like razor blades, cutting right at your insecurities: “When I take off my makeup, I look old and defeated. I’m not so dangerous.” Or: “You should just give up. ’Cause our love’s become selling secrets to the Russians they don’t need. The Cold War is on between you and me.” And that’s just the first verse.
This song was recorded just about at Rilo Kiley’s peak, but sadly they fell apart not long after, apparently due to the toxic working relationship between Lewis and and guitarist Blake Sennett. The two had dated in the past, and always had a somewhat dysfunctional professional relationship, but everything seemed to be working nonetheless, until shortly after 2004’s More Adventurous. Then came Sennett making public accusations of… I dunno, fraud or something, it was never really clear. The band was in a sort of limbo for almost five years, with some saying the band was broken up, others saying they were just on hiatus, and others saying… well, nothing. Sadly, Lewis finally confirmed to the National Post that Rilo Kiley was over. A sad end to the band, which only makes this song that much more melancholy.
19. 🍁 “Wintersong” – Sarah McLachlan
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.
18. 🍁 “Mistletoe” – Justin Bieber
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. Last year the Bieb seemed to be bouncing back, but he didn’t really make much of an impact this year – for better or worse.
17. ★ 🍁 “It’s Christmas Time” – Suzie McNeil
Shortly after releasing this in 2012, Suzie McNeil sorta dropped off the music map. She had a really promising start in the late 2000s. She had a couple of moderate hits, but the biggest feather in her cap has to be “Believe”. “Believe” was not a huge seller, but it was the standout track from Broken & Beautiful (2007), and it was later re-recorded with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, and became the Team Canada anthem for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
But McNeil didn’t completely vanish. Instead, she teamed up with some American musicians to form a group called Loving Mary. They released an EP in 2015, and say they have enough songs for a full album, so look out for that soon. She’s also working on another solo album. I expect we’ll be seeing a lot more of her, come 2017.
16. 🍁 “23 décembre” – Beau dommage
This 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.).
15. ★ 🍁 “Christmas Alone” – Current Swell
Current Swell is a four-man band hailing from Vancouver Island. Their sound is similar to The Black Keys: blues rock with an indie sensibility, with flavours of ska and folk thrown into the mix. Their fanbase has been built up primarily via grassroots, with them performing just about anywhere someone would let them set up – backyards and beaches (the former gets an amusing call-out in their video for “Rollin’”) – along with a strong Internet presence.
Christmas Alone is an amiable tune about missing someone for Christmas, led by an acoustic guitar and with a decent chorus.
14. ★ 🍁 “Not So Perfect Christmas” – Brett Kissel
Each year I try to make this list as musically diverse as possible, including songs from many different musical genres. But last year I got some criticism because I’d never really included any country songs. Well, you asked, and now you shall receive. Here’s a bonafide Canadian country star-in-the-making: CCMA– and Juno-winning, grade-A Alberta beef, natch … a cattle rancher, no less. Brett Kissel has been kicking around since 2003, always with some measure of success, but his star has really been rising the last couple of years.
This song covers lyrical ground we’ve heard before – about the fact that real-life Christmases tend not to quite satisfy the Norman Rockwell/Jimmy Stewart-esque ideal. Kissel calls up images of breakers tripping due to the lights, the lack of any Christmas snow, and the standard tropes such as drunken relatives. But Kissel’s take on the theme is enthusiastic and even endearing, embracing the imperfections – celebrating them, even.
13. 🍁 “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.
12. ★ 🍁 “Tinseltown” – Jimmy Rankin
Jimmy Rankin is one of the younger members of The Rankin Family, and of all the Rankins, Jimmy has had the most successful solo career by far. He’s won a pile of CCMAs and East Coast Music Awards, and has been nominated for Junos twice – once for Best Country Artist (2002), once for Country Album of the Year (2012, for Forget About the World).
“Tinseltown” is the sorta-title-track off the 2012 Christmas album Tinsel Town, which was released in a special sleeve that allowed the album to be sent as a Christmas card. It’s a gentle song, with an insistent percussion track, perfect for easy listening. The title might seem to imply disdain at the gaudy trappings of the holiday, but the lyrics themselves don’t bear that out. Instead, the idea of a “tinsel town” is passed off as a good thing.
11. ★ 🍁 “Throw Another Log (On The Fire)” – Chic Gamine
If you haven’t heard of Chic Gamine, you’re not alone. This Winnipeg/Montréal band’s profile is alarmingly low, given their gorgeous sound. The band has three lead singers – Annick Bremault, Alexa Dirks, and Andrina Turenne – who harmonize together beautifully. They remind me of a less hard rock, more groovy version of The Bangles, but others have compared them to classic Motown acts, albeit with more rock-oriented punch.
This song takes full advantage of their lovely vocal harmonies, laid over a gentle, country-flavoured melody that you can’t help but groove along to. There’s not much to it lyrically – it’s a fairly typical tale of pining for your loved one over the holidays. But you hardly notice the lyrical thinness, what with the soaring vocals and gently rolling melody thoroughly sweeping you away.
10. ★ 🍁 “Hang a String of Lights” – Great Lake Swimmers
Great Lake Swimmers, if one goes by its music, almost sounds like it could be a maritime band, but it’s from the Niagara Region in Ontario (obvious given the band name, I suppose), and nowadays they hang their hats in Toronto. Doesn’t sound like where you’d expect to find such talented folk-rockers, but there it is. They’ve been around since 2003, but 2009 was their banner year – their fourth album Lost Channels was nominated for a Juno and a Canadian Folk Music Award, and shortlisted for the 2009 Polaris Music Prize.
One of the things Great Lake Swimmers is known for is their off-beat recording locations, including castles, churches, and abandoned grain silos. Sadly I haven’t been able to find out where this song was recorded. But at any rate, it’s a catchy, upbeat, memorable tune that captures the festivity of the season, without the gaudiness.
9. ★ 🍁 “Santa Why’d You Do It!?” – Alyssa Reid ft. The Heist
This song is one of many that can trace its pedigree back to Jimmy Boyd’s 1952 classic, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. Here we have what seems at first like just another playful song about a kid’s perspective of the Santa Claus myth, complete with charming music, topped with Reid’s gorgeous, breathy vocal work. But things slowly start sounding… a little suspicious… as Reid describes a scrawny, stubbly Santa, and the song takes a sudden turn when she asks, with an off-key blast of brass, why her grandma is tied to a chair. From there it’s a delightfully funny ride, sung tongue-firmly-in-cheek by Reid and The Heist, whose child-personas are clearly no 1950s Jimmy Boyds, as they gripe about losing their iPads and seeing their stuff sold on Kijiji, and curse about Santa “jacking their shit”.
I actually had a hard time choosing a Reid song for the list this year – one of a very small number of artists for whom that is the case. My rule is one song per artist, but Reid’s repertoire includes not only this tune, but also “Mistress Claus”, which is also fun and funny. It’s a bit more straight-faced than this tune, though, and after this shitty year, I thought something a bit more irreverent would be better.
8. 🍁 “First Christmas” – Stan Rogers
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 occurrence 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.
7. ★ 🍁 “Red White and You” – These Kids Wear Crowns
These Kids Wear Crowns hail from Chilliwack, B.C.. Their genre is mostly pop rock, but they come to it by way of the boy band phenomenon associated with acts like the Backstreet Boys and One Direction, though they have more in common with Montréal’s Simple Plan (who they’ve toured with). They trade in high energy, radio friendly teen anthems. Their biggest success so far has been the title track off of 2011’s Jumpstart, but since then they haven’t really followed up on that success. They released a second studio album in 2015 but I can’t recall it making much of a splash. Since then, lead singer Alex Johnson ran in the 2015 election for the Libertarian party in Chilliwack—Hope, so it’s possible the band isn’t really functional anymore.
Whatever the status of the band, this song is undeniably catchy, and hard not to sing along to. It comes from the period while they were recording their debut studio album, released as an iTunes exclusive in 2010. There’s not much to it lyrically – indeed, a lot of the song is made up of repeating phrases. But its infectious, energetic pop brings a warmth and excitement that most of the songs on this list don’t have.
6. ★ 🍁 “The Mods of Christmas Town” – Zumpano
I haven’t been able to find out much about this group. They apparently formed in 1992 after the musicians in a band named Glee – Jason Zumpano and Michael Ledwidge – wanted to go in a different musical direction, despite some early success. Note that Zumpano the band is distinct from Jason Zumpano (who went on to have a solo career and to form the band Sparrow), though he was the band’s drummer. The pair teamed up with Superconductor’s Carl Newman (who later formed The New Pornographers), and bassist Stefan Niemann and formed a band called The Wayward Boys. They later changed the name to Zumpano (simply because they thought the drummer’s name was cool). They were signed to the legendary Sub Pop record label as part of Sub Pop’s effort to get away from its grunge affiliations, and released two albums and had one minor hit – “The Party Rages On” – before breaking up pretty much right after the release of their second album… although no announcement was made for almost four years.
This song was apparently released as part of promotional compilation album for a magazine: Ptolemaic Terrascope. It is easily one of the most unique-sounding pop songs on this list, with a melody that’s simultaneously driving and meandering, and insistent vocals. I can’t even tell you what the lyrics are about, and I don’t even want to tell you my guesses – I think it’s better for you to take what you can from them. But for all its peculiarity, it’s still beautiful and unforgettable.
5. 🍁 “Elf’s Lament” – Barenaked Ladies ft. Michael Bublé
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 “Weird Al” 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?
4. ★ 🍁 “Christmas Song ⅠⅠ (grinch)” – Grimes
I’ve been a fan of Grimes since “Genesis” and “Oblivion”, off of her third album Visions. Grimes is a very unique talent, taking genres that you wouldn’t normally associated with vocal brilliance – synth pop and electronica – and mixing them with her excellent vocal performances. But there’s a lot more to her music than that. Grimes is not formally educated (in music), and in fact only sort of fell into music making after doing vocals as a favour, then learning how to make her own in exchange for food. She makes music based on pure instinct, and has a way of reflecting “standard” pop tropes filtered as if through an oddly unique lens. To see what I mean, take a look at what she’s done to the old, classic Charlie Brown tune Linus and Lucy.
This song isn’t even actually an official Grimes song. It’s literally just her and her family and friends fucking around over a beat she slapped together – the rapper is her step-brother Jay Worthy; even the accompanying video is just them goofing off. But when someone of Grimes’s talent craps out a tune… they crap out a hell of a tune.
3. 🍁 “Song for a Winter’s Night” – Gordon Lightfoot
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).
While this song may generally be the perfect nonreligious Canadian holiday song, I didn’t feel that it was the perfect song to represent this lousy year. A major theme in Trump’s campaign this year was the old fascistic notion of going back to a “better time”, and a song about reminiscing over happy memories, and looking forward to reconnecting with past love, cut a little to close to that. That’s why the top songs on this list are all about rejecting the bullshit of the past, and either starting fresh or just wallowing in the misery of it. Maybe Gord will top the list again some time in the future. But not this year.
2. 🍁 “Merry Xmas (Says Your Text Message)” – Dragonette
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.
1. 🍁 “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.
So! 2016’s list is:
- 1. 🍁 “River” – Joni Mitchell
- 2. 🍁 “Merry Xmas (Says Your Text Message)” – Dragonette
- 3. 🍁 “Song for a Winter’s Night” – Gordon Lightfoot
- 4. ★ 🍁 “Christmas Song ⅠⅠ (grinch)” – Grimes
- 5. 🍁 “Elf’s Lament” – Barenaked Ladies ft. Michael Bublé
- 6. ★ 🍁 “The Mods of Christmas Town” – Zumpano
- 7. ★ 🍁 “Red White and You” – These Kids Wear Crowns
- 8. 🍁 “First Christmas” – Stan Rogers
- 9. ★ 🍁 “Santa Why’d You Do It!?” – Alyssa Reid ft. The Heist
- 10. ★ 🍁 “Hang a String of Lights” – Great Lake Swimmers
- 11. ★ 🍁 “Throw Another Log (On The Fire)” – Chic Gamine
- 12. ★ 🍁 “Tinseltown” – Jimmy Rankin
- 13. 🍁 “Snow” – Loreena McKennitt
- 14. ★ 🍁 “Not So Perfect Christmas” – Brett Kissel
- 15. ★ 🍁 “Christmas Alone” – Current Swell
- 16. 🍁 “23 décembre” – Beau dommage
- 17. ★ 🍁 “It’s Christmas Time” – Suzie McNeil
- 18. 🍁 “Mistletoe” – Justin Bieber
- 19. 🍁 “Wintersong” – Sarah McLachlan
- 20. ★ “Xmas Cake” – Rilo Kiley
- 21. ★ “All That I Want” – The Weepies
- 22. ★ “All I Want for Christmas is Halloween” – Happy Fangs
- 23. ★ “What You Want for Christmas” – Quad City DJ’s, The 69 Boyz, and K-Nock
- 24. ★ “Space Christmas” – Shonen Knife
- 25. ★ “Santa Stole My Lady” – Fitz & The Tantrums
- 26. ★ “All I Ever Get for Christmas is Blue” – Over The Rhine
- 27. ★ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” – Ramones
- 28. ★ “Sleigh Ride” – TLC
- 29. ★ “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” – Belle & Sebastian
- 30. ★ “I Wish It Was Christmas Today” – Julian Casablancas
- 31. ★ “Winter Paradise (I Miss You This Christmas)” – Liam and Me
- 32. ★ “Listen, the Snow is Falling” – Galaxie 500
- 33. ★ “Christmas Rules Everything Around Me” – Murs
- 34. ★ “I Won’t Be Home for Christmas” – Blink-182
- 35. ★ “(It’s Gonna Be a) Punk Rock Christmas” – The Ravers
- 36. ★ “X-mas Time (It Sure Doesn’t Feel Like It)” – The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
- 37. ★ “It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop” – Frightened Rabbit
- 38. ★ “Player’s Ball” – OutKast
- 39. ★ “Christmas Night of the Living Dead” – MxPx
- 40. ★ “The Christmas Song” – The Raveonettes
- 41. ★ “My First Xmas (As a Woman)” – The Vandals
- 42. ★ “Christmas is Cancelled” – The Long Blondes
- 43. ★ “Mookie’s Last Christmas” – Saosin
- 44. ★ “Christmas is Coming Soon” – Blitzen Trapper
- 45. ★ “The Christmas Song” – Weezer
- 46. ★ “Dance ’Til We’re High” – The Fireman
- 47. ★ “Let Me Sleep (Christmas Time)” – Pearl Jam
- 48. ★ “Santa’s Got a Self-Driving Sleigh” – Lex Ventura
- 49. ★ “Fallen Snow” – Au Revoir Simone
- 50. ★ “i hate december” – Ivy
2016 was a shitty year. 2015 was also a shitty year, but 2016 came along and topped it with a bang, because while 2015 gave us shit, 2016 has given us shit that will stick, for at least a half-decade to come. The EU had their Brexit (and the spectre of more fascist, hard-right, populist leaders lurking in the wings), the US had Trump, and we in Canada have a Liberal government that has managed to fail every single promise of change from the previous Conservative regime they made, gleefully approving pipelines in the face of growing evidence of climate change, flipping off aboriginals by dismissing UNDRIP and bulldozing over their territory to build dams, generally either bungling every file they’ve dealt with or simply leaving things in the mess that the Conservatives left them in.
Given the fact that 2016 dumped so much shit on us that promises to persist for years to come, I felt that “River”’s message of misery and introspection best represented the attitude in the air. “River” also puts the blame for its narrator’s misery squarely on their own shoulders, which works well as a metaphor for 2016’s shit – much of it is indeed the fault of progressives not taking the threats of populism and fascism seriously until it was far too late.
As always, I hold optimism for the future, but right now, after the turd-nuke 2016 was, I just want to take a moment to wallow. I just want to “skate away”, for now – just take some time to escape the harsh reality we now live in. But of course, it’s only a temporary break. Come 2017, I intend to be back, and ready to fight.
Well, that’s it for Indi’s alternative holiday playlist until next year. But, as always, if you have any suggestions that you’d like to see featured on a future list, leave a note in the comments.
See you next year!
Thanks for the work you do each year on this list!
Do you know about Sting’s album ‘If on a winter’s night’ from 2009? It has some beautiful (to me) and haunting winter songs. A lot of them are traditional British songs spanning 5 centuries. Some are religious but others are just winter themed.
Actually, when I made the first list back in 2013, my original strategy was to search for noteworthy holiday albums and pick songs off of them. It didn’t pan out – turned out the big names are *extremely* god-besotted when it comes to holiday albums… and if not that, then the songs were almost always MOTR crap that sounds like everything else playing on the radio all December. Eventually I ditched the idea and changed my strategy for finding decent songs.
But Sting’s holiday album *was* one of the ones I looked at, mostly because he was fresh in the news for his shipyard album. I actually still have “Gabriel’s Message” in my “no” bin. I guess I looked at a few of the songs, saw they were all hymns, then moved on.
I’ll give it another look, though!