Here are songs #100 to #81 in the 2017 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
Indi’s alternative holiday playlist 2017:
- #100 to #81
- #80 to #61
- #60 to #41
- #40 to #21
- #20 to #1
- Summary (and downloadable playlists)
🍁 = Canadian
★ = New this year
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 it stayed 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.
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 particularly politically correct holiday song, but it’s nevertheless quite fun to listen to.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Last year 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 “” (“Cash Rules Everything Around Me”).
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.
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. Last 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.
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?
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”.
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.
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 bomb-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).
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 Malcolm 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 Malcolm Young passed, Brian Johnson going deaf, Cliff Williams retiring, and Phil Rudd convicted for hiring a hitman, it’s hard to believe that AC/DC has any more comebacks up their sleeves. On the other hand, Angus Young is soldiering on, bringing back drummer Chris Slade (who plays drums on this track), replacing Malcolm with his nephew Stevie, and bringing on Axl Rose for vocals… there just may be another comeback in them yet.
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.
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!”
There are many bands with rags-to-riches stories, but few can really claim the “rags” title as honestly as The Used. These guys weren’t just poor; they were homeless and panhandling for change to pay for food. Their efforts to get their band off the ground even cost them friends – band’s name comes from complaints from friends that they felt
used by the band members. And even when they did start to find real success, tragedy struck in the form of lead vocalist Bert McCracken’s girlfriend dying of an overdose… while pregnant with his child. Nevertheless, the band has kept on going on, and this year they just released their seventh album, with new guitarist Justin Shekoski, formerly of Saosin.
This track was actually written for a compilation album titled Kevin & Bean’s Fo’ Shizzle St. Nizzle, the 2002 release of a (mostly) annual holiday charity album produced by The Kevin & Bean Show, a LA morning radio show – a show that once featured a just-starting-out Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla.
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.
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.