Here are songs #20 to #1 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
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.
It’s hard to believe that Mumford & Sons have only been around since 2007, and that their first album, Sigh No More only dates back to 2009. The band has managed to create a strange new/old vibe that feels like stuff that’s been around forever, but at the same time completely fresh and modern. To date they’ve racked up a Grammy for Album of the Year and a Juno for International Album of the Year – both for 2012’s Babel – and a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist.
This track is from Sigh No More, and was only their second release ever (after the double-platinum, Grammy Best Rock Song nominated “Little Lion Man”). It has a man considering a love affair just to escape the loneliness and cold, trying to rationalize away the fact that there’s really no love to the affair, just lust. The beautiful lyrics paint the picture of a man more thoughtful and mature than the average pop song protagonist, who has lived through a lot, and bears the scars of it all. Yet despite all that, the song is wistfully optimistic, and very humanist. And of course, it has a kickin’ chorus that’s awesome to sing along with.
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 reprised the role yet again for 2015’s “Dirt Sledding”, the third and final part of the “vengeful Santa” trilogy.
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 book-ended 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.)
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. (The original version is even bloodier, featuring the death of Santa at the hands of a SWAT sniper.) 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.
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 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
8. ★ “Keep Christmas With You (All Through the Year)” – Susan, Gordon, Big Bird, Luis, David, Bob, Prairie Dawn, and Ernie
It’s easy to forget now in the face of its relentless marketing of toys, but Sesame Street was a pioneer in the field of “edutainment”. It was the first children’s education show to be based on actual research of what might be best for helping very young children learn, and it flew in the face of conventional wisdom for the time. In fact, they were warned not to show humans and puppets together, because that might confuse children. After early tests showed the advice to be misguided, they defied it, and made history. And it was good… very good. Despite its share of controversies, it’s always been famous for its offbeat humour, and has racked up more awards than any other children’s show, ever.
And the songs, oh the songs. Especially in its early years, the songs of Sesame Street have ranked among the best children’s songs written in the modern era. The Grammy-nominated “Rubber Duckie” (which also made the Billboard Top 20), “C is for Cookie”, “Sing”, “One of These Things is Not Like the Other”, “ABC-DEF-GHI Song”, “Bein’ Green”, the list is incredible. (My personal favourite is “Letter B” by “The Beetles”, to the tune of “Let Her Be” by The Beatles:
When I find I can’t remember / what comes after ‘A’ and before ‘C’ / my mother always whispers: / “Letter ‘B’”. That one actually triggered lawsuit by The Beatles, which only ended when Micheal Jackson bought The Beatles’ catalogue and settled the case for $50.) This particular song comes from the 1978 special Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (which won an Emmy), and has a simple but beautiful melody, with matching lyrics.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 year. A major theme in the rhetoric of far-right fascists like Trump is the 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.
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.
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.