Here are songs #40 to #21 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
Among the candidates for most depressing song in this list, it may be Rilo Kiley who 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.
There is a lot of interesting history behind this song. The first major hit to feature rapping was, famously, the Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 classic “Rapper’s Delight”, but that was an independent release. Kurtis Blow was the first rap artist to be signed to a major label that same year, and the following year he would release 1980’s The Breaks – with its seminal title track (released only a few weeks after this song). But the first track Blow released under Mercury was this song; released for Christmas 1979, it is the first song to feature rapping from a major label.
Hip-hop was a very counter-cultural thing at first (and still is, somewhat), and this track thumbs its nose at the standard Christmas tropes. It opens up with Blow cutting off a recitation of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by saying “that’s played out”, then breaking down into the beat. Being old-school hip-hop – just about as old as old-school hip-hop gets – there’s not much in the way of social commentary. Instead, the lyrics basically retell “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, except that St. Nick happens to drop by the house while it’s in the middle of a party, and joins in.
could either be a Christmas movie, or a very rare example of a Halloween holiday movie. In the film, each holiday has its own “town”, and the denizens of Halloween Town stumble on Christmas Town, and are awed by it and its leader Santa Claus… whom they interpret as
Sandy Claws and assume must be a truly horrifying monster. It’s a classic Tim Burton film, naturally scored by his favourite collaborator Danny Elfman. In one scene, the minions Lock, Shock, and Barrel (one of whom is voiced by Elfman) have been ordered to
kidnap the Sandy Claws, and they sing a gleefully demented song discussing various horrible ways to accomplish this, and celebrating their status as minions. Black humour abounds – for example, at one point one of the minions suggests blowing Santa up, an idea which another minions describes as
stupid… but only because if the blow him to bits they run the risk of losing some of the bits.
The version of that song I’ve chosen to highlight is from the 15th anniversary cover/tribute album Nightmare Revisited (2008), which has the film’s songs covered by various contemporary bands. This cover is by nu-metal band KoЯn, who turn the quirky and cute little ditty into something positively sinister and psychotic. In particular, because lead singer Jonathan Davis is singing – alone – what was originally an argument between three characters, it gives the impression of a deranged lunatic arguing with the voices in his head.
The eels are one of the most interesting bands on this list, mostly due to the story of Mark Oliver Everett, who goes by the name E. eels is E and E is eels, really, backed by a rotating group of musicians (the best place to see them is as the background band in the hilarious Jim Carrey anti-gun video “Cold Dead Hand”). His father was Hugh Everett III, the physicist who came up with the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics as his PhD thesis. If you know physics, you know Hugh Everett was ridiculed for his theory, which was disdained as pseudoscience, and it hurt him so much he quit physics and dropped out of sight (actually, he started working for the US government on top secret projects, designing nuclear weapons). That’s the public side of that story… the private side is that Hugh Everett became a bitter drinker, and died at 51 (ironically, just when his theory was beginning to capture popular imagination). The Everetts had a hands-off approach to child-rearing that bordered on abandonment; when 19 year-old Mark found his father’s body, he realized as he desperately tried to resuscitate him that it was the very first time he and his father had ever touched. Oh, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When he was 11, he was home alone (as usual), and an aeroplane crashed on his neighbourhood. No, seriously. A fucking aeroplane crashed on his neighbourhood. He walked outside and wandered through the burning wreckage and body parts for a while, then… just went back home, figuring, as he later put it,
Hey! It’s Wednesday, must be a plane crashing outside. Oh, there’s more. His older (and only) sister, who had been institutionalized for schizophrenia and treated with electroconvulsive therapy, committed suicide in 1996. Then in 1998, his mother died, after a long battle with cancer. Think I’m done? Nope. In 2001, his cousin was a flight attendant on American Airlines flight 77; her husband was also on board. If that flight number sounds familiar… it’s the plane that hit the Pentagon on 9/11. By that point, Everett had dealt with so much shit in his life, that the thing he found himself wondering about the incident was whether the plane had actually hit his father’s old office.
So you might expect that his entry would be a dark and depressing song. Not in the least. The lyrics have the narrator reminding someone who is down in the dumps that he has friends, and they’re all waiting for them to join in the festivities… then also adds a verse saying how much it means to the narrator to have that person as their friend. What a perfect, humanistic holiday message. Knowing Everett’s story makes the song’s message that much more amazing.
Camera Obscura is a Scottish Indie band that’s been around since 1996, but I’m honestly not sure whether they’re still a thing. They were just starting to find success with their last two albums, when keyboardist and vocalist Carey Lander was diagnosed with bone cancer. The band ended up having to cancel tour gigs due to her declining health, and Lander died in 2015. The band hasn’t really done anything since. I haven’t heard that they’ve disbanded, though, so maybe there’s more to come from Camera Obscura.
This song is actually a remake of a 1961 track by country legend Jim Reeves. While Camera Obscura almost completely strip away its country flavour and add a more festive sound, they faithfully retain the lyrics, about a man’s tragic devotion to his old, lame pony, Dan.
The lyrics on this track are incredible. The song was written by 38 Special co-founder Don Barnes, and Jim Peterik of Survivor (famous for “Eye of the Tiger”, and who has co-written several 38 Special songs, along with several other big name acts). In the same vein as Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song for a Winter Night”, the narrator is recalling a past lover who is no longer with him, and dreaming of meeting again and rekindling the relationship. But where Lightfoot trades in sweet but mundane observations, this narrator goes positively poetic, with gloriously beautiful lines like:
And I will feel you, when I hear the voices singing / You’re a shining star burning in my heart. / And when the bells ring, I will hear you in the music.
This comes from 38 Special’s Christmas album, 2001’s A Wild-Eyed Christmas Night, their second-last album. The band still exists, sort of. Don Barnes is the only remaining original member; his friend and co-founder Donnie Van Zant retired in 2013 due to serious ear problems. But 38 Special is still doing kicking, still doing live shows.
Even death metal fans get into the holiday spirit! And… vikings? Amon Amarth takes its name from Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings, as rendered in the fictional language of the elves. They’re a Swedish death metal band famous for using Viking themes in their lyrics and imagery, with album titles like With Oden on Our Side and the song “Twilight of the Thunder God” describing the final battle between Thor and the world-serpent Jörmungandr at Ragnarök. This song fits with the theme, but plays with it in a hilariously clever way.
The song is sung by a band of self-proclaimed Vikings, who remark on their disdain for Christianity and its traditions… then admit that they nevertheless enjoy the holiday. The lyrics are deliriously funny:
Most of the year, we are but heathens, / sailing, fighting, plundering, and crushing skulls. / We confess to fight for Odin; we pretend to be his horde. / But when the year draws to an end things get kind of bizarre. At which point, the Viking skull-crushers start singing about how sentimental they get over their childhood holiday traditions such as presents and gingerbread, with daffy imagery like
five bearded vikings reenact the Nativity scene, and the chorus ending:
Nobody can escape the magic of Christmas. (This same band also did an insanely death metal take on, of all things, “Jingle Bells”.) Definitely a tune you’ll want to bring out while celebrating the holidays at the grandparents’.
This song was never intended to be a Christmas song. It was intended to be an anti-war protest song, but the mention of wanting to be home by Christmas – as well as the brass band interludes and jingle bells – has turned this song into a holiday classic. The lyrics are deceptively simple, apparently the plea of a World War I soldier to stop the fighting so he can go home, but there are other references that make the actual time period impossible to determine. In fact, according to Lewie himself, the soldier is meant to be timeless – a representation of the soldiers fighting all wars across time.
Jona Lewie is mostly known for offbeat novelty songs like “You’ll Always Find Me in the Kitchen at Parties” and “Seaside Shuffle” (released under the band name “Terry Dactyl and the Dinosaurs”). He’s also found some success in other countries, but is essentially unheard of in Canada.
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.
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.
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.).
The “Christmas Truce” of World War I is one of the most enduring myths about the war, and it’s not hard to understand why. It’s a perfectly romantic story of humanity managing to find a way to emerge even in the bleakest of situations, and something something “the magic of Christmas”. The reality of the Christmas truces (plural) is actually far more interesting… and much more humanist. First, the truces actually had little to do with Christmas itself: Soldiers all across the Western Front routinely found ways to avoid fighting, and to fraternize with the enemy. It became such a problem that by the time Christmas 1914 rolled around, military commanders on both sides were taking active steps to prevent the large-scale, widespread truces they knew were coming around Christmas day. They tried planting false intelligence that the enemy would attack, and desperately tried to suppress any word of the truces making the papers. In the end it didn’t work; the truces happened, and the New York Times defied the publication ban. Ironically, though, one of the biggest impacts of the truces was that military leadership learned how it important it was to utterly dehumanize the enemy before sending troops out to face them, because contrary to conventional “wisdom”, without extensive provocation human nature tends to lead people to prefer chumming around and partying, rather than killing each other.
When McCutcheon performs this song live, he usually prefaces it with a story. These stories have become as much a part of the fabric of the song’s tale as the lyrics. He has several variations, ranging from the story of how he heard of the truces from a janitor, to one about meeting actual German WWI veterans who had been involved in the truces. You can find several of them in the various YouTube versions of the song.
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.
Bo’ Selecta! was a British comedy show that is… hard to explain. The main character is a completely insane celebrity-obsessed stalker who keeps his dead mother in a closet. There are a number of skits featuring impersonated celebrities – impersonated (badly) by show creator Leigh Francis wearing horribly deformed rubber masks only vaguely resembling the celebrities, and for some reason wearing thick glasses. In the video below, that character wearing the Santa hat on the CD cover pictured is supposed to be Craig David (who was reportedly not pleased with the way he was portrayed – the series is actually named after the 1999 Artful Dodger single “Re-Rewind (The Crowd Say Bo Selecta)” that features Craig David). There is also a perverse bear puppet with an enormous pop-up phallus.
That first verse is supposed be sung by Craig David, the second by Michael Jackson (and the voice at the end talking about “the magic” is David Blaine) – impersonated by Francis, of course. Other “celebrities” and characters from the show chip in from time to time. The lyrics largely refer to jokes from the series – Craig David’s peregrine falcon, and Michael Jackson’s pet Bubbles not actually being a monkey (in the series, she is a hot blonde woman that lives with “Jackson”). All that aside, the song is an awesomely catchy and fun pop song, with a chorus that’s hard not to sing along with. Without knowing the references, the lyrics are delightfully absurd, all delivered in a silly argot, and the song works as a funny spoof of any of the countless Christmas songs about being excited about the holiday… with the amusing catch that the singer in this song is so excited he can’t control his bladder.
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.
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.
24. ★ 🍁 “Winterlong” – Neil Young
I seriously doubt I need to introduce Neil Young to readers. Young’s career is one of the most influential in all of modern music. He’s one of only three people to have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame first for his solo career then later as part of a band (the other two are Clyde McPhatter of The Drifters and Rod Stewart of Faces; it’s far more common to first be inducted as part of a group then for a solo career later, for example, as with all The Beatles). I could fill a page with the list of the man’s awards: multiple Junos including Artist of the Year, multiple Grammys including Best Rock Song, even a fricken’ Oscar nomination. All this and yet arguably he’s even more famous these days as a peace activist.
This song first appeared on some rare pressings of 1975’s Tonight’s the Night, but was officially released only on 1977’s Decade, Young’s first and for almost three decades only retrospective compilation album.
This song should have been utter crap, tossed out by writer Chris Butler just to satisfy the demands of the record company (literally written partly in the cab ride to the studio to record it), and slapped together with whatever musical licks he happened to have lying around. And it might have been crap, even with it’s fun, bouncy beat, and left utterly forgotten in the dustbin of musical history. That might have been, were it not for vocalist Patty Donahue.
Patty Donahue was not so much a singer as she was a vocal actress. She could put on a persona perfect for a song, and play it out in a vocal performance with astonishing verisimilitude. In the band’s first hit “I Know What Boys Like”, she plays a flirty, narcissistic, manipulative jerk… but she does it beautifully, with wry humour and a sly, knowing wink-and-nod with the listener – which adds brilliant metahumour to the song, because it’s almost as if she is telling them about how she toys with “boys”… while toying with the listener at the same time. In this song, she plays a cool, hip yuppie – I’ve heard it aptly described as “your too-cool-for-school older sister”. She’s even above singing (actually, they were trying to reference rapping, which was just beginning to become a thing at the time – this is also referenced as a pun in the song title). Just as a real cool big sister would, she tells the story with a kind of wry detachment, twenty-something drama, and loads of dry humour. But she brings it all together in the uplifting finale in a beautifully complex and layered way, where you can believe that even as she mocks the idea of a Christmas miracle, she might just believe in it anyway… just a little, maybe.
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.
La Vent du Nord may be the biggest name in Québec folk music today. They are darlings of the CBC, have racked up Junos for Roots & Traditional Album of the Year twice, and have toured dozens of countries on five continents. They don’t just perform traditional songs, and original songs in traditional styles, they have even tried to expand the range of Québécois folk music via a symphonic concert.
I’ve been told most Québécois don’t really listen to traditional music… except during the holiday season. And that, in the minds of many Québécois, holiday music is folk music, and vice versa. I don’t know if that’s true, but if so, this tune would capture the flavour of the Québec holiday season on several levels – not just musically, but with its call-outs and allusions to hockey.