Here are songs #60 to #41 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
I can’t say I know much about A Band Called Quinn, but what little I’ve heard about them is fascinating. The band seems to be less about making music for the sake of music, and more the music-making arm of a theatre and film producer… except that the performances and films are often about being a band and making music. It’s weirdly meta and circular. Louise Quinn, the main talent behind the band, has made quite a name for herself on the theatre scene, with things like a modern pop-rock, science-fictional take on The Beggar’s Opera, and a well-received play called Biding Time(remix) that is a remake/remix of an older play about breaking into the music industry.
This song seems to have been written apropos of nothing, then simply released on YouTube as a “gift” to fans. It’s fun, catchy, and easy to sing along with, or just enjoy Quinn’s lovely vocals.
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)”.
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!
There was a period in the early 1970s when rock music became expansive, operatic, experimental, and – many would say – absurd in its excesses. It was a time of concept albums, ambitiously flamboyant live performances, and sprawling opuses displaying both virtuoso-level musicianship and complex structures with shifting movements and time signatures. Rush is the one of the bands from that era, but one of the biggest, most influential, and first, was the supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer. In the early 1970s, ELP was the poster child for progressive rock’s excess – one of their songs runs thirty minutes long and had to be split over two sides of a record. Aside from going on to inspire future prog rockers, their textured, synthesized sound (they actually pioneered the use of synthesizers, particularly live) has some other curious influences. They have been listed as inspirations by both Nobuo Uematsu – the legendary video game composer who originally scored Final Fantasy – and Nintendo’s Koji Kondo (Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Brothers, and Star Fox).
ELP fell apart in the late 1970s, but reformed briefly in the 1990s – this song is from the comeback album released during that period. This song is nothing like the kind of stuff one would normally associate with ELP, but it is a beautifully rendered acoustic ballad with some gloriously operatic lyrics about how love can pull someone out of dark times:
Take my love into your breast, / commit my spirit to the test. / You will see him like a knight; / his armour gleams. / We’ll fly upon his angel’s wings / above the clouds in rainbow rings. / We can sail a ship of dreams.
There are a lot of people who would name John Prine as one of the greatest American songwriters, and when one of those people is Bob Dylan, you should probably take notice. “Christmas in Prison” is, on the face of it, a love song by someone who is separated from their lover for the holiday and thinking about them – the same kind of thing you’ll see in a thousand seasonal songs. But Prine renders it with astounding pathos. Prine’s voice is gravelly and strained, over a spare guitar melody – it works perfectly at evoking the image a convict in prison musing away in his endless free time. The slowly flowing waltz adds to the sense of time slowly passing, dreamily and drearily.
There’s another, more amusing interpretation to the lyrics. Recall that the narrator is a guy who’s been in prison a long time and probably expects to be for a while longer –
wait a while, eternity, old Mother Nature’s got nothing on me – and he’s pining about his love. What, exactly, do you think he’s doing? Consider lines like
come to me now, we’re rollin’, my sweetheart, we’re flowing, by God. I’m not sure if Prine intended for that implication to have been made. Nevertheless it’s a popular interpretation of the song.
Most people know that the band Spın̈al Tap is a fictional band created for Rob Reiner’s classic 1984 comedy mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap. That wasn’t always true – when the movie was first released, it was such a perfect parody that many moviegoers were fooled into believing the band was real. Eventually, art became life. The actors who played the band have actually gotten together and played real shows – and released real singles and albums – in their Spın̈al Tap personas. In fact, it can be difficult to figure out which songs and albums (and drummers) are real and which are fictitious.
This song is actually the first real single they released after the film, and – unsurprisingly – the song is a spot-on parody of metal (and Spın̈al Tap’s alleged shamelessness at being willing to try to cash in on any trend), with some howlers in the lyrics:
There’s a demon in my belly and a gremlin in my brain. / There’s someone up the chimney hole, and Satan is his name. Throw up the horns and bust this sucker out at a family gathering – that’s my idea of a Christmas party.
While this song is new to the list, The Raveonettes aren’t. While the band is pretty big in Denmark, they haven’t had huge success elsewhere… except that their songs are frequently used in movies and commercials. This list previously featured “The Christmas Song”, probably 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).
One thing The Raveonettes are known for are their publicity stunts. In 2016, for example, they recorded and released a song every month, creating what they called an “anti-album”: 2016 Atomized. They’ve also released 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.
I can’t say I know much about Derik Nelson. His biggest claim to fame seems to be as “the blonde guitarist on Glee”, but his music or singing has been used on several shows aimed at roughly the same demographic, such as How I Met Your Mother, Felicity, and The Voice. These days he seems to have formed a trio with manager/sister Riana and tech guy/brother Dalton, that boasts of both beautiful three-part harmonies, and a high-tech live show.
This song predates Riana and Dalton’s official move into the group, but the song’s beautiful harmonies may be a preview of what Derik Nelson & Family sounds like these days. But as beautiful as the harmonies and guitar may be, the lyrics are absolutely incredible. They tell the tale of a pair of lovers – one of whom has gone to sea, and, it is implied, won’t be making it back – calling out across the distance with hope and determination, and the promise to try and get closer to each other.
Devo is most famous for the 1980 novelty hit “Whip It”, whose bizarre video was hugely controversial in the early days of MTV, but they’ve been playing tongue firmly in cheek since 1973. While they are often described as a joke band, they might be better described as satirical performance artists. Their works draw on art deco science fiction themes, and hides subversive social commentary behind bizarre humour.
This track is a perfect example of Devo’s subversive undertones and deadpan humour. On its face it’s an upbeat, cheerful tune about inclusiveness when celebrating the holidays. At the same time it manages to balance a sense of frustration with the need to kowtow to all the different customs. It’s hilariously two-faced, cheerfully urging listeners to:
Believe what you want, nothing’s really true.
Run–D.M.C. are widely considered to be the best hip hop group ever. Their arrival on the music scene signalled the end of (what is now called) the “old school” of hip-hop – relatively simplistic rapping over grooves that were largely sampled from disco and funk, with the artists wearing flashy, flamboyant outfits (what we would now call “pimp style”) and rapping about partying and having fun. At the time, a lot of people writing off hip-hop as a fad, and announcing that its time had passed. Then came Run–D.M.C.. Gone were the theatrics – now the artists wore regular street clothing (albeit with some “bling”), and with much more advanced and experimental rap styles over sparse drum-and-bass beats they rapped about political and social issues. Run–D.M.C. were at the vanguard of this change, and their list of accomplishments is jaw-dropping.
“Christmas in Hollis” is probably the best known hip-hop Christmas song. It isn’t meant to be taken too seriously. The first half is a fairly silly story of Run finding a wallet full of cash belonging to Santa Claus, then finding out as he goes to return it that it was actually intended as his Christmas present. The second half – mostly done by D.M.C. – is much better, giving a picture of Christmas as it was done in Hollis, Queens, New York.
The Knife was an electronic duo made up of a pair of Swedish siblings that found huge acclaim with four albums (plus one album based on an opera about Darwin)… then abruptly quit in 2014, saying it just wasn’t fun anymore. That was only the last in a career of pop-music-defying antics, like always performing with plague doctor masks on, thumbing their noses at the media, and refusing to attend the Swedish Grammis (even the year they cleaned up there). Their work is far more overtly political than the norm for Scandi-electro music, taking cues from modern gender and queer theory, with strong feminist messaging.
This track is from their first, eponymous album, but it is not the original. The original was simply called “Reindeer”, lacks the jingle bells, and adds a searing guitar solo – less festive, but definitely worth checking out. Whichever version you prefer, the lyrics are the same, giving Santa’s reindeer a somewhat fatalistic attitude toward their duties.
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.
Sara Bareilles has a string of Grammy and Tony Award nominations under her belt, including nominations for some of the big ones – Album of the Year, Best Original Score, and Best Musical Theatre Album. Ingrid Michaelson has multiple Indie chart-topping albums and Billboard 100 hits to her name. Either of these women on their own could be expected to write an amazing holiday tune, but with their talents combined, the result is simply sublime.
“Winter Song” got some small attention in Canada in 2008, but has earned considerable attention elsewhere. It has been used in Grey’s Anatomy, Scrubs, and The Vampire Diaries, and was performed live by Bareilles and Michaelson for President Obama in 2010 at the US National Christmas Tree Lighting. The lyrics are beautifully humanist, evoking the idea of facing hard times with even harder times to come while holding onto the knowledge that happy times will come again, and love is what will pull us through until then. I also recommend watching the animated music video.
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.
Santa Claus is a ridiculous fantasy, so if you’re going to ask a ridiculous fantasy for a favour, what is the logic in asking for mundane things like toys, a chance to see a lover, or even one’s two front teeth… you might as well make a ridiculously fantastical request to stay in the spirit of things. That’s the logic here, as Fountains of Wayne asks Santa Claus for… an alien… for Christmas. Yes, an alien. A “little green man”, apparently just to hang out with and watch Twilight Zone reruns. The lyrics are cheerfully absurd, and the song is catchy and easy to sing along to.
It’s a mystery to me why this band isn’t bigger. They had modest success with the Grammy-nominated novelty song “Stacy’s Mom”, but they have consistently cranked out catchy, fun songs for almost two decades, without much mainstream notice. It’s not like they’re a secret in the industry, either; songwriter Adam Schlesinger has a wall full of Grammys and Emmys from songwriting-for-hire work he’s done for Hollywood and so on. He wrote the Grammy-nominated title song from That Thing You Do!, the Emmy-nominated and Grammy-winning A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!, two Emmys for songs on Sesame Street, and two more for the songs they wrote for Neil Patrick Harris to perform at the Tony Awards.
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.
Westside Connection was a supergroup made up of Ice Cube, Mack 10, and WC, as a sort of protest against the snubbing of West Coast rappers. They made their point damn well with 1996’s “Bow Down”, off the album of the same name, then the three artists went back to their solo careers. They would reunite for one final album in 2003 before their breakup in 2005, but in the meantime, they released several compilation and soundtrack singles, mostly from films featuring Ice Cube. This single is from Friday After Next, the third film in the Friday franchise, which were all written by Ice Cube.
You can probably guess that this is not going to be a bunch of treacly platitudes to Burl Ives-esque visions of the holidays. Sure enough, Cube comes out of the box swinging:
Holla if ya clear n***r, it’s Ice Cube and you can call me the Grinch. I got your Christmas list, but I ain’t buying you shit. The song’s about a bunch of guys that intend to relax and have some fun for the holidays, “fun” being mostly lots of getting laid and high (hence the “daze” in “holidaze”), which actually doesn’t sound like a bad Christmas to me.
The Daou released just a single album, but had some success with the #1 dance hit “Surrender Yourself”. This song comes from that album. The band fell apart after contract problems, and Vanessa Daou went on to further success as a solo dance artist, but the real story has to then-husband Peter Daou.
After a stint as a producer, Peter Daou went into politics, and has become one of the most aggressively partisan voices of the US Democratic Party. He worked with the Kerry campaign in 2004, then joined the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2006. Most recently, he and new wife Leela created the website Verrit, which appears to be about shareable factoid images pushing Democrat talking points, each of which is attached to a short article giving more information and links to sources and supporting data. What Verrit is most known for, however, is going offline three hours after Hillary Clinton tweeted in support of it due to what Daou claimed was
significant and sophisticated DDOS attack. But that’s just the tip of the Peter Daou iceberg. I could tell you about the man’s stint with a Christian militia fighting Hezbolla in Lebanon – something you’d more likely associate with a far right-winger… or about the concept album he produced about his aunt-in-law’s sex book where she described an incident where his father tried to coerce her into a blowjob… or about how he claimed to be responsible for creating The Huffington Post. I could go on and on, but really, the man’s story is far too expansive to be covered here.
Graham Parker is primarily known as a rock musician – mostly from his time backed by The Rumour as Graham Parker & The Rumour – but the truth is that over his almost five-decade long career, he has dabbled in several genres. Parker recently reunited with The Rumour – famously depicted in the 2012 Judd Apatow film This Is 40 – and they have released a couple albums since.
But Parker’s first love, going back to his childhood, has always been soul music. This track is off of Parker’s 1994 EP Graham Parker’s Christmas Cracker. It’s basically just a list of call-outs to some of soul music’s biggest names – everyone from James Brown to Otis Redding, Sam Cooke to Aretha Franklin – all put together in a fun fantasy Christmas party.
Although they had been generating buzz for a couple years due to word-of-mouth from their live shows, The Darkness had a hell of a time getting signed to a record deal. It seems the record execs didn’t know what to make of them – many wrote them off as a joke. When they finally did get signed, their debut album, 2003’s Permission to Land, roared up the charts – breaking in at #2 and then holding #1 for four weeks – and the single “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” hit #2. But it’s not hard to see why the record execs might have been a bit baffled. Just check out the video for “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”, which features the band hamming it up in their own take on Star Trek – cheap, 1960s era special effects and all – culminating in a battle with an alien tentacle monster where they use the power of rock and roll to fire blasts from their guitars like Ghostbusters proton packs. It’s a thing of beauty.
This song was their swing at the prestigious Christmas #1 position in 2003, a tongue-in-cheek glam rock piece that almost functions as a spoof on holiday music. On the surface, it’s almost like an ode to Christmas day itself – just the day; all the trappings like the gifts and the merry-making are shrugged off with disdain. The band has subsequently admitted that much of the song is an elaborate yet subtle dick joke.