Here are songs #80 to #61 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
This song is the most-requested for these lists by far; every year after the first I have had multiple people request it. I have resisted up until now because, despite being an absolutely beautiful song… it literally has nothing to do with the holidays. The only connection is the band’s name, which is about as incidental as you can get. But hey, there are a bunch of “traditional” holiday songs that actually have next to nothing to do with the holidays so… why not?
As for the band itself, it isn’t even really a band. It’s a drunken dare by Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody to a bunch of Scottish bands – including Belle & Sebastian, Mogwai, Arab Strap, and others; the first album was literally written in a day and recorded over a week and a half. The second album – from which this song comes – was released just ten months after. This song features thirteen writers, from bands such as Snow Patrol, Belle & Sebastian, Arab Strap, Astrid, Alfie, Eva, and The Moth & the Mirror.
Travel back with me to 2011, when Justin Bieber was still a squeaky-clean, fresh talent. His debut album had topped the Billboard charts, making him the youngest artist to accomplish that since Stevie Wonder in 1963. Despite his age, he was a genuine cultural phenomenon – it’s easy to forget now, in light of all that’s happened since, just how damn talented he is/was. At the time, in 2011, his voice was beginning to crack, and this song was one of the first singles to feature the change. It’s a somewhat silly pop ballad, but Bieber tackles it masterfully, though perhaps a little too straight-faced given the tongue-in-cheek nature of the song.
A year or two later Bieber would flame out spectacularly, in perhaps the most horrifying public career implosion of the early 2010s besides Shia LaBeouf’s. It’s hard to say what was to blame for it. It could have been the ridiculous “swagger coach” Usher assigned to him, to try to teach a white suburban bumpkin how to be hip-hop cool. On the other hand, his mother is Christian nutcase, and Bieber seemed to have inherited that.
Way back in 1975, Chris de Burgh had just signed his first record deal, but was still broke and crashing at a friend’s. There he read Erich von Däniken’s “classic” work The Chariots of the Gods?, which hypothesized that aliens built the Giza pyramids and influenced most of the world’s major religions, later inspiring Stargate. Never one to pass up a balmy idea, de Burgh hypothesized: What if the star of Bethlehem were an alien spacecraft? What if Christianity itself was simply a bastardized message of peace left behind by alien travellers? The thoroughly silly notion became this song, wherein Chris de Burgh earnestly tells a completely loopy version of the Christmas story involving glowing aliens, questionable science (just like Han Solo, de Burgh seems to think light-years is a measure of time), and an eschatological finale, all over delightfully spacey synthesizers and a backing choir. It’s simply glorious.
The song comes by its loopiness genuinely; I almost don’t want to break the spell for fans of “Lady in Red”, but de Burgh is a well-known kook. He started his musical career singing in a castle – an actual castle in Ireland – that his family owned. He’s a self-confessed Christian but SBNR, believes in the power of prayer as medicine, and claims to have actually healed by the laying on of his own hands.
It might come as a surprise to most Canadians that Sarah McLachlin didn’t release a Christmas song until 2006 – almost 20 years into her career. That year she released the album Wintersong, of which this is the title track, which went on to become the biggest Christmas album of the year in both Canada and the US. Unfortunately for our purposes, all the songs on that album (and her subsequent Christmas singles) are religious carols, with the exception of a decent cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River” that became the lead single off the album, and this song, which was never even released as a single.
“Wintersong” has a beautiful, slow, melancholy melody, covered by McLachlin’s dreamy vocals. However, there’s not much to it, and the lyrics aren’t particularly creative either. It’s often said that artists sleepwalk through Christmas albums and singles, and that certainly seems to be true here. On the other hand, when an artist of McLachlin’s talent sleepwalks, the results are still a length ahead of what many other artists can do on their best days. The lyrics seem to be about someone who has passed, with McLachlin reflecting on the memories as she looks over the winter scene.
The Wombats are an indie band made up of three musicians from Liverpool who were actually trained by Paul McCartney. They were originally supposed to be an unfunny joke, going on stage wearing jesters’ hats and acting nuts – the kinds of antics you’d expect from a band that wanted to cover up their lack of musical talent. But then something happened: the EPs they released started getting big attention. Songwriter Matt Murphy tried his hand at writing some more mature songs, and they found themselves offered a record deal. Next thing they knew, their first album almost breaks the UK top ten (hitting #11) and goes platinum. You won’t find them wearing jester hats anymore, though their live shows still do include stand-up breaks and random facts.
This song has some very clever lyrics over its raucous guitars, describing a Christmas that’s less than perfect. There are money problems –
Christmas is here. / It’s about not extending to the overdraft / to scrape out what is left / at the end of the year. – the same old movies being rerun on TV, nasty snow, a bit of drinking, and family squabbles (
The red wine plummets down, / and we should all be in our beds. / But it’s right wing versus left / until the wings fall off our heads.”). Norman Rockwell-esque it ain’t, but it’s all the more relatable for it.
It’s not obvious from the lyrics, but “Mookie’s Last Christmas”, written by lead singer Anthony Green, is about (former) lead guitarist Justin Shekoski’s father. During a tour with Story of the Year, Shekoski’s father – who just happened to be in the Maryland area on business at the same time Shekoski’s tour was in town – visited with Shekoski and caught a pair of shows. But on his drive to the airport, there was an accident and Shekoski’s father died at the scene. Despite this, Shekoski played a show that same day, and went on to complete the tour. (Mookie, incidentally, was the Shekoski family dog.)
Shortly after writing this song, Anthony Green left the band. He was replaced by Cove Reber, apparently on the strength of an acoustic demo of this very song – the difference between the two vocalists’ styles is fascinating to hear. Recently, Reber has left the band, and now Anthony Green is back… but now Justin Shekoski has left (to join The Used). This new/old lineup is still finding their legs after a long hiatus, but it should be interesting to hear where Saosin goes in the next year or two.
You probably know the band Train best for their 2002 Grammy Best Rock Song winning “Drops of Jupiter”, but they’ve been no stranger to both critical and chart success over their entire career. They’re also known for their stance against LGBT discrimination: In 2012, they went after a New Zealand anti-gay-marriage group for their use of the song “Marry Me”, and in 2013, they and Canadian Carly Rae Jepsen backed out of performing for the Boy Scouts of America over their discriminatory policies (they were replaced by 3 Doors Down).
I almost don’t want to tell you this, but this driving pop anthem was actually commissioned by Coca-Cola – it was originally “Open Happiness” by Cee-Lo Green, Patrick Stump (from Fall Out Boy), Brendon Urie (from Panic! at the Disco), Travie McCoy (from Gym Class Heroes), and Janelle Monáe, released as part of the Coca-Cola “Open Happiness” campaign. Train basically took the music, reworked it slightly, and wrote their own lyrics over it. Coca-Cola has a long and storied history of manufacturing Christmas tradition – they are the reason Santa wears red and white – so one can hardly begrudge them this.
If you’re looking for something that is both irreverent and downright fun, Lady Gaga should always be one of the first places you check. Unsurprisingly, her take on Christmas music is not something you should expect to find on the Pope’s playlist. “Christmas Tree” is a synthpop mishmash of some traditional carols and other Christmas music, and some common Christmas tropes, all under some hilariously decadent lyrics that use “Christmas tree” as a metaphor for Gaga’s ladyparts. It’s hard not to giggle deliriously at the subversive and overt sexualization of Christmas tropes and classic songs. In this song, the fun comes in pulling the stockings down, not putting them up, and the idea of “spreading” Christmas cheer takes on an interesting new dimension. The “pa-ra-pa-pum-pum” from “The Little Drummer Boy” becomes the sounds of vigorous coitus, and even Handel’s “Messiah” gets skewered, as the classic “Hallelujah” chorus gets replaced by shout outs to Space Cowboy and Lady Gaga.
It’s very rare that the biggest complaint about a song is that it’s too short, but at two-and-a-half minutes you’re just getting into the pulsing beat when it’s abruptly over. I can only hope that there are some remixes out there that extend it enough that it can turn into a really great party song – oh man would it make my holiday to see a mass of people jumping up and down to the pounding beat while chanting:
Ho, ho, ho… under the mistletoe. Yes everybody knows… we will take off our clothes.
George Winston’s piano interpretation of “The Holly and the Ivy” is the definitive instrumental version of the song. If you hear a piano version of the song on the radio, odds are it’s Winston’s. It comes from his 1984 winter-themed (though, really, Christmas-themed) album December, which is one of the best Christmas instrumental albums of all time. If you’re looking for nice, low-key background music for your seasonal-themed dinner or party, I highly recommend it.
But for my money, an even more interesting piece on the album than “The Holly and the Ivy” is his haunting take on the “Carol of the Bells” – which was originally a Ukrainian pagan chant named “Shchedryk” that celebrate the coming of a new year before it was co-opted by Christians and turned into a hymn. Winston’s interpretation is more evocative of falling snow on a winter’s night, using minor harmonies and bright falling trills to create a sense of tension, mystery, and wonder.
MxPx started out back in 1992, releasing their first album, 1994’s Pokinatcha, while the band members were still in high school. They were originally intended to be a punk rock band, but when pop punk became huge in the late 1990s, they became part of the wave. Interestingly, for most of their early years, they were considered a Christian punk rock band – they have three #1 albums on the Billboard Christian charts… hardly a feat to sneeze at for a punk group. They’ve walked away from their Christian roots though, with singer Mike Herrera saying in 2015 that he wasn’t a Christian anymore.
This song is an amusing mashup of holiday cheer and a Romero nightmare. As to be expected in such a scenario, there’s plenty of blood and guts, shotguns and axes to the head, all described in high-energy punk attitude. It doesn’t sound like it ends well for the narrator though… or anyone else for that matter.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones had a bit of a rough start back in the mid-1980s. Their then-unique blend of punk rock and ska miffed the fans of both genres – the punk rockers wanted less ska in their punk rock, and the ska-heads wanted less punk in their ska. They didn’t seem to be showing much promise, but a record label gave them a shot anyway. Even that didn’t seem to pan out – the album, 1989’s Devil’s Night Out – didn’t really make much of a splash (it has since come to be one of their most popular). But slowly they built up steam, and by 1997 they had the platinum Let’s Face It, with its most famous track “The Impression That I Get”, and their sound was defining a whole new genre: ska punk.
Over their long history, the Bosstones have released several decent holiday tracks, so I’m sure future lists will probably feature then again. They’ve also done an awesome cover of The Pretenders’s classic “2000 Miles”. This track is actually another cover, originally written by Paul O’Hallaran of the Boston band The Dogmatics. Tragically, O’Hallaran died in a motorcycle accident at age 26, two years after releasing this song.
The Long Blondes were a five-piece English indie rock group – none of whom were blonde – that showed tremendous promise in the early- to mid-2000s. The released a series of singles – of which this song was one – that achieved critical acclaim, and won major awards, all before they were ever signed to a label. They finally were signed in 2006, and released their well-received debut album Someone to Drive You Home. Two years later they released their second album – “Couples” – and a compilation of their earlier singles – “Singles” – both of which also were widely well-received, but nothing ever quite recaptured the excitement of those early singles. Sadly, guitarist Dorian Cox suffered a debilitating stroke in mid-2008 that potentially prevented him from ever playing guitar again, and the band split up.
This song is one of their early, pre-signing singles, and it showcases the sparkly, punchy energy the band had in its early days. The narrator returns home to discover their ex – who never returned the key – is waiting for her inside, looking to make small talk and rekindle the romance they shared before he walked out on her on Boxing Day. But the narrator is having none of it.
So she’s turned you out, has she? / Well, I can’t say I’m surprised. / After last year’s festive fuss, I find it hard to sympathize. She finds his smarmy intentions to get into her pants now are laughable, and announces that as far as he’s concerned, Christmas is cancelled – she’d rather spend it alone than with him.
A lot of the songs on this list are pretty depressing. You won’t find any of that here. Shonen Knife are famous for their goofy and light lyrics, singing about things like candy, good times, and… well… being a cat. Thing is, they sing about all of these things over a flavour of underground, indie, pop punk heavily inspired by acts like The Ramones. (In fact, they moonlight as a Ramones tribute band called The Osaka Ramones – Osaka being the part of Japan they hail from, which is basically “the south” of Japan both literally and in the sense of the American South.) Their combination of cutesy-girly imagery and raucous punk has made them perennial favourites, and even inspired an entire aesthetic known as “cuddlecore”. This song is typical of their style. It has no deep meaning – don’t even try to look for one – it’s just fun and silly and hard not to enjoy at face value.
Shonen Knife were around for almost a decade, with some of the biggest names in English music covering many of their songs, but it wasn’t until the legendary Kurt Cobain of Nirvana took them under his wing in 1991 that their popularity outside of Japan really exploded. By all accounts, Cobain and Shonen Knife hit it off swimmingly. In fact, Shonen Knife were touring with Nirvana at the end of 1993, and scheduled to join them again later in 1994 (Nirvana was actually touring with the Melvins at the time of Cobain’s disappearance and death). By my estimates, this song was released shortly after they met Cobain for the first time, and a few days before their first (two-week long) tour with Nirvana. At any rate, it was their first new release to chart in the US, and represents the very beginnings of their major English-language success.
The Elders are an American band formed in 1998 from a group of seasoned musicians. They’ve never had any mainstream success of note, but they are often first-choice headliners for Celtic and Irish music festivals. Their unique sound blends the poetic storytelling and sparkling melodies of traditional Irish music with a very contemporary folk-rock sound, sometimes described as “Ameri-Celt”, and the result works astoundingly well. (The closest equivalent I can think of off the top of my head would be Great Big Sea, minus the latter’s distinctly maritime flavour, but with the addition of a hint of bluegrass.)
This tune doesn’t quite have The Elders’ distinct sound; it trades the traditional Irish flavour for a more standard pop-rock groove. Despite being uptempo with a nice, catchy melody, the lyrics are strangely depressing. They seem to be describing a family where everyone’s either dead or dying. The family gathers for the holiday, raises a toast to the departed/departing, then… just agrees to meet at the next holiday and do it again. If it sounds kind of Sisyphean to you, you’re not alone. Regardless, it’s a nice tune, and nice to sing along with if you don’t dwell too deeply on the meaning.
If you don’t believe me when I say the Pet Shop Boys are the most successful UK musical duo ever, here’s a fun fact that might help. David Tennant, who played the Tenth Doctor on Doctor Who was not born with that name. He was born David McDonald. He named himself – later legally changing his name – after Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys.
This song was originally a fan club exclusive released in 1997. It wallowed in obscurity, passed around on bootlegs by hardcore fans for over a decade. It was finally rerecorded and properly released in 2009 on their Christmas EP. As with many of the songs on this list, it gives a less rosy, more realistic view of what the holidays are like for many.
There are artists of middling talent that seem to rack up awards, and then there are artists widely acknowledged to be awesome but who have received next to no official acknowledgement. Kate Bush falls into the latter category. Despite being nominated for a handful of Grammys and BRIT awards, the only major award she has ever won is a single BRIT Award in 1987 for Best British Female Solo Artist. Bush did finally get some recognition, though – in 2013 she was appointed Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by the Queen in recognition of her contributions to music.
Bush has a very unique style, and this esoteric tune is hard to classify, or even describe. The lyrics touch on several Christmas tropes – Santa Claus going down the chimney, Bing Crosby singing White Christmas – but I couldn’t tell you for sure what it’s about. My guess is it’s the point of view of a snowflake falling on the city. Whatever it’s about, it’s a pretty song, and Bush’s unique vocal performance is unforgettable. There are two versions; the second has a very different vocal performance and features a bongo drum track. That version (more or less) was used for a 1979 BBC Christmas special – the video, featuring Bush dancing in a big chair in a her PJs, has to be seen to be believed.
This song is occasionally billed as a remake or interpretation of the 1948/1950 classic “Sleigh Ride” (the tune was written in 1948, the lyrics were written in 1950 for The Andrews Sisters to perform). I don’t see it; certainly it borrows the name, and even a couple phrases, but the song is wholly different on every other level. I would call the borrowed lyrics a shout-out, rather than saying the whole song is meant to be an interpretation of the original “Sleigh Ride”. This “Sleigh Ride” was originally released as part of the soundtrack for Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, and features the sparkly harmonies of the three singers over a funky bass line.
TLC has been called the best-selling American girl-group of all time, and is routinely counted among the greatest musical groups. What’s remarkable is that they pulled that off despite criminal charges – Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes threw a bunch of her football player boyfriend’s shoes into a bathtub and lit them on fire after a fight, and the fire went out of control – being screwed over by the record label and filing bankruptcy – they were only making 0.56¢ per album, split three ways, off of the biggest selling album by a girl group ever – and bickering between the members. Tragically, Left Eye died in a car crash in 2002 while filming a documentary – the camera was actually rolling during the accident. T-Boz and Chilli have carried on ably since, though they’ve only released one album – 2002’s 3D, which mostly eulogized Lopes. This year they released their final album, TLC, though they will continue to perform together.
The California punk scene produced an astounding number of headlining bands over two periods of a few years, and The Vandals have the rare distinction of being associated with both of those periods. They first broke out alongside Bad Religion, Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, and Social Distortion in the early 1980s, standing out from the crowd by being the clowns of the group rather than tackling the same serious social issues the others focused on. They started to fade away in the late 1980s after some lineup changes, but reemerged in the 1990s along with an entirely new wave of Cali punk bands that included Blink-182, Green Day, and The Offspring.
This song comes from an honest-to-goodness Christmas album that they made in that second period (albeit one that comes chock full of their trademark humour). It obviously predates the idiotic “bathroom bill” battles, and is – in a way – ahead of its time with its transgender/transsexual theme. Granted, it’s not a serious look at the topic, and is really just on the level of marginally offensive, juvenile humour. On the other hand, the song can be interpreted as a cheerful celebration of finally transitioning to the gender one’s always felt themselves to be. And of course, how can one resist the cathartic subversiveness of a Christmas song with the lines: “Chop it off! Chop it off! My penis, chop it off!”
It would be a criminal understatement to call Bill Monroe merely a bluegrass legend – the genre is literally named after the man (he was usually billed as “Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys”). Originally the oldest song on the list was 1967’s “Song for a Winter’s Night”, but this year Monroe takes the prize by a landslide: this song is from 1945. This song actually predates the period where Monroe crafted the sound we now know as bluegrass style, but you can already hear some elements of what was to come.
The song itself is up tempo and fun. The lyrics suggest a man reminiscing on a particular incident that occurred in his youth, where the girl he had gone to visit one night (presumably he was a-courtin’ her) had stepped out for a while. Rather than wait, he follows her footprints in the snow to find her. The song is too chaste to say what happens when he found her, but it must have been pretty memorable to be singing about years later even after her death.
Each year I try to make this list as musically diverse as possible, including songs from many different musical genres. But in past years I got some criticism because I’d never really included any country songs. Well, you asked, and now you shall receive. Here’s a bonafide Canadian country star-in-the-making: CCMA– and Juno-winning, grade-A Alberta beef, natch … a cattle rancher, no less. Brett Kissel has been kicking around since 2003, always with some measure of success, but his star has really been rising the last couple of years.
This song covers lyrical ground we’ve heard before – about the fact that real-life Christmases tend not to quite satisfy the Norman Rockwell/Jimmy Stewart-esque ideal. Kissel calls up images of breakers tripping due to the lights, the lack of any Christmas snow, and the standard tropes such as drunken relatives. But Kissel’s take on the theme is enthusiastic and even endearing, embracing the imperfections – celebrating them, even.