Indi’s alternative holiday playlist – 2018 – #10–#1

Here are songs #10 to #1 in the 2018 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.

Indi’s alternative holiday playlist 2018:

Legend:

🍁 = Canadian
= New this year

10. “Chiron Beta Prime” – Jonathan Coulton

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.

9. “Christmas Wrapping” – The Waitresses

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.

8. 🍁 “Elf’s Lament” – Barenaked Ladies ft. Michael Bublé

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?

7. “The Christians and the Pagans” – Dar Williams

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.

6. “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.

5. “Fairytale of New York” – The Pogues ft. Kirsty MacColl

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.

4. “White Wine in the Sun” – Kate Miller-Heidke

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.

3. 🍁 “Song for a Winter’s Night” – Gordon Lightfoot

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.

2. 🍁 “Merry Xmas (Says Your Text Message)” – Dragonette

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.

1. 🍁 “River” – Joni Mitchell

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.

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