Here are songs #20 to #11 in the 2018 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
South Park has always had a very close relationship to Christmas. It started with a 5-minute short by Trey Parker and Matt Stone called The Spirit of Christmas, in which Jesus and Santa have a fight over ownership of the holiday. The short was commissioned by a Fox executive, who had seen an earlier Trey and Stone short called The Spirit of Christmas – in which Jesus battles a homicidal Frosty – as a video Christmas card he could send to friends, but went viral. The popularity of the video led to talks with Fox to create a series, but Fox decided against it, reportedly because they were grossed out by the idea of Mr. Hankey, a sentient piece of shit (like, a literal piece of shit). Comedy Central had no issues with the scatological character, and South Park was born.
This song comes from the 1999 album South Park: Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics, the soundtrack to the third season episode of the same name. Performed by Trey Parker – “Juan Schwartz” is one of his aliases – and an actual children’s choir, it offers a hilarious contrast between the absurdly bleak lyrics and the charming melody and cheerful children’s voices.
The Boy Least Likely To is Pete Hobbs and Jof Owen, two friends from the little village of Wendover in Buckinghamshire, and if there is any band that can make the claim to have “come out of nowhere”, it would be these guys. The pair wrote, recorded, and published their debut album on their own – even creating their own record label for it. By the time they released it, they still hadn’t played any live shows. But that album, 2005’s The Best Party Ever, ended up on numerous lists of the best of the year. The band has been fairly quiet since 2013, but appears to still be alive; they released a new holiday track in 2017 – “A Winter’s Tale” – and just a few days ago they released a greatest hits collection.
This track is from their 2010 holiday album Christmas Special, which is a worthwhile holiday album to check out. I’d also recommend “Christmas Isn’t Christmas”.
Straight No Chaser has a peculiar history. It started out in the 1996 at Indiana University with ten friends, and for the next three years the group enjoyed considerable success – even touring. When they graduated in 1999, a new cohort took up the name, and it was passed down for several years. But in 2006, original member Randy Stine posted a video of 1998 performance of the original group – a hilariously confused arrangement of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. That video went viral, and most of the original members – along with some members of later incarnations – got back together to record a Christmas album, which became one of the biggest Christmas albums of the year. The college group, which still exists, changed its name to Another Round, and Straight No Chaser has become a professional a capella group, with a rotating roster mostly consisting of alumni from the collegiate group.
One of the things the group does frequently is collaborate with other artists. In this case, it’s Kristen Bell, fresh off her massive success with Frozen. The song is deliberately silly and fun, and turned into another huge success for both the group and Bell.
The Snowman is a 1978 picture book by Raymond Briggs about a boy who goes on a fantastic voyage of imagination with a snowman he built. In 1982, the BBC produced an Academy Award-nominated animated special that has become part of holiday tradition in the UK. Like the book, the animated special is completely wordless, the entire story being told only with the beautiful animation and gentle light orchestral soundtrack… right up until the fifteenth minute, when suddenly the titular snowman and the boy take off into the air in a magnificently animated sequence – with gorgeously hand-animated images of breaching whales under the northern lights – and the soundtrack positively explodes into a glorious choirboy-sung piece titled “Walking in the Air”. Once the song ends, not another word is spoken for the whole piece, right up to its unforgettably melancholy ending.
The song in the special was performed by Peter Auty, who was uncredited, but in 1985 a version by Aled Jones recorded for a Toys “R” Us commercial hit the UK charts and kick-started Jones’s career (Jones did the song because Auty’s voice had cracked in the meantime). This version, by indie group Mimicking Birds, trades the soaring grandiosity of the choirboy versions for a more muted, wistful sound. I find this version easier to listen to, and less demanding on the listener, but your mileage may vary.
16. ★ “Peace At Last” – Hem
Does Hem still exist? That’s a good question. Their debut album, 2002’s Rabbit Songs, earned widespread acclaim for its sparse arrangements and beautiful songwriting. The follow-up was delayed due their label going under, but eventually took form as 2004’s Eveningland, which traded the spartan sounds of the first album for more sophisticated arrangements. That trend continued – jumping labels and increasingly complex arrangements – culminating with 2006’s Funnel Cloud, which actually featured the band backed by a 21-piece orchestra. And then? Nothing. (Well, not literally nothing; the band did release an award-winning soundtrack to a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in 2009. And of course, there was this song and the EP it came from, along with a couple other EPs.) There were rumours of contention within the band, but no official announcement of anything. Then, seven years later, came 2013’s Departure and Farewell… whose title sounds like a pretty definitive final album. There’s been nothing since, but as far as I know, the band has never officially called it quits.
This track came in 2007, not long after Funnel Cloud. It may be the last original song released by Hem before their long hiatus between Funnel Cloud and Departure and Farewell.
Dolly Parton may well be the greatest female country musician ever. As a songwriter, she claims to have penned over 3,000 songs, including classics like “I Will Always Love You”, “9 to 5”, “Jolene”, and “Travelin’ Thru”. As a singer, her distinctive voice has taken ownership of not only her own songs, but the works of dozens of others, such as “Here You Come Again”, “Islands in the Stream” (with Kenny Rogers), and “To Know Him Is To Love Him”, “Telling Me Lies” and “After the Gold Rush” (all with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt). She’s also done some amazing and unforgettably off-beat work that has become legendary in its own right, like a cover of the 1993 Collective Soul alternative rock hit “Shine” with Nickel Creek that won her a Grammy Award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance, and most recently she won the 2017 Grammy for Best Country Duo/Group Performance for an a capella cover of “Jolene” with Pentatonix.
This song was written by Carol Hall for the 1978 musical “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”, which was based on a real-life brothel shut down by political pressure. Dolly Parton starred as the brothel owner in the 1982 film version, which was one of the biggest film musical hits of the 1980s, and garnered an Academy Award nomination (for Charles Durning as the governor), and Golden Globe nominations for Parton and the film itself. Parton re-recorded the song – which, in the film, is sung by her along with some of the prostitutes – and it became a hit.
Today Imogen Heap has multiple Grammy awards and nominations under her belt, but her path to recognition was peculiar. She was discovered at 18 and her debut album generated good buzz… then it all abruptly fell apart when funding for the label was cut, and she was forced to rush a second album to avoid getting dropped. It didn’t work, and she was dropped. She teamed up with songwriter Guy Sigsworth as Frou Frou, and released a critically-acclaimed album… but once again with little commercial success, and then the collaboration also fell apart. Heap decided to go all in and actually get a second album made… and luckily, by this time she had caught the attention of television and film producers, who featured her songs in their soundtracks. Once again, she had critical acclaim, but this time she finally had the sales to go with it, which led to her first Grammy nominations, and the rest is history.
This particular song was originally written for an episode of The O.C. titled “The Chrismukkah That Almost Wasn’t”, but was rejected for being “too dark”. Over the hauntingly beautiful harmonies, the lyrics are about a typical holiday family get together that is… strained, to say the least. Heap struggles to keep up a pleasant and peaceful exterior as she seethes underneath, engaging in passive-aggressive behaviours, and internally screaming, “get me out of here!”
It began as, of all things, an attempt by three high school friends to meet the cast of Glee. Kirstin Maldonado, Mitchell Grassi, and Scott Hoying entered a radio contest… and lost. But their signing captured the attention of their friends, and eventually even got some interest on YouTube. However, Maldonado and Hoying graduated and moved on to college. In college, Hoying learned about The Sing-Off, and got the old trio back together to audition. Along the way they picked up Avriel Kaplan – who was already a fairly well-known vocal bass – and Kevin Olusola, on the strength of a YouTube video where he beat-boxes while playing the cello. Maldonado and Hoying had to drop out of college for the audition, and Grassi missed his high school graduation… but they got on the show, and eventually won the third season (winning with – I shit you not – an a capella version of “Eye of the Tiger”)>). Success, right? Not quite. Although the group won a contract as part of their Sing-Off victory, Sony dropped them almost right away. The group then went back to their roots: YouTube. There they found massive success with a series of viral videos, mostly covers of popular songs. But superstar status came after an incredible rendition of the Imagine Dragons’s “Radioactive” in collaboration with violinist Lindsey Stirling won them the 2013 Response of the Year at the YouTube Music Awards. That same year, they released an absolutely astounding medley, “Daft Punk”, which would eventually win them the first Grammy for Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella in 2015. They’d win the same award the next year, and yet another Grammy for Best Country Duo/Group Performance with Dolly Parton for a cover of her 1973 classic “Jolene”. They’re currently one of the top channels on YouTube.
There is only a very small number of artists who have multiple songs that I’ve had a hard time deciding between for this list. Pentatonix has the distinction of being the most difficult choice of all – there are at least a half-dozen Pentatonix songs worth of this list, both covers and originals. This year I have chosen their remake of a 2013 song by The Neighbourhood. While the original is a worthy candidate in its own right (and may make a future list), the Pentatonix arrangement is absolutely mind-blowing. Pentatonix has made Christmas their business – they’ve released three Christmas albums, including this year’s Christmas Is Here!, all of which have been massive successes. This is their first Christmas album with Matt Sallee, who has replaced Avi Kaplan after his burnout from their heavy tour schedule.
Rupert Holmes started out as a studio musician and songwriter, with an early hit – 1969’s “Jennifer Tomkis” – released under the name The Street People. Then in 1970, he performed an absolutely brilliant stunt. When considering how to promote a newly signed band, The Buoys, Holmes hit on the idea of writing a song that would be sure to be banned, thus creating instant notoriety. The result was “Timothy”, a song about trapped miners that obliquely but very clearly implies cannibalism. It worked; in fact it worked too well! The Buoys were catapulted to success, but unable to follow up something so… bizarre… as “Timothy” – turns out you can’t really make a career out of singing about cannibalism. Not long after, Holmes started his own career, which reached its peak with the 1979 classic “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)”.
This song comes from the 1985 CBC animated special The Christmas Raccoons, along with the next one…
You probably won’t recognize the name, but Rita Coolidge is a part of music history. She was romantically involved with Leon Russell and Joe Cocker – the song “Delta Lady” is about her – as well as Stephen Stills and Graham Nash – her dumping Stills for Nash is allegedly one of the reasons Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young broke up, something Crosby alludes to in the song “Cowboy Movie”. She was married to Kris Kristofferson for a while, and collaborated with him on multiple Grammy-award-winning songs. But she’s also had a very successful career in her own right, mostly doing covers like “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher & Higher”, but she also had a hit the same year this song was released as a single with “All Time High”, the theme song from Octopussy, written by Bond composer John Barry, and legendary lyricist Tim Rice. (In my opinion, although “All Time High” was the bigger hit, this song is far better.)
The Christmas Raccoons was a 1985 CBC animated special that was a surprise hit. Produced by Canadian animation company Atkinson Film-Arts (who were also making the “Harry Canyon” and “B-17” segments of the cult 1981 film Heavy Metal at the same time), it was the #1 animated special in the US in 1980, and was rebroadcast worldwide. The story was decades ahead of its time, with its focus on the environment and capitalism run amok, and the narrative is surprisingly complicated for a 1980 children’s animated special – in the end it leaves you wondering how much of it was real and how much was dream. The special’s success resulted in three more specials – The Raccoons on Ice (1981), the very ambitious The Raccoons and the Lost Star (1983), and the direct-to-video The Raccoons: Let’s Dance! (1984, which was actually really a sneaky pilot for the upcoming series) – and a five-season, sixty episode series between 1985 and 1991. Amazingly, the franchise may not be dead. Just this year, a pitch pilot was leaked to YouTube, and images of redesigned characters were released not long after. There may actually be a The Raccoons reboot series in 2019!