Here are songs #30 to #21 in the 2018 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
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.
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.
Stan Rogers may be one of the most intriguing “what if?” questions in Canadian music. Rogers was a Hamilton native, but his parents were from the Maritimes, and he spent many summers of his youth visiting there. He started his musical career as a folk artist in 1970, but it was cut short when he died in a fire on board an Air Canada flight in 1983 (blame fell on the pilot, who assumed the smoke belching out of the bathroom was due to someone secretly smoking and improperly disposing of the butt – a common occurrence back then – rather than an electrical fire, but is anyone surprised that Air Canada managed to murder a national musical treasure?). He only managed to release four albums of original music during that time – one posthumously – and never earned significant acclaim in his lifetime, but has since been claimed as a genius and national treasure, largely by politicians who find his lyrical focus on Canadiana appealing. Even Stephen Harper called “Northwest Passage” an alternative Canadian anthem (but take that with a grain of salt; King Steve just seems to have a massive raging hard-on for anything involving the Franklin Expedition). One wonders if such acclaim would have been heaped on Rogers had he not conveniently died so early in his career.
While Rogers’ stature maybe somewhat overhyped, there’s no denying that he was a damn good lyricist. In “First Christmas”, Rogers paints three portraits of people spending their first Christmas day away from their home: first a young man trying to make it on his own, forced to work over the holidays; then a young woman from an abusive family whose run away, and is panhandling, ultimately forced to make do at the local Salvation Army shelter; then an old man whose wife has passed and who has had to move in to a retirement home, and is coping with the unfamiliarity of it all and hoping one of the kids might call.
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.
Chrissie Hynde was a girl with a dream – she wanted to be in a band, badly. So badly that she moved from Ohio to the UK to be part of the London music scene, even going so far as to beg Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols to marry her so she could get a visa to stay. It didn’t work out and she had to go back to Ohio after two years, but she later came back to London to try again a year later. She still couldn’t quite get any luck, and was just about ready to go back home again when finally in 1978 something clicked. She got a band together – The Pretenders – and managed to get critical attention with their first release, followed by a successful album. Success was coming so fast, in fact, that they hadn’t even yet written enough songs to keep with the demand – their second album had to include previously released material.
But then in 1982, everything fell apart rapidly – very rapidly. Bass player Pete Farndon was fired for his drug issues… and two days later guitarist James Honeyman-Scott dropped dead of heart failure due to cocaine use. He was 25, the youngest member of the band. 10 months later, Farndon was found drowned in his bathtub after an overdose – he had been the second youngest member of the band. After all those years of working to put it together, and despite the fact that their average age was only in the late-20s, after only four years and two (more like one-and-a-half) albums, half of Hynde’s band was dead. A lesser woman would have just packed it in at that point. Instead, Hynde wrote “2000 Miles”. With its spare, allegorical lyrics, the song is often mistaken for a love song. But it’s actually about Honeyman-Scott’s death. (Farndon died while the album was being recorded, after the songs were written, so his death isn’t reflected in the lyrics. However, the next album – written after even more chaos that left Hynde the only original member remaining – would turn out to be an even bigger hit.)
I haven’t been able to find out much about this group. They apparently formed in 1992 after the musicians in a band named Glee – Jason Zumpano and Michael Ledwidge – wanted to go in a different musical direction, despite some early success. Note that Zumpano the band is distinct from Jason Zumpano (who went on to have a solo career and to form the band Sparrow), though he was the band’s drummer. The pair teamed up with Superconductor’s Carl Newman (who later formed The New Pornographers), and bassist Stefan Niemann and formed a band called The Wayward Boys. They later changed the name to Zumpano (simply because they thought the drummer’s name was cool). They were signed to the legendary Sub Pop record label as part of Sub Pop’s effort to get away from its grunge affiliations, and released two albums and had one minor hit – “The Party Rages On” – before breaking up pretty much right after the release of their second album… although no announcement was made for almost four years.
This song was apparently released as part of promotional compilation album for a magazine: Ptolemaic Terrascope. It is easily one of the most unique-sounding pop songs on this list, with a melody that’s simultaneously driving and meandering, and insistent vocals. I can’t even tell you what the lyrics are about, and I don’t want to tell you my guesses – I think it’s better for you to take what you can from them. But for all its peculiarity, it’s still beautiful and unforgettable.
I’ve been a fan of Grimes since “Genesis” and “Oblivion”, off of her third album Visions. Grimes is a very unique talent, taking genres that you wouldn’t normally associated with vocal brilliance – synth pop and electronica – and mixing them with her excellent vocal performances. But there’s a lot more to her music than that. Grimes is not formally educated (in music), and in fact only sort of fell into music making after doing vocals as a favour, then learning how to make her own in exchange for food. She makes music based on pure instinct, and has a way of reflecting “standard” pop tropes filtered as if through an oddly unique lens. To see what I mean, take a look at what she’s done to the old, classic Charlie Brown tune “Linus and Lucy”.
This song isn’t even actually an official Grimes song. It’s literally just her and her family and friends fucking around over a beat she slapped together – the rapper is her step-brother Jay Worthy; even the accompanying video is just them goofing off. But when someone of Grimes’s talent craps out a tune… they crap out a hell of a tune.
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.
Every year around Christmas, The Killers release a holiday-themed song whose proceeds go to Project Red to fight AIDS in Africa. This song, from 2007, was the second in that series, and thus far the most successful. This song loaded with droll humour, as front man Brandon Flowers pleads for his life while making a less than stellar case for himself –
No one else around believes me, but the children on the block, they tease me. I couldn’t let them off that easy. – with a holiday chorus in the background cheerfully repeating threats of violence to the strains of Christmas trumpets.
But the spotlight is unquestionably stolen by comedian Ryan Pardey as a gravelly-voiced, Southern-accented Santa who looks and sounds two sips away from rehab. Pardey has since performed the song with the band on tour. He even reprised his role in The Killers’ 2012 Christmas single “I Feel It In My Bones”, which is a sort of sequel where Santa now hunts down the whole band. The song isn’t as good, but the video is way funnier – in one goofy scene parodying stereotypical preparing-for-battle montages, Pardey arms himself with a nunchaku made out of candy canes. He reprised the role yet again for 2015’s “Dirt Sledding”, the third and final part of the “vengeful Santa” trilogy.
This song is one of many that can trace its pedigree back to Jimmy Boyd’s 1952 classic, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. Here we have what seems at first like just another playful song about a kid’s perspective of the Santa Claus myth, complete with charming music, topped with Reid’s gorgeous, breathy vocal work. But things slowly start sounding… a little suspicious… as Reid describes a scrawny, stubbly Santa, and the song takes a sudden turn when she asks, with an off-key blast of brass, why her grandma is tied to a chair. From there it’s a delightfully funny ride, sung tongue-firmly-in-cheek by Reid and The Heist, whose child-personas are clearly no 1950s Jimmy Boyds, as they gripe about losing their iPads and seeing their stuff sold on Kijiji, and curse about Santa “jacking their shit”.
I actually had a hard time choosing a Reid song for the list this year – one of a very small number of artists for whom that is the case. My rule is one song per artist, but Reid’s repertoire includes not only this tune, but also “Mistress Claus”, which is also fun and funny. It’s a bit more straight-faced than this tune, though, and after this shitty year, I thought something a bit more irreverent would be better.