Here are songs #40 to #31 in the 2018 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
I confess to knowing very little about the Soul-Saints Orchestra, but as near as I can tell… they never really existed. Instead, let’s go back to Germany right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the time, synth-pop was sweeping the land, but a group of musicians in Munich had fallen in love with American soul music of the 1960s and 1970s. They came together as The Poets of Rhythm, and released their debut album, Practice What You Preach, in 1992, introducing a new flavour of “hard funk” that would influence an entire generation, and kick-start a whole new genre of modern funk. During their 11-year career, The Poets of Rhythm used an old trick that bands from the 1950s and 1960s used to increase their sales: they would release singles (on 7” vinyl, natch) under different names, and “compete” against themselves for airplay and promotional time. One of the names they released singles under was… Soul-Saints Orchestra.
This song goes back to the early days of The Poets of Rhythm, all the way back to 1994, though its sound harks back to even earlier eras. Indeed, aside from its slightly harder edge, this tune could be very much at home in the 1960s/1970s catalogue of soul legends like James Brown. In fact, it’s often packaged together with Brown on compilation albums, and I’ve even seen it mislabelled as a James Brown song in places. Lordy, lordy.
You may not recognize the name, but you will definitely recognize The Weather Girls’ biggest hit: 1982’s “It’s Raining Men”. This tune is in the same vein and style as that song, and it actually comes from the same album. The appropriately titled Success was released in 1983, their first album as The Weather Girls (two previous albums were released as Two Tons o’ Fun and The Two Tons respectively). The six-track album spawned four singles, of which this one was the last, and arguably their second-biggest hit after “It’s Raining Men”.
The Weather Girls still exists today… sort of. Of the two original members, Izora Armstead died in 2004, while Martha Wash – who left the group in 1988 has had an illustrious solo career. Wash is perhaps best known for a precedent setting lawsuit in 1991. At the time she was working with C + C Music Factory – that’s her singing the iconic “everybody dance now” line in their 1991 mega-hit “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)”. If you watch the video, you won’t see Wash; instead, the signer is “Zelma” (Zelma Davis). In fact, Wash wasn’t given any credit for her vocals on this and several other songs, and this was a fairly common thing at the time. Singers would find their work credited to and lip-synced in videos and live performances, usually by other singers, models, and dancers who were… more “slender”, shall we say. Wash sued, and got a ruling that vocal performers must be credited – a ruling that was very important for a lot of vocal performers who didn’t have the right “look”, according to producers. Today, The Weather Girls name is carried on by Armstead’s daughter Dynelle Rhodes, currently with Dorrey Lynn Lyles as her partner.
The Nobility’s first album was 2007’s The Mezzanine… but not really. The truth is, the band started out in 2001 as Jetpack. They released a self-titled album in 2002, and a couple of EPs, and then… just as they were breaking out nationally, they were asked to feature in a children’s book about being in a rock band… and another band named Jetpack sent them a cease and desist about their name. The band acted quickly, renaming themselves “Jetpack UK” as a bit of a lark – that was the trick used by UK bands who wanted to expand into the US only to find an existing American band using their name; as for this band, they’re from Nashville, not the UK. Thanks to the children’s book, they did a tour of… no, really… public libraries and school auditoriums… and that tour paid for The Mezzanine, their first album under their new name: The Nobility.
In 2009, the band released an EP of Christmas songs they’d written over the years. I’ve Got a Present For You ended up with six songs, including the title track (which is pretty decent, and was also a candidate for this list).
The Sing-Off was a reality show that ran for five seasons, whose conceit was to find the best a capella group. The second season runner-up was a group called Street Corner Symphony, which was formed for the express purpose of competing on the show. That group consisted of brothers Jeremy and Richie Lister, brothers Jon and Mark McLemore, John Martin, and Adam Chance. Today Street Corner Symphony still exists, with an entirely different lineup: only Jeremy Lister remains of the original group (Richie Lister has been replaced with younger brother Jonathan Lister, who actually competed in The Sing-Off in the third season with a group called The Collective).
Jeremy Lister also has a solo career, which had started long before Street Corner Symphone and seen some success, though his first full album – The Bed You Made – wouldn’t come until 2011. (He also performs as Lister Brothers with Jonathan and Richie.) This tune was released on the 2009 compilation album Gift Wrapped – 20 Songs That Keep on Giving! that includes Michael Bublé, R.E.M., and The Flaming Lips.
Glasvegas released their self-titled debut album in 2008 to critical acclaim, commercial success, and a pile of major awards. Mere weeks after that release, they released a second record: A Snowflake Fell (and It Felt Like a Kiss). To say it was rushed would be a massive understatement; it was intended to be a full album, but they could only manage to finish six tracks in the time allotted. But in the end, even though it got only a limited physical release – or perhaps because of that – thanks to digital downloads, every single song on the EP ended up charting in the UK (and Sweden!).
Glasvegas has mastered the Scottish art of longing. This track’s concept is not exactly unique – someone is pining over a broken relationship over the holidays – but this may be the most authentic-sounding expression of loss and yearning of all the songs on the list. Interestingly, it was recorded in a cathedral in Transylvania (that’s where the video was shot, too). I can’t imagine what made them think that the place to capture the holiday spirit was… Transylvania… but it obviously worked.
Frontier Ruckus is a folk band out of Detroit. They released their debut album in 2008, The Orion Songbook – named in reference to Lake Orion, which means it’s pronounced “o-ree-on”, not “o-rye-on” – to critical praise that hasn’t abated in their four albums since. But their biggest exposure may have come from a 2012 viral video where they played a medley of The Legend of Zelda songs on banjo and saw.
One of the things Frontier Ruckus is most famous for is their very dense lyricism. That’s well on display here. The song treads the same territory as the Chris Rea classic “Driving Home for Christmas”, but in a much more interestingly literate way. It opens with a pastiche of “I Saw Three Ships (Come Sailing In)” played on the banjo, then paints a wonderfully American gothic scene built up of vignettes mirroring the journey of the narrator, and its challenges, with the Christmas nativity story:
No vacancy taken. The landscape is bone-chalk, yet wet with vibrations from the lamp-lit gas stations – our few constellations to course lapping anger onto a manger of patience.
34. ★ 🍁 “Rudy” – The Be Good Tanyas
The Be Good Tanyas are (more or less) a folk trio out of Vancouver made up of Samantha Parton, Frazey Ford, and Trish Klein. Their style is a modern flavour of folk/country, with the gorgeous harmonies of the three singers layered over top. They saw some critical acclaim with their debut album, 2001’s Blue Horse, and even more with the follow-up, 2003’s Chinatown. I’m honestly not sure if they still exist. The name seems still in use, but it seems to be just Parton and Jolie Holland – who was once part of the original lineup prior to Blue Horse.
Rudy tells the tale of a homeless man, “Rudolph the red-nosed wino”, with lyrics that are searingly critical of social attitudes toward the homeless, and poverty in general.
Christmas has no meaning at all to people of greed and incredible waste. They seek the deeper meaning in the shopping mall in a yuletide spirit of impatience and haste. Rudy is a patient man who tries to see the beauty in everything. Yes, he’s not a very demanding soul, whose only wish is to live until the spring.
Ah, Kanye West… or are we supposed to call him “Ye” now? You all know who Kanye is. You’ve heard about his legendary ego. You’ve seen his multiple bizarre actions at awards ceremonies – like blindsiding Mike Myers to say George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people, or crashing the stage in the middle of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech to say Beyoncé should have won (Beyoncé did win, actually – she won the more prestigious award later in the show). And of course, his bizarre support for Donald Trump.
But whatever else he may be, there’s no denying that West is monstrously talented. He got his start as a producer, working on classics like Jay-Z’s seminal album The Blueprint (released the day of 9/11, coincidentally), and at first had a difficult time transitioning to being a rapper because record executives didn’t think he was “gangsta” enough. Eventually he got his Grammy-winning debut, The College Dropout, in 2004. This track comes at a fascinating point in his career: 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak, arguably West’s most controversial album. In it he trades rapping for (auto-tuned) singing, and pares down his sound to the most minimal arrangements – the “808” in the album name refers to the Roland TR-808 drum machine, the primary instrument on the album – with lyrics that focus on more intimate, introspective subject matter, rather than old-school hip-hop braggadocio. The album has since been credited with changing the entire pop music soundscape in its wake. This track, the album’s closing track (not counting a hidden track), is apparently about his mother, who died shortly before the album from surgical complications.
Jethro Tull is a legend, with a career spanning six decades. The band is part of music history, with enough stories to fill several books. Black Sabbath wouldn’t exist without Jethro Tull. They once recorded an album that is literally a single song that is 44 minutes long and split over two sides of a record, based on an epic poem by a fictional 8 year-old. Perhaps most famously, Jethro Tull was at the centre of one of the biggest scandals in Grammy history. It began when the Grammys, after years of criticism for ignoring several genres of popular music, finally created new categories for rap and heavy metal in 1989. Both categories were highly controversial. Along with AC/DC, Iggy Pop, Jane’s Addiction, and Metallica, Jethro Tull was nominated for the metal award, leading to much head-scratching – it seems a bit of a stretch to consider Jethro Tull’s Crest of a Knave album “metal”. Metallica, nominated for their album And Justice for All… – now recognized as one of the greatest metal albums of all time – and were widely considered the sure winners. Jethro Tull were even told not to bother to show up, it was so obvious that Metallica were going to win. At the Grammy ceremony, Metallica performed their classic “One”, and then waited for the award announcement. Instead, to everyone’s shock… Jethro Tull won. The crowd booed, and presenter Alice Cooper was visibly baffled, as he ended up accepting the award on Jethro Tull’s behalf – because the band had been told not to bother showing up. Co-presenter Lita Ford laughed. In response, Jethro Tull’s label published a now-famous ad congratulating the band that featured a picture of a flute on top of rebar with the title: “The flute is a (heavy) metal instrument.”
Jethro Tull’s last studio album – other than a collaboration album with a string quartet released in 2017 – was 2003’s The Jethro Tull Christmas Album. That album had several original songs, mostly previous releases. This track was one of three completely new songs, along with “Birthday Card at Christmas” and “Last Man at the Party”. Despite rumours throughout 2017 and 2018 that front man Ian Anderson was working on a new Jethro Tull album, it has recently been confirmed that what he’s been working on is a solo album, so it seems that Jethro Tull has finally retired.
Meiko is an American singer/songwriter, and her stage name is pronounced “MEE-koh” (/ˈmiːkoʊ/), not “may-EE-koh” (/meːˈiko/). The reason for that is that Meiko adopted the name to honour her Japanese heritage… without actually knowing any Japanese. The pronunciation stuck, and she wears it to this day. (Her sister, fashion designer Kelly Nishimoto, similarly adopted the name Keiko as “KEE-koh” (/ˈkiːkoʊ/).)
Meiko isn’t the first artist to recognize the potentially erotic overtones to Santa deciding someone has been “naughty”. But there aren’t many songs that play on the idea quite as perfectly as this one. In a breathy, sensuous croon, Meiko admits she’s been a
a bad girl, and that she’s “sinned” with a man… and then doubled down on that by dumping the guy cold. But she’s not the least bit apologetic about any of it. Quite the contrary, she’s “made her bed and is now lying in it”, and is considering maybe being
better next year, albeit in a mischievously noncommittal way.