Here are songs #50 to #41 in the 2018 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
Elastica was a bit of a phenomenon. They came pretty much out of nowhere, and got attention very quickly on the strength of a series of outstanding singles – perhaps most memorably 1994’s “Connection” – and a tabloid romance between front woman Justine Frischmann and Damon Albarn of Blur. Their 1995 debut eponymous album entered the charts at #1, and was the fastest selling debut album for over 10 years – it was finally dethroned by the Arctic Monkeys’s Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not in 2006 – and has since been regarded as one of the best of the 90s. And then? Poof. I’ve heard rumours that they got heavy into partying and drugs, and members started dropping out because of it. They did actually get their shit together enough to make a second album in 2000 – after multiple failed starts – but it didn’t come close to the level of Elastica, and even Frischmann admits that it was a mistake.
This song is a… cover?… remake?… parody?… of “Cleopatra” by Adam and the Ants. It was recorded in December of 1994 in the band’s fourth and final “Peel session”, shortly before the release of Elastica. “Peel sessions” were short recording sessions by BBC DJ John Peel to get around the limitations of UK copyright law. Up until the late 1980s, the BBC was restricted in the amount of pre-recorded music they were allowed to play each day – the “logic” was that if people could listen to songs for free on the radio, they wouldn’t buy the records. Peel got around this by bringing the bands in and having them record songs right there in the studio – usually four songs, all recorded, mixed, and mastered within a day. His “Peel sessions” became famous for giving artists that would go on to become superstars their first major exposure. The restrictions had ended not long before the Elastica sessions, and their “Peel sessions” likely contributed to the massive success of their debut album.
Some bands struggle for years before they get their big break, others just stumble into it and don’t know what to do with it. Something Corporate is a case of the latter. At age 15, Andrew McMahon formed a band with some friends for a battle of the bands, won the contest, then the band dissolved. Not long after, McMahon met another guitarist, and most of the previous band rejoined as Something Corporate. At first, it didn’t look things were going anywhere – the band was underage, and so couldn’t play most venues, and anyway college was fast approaching, which meant deciding between that and a music career. Most of the band stuck together despite going to college, flying back to jam, and managed to record a 10-song demo CD that got them label attention. They actually ended up doing a full-set audition for label representatives in the garage of McMahon’s house. They got signed and released two wildly successful albums over the next two years, but then just… burned out. The band went on hiatus, during which McMahon started a successful solo career, and… that was pretty much it for Something Corporate. There have been some sporadic reunions and tours, but as of now they’re still supposedly on hiatus, with no return in sight.
It’s a pity too, because as this song illustrates, they can write very catchy, literate pop punk. This track was written for a charity compilation album shortly after their first major-label studio album Leaving Through the Window.
The Long Winters is primarily musician and podcaster John Roderick. It got its genesis when Roderick was playing keyboards as a touring musician for the band Harvey Danger (best known for the 1997 classic “Flagpole Sitta”). In 2001, Harvey Danger was falling apart, so front man Sean Nelson got together with Roderick and Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie (who had just created his own studio and was keen to have a good band to record in it) to create The Long Winters. The next three years were the most productive period for the band, but a series of lineup changes basically tore the band apart. Nelson went back to give Harvey Danger another swing, Walla never really left Death Cab for Cutie, drummers Michael Shilling and Michael Schorr (formerly of Death Cab for Cutie) both got burned out by touring… when all was said and done, the only person left after their second album – 2003’s When I Pretend to Fall – was Roderick. He pieced together a new lineup, and managed a third album in 2006 – Putting the Days to Bed – but although he’s been promising a new album since 2011, nothing’s materialized.
This track is from late 2004, which would place it about the time everything was falling apart for the band after their second album. It might be one of the last songs released with the lineup of Roderick, Schorr, and Eric Corson. On the other hand, Schorr might have already left, which would mean this might feature the drum work of the very famous promoter and label executive Nabil Ayers, co-founder of Sonic Boom Records.
You may suppose from the title that this is a song about nostalgia for the 1980s. Well, it is… but it comes with a heavy helping of cheek. The lyrics do wax wistful at memories of holidays at the time, but at the same time there’s also a very knowing wink to the listener that the only reason for the nostalgia is that the 80s happen to be when the artists were kids: Christmases in the 80s were better, according to the lyrics, because everyone was playing in the snow and excited about getting presents. The single’s cover amusingly juxtaposes a Christmas tree with a Pac-Man game.
As far as I can tell, this is the last single from The Futureheads before 2012’s Rant. Why is that meaningful? Well, Rant (almost) entirely a capella – no instruments, only vocals – it contains a capella versions of other Futureheads songs, and some covers. That means this is (currently) the last Futureheads single with their trademark sound, which is a pity.
Menace Beach is a very recent phenomenon, so it’s too early to tell whether it’s an actual group unto itself, or merely a collaboration project by musicians from other bands. They don’t seem to have a very stable lineup yet. Although they’ve been releasing songs and EPs since 2012, their debut album only came with 2015’s Ratworld. It received rave reviews, and has been quickly followed up with 2017’s Lemon Memory, and 2018’s Black Rainbow Sound.
This tune is the title track off their most recent EP. It’s got a surprisingly positive message underneath the wall of grinding sound about helping out people who aren’t exactly having an easy time during the holiday season. It comes with an absolutely bizarre video with hallucinogenic visuals of kaleidoscopic cats and sheep.
I’m surprised My Morning Jacket isn’t more widely known. This is a band that had a difficult time getting critical and commercial notice, but since it came, MMJ hasn’t looked back. They have racked up three Grammy nominations for best alternative album – the same as Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, R.E.M., The Smashing Pumpkins, and The White Stripes – one for each album since they first broke out. In 2008, they performed a legendary four-hour set in the pouring rain at the Bonnaroo Music Festival that featured guests Zach Galifianakis and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett – a set that has been called the greatest ever set played at the festival. And in 2009, they were featured in an episode of American Dad! called “My Morning Straightjacket”, in which Stan becomes a groupie of the band.
This track comes from 2003’s At Dawn. The band’s debut album, The Tennessee Fire, had made little or no impact States-side, but had attracted attention in Europe. At Dawn would be the album that got them a following this side of the pond. Front man Jim James’s vocals were recorded in an empty grain silo, giving the track the characteristic reverb-y sound of the period. Following At Dawn, and through the subsequent album It Still Moves, the band would make several lineup changes and eventually release Z, starting the band’s modern era, and finally earning them critical acclaim and success.
The Mynabirds is a band that’s pretty much a single person: Laura Burhenn. The band is known for being openly political, with particularly feminist, progressive, left-leaning messages – the most recent album BE HERE NOW, for example, covers issues such as the Standing Rock protests, and Trump’s Muslim ban.
With a reputation like that, it probably won’t surprise that “All I Want Is Truth (For Christmas)” is a very political holiday tune. The opening lyrics start by suggesting that you have yourself a merry little Christmas while you still can, because global warming is going to end the hopes of seeing any snow; later there’s a clever section that talks about everyone preferring to ignore the crises and focus on their TVs – flat screen, of course – that comes with a warning: just don’t turn on the news. But it’s not all anti-capitalist rage; there’s a lot of heart buried in the lyrics, and the lovely tune is like icing over the depressing messages, making for an enjoyable listen.
Parenthetical Girls is an experimental band that is basically Zac Pennington and a revolving door of collaborators. It’s a project that seems intended to snub everything “standard” about pop music. For example, at the height of their popularity, rather than releasing another album, Pennington instead released a series of vinyl-only EPs, six months apart, over a period of almost three years. The best tracks from these were later collected in the band’s final album, Privilege (Abridged).
Given that biography, it may surprise to learn that Parenthetical Girls has numerous Christmas songs in their catalogue – upwards of two dozen by my estimate. In fact, their very first EP was 2002’s Christmas with Swastika Girls – they were called Swastika Girls at the time – and right after their first album, 2004’s (((GRRLS))), came another EP:Christmas with Parenthetical Girls. And another three or four Christmas EPs followed. Indeed, their very last EP – their last release other than the album that collected the five Privilege EPs – was 2012’s Good Christian Men Rejoice, It’s Parenthetical Girls.
Local Natives is a band out of California formed mostly by a group of high school friends and some post-college buddies. They got significant buzz for their debut album, 2009’s Gorilla Manor. One of the interesting quirks of the band is that – at least at the time – everybody was involved in everything: all song and even art credits are shared by all members. In fact, the album’s name comes from the house they all shared while putting the album together… apparently it was a chaotic mess, with instruments all over the place and people randomly picking out tunes on whatever was in reach.
This tune came about a year after Gorilla Manor (but a couple years before their follow-up, 2013’s Hummingbird), following bassist Andy Hamm’s ejection from the band. The lyrics are about coming home for the holiday and reconnecting with friends and family. There’s no drama here, just warmth.
Sia has been around since the late 1990s – as a solo artist, she’s been around as part of a band even earlier than that – but it took her a long time to find success. It wasn’t until 2014 until her sixth studio album, 1000 Forms of Fear hit #1 and went gold on the strength of the triple-platinum single “Chandelier”; her next album, 2016’s This Is Acting “only” hit #2, but it went double-platinum, and spawned the seven-times-platinum #1 hit “Cheap Thrills”. But long before she found success on her own, she’d already had a string of hit singles as songwriter or featured artist, including a #1 in 2011 with Flo Rida on “Wild Ones”, and 2012’s “Diamonds” with Rihanna went platinum.
Everyday Is Christmas, released in 2017, is Sia’s eighth and most recent album, and her first Christmas album. Unlike what most artists do, Sia’s Christmas album contains no covers – and especially no covers of “Christmas standards”. It’s all original music, and quite a few of the songs are very much worthwhile listening. This track was the first and only single off the album – and it actually charted – but there are several other songs off the album that could have made this list. Sia’s put the full album on YouTube if you’d like to give it a listen.