Here are songs #60 to #51 in the 2018 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
It’s hard to believe that Mumford & Sons have only been around since 2007, and that their first album, Sigh No More only dates back to 2009. The band has managed to create a strange new/old vibe that feels like stuff that’s been around forever, but at the same time completely fresh and modern. To date they’ve racked up a Grammy for Album of the Year and a Juno for International Album of the Year – both for 2012’s Babel – and a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist.
This track is from Sigh No More, and was only their second release ever (after the double-platinum, Grammy Best Rock Song nominated “Little Lion Man”). It has a man considering a love affair just to escape the loneliness and cold, trying to rationalize away the fact that there’s really no love to the affair, just lust. The beautiful lyrics paint the picture of a man more thoughtful and mature than the average pop song protagonist, who has lived through a lot, and bears the scars of it all. Yet despite all that, the song is wistfully optimistic, and very humanist. And of course, it has a kickin’ chorus that’s awesome to sing along with.
When Rolling Stone asked its readers to name the best artists of the 2000s, they picked Coldplay as #4, after only Green Day, Radiohead, and U2. It’s not hard to see why – they practically book-ended the decade with a pair of the most original rock songs for the whole period: “Clocks” and “Viva la Vida”. So of course when they took on the task of writing a Christmas song, they came up with one of the most original-sounding rock songs on this list.
In a rarity for mainstream music “Christmas Lights” has two distinct movements. What’s really amazing is that either of the two could have been spun out into a song on its own and been successful. Combined as they are here, they work well together, with first movement building up tension and drama, then the second exploding into a vibrant release. Not many modern, mainstream bands would try something as bold as a multi-part song with shifting time signatures. Fewer still could actually pull it off. The video is also worth watching for being loaded with easter eggs in the shifting scenes. The brief shot of people releasing balloons from a boat is actually a hundred of their fans, who got the privilege of being in the video. One of the three violin-playing Elvises is actor Simon Pegg, and the text above the stage reads (in Latin) “I believe Elvis lives”. (There’s also something on the piano, but I can’t make it out.)
Camera Obscura is a Scottish Indie band that’s been around since 1996, but I’m honestly not sure whether they’re still a thing. They were just starting to find success with their last two albums, when keyboardist and vocalist Carey Lander was diagnosed with bone cancer. The band ended up having to cancel tour gigs due to her declining health, and Lander died in 2015. The band hasn’t really done anything since. I haven’t heard that they’ve disbanded, though, so maybe there’s more to come from Camera Obscura.
This song is actually a remake of a 1961 track by country legend Jim Reeves. While Camera Obscura almost completely strip away its country flavour and add a more festive sound, they faithfully retain the lyrics, about a man’s tragic devotion to his old, lame pony, Dan.
This song has a very interesting history. It was written by Yoko Ono – yes, that Yoko Ono – back in 1969, right at the beginning of her rather messy relationship with John Lennon. Lennon may or may not have had a hand in writing it, but the song itself was used as a B-side for multiple projects featuring Lennon, Ono, and/or the Plastic Ono Band. Most notably, it was the B-side for the way-overplayed classic Happy Xmas (War Is Over) by John Lennon & Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band.
Here it is covered by Galaxie 500, shortly before their 1991 break-up. Galaxie 500 wasn’t around long, but they were quite influential. Their sound has been described as “lo-fi slowcore” or “dream pop”, later taken up by the likes of Low and Lorde. They’ve interpreted this song as a straight cover, but Naomi Yang’s vocal work is much more soothing – and thus more appropriate for the song – than Ono’s, and they ditch the organs for a beautifully echoing guitar.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) could either be a Christmas movie, or a very rare example of a Halloween holiday movie. In the film, each holiday has its own “town”, and the denizens of Halloween Town stumble on Christmas Town, and are awed by it and its leader Santa Claus… whom they interpret as
Sandy Claws and assume must be a truly horrifying monster. It’s a classic Tim Burton film, naturally scored by his favourite collaborator Danny Elfman. In one scene, the minions Lock, Shock, and Barrel (one of whom is voiced by Elfman) have been ordered to
kidnap the Sandy Claws, and they sing a gleefully demented song discussing various horrible ways to accomplish this, and celebrating their status as minions. Black humour abounds – for example, at one point one of the minions suggests blowing Santa up, an idea which another minions describes as
stupid… but only because if the blow him to bits they run the risk of losing some of the bits.
The version of that song I’ve chosen to highlight is from the 15th anniversary cover/tribute album Nightmare Revisited (2008), which has the film’s songs covered by various contemporary bands. This cover is by nu-metal band KoЯn, who turn the quirky and cute little ditty into something positively sinister and psychotic. In particular, because lead singer Jonathan Davis is singing – alone – what was originally an argument between three characters, it gives the impression of a deranged lunatic arguing with the voices in his head.
The Knife was an electronic duo made up of a pair of Swedish siblings that found huge acclaim with four albums (plus one album based on an opera about Darwin)… then abruptly quit in 2014, saying it just wasn’t fun anymore. That was only the last in a career of pop-music-defying antics, like always performing with plague doctor masks on, thumbing their noses at the media, and refusing to attend the Swedish Grammis (even the year they cleaned up there). Their work is far more overtly political than the norm for Scandi-electro music, taking cues from modern gender and queer theory, with strong feminist messaging.
This track is from their first, eponymous album, but it is not the original. The original was simply called “Reindeer”, lacks the jingle bells, and adds a searing guitar solo – less festive, but definitely worth checking out. Whichever version you prefer, the lyrics are the same, giving Santa’s reindeer a somewhat fatalistic attitude toward their duties.
Weezer has been around since the early 1990s. They have a very distinct sound that is usually classified as alternative rock – a fuzzy sort of melodic rock. You can hear it, for example, in their biggest hit, 1994’s “Buddy Holly” (fun fact, that video was actually included on the original Microsoft Windows 95 CD). You can always tell a Weezer song, and this song is no exception. The lyrics tell a tale of someone who’s apparently been dumped by a partner who had promised to be with them for the holidays, and is now alone and moping about the broken promises.
One of Weezer’s many quirks is their penchant for eponymous albums. By my count they now have four albums named Weezer, all identified primarily by their colour: blue (1994), green (2001), red (2008), and white (2016). But apparently they’re not done yet. They’ve promised their next album, slated to be released in 2019, will be their “black album”.
Run–D.M.C. are widely considered to be the best hip hop group ever. Their arrival on the music scene signalled the end of (what is now called) the “old school” of hip-hop – relatively simplistic rapping over grooves that were largely sampled from disco and funk, with the artists wearing flashy, flamboyant outfits (what we would now call “pimp style”) and rapping about partying and having fun. At the time, a lot of people writing off hip-hop as a fad, and announcing that its time had passed. Then came Run–D.M.C.. Gone were the theatrics – now the artists wore regular street clothing (albeit with some “bling”), and with much more advanced and experimental rap styles over sparse drum-and-bass beats they rapped about political and social issues. Run–D.M.C. were at the vanguard of this change, and their list of accomplishments is jaw-dropping.
“Christmas in Hollis” is probably the best known hip-hop Christmas song. It isn’t meant to be taken too seriously. The first half is a fairly silly story of Run finding a wallet full of cash belonging to Santa Claus, then finding out as he goes to return it that it was actually intended as his Christmas present. The second half – mostly done by D.M.C. – is much better, giving a picture of Christmas as it was done in Hollis, Queens, New York.
Of all the parody songs “Weird Al” Yankovic has done about Christmas, this one is by far the best. Based on Soul Asylum’s “Black Gold”, it’s not hard to listen to – even Yankovic’s nasally voice isn’t too irritating here. The theme is pretty typical Yankovic, describing a scenario where Santa Claus goes postal, and the chaos that follows. This song is not one you want to be playing for the younger kids. Yankovic pulls no punches here, and the song is relentlessly graphic – at one point Rudolph gets ground into “reindeer sausage”. The black humour is also brilliant, with likes like
… and he picked up a flamethrower… and he barbequed Blitzen… and he took a big bite and said: ‘It tastes just like chicken.’ and Mrs. Claus in the aftermath of the massacre trying to negotiate the movie rights. (The original version is even bloodier, featuring the death of Santa at the hands of a SWAT sniper.) But if you’ve been swamped by the saccharine blandness of most of the seasonal music, belting this one out can be pretty cathartic.
Another Weird Al number worth mentioning is “Christmas at Ground Zero”. Like “The Night Santa Went Crazy”, it’s a dark take on a holiday song, this time about a nuclear apocalypse about to happen. It’s a clever idea, but in my opinion, it’s not as lyrically clever as “The Night Santa Went Crazy”, and the nuclear threat scenario is a little dated (the song is from 1986). Yankovic’s singing is at its worst there, too. It’s worth a listen, though.
Over The Rhine is a husband-and-wife duo originally from the similarly named Cincinnati neighbourhood. Their sound is evocative of the classic image of a dimly-lit piano lounge, with a sultry singer crooning breathily over a slow, jazzy piano, or small backing band. The highlight of their repertoire, so far, has to be the stunning “Ohio”, their 2003 album of the same name, but “All I Ever Get for Christmas is Blue” is a good sample of their style. The band is actually crediting with saving the once crumbling, crime-riddled Over-The-Rhine neighbourhood, based solely on the evocative power of their songwriting.
It doesn’t show up often in their music, but Over The Rhine’s Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist are actually very Christian. One of their albums is actually named after a C.S. Lewis book, and they’ve told stories of their move into a 170 year-old house outside of Cincinnati where they’ve had their marriage restored by planting a garden, found a snake in the attic – which they naturally took as a Biblical omen of sorts – and had the house
quake with the power of musical healing.