Here are songs #70 to #61 in the 2018 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
Zee Avi was discovered quite by accident. She went to school to study fashion design, but found she had so much free time she started writing songs. She wanted a poet friend’s opinion on her first song, “Poppy”, but he hadn’t been able to make her first performance. Lacking technical savvy, Avi had no idea how to create an MP3, so she instead posted a video on YouTube. The intention was just to let him see it, then delete it, because it was haphazardly put together and the quality wasn’t all that great, but the friend convinced her to leave it up. Positive feedback from random strangers all around the world rolled in, and encouraged Avi to post other videos. The last video she posted was supposed to be this song, but then something incredible happened. YouTube made the video a featured video, and the next thing Avi knew she was getting thousands of messages, including multiple record label offers.
This song wasn’t just the song that got her discovered, it was also her first professional release. Since then Avi has had a successful debut with her self-titled album in 2008, and gone on to international success. Her greatest success may be the Malay/English song “Arena Cahaya”, from the soundtrack to the 2016 film Ola Bola, about the 1980 Malaysian soccer team – they had qualified for the 1980 Moscow Olympics with their best record ever, but because Malaysia was one of the countries that boycotted Games in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan…. The film is one of Malaysia’s highest-grossing films of all time, and Avi won numerous international awards for the song.
Mew is a Danish indie band with a big sound: rich, layered harmonies over a driving, lush, wall-of-sound base. They were influential in the early Danish indie scene, racking up awards and critical acclaim. Commercial success came five years later, with Frengers in 2003. This song is actually the first and only (official) single from their first album, A Triumph for Man, but since that album only had a very limited release – purportedly only 2,000 copies were printed – it was included on Frengers as well.
Fans have been poring over the lyrics for years, struggling to find an interpretation. The most popular theory is that the song is about a woman who was abused – likely sexually – by a family member, and after staying away for the family for many years is now coming back for a Christmas get-together. The story is told by another family member – perhaps a younger sibling – who is torn between sympathy for what the woman has gone through, and a feeling of betrayal due to her running away.
Caitlin Rose is a singer/songwriter who found her way to country music via punk rock of all things. She started out as the lead for the band Save Macaulay, which was on the verge of releasing their debut in 2007 when they abruptly broke up, surprising everyone. Rose simply took all of Save Macaulay’s work, and repurposed it under her own name. The band’s debut release became her solo debut in 2008, and she’s been operating as a solo artist ever since.
Keegan DeWitt dropped out of the rat race in New York and moved to Nashville to live the dream. Though he’s a member of the indie rock band Wild Cub, his solo career – which long predates Wild Cub – has been far more successful. He’s written the score for a number of films – mostly independent releases that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, but also the 2017 Sam Elliot vehicle The Hero. One of the films he scored won an Oscar: the 2012 short Inocente. That film has the distinction of being the very first crowd-funded film to win an Oscar.
This is not Ingrid Michaelson’s first time on this list; she has previously appeared in a collaboration with Sara Bareilles on the absolutely beautiful “Winter Song”. Interestingly, Michaelson has recently embraced holiday music with a passion. This song was originally released in 2008, but in 2017 Michaelson finally included it on an EP – a holiday-themed EP titled Snowfall. Her most recent album is also her first Christmas album: Songs for the Season, released just a couple of weeks ago. (Unfortunately, it’s all covers of holiday standards, with nothing original.)
Michaelson’s career has been a slow burn, but she is definitely on the rise. Her biggest hits may be 2007’s “The Way I Am” and 2014’s “Girls Chase Boys” – near as I can tell, those are her only songs to chart in Canada, which is surprising; the latter especially is quite good:
All the broken hearts in the world still beat; let’s not make it harder than it has to be. She’s also had some fairly big hits as a songwriter for others, such as the memorable 2010 hit “Parachute”, by Cheryl (formerly of the rather good TV-show-created girl group Girls Aloud) … though I prefer Michaelson’s own take on the song. Michaelson has also started dabbling acting, starring in Humour Me alongside Flight of the Conchords’s Jemaine Clement, which was released earlier this year.
I honestly have a hard time deciding if this band is for real or just taking the piss. Their biography is absurd, bordering on unbelievable. For example, their first album was named Back in the DHSS, a play on both The Beatles’ album Back in the U.S.S.R. and the name of the social assistance agency that pays welfare, because front man Nigel Blackwell had actually been on welfare before the album was released… so when the band broke up a few years later, their break-up album was naturally titled Back Again in the DHSS. Most of their album and song names are poking fun at their Northern English/Welsh small town background, like albums Four Lads Who Shook the Wirral (from The Beatles’ Four Lads Who Shook the World, and the small town of Wirral), Voyage to the Bottom of the Road,CSI: Ambleside,No-One Cares About Your Creative Hub So Get Your Fuckin’ Hedge Cut, and song titles like “Turned Up Clocked On Laid Off”, “I, Trog”, “Children of Apocalyptic Techstep”, “With Goth On Our Side”, “The Light at the End of the Tunnel (Is the Light of an Oncoming Train)”, “Paradise Lost (You’re the Reason Why)”, “Took Problem Chimp to Ideal Home Show”, “Give Us Bubblewrap”, “National Shite Day”, “Left Lyrics In the Practice Room”, “Westward Ho! – Massive Letdown”, “Theme Tune for Something or Other”, “Old Age Killed My Teenage Bride”, and “We Built This Village on a Trad. Arr. Tune”. (I’m also fond of the way Achtung Bono takes a poke at U2.) They’re also famously massive fans of soccer – at one point they were offered a spot on the nation-wide music show The Tube, who wanted them so badly they were willing to fly a helicopter out to pick them up… but the band refused because the Meyerside-based Tranmere Rovers were playing that night.
A lot of songs on this list take a rather critical view of the holidays, calling out the commercialism or the emotional toll trying to be jolly can take in the face of real-world problems. Half Man Half Biscuit says sod all that. Mind you, they’re not exactly calling for cheer, they’re just pointing out – as the song title indicates – that it’s clichéd to be cynical. This track comes off of Trouble Over Bridgwater… the title pokes fun at the Simon and Garfunkel classic “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”, and the town of Bridgwater, Somerset.
Belasana is one of those non-existent bands – just a name used by a fleeting collaboration of artists, in this case Brett Detar of The Juliana Theory and Chris Evenson of Sense Field. Both bands saw some underground success in the late-1990s/early-2000s emo/alt-rock scene, and Detar has since had a solo career, and had his music featured in a number of TV shows and films. “Belasana” seems to only have existed for a single song: this one.
But if you’re only going to form a band for a single song, this is a damn good song to do it for. The lyrics are surprisingly good, describing a man whose love has fallen apart, and is now spending New Year’s Eve alone, trying to enjoy the celebration while being haunted by the breakup, and at the same time reminiscing about the relationship and fantasizing about a second run.
There are many bands with rags-to-riches stories, but few can really claim the “rags” title as honestly as The Used. These guys weren’t just poor; they were homeless and panhandling for change to pay for food. Their efforts to get their band off the ground even cost them friends – band’s name comes from complaints from friends that they felt
used by the band members. And even when they did start to find real success, tragedy struck in the form of lead vocalist Bert McCracken’s girlfriend dying of an overdose… while pregnant with his child. Nevertheless, the band has kept on going on, and this year they just released their seventh album, with new guitarist Justin Shekoski, formerly of Saosin.
This track was actually written for a compilation album titled Kevin & Bean’s Fo’ Shizzle St. Nizzle, the 2002 release of a (mostly) annual holiday charity album produced by The Kevin & Bean Show, a LA morning radio show – a show that once featured a just-starting-out Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla.
You know this song, but you’ve probably never heard this take. The original, by former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham, was from the 1983 comedy classic National Lampoon’s Vacation, and was featured in several other films in the series (interestingly, not National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation). It was never that big a hit – it wasn’t even Buckingham’s biggest hit (that would probably be either “Trouble” or “Go Insane”) – but it has become Buckingham’s signature song, and a classic in its own right.
This version is by the band Matt Pond PA… which is pretty much Matt Pond and whoever he can get to play behind him on any given day. It was part of the 2005 EP Winter Songs, which was half originals and half covers (it also features a decent cover of Neil Young’s Winterlong).
By virtue of being around people of the right age, I was able to personally observe the career trajectory of Ariana Grande almost from the beginning. Honestly, she didn’t impress much at first; her major debut was playing Cat Valentine on the Nickelodeon series VICTORiOUS and its spin-off Sam & Cat, and her whiny, empty-headed performance was anything but impressive. I wrote her off as forgettable, but Grande had far a better grasp of her true strengths and talents than I did. I vividly remember hearing a song in 2013 – “Piano” – and having to ask who it was… and being shocked at the answer. I remember saying at the time: “That girl’s got pipes. She’s going to be huge.” Little did I know. Her debut album went gold (platinum in the US), and every one since has gone platinum, and today she’s one of the biggest artists in the world.
This tune was recorded after Grande’s first Christmas EP, which wasn’t really much to speak of, and didn’t perform all that well. After that, Grande reportedly wasn’t keen on recording another Christmas song. But all that probably worked in the song’s favour; the song is delightfully playful, giving the sense of someone who has shrugged off their cares and is just having fun, and Grande has said it’s her favourite of her Christmas tunes. There’s not much depth to it – in the lyrics Grande is asking Santa if her current love interest is going to stick around, because she doesn’t want to invest her time otherwise – but the quality production and wonderful vocals make it a serviceable candy cane tune.
In retrospect, Destiny’s Child wasn’t a group so much as it was a stepping stone to solo careers for Beyoncé Knowles, Kelly Rowland, and Michelle Williams (not to mention former members who were unceremoniously kicked out: LeToya Luckett, LaTavia Roberson, and Farrah Franklin). Indeed, the last years of Destiny’s Child were mostly a horse race to see which of the trio would find the greatest success with their solo projects; for a while that looked like it was going to be Kelly Rowland, but history has crowned Beyoncé as the clear winner (but don’t worry, Williams has had a career packed with accolades, too).
This song is the title track of 2001’s 8 Days of Christmas, which was released at about the point Destiny’s Child was over – sure, it would officially exist for another 3 years until 2004’s Destiny Fulfilled and the associated tour, but by this time all three members had already started successful solo careers, and the album’s title was specifically chosen to make it clear that Destiny’s Child was wrapping up. 2001 also saw the release of Survivor, named after a DJ’s quip about people getting kicked out of Destiny’s Child so frequently it was like the reality TV show that was popular at the time. In fact, this track is one of the very few to feature vocals by Farrah Franklin (along with Knowles and Williams, sans Rowland), who was only 18 at the time, and in and out of Destiny’s Child in less than seven months.