Here are songs #90 to #81 in the 2018 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
Devo is most famous for the 1980 novelty hit “Whip It”, whose bizarre video was hugely controversial in the early days of MTV, but they’ve been playing tongue firmly in cheek since 1973. While they are often described as a joke band, they might be better described as satirical performance artists. Their works draw on art deco science fiction themes, and hides subversive social commentary behind bizarre humour.
This track is a perfect example of Devo’s subversive undertones and deadpan humour. On its face it’s an upbeat, cheerful tune about inclusiveness when celebrating the holidays. At the same time it manages to balance a sense of frustration with the need to kowtow to all the different customs. It’s hilariously two-faced, cheerfully urging listeners to:
Believe what you want, nothing’s really true.
At one point, this song is the most-requested for these lists by far;every year after the first I have had multiple people request it. I resisted for several years because, despite being an absolutely beautiful song… it literally has nothing to do with the holidays. The only connection is the band’s name, which is about as incidental as you can get. But hey, there are a bunch of “traditional” holiday songs that actually have next to nothing to do with the holidays so eventually I figured… why not?
As for the band itself, it isn’t even really a band. It’s a drunken dare by Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody to a bunch of Scottish bands – including Belle & Sebastian, Mogwai, Arab Strap, and others; the first album was literally written in a day and recorded over a week and a half. The second album – from which this song comes – was released just ten months after. This song features thirteen writers, from bands such as Snow Patrol, Belle & Sebastian, Arab Strap, Astrid, Alfie, Eva, and The Moth & the Mirror.
MxPx started out back in 1992, releasing their first album, 1994’s Pokinatcha, while the band members were still in high school. They were originally intended to be a punk rock band, but when pop punk became huge in the late 1990s, they became part of the wave. Interestingly, for most of their early years, they were considered a Christian punk rock band – they have three #1 albums on the Billboard Christian charts… hardly a feat to sneeze at for a punk group. They’ve walked away from their Christian roots though, with singer Mike Herrera saying in 2015 that he wasn’t a Christian anymore.
This song is an amusing mashup of holiday cheer and a Romero nightmare. As to be expected in such a scenario, there’s plenty of blood and guts, shotguns and axes to the head, all described in high-energy punk attitude. It doesn’t sound like it ends well for the narrator though… or anyone else for that matter.
Santa Claus is a ridiculous fantasy, so if you’re going to ask a ridiculous fantasy for a favour, what is the logic in asking for mundane things like toys, a chance to see a lover, or even one’s two front teeth… you might as well make a ridiculously fantastical request to stay in the spirit of things. That’s the logic here, as Fountains of Wayne asks Santa Claus for… an alien… for Christmas. Yes, an alien. A
little green man, apparently just to hang out with and watch Twilight Zone reruns. The lyrics are cheerfully absurd, and the song is catchy and easy to sing along to.
It’s a mystery to me why this band isn’t bigger. They had modest success with the Grammy-nominated novelty song “Stacy’s Mom”, but they have consistently cranked out catchy, fun songs for almost two decades, without much mainstream notice. It’s not like they’re a secret in the industry, either; songwriter Adam Schlesinger has a wall full of Grammys and Emmys from songwriting-for-hire work he’s done for Hollywood and so on. He wrote the Grammy-nominated title song from That Thing You Do!, the Emmy-nominated and Grammy-winning A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!,two Emmys for songs on Sesame Street, and two more for the songs they wrote for Neil Patrick Harris to perform at the Tony Awards.
I’m far from the only atheist whose noted that the traditions associated with Christmas are far less fun than those of Halloween. And it’s only natural to connect the two holidays – they occur around the same time, close enough that some stores literally take down the Halloween junk and put up the Christmas junk at the same time; that was the inspiration of the Tim Burton film The Nightmare Before Christmas. The San Francisco trio Happy Fangs apparently agree with me about which holiday is superior. (Interestingly, they also seem to think that even Thanksgiving is superior to Christmas, if “Fangsgiving” is to be believed, which they insist is “more than just a portmanteu, bites better than cookie dough, gives December a new glow”.)
Happy Fangs has a dirty-but-fun sound, with Michael Cobra’s raucous guitar over Jess Gowrie’s pounding drums, topped by Rebecca Bortman’s cheery vocals. Bortman has a blast creeping up Christmas traditions, intimating that when Santa is checking who’s asleep or awake he might be up to something else, and addressing the listener after an evil laugh:
I bet you thought this song was going to be jolly.
If you haven’t heard of Chic Gamine, you’re not alone. This Winnipeg/Montréal band’s profile is alarmingly low, given their gorgeous sound. The band has three lead singers – Annick Bremault, Alexa Dirks, and Andrina Turenne – who harmonize together beautifully. They remind me of a less hard rock, more groovy version of The Bangles, but others have compared them to classic Motown acts, albeit with more rock-oriented punch.
This song takes full advantage of their lovely vocal harmonies, laid over a gentle, country-flavoured melody that you can’t help but groove along to. There’s not much to it lyrically – it’s a fairly typical tale of pining for your loved one over the holidays. But you hardly notice the lyrical thinness, what with the soaring vocals and gently rolling melody thoroughly sweeping you away.
The eels are one of the most interesting bands on this list, mostly due to the story of Mark Oliver Everett, who goes by the name E. eels is E and E is eels, really, backed by a rotating group of musicians (the best place to see them is as the background band in the hilarious Jim Carrey anti-gun video “Cold Dead Hand”). His father was Hugh Everett III, the physicist who came up with the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics as his PhD thesis. If you know physics, you know Hugh Everett was ridiculed for his theory, which was disdained as pseudoscience, and it hurt him so much he quit physics and dropped out of sight (actually, he started working for the US government on top secret projects, designing nuclear weapons). That’s the public side of that story… the private side is that Hugh Everett became a bitter drinker, and died at 51 (ironically, just when his theory was beginning to capture popular imagination). The Everetts had a hands-off approach to child-rearing that bordered on abandonment; when 19 year-old Mark found his father’s body, he realized as he desperately tried to resuscitate him that it was the very first time he and his father had ever touched. Oh, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When he was 11, he was home alone (as usual), and an aeroplane crashed on his neighbourhood. No, seriously. A fucking aeroplane crashed on his neighbourhood. He walked outside and wandered through the burning wreckage and body parts for a while, then… just went back home, figuring, as he later put it,
Hey! It’s Wednesday, must be a plane crashing outside. Oh, there’s more. His older (and only) sister, who had been institutionalized for schizophrenia and treated with electroconvulsive therapy, committed suicide in 1996. Then in 1998, his mother died, after a long battle with cancer. Think I’m done? Nope. In 2001, his cousin was a flight attendant on American Airlines flight 77; her husband was also on board. If that flight number sounds familiar… it’s the plane that hit the Pentagon on 9/11. By that point, Everett had dealt with so much shit in his life, that the thing he found himself wondering about the incident was whether the plane had actually hit his father’s old office.
So you might expect that his entry would be a dark and depressing song. Not in the least. The lyrics have the narrator reminding someone who is down in the dumps that he has friends, and they’re all waiting for them to join in the festivities… then also adds a verse saying how much it means to the narrator to have that person as their friend. What a perfect, humanistic holiday message. Knowing Everett’s story makes the song’s message that much more amazing.
Great Lake Swimmers, if one goes by its music, almost sounds like it could be a maritime band, but it’s from the Niagara Region in Ontario (obvious given the band name, I suppose), and nowadays they hang their hats in Toronto. Doesn’t sound like where you’d expect to find such talented folk-rockers, but there it is. They’ve been around since 2003, but 2009 was their banner year – their fourth album Lost Channels was nominated for a Juno and a Canadian Folk Music Award, and shortlisted for the 2009 Polaris Music Prize.
One of the things Great Lake Swimmers is known for is their off-beat recording locations, including castles, churches, and abandoned grain silos. Sadly I haven’t been able to find out where this song was recorded. But at any rate, it’s a catchy, upbeat, memorable tune that captures the festivity of the season, without the gaudiness.
You probably know the band Train best for their 2002 Grammy Best Rock Song winning “Drops of Jupiter”, but they’ve been no stranger to both critical and chart success over their entire career. They’re also known for their stance against LGBT discrimination: In 2012, they went after a New Zealand anti-gay-marriage group for their use of the song “Marry Me”, and in 2013, they and Canadian Carly Rae Jepsen backed out of performing for the Boy Scouts of America over their discriminatory policies (they were replaced by 3 Doors Down).
I almost don’t want to tell you this, but this driving pop anthem was actually commissioned by Coca-Cola – it was originally “Open Happiness” by Cee-Lo Green, Patrick Stump (from Fall Out Boy), Brendon Urie (from Panic! at the Disco), Travie McCoy (from Gym Class Heroes), and Janelle Monáe, released as part of the Coca-Cola “Open Happiness” campaign. Train basically took the music, reworked it slightly, and wrote their own lyrics over it. Coca-Cola has a long and storied history of manufacturing Christmas tradition – they are the reason Santa wears red and white – so one can hardly begrudge them this.
It’s my opinion, of course, but all the songs on this list are great for listening to during the holiday season. But they’re great for listening to in different ways. Some work as dance tunes, some work as songs you can play in the background of dinners or cocktail parties, some are good for singing along with in the car. What’s really missing, though, are songs that a whole party – the whole group of you and your friends and family – can all sing together. A lot of the traditional songs like “Deck the Halls” are excellent for sing-alongs: the lyrics are simple, the tune isn’t challenging, and it’s just something that works well when shared – it sounds even better when shouted by a thousand people together than it does as a solo piece. Most of the songs on this list, while good, don’t have that quality. This one does.
Picture a party with a few dozen – maybe a hundred people – and someone starts playing this song on a piano, or just belting out the lyrics. One by one, all the guests join in, and by the time the chorus starts, everyone in the room is holding hands (or, more likely, only holding one hand and holding a drink in the other), swaying back and forth, and roaring out, “We alllll join hands! And we alllll join hands! So let’s alllll join hands, here and now!” not so much singing the words as shouting them, not caring one whit about tune or key. Wouldn’t that be awesome? We need secular anthems. We need songs we can all join in on and sing together – simple songs, but songs with unforgettable melodies and lyrics – songs that, when enough people join in and sing together, can shake a stadium. This piece by Slade is a perfect example of what we need. The lyrics are excellent, too – simple, which means they’re easy to remember, but at the same time they’re also inclusive, and clever. Like the pair,
have the time of your life, when you’re younger / and have the time of your life, when you’re old… perfect lyrics for whatever age group is singing it.