Here are songs #10 to #1 in the 2019 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
Does Hem still exist? That’s a good question. Their debut album, 2002’s Rabbit Songs, earned widespread acclaim for its sparse arrangements and beautiful songwriting. The follow-up was delayed due their label going under, but eventually took form as 2004’s Eveningland, which traded the spartan sounds of the first album for more sophisticated arrangements. That trend continued – jumping labels and increasingly complex arrangements – culminating with 2006’s Funnel Cloud, which actually featured the band backed by a 21-piece orchestra. And then? Nothing. (Well, not literally nothing; the band did release an award-winning soundtrack to a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in 2009. And of course, there was this song and the EP it came from, along with a couple other EPs.) There were rumours of contention within the band, but no official announcement of anything. Then, seven years later, came 2013’s Departure and Farewell… whose title sounds like a pretty definitive final album. There’s been nothing since, but as far as I know, the band has never officially called it quits.
This track came in 2007, not long after Funnel Cloud. It may be the last original song released by Hem before their long hiatus between Funnel Cloud and Departure and Farewell.
Rupert Holmes started out as a studio musician and songwriter, with an early hit – 1969’s “Jennifer Tomkis” – released under the name The Street People. Then in 1970, he performed an absolutely brilliant stunt. When considering how to promote a newly signed band, The Buoys, Holmes hit on the idea of writing a song that would be sure to be banned, thus creating instant notoriety. The result was “Timothy”, a song about trapped miners that obliquely but very clearly implies cannibalism. It worked; in fact it worked too well! The Buoys were catapulted to success, but unable to follow up something so… bizarre… as “Timothy” – turns out you can’t really make a career out of singing about cannibalism. Not long after, Holmes started his own career, which reached its peak with the 1979 classic “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)”.
The Christmas Raccoons was a 1980 CBC animated special that was a surprise hit. Produced by Canadian animation company Atkinson Film-Arts (who were also making the “Harry Canyon” and “B-17” segments of the cult 1981 film Heavy Metal at the same time), it was the #1 animated special in the US in 1980, and was rebroadcast worldwide. The story was decades ahead of its time, with its focus on the environment and capitalism run amok, and the narrative is surprisingly complicated for a 1980 children’s animated special – in the end it leaves you wondering how much of it was real and how much was dream. The special’s success resulted in three more specials – The Raccoons on Ice (1981), the very ambitious The Raccoons and the Lost Star (1983), and the direct-to-video The Raccoons: Let’s Dance! (1984, which was actually really a sneaky pilot for the upcoming series) – and a five-season, sixty episode series between 1985 and 1991.
You probably won’t recognize the name, but Rita Coolidge is a part of music history. She was romantically involved with Leon Russell and Joe Cocker – the song “Delta Lady” is about her – as well as Stephen Stills and Graham Nash – her dumping Stills for Nash is allegedly one of the reasons Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young broke up, something Crosby alludes to in the song “Cowboy Movie”. She was married to Kris Kristofferson for a while, and collaborated with him on multiple Grammy-award-winning songs. But she’s also had a very successful career in her own right, mostly doing covers like “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher & Higher”, but she also had a hit the same year this song was released as a single with “All Time High”, the theme song from Octopussy, written by Bond composer John Barry, and legendary lyricist Tim Rice. (In my opinion, although “All Time High” was the bigger hit, this song is far better.)
This is the second song on the list from the 1985 animated special The Christmas Raccoons, which later spawned the five-season, sixty episode 1985–1991 series The Raccoons. Amazingly, the franchise may not be dead. Just last year, a pitch pilot was leaked to YouTube, and images of redesigned characters were released not long after. From what I’ve heard, there is supposed to be a reboot series of The Raccoons starting… like… now… like, within weeks or days! Keep an eye out for it!
I’ve been a fan of Grimes since “Genesis” and “Oblivion”, off of her third album Visions. Grimes is a very unique talent, taking genres that you wouldn’t normally associated with vocal brilliance – synth pop and electronica – and mixing them with her excellent vocal performances. But there’s a lot more to her music than that. Grimes is not formally educated (in music), and in fact only sort of fell into music making after doing vocals as a favour, then learning how to make her own in exchange for food. She makes music based on pure instinct, and has a way of reflecting “standard” pop tropes filtered as if through an oddly unique lens. To see what I mean, take a look at what she’s done to the old, classic Charlie Brown tune “Linus and Lucy”.
This song isn’t even actually an official Grimes song. It’s literally just her and her family and friends fucking around over a beat she slapped together – the rapper is her step-brother Jay Worthy; even the accompanying video is just them goofing off. But when someone of Grimes’s talent craps out a tune… they crap out a hell of a tune.
The Snowman is a 1978 picture book by Raymond Briggs about a boy who goes on a fantastic voyage of imagination with a snowman he built. In 1982, the BBC produced an Academy Award-nominated animated special that has become part of holiday tradition in the UK. Like the book, the animated special is completely wordless, the entire story being told only with the beautiful animation and gentle light orchestral soundtrack… right up until the fifteenth minute, when suddenly the titular snowman and the boy take off into the air in a magnificently animated sequence – with gorgeously hand-animated images of breaching whales under the northern lights – and the soundtrack positively explodes into a glorious choirboy-sung piece titled “Walking in the Air”. Once the song ends, not another word is spoken for the whole piece, right up to its unforgettably melancholy ending.
The song in the special was performed by Peter Auty, who was uncredited, but in 1985 a version by Aled Jones recorded for a Toys “R” Us commercial hit the UK charts and kick-started Jones’s career (Jones did the song because Auty’s voice had cracked in the meantime). This version, by indie group Mimicking Birds, trades the soaring grandiosity of the choirboy versions for a more muted, wistful sound. I find this version easier to listen to, and less demanding on the listener, but your mileage may vary.
Stan Rogers may be one of the most intriguing “what if?” questions in Canadian music. Rogers was a Hamilton native, but his parents were from the Maritimes, and he spent many summers of his youth visiting there. He started his musical career as a folk artist in 1970, but it was cut short when he died in a fire on board an Air Canada flight in 1983 (blame fell on the pilot, who assumed the smoke belching out of the bathroom was due to someone secretly smoking and improperly disposing of the butt – a common occurrence back then – rather than an electrical fire, but is anyone surprised that Air Canada managed to murder a national musical treasure?). He only managed to release four albums of original music during that time – one posthumously – and never earned significant acclaim in his lifetime, but has since been claimed as a genius and national treasure, largely by politicians who find his lyrical focus on Canadiana appealing. Even Stephen Harper called “Northwest Passage” an alternative Canadian anthem (but take that with a grain of salt; King Steve just seems to have a massive raging hard-on for anything involving the Franklin Expedition). One wonders if such acclaim would have been heaped on Rogers had he not conveniently died so early in his career.
While Rogers’ stature may be somewhat overhyped, there’s no denying that he was a damn good lyricist. In “First Christmas”, Rogers paints three portraits of people spending their first Christmas day away from their home: first a young man trying to make it on his own, forced to work over the holidays; then a young woman from an abusive family whose run away, and is panhandling, ultimately forced to make do at the local Salvation Army shelter; then an old man whose wife has passed and who has had to move in to a retirement home, and is coping with the unfamiliarity of it all and hoping one of the kids might call.
I haven’t been able to find out much about this group. They apparently formed in 1992 after the musicians in a band named Glee – Jason Zumpano and Michael Ledwidge – wanted to go in a different musical direction, despite some early success. Note that Zumpano the band is distinct from Jason Zumpano (who went on to have a solo career and to form the band Sparrow), though he was the band’s drummer. The pair teamed up with Superconductor’s Carl Newman (who later formed The New Pornographers), and bassist Stefan Niemann and formed a band called The Wayward Boys. They later changed the name to Zumpano (simply because they thought the drummer’s name was cool). They were signed to the legendary Sub Pop record label as part of Sub Pop’s effort to get away from its grunge affiliations, and released two albums and had one minor hit – “The Party Rages On” – before breaking up pretty much right after the release of their second album… although no announcement was made for almost four years.
This song was apparently released as part of promotional compilation album for a magazine: Ptolemaic Terrascope. It is easily one of the most unique-sounding pop songs on this list, with a melody that’s simultaneously driving and meandering, and insistent vocals. I can’t even tell you what the lyrics are about, and I don’t want to tell you my guesses – I think it’s better for you to take what you can from them. But for all its peculiarity, it’s still beautiful and unforgettable.
In the first iteration of this annual list, I named Gordon Lightfoot’s 1967 classic as the perfect non-religious Canadian holiday song, and I stand by that conclusion. The lyrics manage to pull off the delicate balance between specificity and universality with perfect precision. And while the song uses the familiar trope of reminiscing over a distant love, it manages to do so without either becoming maudlin or or glorifying the suffering. Instead, the narrator embraces the pain of separation as a sign of love, and looks forward with hope to reuiniting. And because all of this is done without any religious references, any references that date the scene, or even any indication of the ages or genders of the characters, the lyrics are almost universally inclusive, modulo only the references to snow and winter (and, of course, reading a letter).
While this song may generally be the perfect nonreligious Canadian holiday song, I didn’t feel that it was the perfect song to represent this year. A major theme in the rhetoric of far-right fascists like Trump is the notion of going back to a “better time”, and a song about reminiscing over happy memories, and looking forward to reconnecting with past love, cut a little to close to that. Maybe Gord will top the list again some time in the future. But not this year.
1971’s Blue is routinely ranked as one of the greatest albums of all time – occasionally even as the greatest ever by a female artist, and the greatest ever Canadian album. “River” was not among the singles released from the album – those were “Carey” and “California” – but it has become one of her signature songs.
Sometimes people ask what makes a vocal performance great. That’s not an easy question to answer. Technical perfection is important, but ironically, depending on the song it may actually detract from the overall picture. There’s actually a good illustration of that here: compare Mitchell’s performance with Sarah McLachlin’s – McLachlin’s performance is technically better… but the technical imperfections in Mitchell’s performance are what elevate it to greatness – the rawness of her emotion really bleeds through.
Today the Barenaked Ladies are recognized as one of the premier names in Canadian music, but the tale of how they came into the spotlight is as chock full of silliness as many of their most famous songs. In 1991 they recorded a five-song demo tape – now known as the Yellow Tape – containing the masterpieces “Be My Yoko Ono”, “Brian Wilson”, and “If I Had $1000000” (and, bizarrely, a short cover of Public Enemy’s classic protest song “Fight the Power”). They sent this tape out to every record studio in Canada… and were rejected by every one. But they caught the media’s attention when they were bumped off the bill for the 1991 Nathan Philips Square New Year’s Eve concert because some city hall staffer didn’t like their name. The tape went viral, and became the first independent release in Canada to go platinum. Needless to say, a record deal soon followed.
This song comes from their first independent release since the Yellow Tape, a holiday-themed album called Barenaked for the Holidays, and it highlights why Ed Robertson is among the best songwriters in Canada today. Robertson crafts a tale about the elves going on strike with such brilliant and dense lyricism it makes your head spin.
A full indentured servitude can reflect on one’s attitude, but that silly red hat just makes the fat man look outrageous. And:
We’re used to repetition, so we drew up a petition: We the undersigned feel undermined, let’s redefine employment. It’s an amusing counterpoint to “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “The Night Santa Went Crazy”. The conditions at the North Pole are intolerable, but while Yankovic has Santa flipping out and going on a killing spree, the Ladies have the elves throwing down their tools and forming a labour movement. Which, honestly, just seems more Canadian, right?