Here are songs #100 to #91 in the 2019 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
Some acts hit fast, have huge success, then just fade away into history; Pearl Jam did exactly the opposite. When they first released their debut album Ten in 1991, it didn’t make much of a splash. In fact, they were accused of being derivative and riding on the coattails of Nirvana’s success … even though Ten was both recorded and released months before Nirvana’s classic Nevermind. That might have been the end of the story, but Pearl Jam just sorta… survived. And kept building momentum. Almost a year after its release, Ten finally broke into the top ten – it ultimately never hit #1, peaking only at #2 (held off of the #1 spot by Billy Ray Cyrus), but it stayed in the charts for 256 weeks, making it one of the top 15 charting albums ever. It not only went on to outsell Nevermind, it went on to become one of the most acclaimed records ever – and Pearl Jam themselves have been called the greatest American rock band ever in polls. And amazingly, they’re still at it; their long-awaited 11th studio album is expected next year. The reason for their staying power and success is not only their music itself, it’s their tireless dedication to doing what’s best for their fans and not their pocketbooks or celebrity status – such as an almost decade long boycott of the monopolistic Ticketmaster, after they were caught gouging fans.
This song is the first of many Christmas releases sent to their fan club. It dates from after the release of Ten, but before it took off in the charts. Now, with decades of hindsight regarding Pearl Jam’s musical diversity, there’s little surprising about it, but it probably sounded very different from what fans might have suspected, given what they heard on Ten. It’s an amusing song – the plaintive pleading of a parent that just wants to sleep in, while being hounded by excited kids. Something many of us can relate to, I’m sure.
Sufjan Stevens is an American songwriter whose work strays all over the genre map – everything from folk to electronica. He’s racked up Oscar and Grammy nominations for his contributions to the soundtrack to 2018 Best Picture nominee Call Me by Your Name. But his greatest achievement may be his 2005 concept album Illinois – which several music magazines listed as best of the year, and some even best of the decade – and its breathtaking centrepiece track, “Chicago”.
I selected this track as the opening track for the very first list way back in 2013 (and the second list in 2014) because I wanted a song with some swing to it to kick it off – one that wasn’t too challenging musically or thematically but still off the beaten track – and this track seemed ideal. I’ve always meant to add some other Sufjan Stevens holiday tunes to the list, but I haven’t yet gotten around to it for a couple of reasons. First, there are just way, way too many to choose from: Stevens has no fewer than 10 Christmas EPs – well over 100 songs. But also, Stevens, for all his denials, is a dedicated Christian, and he routinely works Christian themes into his songs… which presents a bit of a problem for a secular playlist. For sure some future list will include more Stevens stuff, once I pick out something that sounds cool and doesn’t have religious themes that are too intrusive.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones had a bit of a rough start back in the mid-1980s. Their then-unique blend of punk rock and ska miffed the fans of both genres – the punk rockers wanted less ska in their punk rock, and the ska-heads wanted less punk in their ska. They didn’t seem to be showing much promise, but a record label gave them a shot anyway. Even that didn’t seem to pan out – the album, 1989’s Devil’s Night Out – didn’t really make much of a splash (it has since come to be one of their most popular). But slowly they built up steam, and by 1997 they had the platinum Let’s Face It, with its most famous track “The Impression That I Get”, and their sound was defining a whole new genre: ska punk.
Over their long history, the Bosstones have released several decent holiday tracks, and this list has previous featured their cover of The Dogmatic’s “X-mas Time (It Sure Doesn’t Feel Like It)”. (They’ve also done an awesome cover of The Pretenders’s classic “2000 Miles”.) This is one of their originals. It’s not lyrically deep, and the message – that the best part of the season isn’t the religion, the commercialism, or the gaudy, glittery splendour, but rather being together with those you care about – is something you’ll hear in any number of modern alternative holiday tunes. But it has the Bosstones’s signature energy, which can sure come in handy to stave off the colder days of the season.
GWAR is a heavy metal band cut from the cloth same as acts like Alice Cooper, KISS, and Marilyn Manson, though arguably far more extreme than any of them. It’s actually less of a band in and of itself than merely the most well-known musical aspect of a collective of artists (including not only musicians, but also film-makers) known as Slave Pit Inc.. They perform in grotesque monster costumes, and their stage shows include graphically eviscerating caricatures of celebrities and political figures, and hosing gallons of fake blood and slime onto the audience. Despite these antics, or, in some cases, because of them, the band did achieve some mainstream success in the 1990s – though this was mostly because of the attention brought on them by politicians stirring up moral panic. They did get a Grammy nomination for the movie Phallus in Wonderland, which is vaguely based on the battles between said moral crusaders and the band.
This song is hard to date. It was released in 2009 (though may have been available for some time before as a fan club exclusive), but it has the sound of their mid-1990s period, when they temporarily experimented before finally returning to their heavier thrash metal roots. As you can guess from the title (not to mention GWAR’s reputation) that this isn’t a particuarly politically correct holiday song, but it’s nevertheless quite fun to listen to.
The Long Blondes were a five-piece English indie rock group – none of whom were blonde – that showed tremendous promise in the early- to mid-2000s. The released a series of singles – of which this song was one – that achieved critical acclaim, and won major awards, all before they were ever signed to a label. They finally were signed in 2006, and released their well-received debut album Someone to Drive You Home. Two years later they released their second album – “Couples” – and a compilation of their earlier singles – “Singles” – both of which also were widely well-received, but nothing ever quite recaptured the excitement of those early singles. Sadly, guitarist Dorian Cox suffered a debilitating stroke in mid-2008 that potentially prevented him from ever playing guitar again, and the band split up.
This song is one of their early, pre-signing singles, and it showcases the sparkly, punchy energy the band had in its early days. The narrator returns home to discover their ex – who never returned the key – is waiting for her inside, looking to make small talk and rekindle the romance they shared before he walked out on her on Boxing Day. But the narrator is having none of it.
So she’s turned you out, has she? / Well, I can’t say I’m surprised. / After last year’s festive fuss, I find it hard to sympathize. She finds his smarmy intentions to get into her pants now are laughable, and announces that as far as he’s concerned, Christmas is cancelled – she’d rather spend it alone than with him.
You may not recognize the name Julian Casablancas right away, but Casablancas is the lead singer and songwriter for The Strokes. When The Strokes came onto the scene in 2001, their debut album Is This It was hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time. At the time, the music industry was losing interest in the pop-punk sounds of Green Day and Blink-182, and moving away from guitar rock in general and more toward DJ music – electronica, dance, synth pop, and so on. (For example, even U2 was walking away from their rock roots with 1997’s Pop.) Is This It hit the industry like a slap in the face, and started what’s now called the “post-punk revival”, creating a whole new industry for garage-flavoured indie rock which spawned acts like The Killers and Arctic Monkeys. The Strokes, along with The White Stripes, have been called “the saviours of rock”.
When The Strokes took a break in 2007, Casablancas started a solo career. This song is from the period between The Strokes going on break and his first solo album. Actually it originally comes from a recurring Saturday Night Live skit featuring Jimmy Fallon, Horatio Sanz, Chris Kattan, and Tracy Morgan trashing other holidays in favour of Christmas, dating back to 2000. This version, however, I believe was recorded by Casablancas in 2009, and eventually included as a bonus track to his debut solo album Phrazes for the Young.
The Nobility’s first album was 2007’s The Mezzanine… but not really. The truth is, the band started out in 2001 as Jetpack. They released a self-titled album in 2002, and a couple of EPs, and then… just as they were breaking out nationally, they were asked to feature in a children’s book about being in a rock band… and another band named Jetpack sent them a cease and desist about their name. The band acted quickly, renaming themselves “Jetpack UK” as a bit of a lark – that was the trick used by UK bands who wanted to expand into the US only to find an existing American band using their name; as for this band, they’re from Nashville, not the UK. Thanks to the children’s book, they did a tour of… no, really… public libraries and school auditoriums… and that tour paid for The Mezzanine, their first album under their new name: The Nobility.
In 2009, the band released an EP of Christmas songs they’d written over the years. I’ve Got a Present For You ended up with six songs, including this, the title track, and “Santa Shaved His Beard”, which appeared on last year’s list.
The British Invasion of the 1960s is basically a list of bands that came across the pond and swamped the airwaves with hits, but there’s one black sheep in the mix. The Kinks are usually considered one of the most important acts of the British Invasion, but they never enjoyed the same success in the US as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Troggs, or The Yardbirds. Turns out one of the main reasons for that is that they were actually banned from touring in the US. The exact reason why has never been made public, but according to legend it was because their live shows were too rowdy.
This tune is about a mall Santa getting mugged by a bunch of kids, but all is not what it seems. In fact, the mugger-kids make a very cogent point (while beating shit out of the guy). They say that toys are useless to them, and tell the faux Santa to give them to the rich kids instead… what they want is something they can actually use: money. One of the kids even asks for a job for his father for Christmas. It’s a very different take on the whole Christmas gift fairy idea. Nice chorus that’s easy to sing along to, too.
Pop-punk hit its peak between 1990 and 2005, with The Offspring’s Smash (1992, 6×-platinum) and Americana (1998, diamond), Green Day’s Dookie (1994, diamond) and American Idiot (2004, 6×-platinum), Good Charlotte’s The Young and the Hopeless (2002, 6×-platinum), and Montréal’s own Simple Plan with Still Not Getting Any… (2004, 6×-platinum). These bands – indeed, the entire genre – were all characterized by a more melodic flavour of punk, topped with irreverent, juvenile lyrics and themes. Blink-182’s 1999 Enema of the State (5×-platinum) is often identified as the mainstream peak of the genre. But don’t count Blink-182 out just yet. Just they released their latest studio album, Nine, and a new single “I Really Wish I Hated You”.
This song is pretty typical Blink-182 and pop-punk fare – high energy, irreverent, and juvenile – with a narrator who is fed up with Christmas complaining about having to force smiles and play along, then flipping out and attacking carollers, ending up arrested with the obligatory prison rape joke.
I can’t say I know much about A Band Called Quinn, but what little I’ve heard about them is fascinating. The band seems to be less about making music for the sake of music, and more the music-making arm of a theatre and film producer… except that the performances and films are often about being a band and making music. It’s weirdly meta and circular. Louise Quinn, the main talent behind the band, has made quite a name for herself on the theatre scene, with things like a modern pop-rock, science-fictional take on The Beggar’s Opera, and a well-received play called Biding Time(remix) that is a remake/remix of an older play about breaking into the music industry.
This song seems to have been written apropos of nothing, then simply released on YouTube as a “gift” to fans. It’s fun, catchy, and easy to sing along with, or just enjoy Quinn’s lovely vocals.