Here are songs #20 to #11 in the 2019 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
Yes, the band’s name is “!!!”, three exclamation points. They’re an indie dance-punk band out of California (currently based in New York), mostly made up of members of other bands. They were at the height of their popularity in the mid-/late-2000s, but they still exist in some form or another.
The band’s name is inspired by the alveolar click, whose IPA symbol is “ǃ”. That’s a bar with a dot underneath, but it looks like an exclamation mark (“!”). The band got the idea from the 1980 comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy, which starred Namibian bush farmer Nǃxau ǂToma, and featured the Juǀ’hoan language with its famous clicks and tones. The band has said their name can be pronounced using any three monosyllabic sounds (I’ve heard “bang-bang-bang” used), but in practice the “official” pronunciation is “chk-chk-chk”.
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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.
Meiko is an American singer/songwriter, and her stage name is pronounced “MEE-koh” (/ˈmiːkoʊ/), not “may-EE-koh” (/meːˈiko/). The reason for that is that Meiko adopted the name to honour her Japanese heritage… without actually knowing any Japanese. The pronunciation stuck, and she wears it to this day. (Her sister, fashion designer Kelly Nishimoto, similarly adopted the name Keiko as “KEE-koh” (/ˈkiːkoʊ/).)
Meiko isn’t the first artist to recognize the potentially erotic overtones to Santa deciding someone has been “naughty”. But there aren’t many songs that play on the idea quite as perfectly as this one. In a breathy, sensuous croon, Meiko admits she’s been a
a bad girl, and that she’s “sinned” with a man… and then doubled down on that by dumping the guy cold. But she’s not the least bit apologetic about any of it. Quite the contrary, she’s “made her bed and is now lying in it”, and is considering maybe being
better next year, albeit in a mischievously noncommittal way.
You may not recognize the name, but you will definitely recognize The Weather Girls’ biggest hit: 1982’s “It’s Raining Men”. This tune is in the same vein and style as that song, and it actually comes from the same album. The appropriately titled Success was released in 1983, their first album as The Weather Girls (two previous albums were released as Two Tons o’ Fun and The Two Tons respectively). The six-track album spawned four singles, of which this one was the last, and arguably their second-biggest hit after “It’s Raining Men”.
The Weather Girls still exists today… sort of. Of the two original members, Izora Armstead died in 2004, while Martha Wash – who left the group in 1988 – has had an illustrious solo career. Wash is perhaps best known for a precedent setting lawsuit in 1991. At the time she was working with C + C Music Factory – that’s her singing the iconic “everybody dance now” line in their 1991 mega-hit “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)”. If you watch the video, you won’t see Wash; instead, the signer is “Zelma” (Zelma Davis). In fact, Wash wasn’t given any credit for her vocals on this and several other songs, and this was a fairly common thing at the time. Singers would find their work credited to and lip-synced in videos and live performances, usually by other singers, models, and dancers who were… more “slender”, shall we say. Wash sued, and got a ruling that vocal performers must be credited – a ruling that was very important for a lot of vocal performers who didn’t have the right “look”, according to producers. Today, The Weather Girls name is carried on by Armstead’s daughter Dynelle Rhodes, currently with Dorrey Lynn Lyles as her partner.
Although they had been generating buzz for a couple years due to word-of-mouth from their live shows, The Darkness had a hell of a time getting signed to a record deal. It seems the record execs didn’t know what to make of them – many wrote them off as a joke. When they finally did get signed, their debut album, 2003’s Permission to Land, roared up the charts – breaking in at #2 and then holding #1 for four weeks – and the single “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” hit #2. But it’s not hard to see why the record execs might have been a bit baffled. Just check out the video for “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”, which features the band hamming it up in their own take on Star Trek – cheap, 1960s era special effects and all – culminating in a battle with an alien tentacle monster where they use the power of rock and roll to fire blasts from their guitars like Ghostbusters proton packs. It’s a thing of beauty.
This song was their swing at the prestigious Christmas #1 position in 2003, a tongue-in-cheek glam rock piece that almost functions as a spoof on holiday music. On the surface, it’s almost like an ode to Christmas day itself – just the day; all the trappings like the gifts and the merry-making are shrugged off with disdain. The band has subsequently admitted that much of the song is an elaborate yet subtle dick joke.
Santa Claus is weird. He’s weird enough if you’re from a climate where it’s cold enough that the fur suit and sleigh make some kind of sense, but if you’re from a tropical climate, Santa Claus looks really weird. Growing up in Barbados, I recall bafflement from other kids about the fact that Santa Claus is so red. They didn’t understand what cold does to pale complexions – having a shortage of either to observe – and there were only two things they were aware of that would turn someone’s nose and cheeks bright red. One was booze, and there was plenty of speculation that Santa was indeed quite pickled during his journey. The other was excessive sun: a sunburn. And once the idea hits you, it makes perfect sense (at least to someone growing up in the tropics) – and simply by following that train of thought, this song pretty much unfolds.
This song was originally written by a German ex-pat Caymanian named George Nowak, who has written thousands of songs under the name The Barefoot Man. However, this version is by the Barbadian band The Merrymen. In my opinion, this is by far the better take. The rhythm is eased up, and the children’s chorus dropped, and Emile Straker’s sonorous vocal work adds a po-faced gravitas to the song, rather like the tone an elder takes when sharing a myth – like the Santa Claus myth itself – to wide-eyed, credulous children.
Lorenna McKennitt may be Stratford’s best musical offering to the world (Justin who?). She specializes in Celtic music, with traditionally styled vocals over decidedly contemporary-flavoured music, but she doesn’t shy away from including flavours from just about every cultural music tradition. Her biggest hit is almost certainly “The Mummer’s Dance”, from 1997. By all rights it should have kicked off a major career surge for McKennitt, but the following year her fiancé died in a boating accident with his brother and a friend. McKennitt was deeply affected by the loss, and wouldn’t release another album for almost 10 years. That would be 2006’s An Ancient Muse, which went platinum, and earned a Grammy nomination.
But McKennitt is really only half of the story here. The lyrics to the song are actually a poem: “Snow”, written in 1895 by Archibald Lampman (1861–1899). Despite dying at the young age of 37, Lampman is widely considered to be the best English-language Canadian poet of the late 19th century. (Sadly, he was not exactly friendly to atheism. But that’s pretty much standard for Canadian authors and poets of the time.) McKennitt took the poem in almost its entirety (skipping the second verse, and making some minor word changes) and wrote music for it, then rendered it in this beautifully haunting track. I’m honestly surprised more Canadian artists haven’t thought of doing something like this. The results are certainly lovely.
The Be Good Tanyas are (more or less) a folk trio out of Vancouver made up of Samantha Parton, Frazey Ford, and Trish Klein. Their style is a modern flavour of folk/country, with the gorgeous harmonies of the three singers layered over top. They saw some critical acclaim with their debut album, 2001’s Blue Horse, and even more with the follow-up, 2003’s Chinatown. I’m honestly not sure if they still exist. The name seems still in use, but it seems to be just Parton and Jolie Holland – who was once part of the original lineup prior to Blue Horse.
Rudy tells the tale of a homeless man, “Rudolph the red-nosed wino”, with lyrics that are searingly critical of social attitudes toward the homeless, and poverty in general.
Christmas has no meaning at all to people of greed and incredible waste. They seek the deeper meaning in the shopping mall in a yuletide spirit of impatience and haste. Rudy is a patient man who tries to see the beauty in everything. Yes, he’s not a very demanding soul, whose only wish is to live until the spring.
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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.
These Kids Wear Crowns hail from Chilliwack, B.C.. Their genre is mostly pop rock, but they come to it by way of the boy band phenomenon associated with acts like the Backstreet Boys and One Direction, though they have more in common with Montréal’s Simple Plan (who they’ve toured with). They trade in high energy, radio friendly teen anthems. Their biggest success so far has been the title track off of 2011’s Jumpstart, but since then they haven’t really followed up on that success. They released a second studio album in 2015 but I can’t recall it making much of a splash. Since then, lead singer Alex Johnson ran in the 2015 election for the Libertarian party in Chilliwack—Hope, so it’s possible the band isn’t really functional anymore.
Whatever the status of the band, this song is undeniably catchy, and hard not to sing along to. It comes from the period while they were recording their debut studio album, released as an iTunes exclusive in 2010. There’s not much to it lyrically – indeed, a lot of the song is made up of repeating phrases. But its infectious, energetic pop brings a warmth and excitement that most of the songs on this list don’t have.