Here are songs #30 to #21 in the 2019 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
I seriously doubt I need to introduce Neil Young to readers. Young’s career is one of the most influential in all of modern music. He’s one of only three people to have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame first for his solo career then later as part of a band (the other two are Clyde McPhatter of The Drifters and Rod Stewart of Faces; it’s far more common to first be inducted as part of a group then for a solo career later, for example, as with all The Beatles). I could fill a page with the list of the man’s awards: multiple Junos including Artist of the Year, multiple Grammys including Best Rock Song, even a fricken’ Oscar nomination. All this and yet arguably he’s even more famous these days as a peace activist.
This song first appeared on some rare pressings of 1975’s Tonight’s the Night, but was officially released only on 1977’s Decade, Young’s first and for almost three decades only retrospective compilation album.
Today Imogen Heap has multiple Grammy awards and nominations under her belt, but her path to recognition was peculiar. She was discovered at 18 and her debut album generated good buzz… then it all abruptly fell apart when funding for the label was cut, and she was forced to rush a second album to avoid getting dropped. It didn’t work, and she was dropped. She teamed up with songwriter Guy Sigsworth as Frou Frou, and released a critically-acclaimed album… but once again with little commercial success, and then the collaboration also fell apart. Heap decided to go all in and actually get a second album made… and luckily, by this time she had caught the attention of television and film producers, who featured her songs in their soundtracks. Once again, she had critical acclaim, but this time she finally had the sales to go with it, which led to her first Grammy nominations, and the rest is history.
This particular song was originally written for an episode of The O.C. titled “The Chrismukkah That Almost Wasn’t”, but was rejected for being “too dark”. Over the hauntingly beautiful harmonies, the lyrics are about a typical holiday family get together that is… strained, to say the least. Heap struggles to keep up a pleasant and peaceful exterior as she seethes underneath, engaging in passive-aggressive behaviours, and internally screaming, “get me out of here!”
King Diamond is the stage name of Danish metal pioneer Kim Bendix Petersen, who fronted one of the first black metal bands, Mercyful Fate. It wasn’t the music of Mercyful Fate that set the tone for future acts, but rather their showy embracing of Satanism and the occult. In fact, King Diamond was one of the first metal artists to use corpse paint. When Mercyful Fate split up in 1985, King Diamond formed a new band from (some of) the members, naming it after himself.
This song, believe it or not, was the very first release by the band King Diamond, released 25 December 1985. (Their first album would follow in mid-Februrary 1986.) It remains one of their most well-known songs. The lyrics frankly make no damn sense, with random shout outs to cartoon characters, and never any explanation for why there are “no presents” (other than vague comments about Santa needing a hand). But the real fun of the song is the absolutely demonic tone set by King Diamond’s shrieking falsetto vocals and maniacal laughs. It doesn’t matter that it really means nothing; your conservative Christian relatives are still going to think you’re possessed by demons when you sing it. Which, really, is reason enough alone to bust it out.
When I first listed this song in 2013, I commented mainly on the hilariousness of the lyrics. Some people walked away unsure if “Red Water” was actually a serious representative sample of doom metal that I just found funny, rather than one actually intended to be tongue-in-cheek. Well, it comes off Type O Negative’s October Rust album, the first track of which is called “Bad Ground”… and is actually 40 seconds of speaker buzz (the sound a speaker makes when the speaker cable has a bad ground, natch). A previous album was called Origin of the Feces, and the cover featured a closeup on front man Peter Steele’s anus. Their greatest hits album – called The Least Worst Of – opens with “The Misinterpretation of Silence and Its Disastrous Consequences”… which is just 40 seconds of silence and is actually one of the two best-known tracks from their first album (yes, silence is literally is one of their greatest hits). Yeah, this is not a band that is adverse to horseplay.
This has to be the most depressing Christmas song ever written. It is relentlessly morose – both lyrically, with lines like,
the table’s been set for but seven… just last year I dined with eleven, and musically, even turning “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” into a funeral dirge. That said, with lines like
the stockings are hung / but who cares? / preserved for those no longer here…, it’s still loads of fun to sing along to. In fact, I have a friend who – whenever something goes horribly awry – likes to break out wailing, “woe, mistletoe!”
Most people know that the band Spın̈al Tap is a fictional band created for Rob Reiner’s classic 1984 comedy mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap. That wasn’t always true – when the movie was first released, it was such a perfect parody that many moviegoers were fooled into believing the band was real. Eventually, art became life. The actors who played the band have actually gotten together and played real shows – and released real singles and albums – in their Spın̈al Tap personas. In fact, it can be difficult to figure out which songs and albums (and drummers) are real and which are fictitious.
This song is actually the first real single they released after the film, and – unsurprisingly – the song is a spot-on parody of metal (and Spın̈al Tap’s alleged shamelessness at being willing to try to cash in on any trend), with some howlers in the lyrics:
There’s a demon in my belly and a gremlin in my brain. / There’s someone up the chimney hole, and Satan is his name. Throw up the horns and bust this sucker out at a family gathering – that’s my idea of a Christmas party.
Even death metal fans get into the holiday spirit! And… vikings? Amon Amarth takes its name from Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings, as rendered in the fictional language of the elves. They’re a Swedish death metal band famous for using Viking themes in their lyrics and imagery, with album titles like With Oden on Our Side and the song “Twilight of the Thunder God” describing the final battle between Thor and the world-serpent Jörmungandr at Ragnarök. This song fits with the theme, but plays with it in a hilariously clever way.
The song is sung by a band of self-proclaimed Vikings, who remark on their disdain for Christianity and its traditions… then admit that they nevertheless enjoy the holiday. The lyrics are deliriously funny:
Most of the year, we are but heathens, / sailing, fighting, plundering, and crushing skulls. / We confess to fight for Odin; we pretend to be his horde. / But when the year draws to an end things get kind of bizarre. At which point, the Viking skull-crushers start singing about how sentimental they get over their childhood holiday traditions such as presents and gingerbread, with daffy imagery like
five bearded vikings reenact the Nativity scene, and the chorus ending:
Nobody can escape the magic of Christmas. (This same band also did an insanely death metal take on, of all things, “Jingle Bells”.) Definitely a tune you’ll want to bring out while celebrating the holidays at the grandparents’.
This song is widely miscredited to the Sex Pistols (for example, here), probably because they’re mentioned in the lyrics, and for someone who doesn’t know the Pistols, it can sorta-kinda sound like them. It’s less widely miscredited… but still miscredited… to a band that would later become known as The Nails. The Nails had a novelty hit in 1984–5 with 1982’s “88 Lines About 44 Women”, but before they became The Nails, they were calling themselves The Ravers. As The Ravers, they recorded a single EP in 1977 before changing their name (because of another band named Raver). However, I believe this song is not by those The Ravers, who hail from Colorado, but by another band named The Ravers from Los Angeles. That band was based on a duo known as Daddy Maxwell, made up Lou Maxfield and Graham Daddy – when they teamed up with producer Harold Bronson (future founder of Rhino Records), they called themselves The Ravers. Whew!
This song is a bit of a novelty song in its own right, imagining what Christmas might look like if the punk rock bands (of the late 1970s) got to celebrate it the way they wanted. While it’s clearly a bit tongue-in-cheek, there’s no doubt it’s just dripping with punk attitude. For example, among the things wished for are a nice sweater all ripped to shreds, a colour TV so it can be kicked in, and a Sex Pistols album with a picture sleeve… yeah, with a picture sleeve!
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: 2018’s Songs for the Season. (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.
A lot of the songs on this list are pretty depressing. You won’t find any of that here. Shonen Knife are famous for their goofy and light lyrics, singing about things like candy, good times, and… well… being a cat. Thing is, they sing about all of these things over a flavour of underground, indie, pop punk heavily inspired by acts like The Ramones. (In fact, they moonlight as a Ramones tribute band called The Osaka Ramones – Osaka being the part of Japan they hail from, which is basically “the south” of Japan both literally and in the sense of the American South.) Their combination of cutesy-girly imagery and raucous punk has made them perennial favourites, and even inspired an entire aesthetic known as “cuddlecore”. This song is typical of their style. It has no deep meaning – don’t even try to look for one – it’s just fun and silly and hard not to enjoy at face value.
Shonen Knife were around for almost a decade, with some of the biggest names in English music covering many of their songs, but it wasn’t until the legendary Kurt Cobain of Nirvana took them under his wing in 1991 that their popularity outside of Japan really exploded. By all accounts, Cobain and Shonen Knife hit it off swimmingly. In fact, Shonen Knife were touring with Nirvana at the end of 1993, and scheduled to join them again later in 1994 (Nirvana was actually touring with the Melvins at the time of Cobain’s disappearance and death). By my estimates, this song was released shortly after they met Cobain for the first time, and a few days before their first (two-week long) tour with Nirvana. At any rate, it was their first new release to chart in the US, and represents the very beginnings of their major English-language success.
Way back in 1975, Chris de Burgh had just signed his first record deal, but was still broke and crashing at a friend’s. There he read Erich von Däniken’s “classic” work The Chariots of the Gods?, which hypothesized that aliens built the Giza pyramids and influenced most of the world’s major religions, later inspiring Stargate. Never one to pass up a balmy idea, de Burgh hypothesized: What if the star of Bethlehem were an alien spacecraft? What if Christianity itself was simply a bastardized message of peace left behind by alien travellers? The thoroughly silly notion became this song, wherein Chris de Burgh earnestly tells a completely loopy version of the Christmas story involving glowing aliens, questionable science (just like Han Solo, de Burgh seems to think light-years is a measure of time), and an eschatological finale, all over delightfully spacey synthesizers and a backing choir. It’s simply glorious.
The song comes by its loopiness genuinely; I almost don’t want to break the spell for fans of “Lady in Red”, but de Burgh is a well-known kook. He started his musical career singing in a castle – an actual castle in Ireland – that his family owned. He’s a self-confessed Christian but SBNR, believes in the power of prayer as medicine, and claims to have actually healed by the laying on of his own hands.