Here are songs #50 to #41 in the 2019 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
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Current Swell is a four-man band hailing from Vancouver Island. Their sound is similar to The Black Keys: blues rock with an indie sensibility, with flavours of ska and folk thrown into the mix. Their fanbase has been built up primarily via grassroots, with them performing just about anywhere someone would let them set up – backyards and beaches (the former gets an amusing call-out in their video for “Rollin’”) – along with a strong Internet presence.
Christmas Alone is an amiable tune about missing someone for Christmas, led by an acoustic guitar and with a decent chorus.
David Banner (the stage name is borrowed from the name of the character played by Bill Bixby in the 1978 television series The Incredible Hulk) is a rapper, producer, and actor. You might know him from his role in the 2006 Samuel L. Jackson film Black Snake Moan – he played “Tehronne”, the one whom Jackson’s character assumes beat Christina Ricci’s character. Banner is an amazingly underrated rapper and producer. I’m surprised he’s not more well-known; his albums routinely receive critical praise and commercial success. A reader sent me this suggestion to add more hip-hop to the list, and it’s one I’ve been meaning to add for a few years now, but never found a place for. This year Banner’s become somewhat more topical, though not because of anything he did. Instead, it was his close friend, T.I., who made the news for his bizarre and batshit interview where he described policing his daughter’s sexuality via hymen checks.
The track opens with Banner being embarrassed by the fact that he can’t provide presents for his kid. So he does what any decent father would do… wait, no, he goes on a rampage of murder and theft, mugging drug dealers for their cash (and drugs) so he can buy stuff for the kid.
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.
Ah, Kanye West… or are we supposed to call him “Ye” now? You all know who Kanye is. You’ve heard about his legendary ego. You’ve seen his multiple bizarre actions at awards ceremonies – like blindsiding Mike Myers to say George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people, or crashing the stage in the middle of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech to say Beyoncé should have won (Beyoncé did win, actually – she won the more prestigious award later in the show). And of course, his bizarre support for Donald Trump.
But whatever else he may be, there’s no denying that West is monstrously talented. He got his start as a producer, working on classics like Jay-Z’s seminal album The Blueprint (released the day of 9/11, coincidentally), and at first had a difficult time transitioning to being a rapper because record executives didn’t think he was “gangsta” enough. Eventually he got his Grammy-winning debut, The College Dropout, in 2004. This track comes at a fascinating point in his career: 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak, arguably West’s most controversial album. In it he trades rapping for (auto-tuned) singing, and pares down his sound to the most minimal arrangements – the “808” in the album name refers to the Roland TR-808 drum machine, the primary instrument on the album – with lyrics that focus on more intimate, introspective subject matter, rather than old-school hip-hop braggadocio. The album has since been credited with changing the entire pop music soundscape in its wake. This track, the album’s closing track (not counting a hidden track), is apparently about his mother, who died shortly before the album from surgical complications.
In 2016 rapper Murs set a Guinness World Record for the longest freestyle rap, going for 24 hours (with 5 minute breaks each hour – here’s how it looked as he crossed the finish line); I believe the previous record was just over 17 hours. Murs probably isn’t a name most people would recognize – his only album released on a major label is 2008’s Murs for President, which came along with a mockumentary Murs Administration, about his fictional struggles to become the president of hip-hop.
This song comes from around the time Murs was working as part of The White Mandingos – an experimental rock supergroup that released a concept album in 2013 called The Ghetto is Tryna Kill Me, a rock opera about a young black artist trying to maintain his artistic integrity after being discovered. It’s packed with call-outs, such as the leitmotif from “Carol of the Bells”. The name itself alludes to the Wu-Tang Clan classic “C.R.E.A.M.” (“Cash Rules Everything Around Me”).
There is a lot of interesting history behind this song. The first major hit to feature rapping was, famously, the Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 classic “Rapper’s Delight”, but that was an independent release. Kurtis Blow was the first rap artist to be signed to a major label that same year, and the following year he would release 1980’s The Breaks – with its seminal title track (released only a few weeks after this song). But the first track Blow released under Mercury was this song; released for Christmas 1979, it is the first song to feature rapping from a major label.
Hip-hop was a very counter-cultural thing at first (and still is, somewhat), and this track thumbs its nose at the standard Christmas tropes. It opens up with Blow cutting off a recitation of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by saying “that’s played out”, then breaking down into the beat. Being old-school hip-hop – just about as old as old-school hip-hop gets – there’s not much in the way of social commentary. Instead, the lyrics basically retell “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, except that St. Nick happens to drop by the house while it’s in the middle of a party, and joins in.
Westside Connection was a supergroup made up of Ice Cube, Mack 10, and WC, as a sort of protest against the snubbing of West Coast rappers. They made their point damn well with 1996’s “Bow Down”, off the album of the same name, then the three artists went back to their solo careers. They would reunite for one final album in 2003 before their breakup in 2005, but in the meantime, they released several compilation and soundtrack singles, mostly from films featuring Ice Cube. This single is from Friday After Next, the third film in the Friday franchise, which were all written by Ice Cube.
You can probably guess that this is not going to be a bunch of treacly platitudes to Burl Ives-esque visions of the holidays. Sure enough, Cube comes out of the box swinging:
Holla if ya clear n***r, it’s Ice Cube and you can call me the Grinch. I got your Christmas list, but I ain’t buying you shit. The song’s about a bunch of guys that intend to relax and have some fun for the holidays, “fun” being mostly lots of getting laid and high (hence the “daze” in “holidaze”), which actually doesn’t sound like a bad Christmas to me.
If you don’t believe me when I say the Pet Shop Boys are the most successful UK musical duo ever, here’s a fun fact that might help. David Tennant, who played the Tenth Doctor on Doctor Who was not born with that name. He was born David McDonald. He named himself – later legally changing his name – after Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys.
This song was originally a fan club exclusive released in 1997. It wallowed in obscurity, passed around on bootlegs by hardcore fans for over a decade. It was finally rerecorded and properly released in 2009 on their Christmas EP. As with many of the songs on this list, it gives a less rosy, more realistic view of what the holidays are like for many.
I’ve always considered Run–D.M.C.’s “Christmas in Hollis” to be the seminal hip-hop Christmas tune. Well, I got schooled last year, when someone pointed out this track. It’s a high-energy, old-school jam that you can’t help but move to. The lyrics are fun, too: basically a couple of wish lists for gifts, each formatted in a way that alludes to “The 12 Days of Christmas”, with some amusing items mentioned, such as “8 Sega tapes”, “8 male strippers”, “7 bus passes”, and of course, “2 girlfriends”.
If you don’t recognize the name Quad City DJ’s (yes, the apostrophe is in their name), don’t be surprised. They’re actually just a pair of producers (with some common associates) who have actually been in a bunch of other acts… notably the 69 Boyz, who are responsible for the classic “Tootsee Roll”. There were also in 95 South, of “Whoot There It Is” fame, along with rapper K-Nock (the rapper who wants a man “with a whole lot of cash flow” in this song). That’s not to say they haven’t and any success under the Quad City DJ’s name: there was the multi-platinum single “C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train)”.
Bo’ Selecta! was a British comedy show that is… hard to explain. The main character is a completely insane celebrity-obsessed stalker who keeps his dead mother in a closet. There are a number of skits featuring impersonated celebrities – impersonated (badly) by show creator Leigh Francis wearing horribly deformed rubber masks only vaguely resembling the celebrities, and for some reason wearing thick glasses. In the video below, that character wearing the Santa hat on the CD cover pictured is supposed to be Craig David (who was reportedly not pleased with the way he was portrayed – the series is actually named after the 1999 Artful Dodger single “Re-Rewind (The Crowd Say Bo Selecta)” that features Craig David). There is also a perverse bear puppet with an enormous pop-up phallus.
That first verse is supposed be sung by Craig David, the second by Michael Jackson (and the voice at the end talking about “the magic” is David Blaine) – impersonated by Francis, of course. Other “celebrities” and characters from the show chip in from time to time. The lyrics largely refer to jokes from the series – Craig David’s peregrine falcon, and Michael Jackson’s pet Bubbles not actually being a monkey (in the series, she is a hot blonde woman that lives with “Jackson”). All that aside, the song is an awesomely catchy and fun pop song, with a chorus that’s hard not to sing along with. Without knowing the references, the lyrics are delightfully absurd, all delivered in a silly argot, and the song works as a funny spoof of any of the countless Christmas songs about being excited about the holiday… with the amusing catch that the singer in this song is so excited he can’t control his bladder.