Here are songs #60 to #51 in the 2019 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
Each year I try to make this list as musically diverse as possible, including songs from many different musical genres. But for many years I got criticism because I’d never really included any country songs. Well, you asked, so here’s a bonafide Canadian country star-in-the-making: CCMA– and Juno-winning, grade-A Alberta beef, natch … a cattle rancher, no less. Brett Kissel has been kicking around since 2003, always with some measure of success, but his star has really been rising the last couple of years.
This song covers lyrical ground we’ve heard before – about the fact that real-life Christmases tend not to quite satisfy the Norman Rockwell/Jimmy Stewart-esque ideal. Kissel calls up images of breakers tripping due to the lights, the lack of any Christmas snow, and the standard tropes such as drunken relatives. But Kissel’s take on the theme is enthusiastic and even endearing, embracing the imperfections – celebrating them, even.
Mary Gauthier’s life story reads like a Dickensian melodrama. She was found as a baby abandoned at a Catholic hospital in New Orleans, and eventually adopted by a right-wing, fundamentalist Catholic couple. They didn’t take it well when their 12 year-old adopted daughter came out as gay. She stole her adopted parents’ car and ran away at 15, and spent the next several years couch surfing in the homes of drag queens she met at a local gay bar. Soon she was drinking heavily and into drugs, ending up in rehab but running away with a stripper named “Evangeline”, and eventually ending up in jail at 17. Then she enrolled in university in Louisiana as a philosophy major… only to drop out and go to culinary school and open a Cajun restaurant. After ten years, she had her partners buy her out, and became a full time musician. Since then, she has achieved widespread recognition for her powerful, raw songwriting, even getting a nod from Bob Dylan himself.
I could go on about Gauthier’s story, but let’s turn to the song itself. The “paradise” in the title is obviously meant sarcastically, but the lyrics describe a pair of very poor people finding a way to make a happy Christmas for themselves, despite having next to nothing. It’s a marvellously spun vignette, where the narrator casually describes being homeless, broke, and having to beg and steal in pleasant, almost cheerful terms, simply by refusing to say anything negative and focusing on the positive.
Most holiday songs that get popular airplay are either upbeat and cheerful or sentimental schmaltz. You may have noticed that several of the alternatives on this list take a somewhat darker, more thoughtful look at the holidays. Here we have Scottish indie rockers Frightened Rabbit pleading, “let the rot stop for just one day”, saying “were it not for the tick of the clock and the spin of the Earth in space, we could always be this way”, closing with the repeated observation: “the next day life went back to its bad self”. All this unfolds with a slowly growing crescendo, including an actual chorus, until its final chaotic climax.
Frightened Rabbit’s greatest strength is probably their lyrics – often dark and introspective assessments of the human condition, phrased with wit and pathos. The best visual illustration of this idea, in my mind, has to be their video for “The Woodpile”, which confronts us with the shockingly banal responses of a group of onlookers to an apparent grisly death scene.
There are a lot of people who would name John Prine as one of the greatest American songwriters, and when one of those people is Bob Dylan, you should probably take notice. “Christmas in Prison” is, on the face of it, a love song by someone who is separated from their lover for the holiday and thinking about them – the same kind of thing you’ll see in a thousand seasonal songs. But Prine renders it with astounding pathos. Prine’s voice is gravelly and strained, over a spare guitar melody – it works perfectly at evoking the image a convict in prison musing away in his endless free time. The slowly flowing waltz adds to the sense of time slowly passing, dreamily and drearily.
There’s another, more amusing interpretation to the lyrics. Recall that the narrator is a guy who’s been in prison a long time and probably expects to be for a while longer –
wait a while, eternity, old Mother Nature’s got nothing on me – and he’s pining about his love. What, exactly, do you think he’s doing? Consider lines like
come to me now, we’re rollin’, my sweetheart, we’re flowing, by God. I’m not sure if Prine intended for that implication to have been made. Nevertheless it’s a popular interpretation of the song.
It would be a criminal understatement to call Bill Monroe merely a bluegrass legend – the genre is literally named after the man (he was usually billed as “Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys”). Originally the oldest song on the list was 1967’s “Song for a Winter’s Night”, but Monroe stole the title by a landslide: this song is from 1945. This song actually predates the period where Monroe crafted the sound we now know as bluegrass style, but you can already hear some elements of what was to come.
The song itself is up tempo and fun. The lyrics suggest a man reminiscing on a particular incident that occurred in his youth, where the girl he had gone to visit one night (presumably he was a-courtin’ her) had stepped out for a while. Rather than wait, he follows her footprints in the snow to find her. The song is too chaste to say what happens when he found her, but it must have been pretty memorable to be singing about years later even after her death.
Graham Parker is primarily known as a rock musician – mostly from his time backed by The Rumour as Graham Parker & The Rumour – but the truth is that over his almost five-decade long career, he has dabbled in several genres. Parker recently reunited with The Rumour – famously depicted in the 2012 Judd Apatow film This Is 40 – and they have released a couple albums since.
But Parker’s first love, going back to his childhood, has always been soul music. This track is off of Parker’s 1994 EP Graham Parker’s Christmas Cracker. It’s basically just a list of call-outs to some of soul music’s biggest names – everyone from James Brown to Otis Redding, Sam Cooke to Aretha Franklin – all put together in a fun fantasy Christmas party.
Tom Waits is an icon of American music. He is doggedly non-commercial, and has always turned his back on musical trends to pursue his own, distinct style, which hearkens back to the sounds of pre-rock-and-roll days, incorporating elements of blues, jazz, and folk. He is most famous for his voice, which reminds of the gravelly, bourbon-soaked drawls of some of the early jazz greats.
Waits’ lyrics often tell stories of picaresque and seedy characters. “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” is pretty much what it says on the tin: a Christmas card being narrated by a washed-up hooker, to some past, beloved john. There are some hauntingly soulful images, like the hooker wishing to buy a used-car lot, not to sell the cars, but just for the freedom to drive whichever one matches her mood. But the twist ending is gorgeous and sad: After describing what is hardly the most dreamy life to the recipient of the card, she fesses up that even that was all just a fantasy… a lie; the truth is even sadder still. Despite all this, she ends on a note of wistful, bittersweet hope.
The lyrics on this track are incredible. The song was written by 38 Special co-founder Don Barnes, and Jim Peterik of Survivor (famous for “Eye of the Tiger”, and who has co-written several 38 Special songs, along with several other big name acts). In the same vein as Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song for a Winter Night”, the narrator is recalling a past lover who is no longer with him, and dreaming of meeting again and rekindling the relationship. But where Lightfoot trades in sweet but mundane observations, this narrator goes positively poetic, with gloriously beautiful lines like:
And I will feel you, when I hear the voices singing / You’re a shining star burning in my heart. / And when the bells ring, I will hear you in the music.
This comes from 38 Special’s Christmas album, 2001’s A Wild-Eyed Christmas Night, their second-last album. The band still exists, sort of. Don Barnes is the only remaining original member; his friend and co-founder Donnie Van Zant retired in 2013 due to serious ear problems. But 38 Special is still doing kicking, still doing live shows.
This song was never intended to be a Christmas song. It was intended to be an anti-war protest song, but the mention of wanting to be home by Christmas – as well as the brass band interludes and jingle bells – has turned this song into a holiday classic. The lyrics are deceptively simple, apparently the plea of a World War I soldier to stop the fighting so he can go home, but there are other references that make the actual time period impossible to determine. In fact, according to Lewie himself, the soldier is meant to be timeless – a representation of the soldiers fighting all wars across time.
Jona Lewie is mostly known for offbeat novelty songs like “You’ll Always Find Me in the Kitchen at Parties” and “Seaside Shuffle” (released under the band name “Terry Dactyl and the Dinosaurs”). He’s also found some success in other countries, but is essentially unheard of in Canada.
This song is by legendary Québec folk rockers Beau Dommage, off their 1974 self-title debut. I confess that there’s quite a bit of the song that goes over my head, mostly because many of the references refer to early 1970s Québec culture. I’ve heard that “Dupuis Frères” was a major department store in Montréal that closed before I was born, and I presume that “Monsieur Côté” refers to a hockey player of the time.
Nevertheless, the tune is fun and catchy, and the lyrics that I do get are amusing, capturing the spirit of a hockey-crazed kid tolerating the chintzy holiday pantomine and family obligations, all while focused on the coming hockey season and his own little problems (
Fée des étoiles, je peux-tu avoir un autre hockey? J’ai perdu le mien, beau sans-dessein. Je l’ai échangé contre une photo où on voit rien. Une fille de dos qui se cache les fesses avec les mains.).