Here are songs #70 to #61 in the 2019 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
70. ★ 🍁 “Mistress Claus” – Alyssa Reid
This is the first time this song has appeared on the list, but not the first time for Reid. She’s been on the list for the last few years with her hilarious collaboration with The Heist, “Santa Why’d You Do It!?”. But this song was always a strong contender for the list, too, and now it finally gets its day.
Reid’s career started out with a bang with her first single, 2010’s “Alone Again”. That and her debut album, 2011’s The Game, earned her a Juno nomination for New Artist of the Year. For a few years, she duly churned out albums and singles, doing reasonably well, but starting in 2016 she just sorta… stopped. She released a couple more singles, saying they were off her next album, but it’s been three years and it hasn’t appeared yet. Instead, this year Reid announced that she’s been making music under a new name: ASHS. So it’s not clear whether we should expect more from her as “Alyssa Reid” or “ASHS”, or both (or neither).
AC/DC is an icon of rock and roll, but they haven’t had an easy job of it. Several times over their 40+ year career it looked like their time was up, but each time they can roaring back. They formed in 1973, but had a bit of a rough start before finally releasing their first album, High Voltage, in 1975. They hit big right away, but even then things didn’t exactly go smoothly for them. Lead singer and co-songwriter Bon Scott died after heavy drinking in 1980 (famously by choking on his own vomit), and for a while there was talk of disbanding. Instead, the band recorded Back in Black as a tribute to Scott… which became one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. But it wasn’t long after that that things went downhill once again, after drummer Phil Rudd was fired in 1983 for getting into a fistfight with Malcolm Young.
This song is off of 1990’s The Razor’s Edge, which spawned hits like “Thunderstruck” and “Moneytalks” and triggered yet another comeback. It’s not one of the better songs on the album, but it’s classic AC/DC, tossing up a barrage of holiday themed sexual references (
I can hear you coming down my smokestack) that would impress even Lady Gaga. The revival set off by the album lasted all the way to 2014, but now with Malcolm Young passed, Brian Johnson going deaf, Cliff Williams retiring, and Phil Rudd convicted for hiring a hitman, it’s hard to believe that AC/DC has any more comebacks up their sleeves. On the other hand, Angus Young is soldiering on, bringing back drummer Chris Slade (who plays drums on this track), replacing Malcolm with his nephew Stevie, and bringing on Axl Rose for vocals… there just may be another comeback in them yet.
Belle & Sebastian may be the ultimate hipster band; that band that anyone who knows music knows, but practically nobody else. They live on the cusp of greatness, always seeming just on the verge of a breakthrough to mainstream success and recognition, but always still firmly indie and obscure. Their flirtations with celebrity have become a source of much amusement for the band, who seem to enjoy their subversive, underground success.
This song was actually originally done by James Brown in 1968, but I’ve opted to go with the Belle & Sebastian version. It’s a straight cover, but it smooths out the rougher edges and the bravado of the Brown version, giving the song a more modern sound, and – in my opinion – better meshing with the lyrical message about putting the focus of the holidays on the people who need it most.
There are artists of middling talent that seem to rack up awards, and then there are artists widely acknowledged to be awesome but who have received next to no official acknowledgement. Kate Bush falls into the latter category. Despite being nominated for a handful of Grammys and BRIT awards, the only major award she has ever won is a single BRIT Award in 1987 for Best British Female Solo Artist. Bush did finally get some recognition, though – in 2013 she was appointed Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by the Queen in recognition of her contributions to music. (She was also nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018… but didn’t make it in.)
Bush has a very unique style, and this esoteric tune is hard to classify, or even describe. The lyrics touch on several Christmas tropes – Santa Claus going down the chimney, Bing Crosby singing White Christmas – but I couldn’t tell you for sure what it’s about. My guess is it’s the point of view of a snowflake falling on the city. Whatever it’s about, it’s a pretty song, and Bush’s unique vocal performance is unforgettable. There are two versions; the second has a very different vocal performance and features a bongo drum track. That version (more or less) was used for a 1979 BBC Christmas special – the video, featuring Bush dancing in a big chair in a her PJs, has to be seen to be believed.
From the FLips comes this off-beat Christmas song about a guy who decides that he’s going to let the zoo animals out of their cages for Christmas, only to be foiled when the animals say, “thanks but no thanks, man”, they’d rather free themselves, though they appreciate his concern.
Almost unbelievable but true, The Flaming Lips are the official rock band of the state of Oklahoma. This, despite antics like releasing a single on a flash drive encased in a blob of bubble-gum flavoured gummy-bear material shaped like a foetus. (A previous release was even more elaborate, encased in a gummy brain which in turn was encased in a gummy skull that was over three kilograms in total.) They are particularly famous for their live shows, and in fact were first signed to a major record deal after a record company executive observed them damn-near burning down the legion hall they were performing in with their pyrotechnics.
The Ramones did not invent punk rock, but they defined it. They are easily one of the most influential bands in history – it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if a third of the artists on this list mentioned the Ramones as an influence. Their bombastic, two-minute songs were filled with both attitude and – surprisingly – melody, inspired by their fucked up childhoods. In fact, if anything killed the Ramones – other than their interpersonal strife – it would have to be the attempt to make them more commercially appealing. Today most people think of the Ramones with a sort of counter-cultural, almost anarchistic aesthetic, but they thought of themselves as a slightly less talented version of The Beatles, and were actually seeking mainstream success. They never really recovered from a disastrous attempt to work with legendary producer Phil Spector – by then, long past his prime, and now just creepy and crazy.
This song is a B-side from the single “I Wanna Live”, from 1987’s Halfway to Sanity. By then the band was long past their peak – although, their next album, 1989’s Brain Drain was a brief light in an otherwise unimpressive time (this song was included on that album). Years later, Joey Ramone rewrote and recorded an entirely new interpretation of the song. None of Joey Ramone’s solo work was released during his lifetime, but I believe that single may be one of the first released after his 2001 death.
64. ★ “Ho Ho Ho” – Sia
Sia has been around since the late 1990s – as a solo artist, she’s been around as part of a band even earlier than that – but it took her a long time to find success. It wasn’t until 2014 until her sixth studio album, 1000 Forms of Fear hit #1 and went gold on the strength of the triple-platinum single “Chandelier”; her next album, 2016’s This Is Acting “only” hit #2, but it went double-platinum, and spawned the seven-times-platinum #1 hit “Cheap Thrills”. But long before she found success on her own, she’d already had a string of hit singles as songwriter or featured artist, including a #1 in 2011 with Flo Rida on “Wild Ones”, and 2012’s “Diamonds” with Rihanna went platinum.
Everyday Is Christmas, released in 2017, is Sia’s eighth and most recent album, and her first Christmas album. Unlike what most artists do, Sia’s Christmas album contains no covers – and especially no covers of “Christmas standards”. It’s all original music, and quite a few of the songs are very much worthwhile listening. Last year, “Santa’s Coming For Us”, the only single from the album, made the list… but damn, half the album could easily qualify; this year I decided to go with this fun and somewhat wacky track. Sia’s put the full album on YouTube if you’d like to give it a listen.
Fitz and the Tantrums are best described Motown-style soul music re-imagined through modern indie-rock – to hear what I mean, check out “MoneyGrabber”. The band consciously eschews the standard indie guitar sound, opting instead for a brass sound, mixing it with a look and style that calls back to the dapper showmanship of classic soul groups.
Here Fitz has a beef with Santa Claus, who is apparently not quite as chaste as the stories would have you believe. Apparently, Santa’s got a girl down every chimney, and she might be yours (or you, if you’re lucky, I suppose). “Better hide your mistletoe, break out your fire hose, better hold your lady close.” It makes a kind of sense, really – who ever believed that Santa was only coming down the chimney because of the milk and cookies?
The California punk scene produced an astounding number of headlining bands over two periods of a few years, and The Vandals have the rare distinction of being associated with both of those periods. They first broke out alongside Bad Religion, Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, and Social Distortion in the early 1980s, standing out from the crowd by being the clowns of the group rather than tackling the same serious social issues the others focused on. They started to fade away in the late 1980s after some lineup changes, but reemerged in the 1990s along with an entirely new wave of Cali punk bands that included Blink-182, Green Day, and The Offspring.
This song comes from an honest-to-goodness Christmas album that they made in that second period (albeit one that comes chock full of their trademark humour). The verses tell the story of a brawl between a possibly-Muslim/possibly-Sikh punk-rocker-wannabe (“Oi” is a subgenre of punk, usually associated with British racists, nationalists, and football hooligans – it’s also an interjection that can mean either “listen up!” or “what the fuck!?”) and a racist thug that attacks him because… well, apparently just because. It doesn’t go well for the thug, who gets his ass kicked and is left for dead by his friends. Finding the spirit of Christmas or something, the punk saves the thug and the pair escape from the cops, then head to the bar to drink together. Happy ending, I guess. This isn’t the only Vandals song to make the list; also worth checking out is “My First Christmas (As a Woman)”.
“Weird Al” Yankovic has been on almost every iteration of this list since the beginning… but never with this song. Instead, his other Christmas single was featured: the brilliantly dark “The Night Santa Went Crazy” from 1996’s Bad Hair Day.
This track, from 10 years earlier, is his only other Christmas single, off the 1986 album Polka Party! It really hasn’t aged well, for a number of reasons. First, it’s from a period of Yankovic’s career where his parodies were less sophisticated – there are some funny lines, but it’s all single-layered stuff. Also, the nuclear war theme just doesn’t have the same relevance as it did in 1986. More interestingly, the term “ground zero”, which originally meant the centerpoint of a nuclear explosion (as it does in the lyrics here), is now understood in the US to mean the site of the former World Trade Center buildings that fell on 9/11. That gives the song a much more troubling interpretation, and for that reason, Yankovic has taken it out of his set list.