Here are songs #80 to #71 in the 2019 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
La Vent du Nord may be the biggest name in Québec folk music today. They are darlings of the CBC, have racked up Junos for Roots & Traditional Album of the Year twice, and have toured dozens of countries on five continents. They don’t just perform traditional songs, and original songs in traditional styles, they have even tried to expand the range of Québécois folk music via a symphonic concert.
I’ve been told most Québécois don’t really listen to traditional music… except during the holiday season. And that, in the minds of many Québécois, holiday music is folk music, and vice versa. I don’t know if that’s true, but if so, this tune would capture the flavour of the Québec holiday season on several levels – not just musically, but with its call-outs and allusions to hockey.
George Winston’s piano interpretation of “The Holly and the Ivy” is the definitive instrumental version of the song. If you hear a piano version of the song on the radio, odds are it’s Winston’s. It comes from his 1984 winter-themed (though, really, Christmas-themed) album December, which is one of the best Christmas instrumental albums of all time. If you’re looking for nice, low-key background music for your seasonal-themed dinner or party, I highly recommend it.
But for my money, an even more interesting piece on the album than “The Holly and the Ivy” is his haunting take on the “Carol of the Bells” – which was originally a Ukrainian pagan chant named “Shchedryk” to celebrate the coming of a new year, before it was co-opted by Christians and turned into a hymn. Winston’s interpretation is more evocative of falling snow on a winter’s night, using minor harmonies and bright falling trills to create a sense of tension, mystery, and wonder.
Au Revoir Simone is notable for their off-beat movie director connections; their name comes from a throwaway line in Tim Burton’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, and they have a close relationship with David Lynch – even performing together. Their music is certainly unique: they combine their honey-like vocal harmonies over bright synthesizers and drum machines, to create a dreamy, casual sound.
This song is a single from their second album, 2007’s The Bird of Music… though it’s arguably their first real album, because 2005’s Verses of Comfort, Assurance & Salvation was only a half-length album, and it was recorded in their manager’s basement shower stall. It’s technically not a holiday song, but rather a song about loneliness and memories of lost, young love, but it does include the symbolism of a barren winter. It hides some really nice, depressing lyrics under its sunny organs:
Depressing things are empty beds and lonely dinners, and women who are middle aged with naked fingers.
Ivy is one of the many projects of Andy Chase and Adam Schlesinger. Chase is a producer who has contributed songs to a number of TV and film projects, most notably several Farrelly brothers films. Adam Schlesinger has done the same, and is also guitarist for the band Fountains of Wayne. The two collaborated on the Oscar-nominated title tune from the Tom Hanks film That Thing You Do!. The pair discovered singer Dominique Durand, who provides the vocals for Ivy.
You may have heard Ivy songs already, if you watch a lot of TV and film. For example, “Worry About You” was used as the theme to Kingdom Hospital, and appeared in other places. “i hate december” is actually the only single off their very first EP, Lately, from back in 1994. It’s technically not a holiday song, but rather seems to be about the fear of mortality, with lines like: “All I know is what I dream. But lately dreams have been such scary things, of suicide and frozen ice over my pale body.” Not exactly holiday cheer, but the music is lovely.
Menace Beach is a very recent phenomenon, so it’s too early to tell whether it’s an actual group unto itself, or merely a collaboration project by musicians from other bands. They don’t seem to have a very stable lineup yet. Although they’ve been releasing songs and EPs since 2012, their debut album only came with 2015’s Ratworld. It received rave reviews, and has been quickly followed up with 2017’s Lemon Memory, and 2018’s Black Rainbow Sound.
This tune is the title track off their most recent EP. It’s got a surprisingly positive message underneath the wall of grinding sound about helping out people who aren’t exactly having an easy time during the holiday season. It comes with an absolutely bizarre video with hallucinogenic visuals of kaleidoscopic cats and sheep.
The Raveonettes have been on this list twice, each time for a different song. They first made it on the list with this, one of their best-known songs, but “Come On Santa” has also been featured.
While the band is pretty big in Denmark, they haven’t had huge success elsewhere… except that their songs are frequently used in movies and commercials. (This song, for example, was featured in Christmas with the Kranks.) One thing The Raveonettes are known for are their publicity stunts. In 2016, for example, they recorded and released a song every month, creating what they called an “anti-album”: 2016 Atomized. They’ve also released an entire album full of songs in the same key. Even their origination was a bit of a gimmick: the story goes they were discovered at a music festival by a respected critic… the reality is they got wind the critic would be there, and hastily slapped a band together just to catch his eye.
Technically, the “snow” in this song is cocaine – it’s a song about overcoming cocaine addiction (among other addictions) and starting over. Drug addiction famously plagued the Red Hot Chili Peppers for years – particularly founders Anthony Kiedis and Flea, but also John Frusciante, the replacement for founding guitarist Hillel Slovak, who had died of a heroin overdose. Despite that, the symbolism of a blanket of snow symbolizing a chance for a fresh start with a clean slate works beautifully as a winter/holiday/new year theme.
This song came off of their multi-Grammy winning Stadium Arcadium album, the third of a straight hat trick of #1 singles on the Alternative chart from that album, setting a record of eleven #1 hits on that chart for a single act. Linkin Park matched the feat seven years later in 2014 (with Foo Fighters are nipping at their heels with ten), but by that time the Peppers had already extended it to twelve with 2011’s “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie”. And now they’re thirteen, with 2016’s “Dark Necessities”. They were supposed to release their 12th album this year, but due to the California wildfires, it’s been delayed until sometime in 2020.
“A Hazy Shade of Winter” was originally written and recorded by Simon & Garfunkel in 1966, but garnered little attention. In the early 1980s, The Bangles covered it often during their early live shows, before they developed their own original repertoire. In 1987 they were asked for a song for the soundtrack to the film Less Than Zero. By that point, the band was falling apart (they would break up a few months later), so rather than go through the headache of crafting a new original, they opted to simply record this song they already knew well. The result became the definitive interpretation, far outstripping the original.
The original song is a somewhat navel-gazing thought piece as a man looks back on the seasons of his life and reminisces about what else he might have accomplished, if he’d taken the plunge and published the songs he’d written. The Bangles strip away all the pretension and turn the whole thing on its head. Partly because they were pressured to drop lyrics alluding to alcoholic beverages, the more melancholic lyrics get stripped, and the result, sung in a 4-part harmony over a driving rock beat, becomes a defiant ode to pushing on even after failure.
This cut is attributed to either Savatage or Trans-Siberian Orchestra – it was written for Savatage, but first released by TSO (which, really, is more or less all of Savatage anyway). It is sometimes mislabelled “Carol of the Bells”, because it uses that song’s main motif heavily, but is actually a thundering prog-rock original that also gets influences from “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”.
It was inspired by the story of Vedran Smailović. Smailović was the lead cellist of the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra at the time of the Bosnian War. After a mortar killed dozens of people lined up for bread on the 27th of May, 1992, he despaired at the state Sarajevo had fallen into. As an act of protest, or an act of hope, he began going to bomb-ruined buildings – dressed in the same formal wear he would perform in – and playing his cello… right out in the open, in plain sight, where anyone could listen for free, while the bombs and bullets flew around him. He continued until December 1993, when he finally fled the country. “Carol of the Bells” was one of the signature pieces he played, and it inspired this piece (it also inspired a piece by John McCutcheon, incidentally).
Áine Minogue is an Irish harpist who has been playing since she was 12, first performing at age 14 with Galway Mercy Convent’s 114-piece orchestra. Originally doing traditional Celtic music, her 1996 album Mysts of Time was part of the wave of “new wave Celtic” that followed the success of Enya, which fused traditional Celtic music with modern electronic sounds and styles.
“The Dove’s Return” first appeared on Mysts of Time, though it has appeared on several of Minogue’s albums since. It’s a beautiful, haunting melody that evokes a winter scene with snow falling, done entirely on just a harp with only subtle hints of Minogue’s lovely vocals just at the periphery. There’s a second version, with slightly better production values, and which gives more prominence to the vocals, but in my opinion the original is superior.