Here are songs #90 to #81 in the 2019 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
Travel back with me to 2011, when Justin Bieber was still a squeaky-clean, fresh talent. His debut album had topped the Billboard charts, making him the youngest artist to accomplish that since Stevie Wonder in 1963. Despite his age, he was a genuine cultural phenomenon – it’s easy to forget now, in light of all that’s happened since, just how damn talented he is/was. At the time, in 2011, his voice was beginning to crack, and this song was one of the first singles to feature the change. It’s a somewhat silly pop ballad, but Bieber tackles it masterfully, though perhaps a little too straight-faced given the tongue-in-cheek nature of the song.
A year or two later Bieber would flame out spectacularly, in perhaps the most horrifying public career implosion of the early 2010s besides Shia LaBeouf’s. It’s hard to say what was to blame for it. It could have been the ridiculous “swagger coach” Usher assigned to him, to try to teach a white suburban bumpkin how to be hip-hop cool. On the other hand, his mother is Christian nutcase, and Bieber seemed to have inherited that. But the Bieb’s still around and kickin’. Despite saying he’s taking time off to fix some
issues, he’s promised a new studio album soon. Plus, just he released a collaboration track with Dan + Shay, “10,000 Hours” – apparently made to celebrate his wedding – which went up to #2, went platinum, and has already broken a crap ton of records.
The Wombats are an indie band made up of three musicians from Liverpool who were actually trained by Paul McCartney. They were originally supposed to be an unfunny joke, going on stage wearing jesters’ hats and acting nuts – the kinds of antics you’d expect from a band that wanted to cover up their lack of musical talent. But then something happened: the EPs they released started getting big attention. Songwriter Matt Murphy tried his hand at writing some more mature songs, and they found themselves offered a record deal. Next thing they knew, their first album almost breaks the UK top ten (hitting #11) and goes platinum. You won’t find them wearing jester hats anymore, though their live shows still do include stand-up breaks and random facts.
This song has some very clever lyrics over its raucous guitars, describing a Christmas that’s less than perfect. There are money problems –
Christmas is here; it’s about not extending to the overdraft to scrape out what is left at the end of the year. – the same old movies being rerun on TV, nasty snow, a bit of drinking, and family squabbles:
The red wine plummets down, and we should all be in our beds; but it’s right wing versus left until the wings fall off our heads. Norman Rockwell-esque it ain’t, but it’s all the more relatable for it.
I honestly have very little info about the band or the song. It was apparently written by songwriter Peter Lawlor, commissioned by Vodaphone for a commercial in 2005. The band apparently had a bunch of song demos up on a website with a promise of an album – Six Days in Late Winter –
in the New Year (which would have been 2006). I see no sign of that album, and the website vanished in 2008.
As you might expect from a song written for an ad, it’s light and poppy, but catchy nonetheless. There is nothing to the lyrics, and the tune isn’t really unique or challenging. It should be perfect radio fodder, but for some reason, this song remains obscure. Pity, it’s not bad at all. Interestingly, the opening and closing lines are sung by Lawlor’s 11 year-old daughter Cressida, which would make her the youngest featured vocalist on the entire list.
Blitzen Trapper might seem like a gimmick name specifically for a Christmas release, but they’re actually a legitimate band trading in a sort of folk-rock with a very modern sensibility, with a number of critically-acclaimed albums under their belt. This song is off their 2003 eponymous debut album, and is – perhaps surprisingly – the only Christmas song they’ve ever recorded. The lyrics are a set darkly funny of vignettes about Christmas in the American midwest, set over warm, sparkly guitar arpeggios with gentle vocals.
Blitzen Trapper has apparently released this song for free on several occasions, with a “pay-what-you-can” model to collect donations for various causes.
It’s not obvious from the lyrics, but “Mookie’s Last Christmas”, written by lead singer Anthony Green, is about (former) lead guitarist Justin Shekoski’s father. During a tour with Story of the Year, Shekoski’s father – who just happened to be in the Maryland area on business at the same time Shekoski’s tour was in town – visited with Shekoski and caught a pair of shows. But on his drive to the airport, there was an accident and Shekoski’s father died at the scene. Despite this, Shekoski played a show that same day, and went on to complete the tour. (Mookie, incidentally, was the Shekoski family dog.)
Shortly after writing this song, Anthony Green left the band. He was replaced by Cove Reber, apparently on the strength of an acoustic demo of this very song – the difference between the two vocalists’ styles is fascinating to hear. Later, Reber has left the band, and now Anthony Green is back… but now Justin Shekoski has left (to join The Used). And now, apparently, Reber is back performing with the band. So… is Saosin still a thing? They haven’t had a release since 2016’s Along the Shadow, so it’s hard to say.
I didn’t know much about The Weepies before I stumbled across this tune. (I was later informed that if I’d not dismissed the show Gossip Girl (2007–2012) out of hand, I would have discovered them sooner, shame on me. I think it was worth the wait, if it meant giving the show a miss.) When I checked their Wikipedia page, it mentioned they’d been described as
subtly intoxicating folk-pop. I found myself nodding in agreement; it was surprisingly appropriate.
This song is not the least bit insistent or energetic, but it’s nevertheless slyly catchy. It actually comes off their first album, 2003’s Happiness. Like many of The Weepies’s tunes, it doesn’t appear to have had any kind of chart success, but it has appeared in numerous soundtracks and commercials.
There are a lot of bands with tales of depressing struggles they faced while bringing their music together, but there are probably very few more frustrating than the story of Liam and Me. In 2006, Liam and Me was soaring high after their self-published album There’s a Difference made a huge splash, and several major labels were interested in signing them. After being turned off by contracts from labels like Virgin that allowed the label to simply buy out the band’s entire catalogue on a whim, they signed with Thrive, and went into the studio to record what was intended to be a fall 2007 release. But then things went sideways when the label’s advance check bounced. Turned out the label couldn’t afford to pay them anymore. But the label also wouldn’t give them back ownership of their songs. A court battle ensued. Meanwhile, the band was tapped to open for Boy George in his 2008 US tour … and if you know about Boy George, you can probably guess what happened next (if you don’t know: George’s visa was denied due to charges that he imprisoned a male escort (and he was convicted shortly after)).
I think Liam and Me eventually won their legal battles and finally released their album in 2012. I say think because I’m not even sure the band still exists. I haven’t heard anything about them in years now (it doesn’t help that web searches for their name just turn up articles about Oasis). It’s a pity, because as this 2008 song illustrates, they definitely have a gift for writing catchy tunes.
There was a period in the early 1970s when rock music became expansive, operatic, experimental, and – many would say – absurd in its excesses. It was a time of multi-part concept albums, ambitiously flamboyant live performances, and sprawling opuses displaying both virtuoso-level musicianship and complex structures with shifting movements and time signatures. Rush is the one of the bands from that era, but one of the biggest, most influential, and first, was the supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer. In the early 1970s, ELP was the poster child for progressive rock’s excess – one of their songs runs thirty minutes long and had to be split over two sides of a record. Aside from going on to inspire future prog rockers, their textured, synthesized sound (they actually pioneered the use of synthesizers, particularly live) has some other curious influences. They have been listed as inspirations by both Nobuo Uematsu – the legendary video game composer who originally scored Final Fantasy – and Nintendo’s Koji Kondo (Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Brothers, and Star Fox).
ELP fell apart in the late 1970s, but reformed briefly in the 1990s – this song is from the comeback album released during that period. This song is nothing like the kind of stuff one would normally associate with ELP, but it is a beautifully rendered acoustic ballad with some gloriously operatic lyrics about how love can pull someone out of dark times:
Take my love into your breast, commit my spirit to the test, you will see him like a knight; his armour gleams. We’ll fly upon his angel’s wings above the clouds in rainbow rings. We can sail a ship of dreams.
The Boy Least Likely To is Pete Hobbs and Jof Owen, two friends from the little village of Wendover in Buckinghamshire, and if there is any band that can make the claim to have “come out of nowhere”, it would be these guys. The pair wrote, recorded, and published their debut album on their own – even creating their own record label for it. By the time they released it, they still hadn’t played any live shows. But that album, 2005’s The Best Party Ever, ended up on numerous lists of the best of the year. The band is still performing, but other than a greatest hits album released in 2018, they haven’t released anything since 2013.
This is from their 2010 holiday album Christmas Special, which is a worthwhile holiday album to check out. The song “The First Snowflake”, which appeared on last year’s list, is also on that album.
I can’t say I know much about Derik Nelson. His biggest claim to fame seems to be as “the blonde guitarist on Glee”, but his music or singing has been used on several shows aimed at roughly the same demographic, such as How I Met Your Mother, Felicity, and The Voice. These days he seems to have formed a trio with manager/sister Riana and tech guy/brother Dalton, that boasts of both beautiful three-part harmonies, and a high-tech live show.
This song predates Riana and Dalton’s official move into the group, but the song’s beautiful harmonies may be a preview of what Derik Nelson & Family sounds like these days. But as beautiful as the harmonies and guitar may be, the lyrics are absolutely incredible. They tell the tale of a pair of lovers – one of whom has gone to sea, and, it is implied, won’t be making it back – calling out across the distance with hope and determination, and the promise to try and get closer to each other.