Here are songs #10 to #1 in the 2020 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
A recurring theme in alternative holiday songs is the observation that most real-life family gatherings are nothing like the serene, cheerful affairs usually depicted in more traditional holiday fare. A number of songs on this list describe families that are messy, fractious, or outright combative… but none of them come close to the level of chaos and pandemonium as this riotously funny entry from Massachusets’s Dropkick Murphys. Mischief and mayhem, the chorus says, and wow, is the Murphys’ holiday event chock full of it, all described with hilariously blunt lyrics. At one point, Ken Casey even says of his nephew: “I’d like to take him out back and deck more than the halls.”
But as funny as the song itself is, the video goes even further. It makes a point of showing us that the narrator (Casey) is every bit as bad as the rest of his dysfunctional family; shortchanging the hairdresser, nicking a brownie, and stopping to leer at a presumably lesbian couple intimately sharing an ice cream… all on his way to the family gathering. And things only get wilder once he gets there. There are scenes of the kids pissing into the stockings, and the priest gambling with the collection plate money… and yet, in line with the lyrics, while the narrator describes all this insanity with frustration and despair, there’s also a subtle hint of warmth and even pride that those of us with wacky families know all too well: this family may be a shit-show, but it’s my shit-show, and I wouldn’t have any other.
I haven’t been able to find out much about this group. They apparently formed in 1992 after the musicians in a band named Glee—Jason Zumpano and Michael Ledwidge—wanted to go in a different musical direction, despite some early success. Note that Zumpano the band is distinct from Jason Zumpano (who went on to have a solo career and to form the band Sparrow), though he was the band’s drummer. The pair teamed up with Superconductor’s Carl Newman (who later formed The New Pornographers), and bassist Stefan Niemann and formed a band called The Wayward Boys. They later changed the name to Zumpano (simply because they thought the drummer’s name was cool). They were signed to the legendary Sub Pop record label as part of Sub Pop’s effort to get away from its grunge affiliations, and released two albums and had one minor hit—“The Party Rages On”—before breaking up pretty much right after the release of their second album… although no announcement was made for almost four years.
This song was apparently released as part of promotional compilation album for a magazine: Ptolemaic Terrascope. It is easily one of the most unique-sounding pop songs on this list, with a melody that’s simultaneously driving and meandering, and insistent vocals. I can’t even tell you what the lyrics are about, and I don’t want to tell you my guesses—I think it’s better for you to take what you can from them. But for all its peculiarity, it’s still beautiful and unforgettable.
The Be Good Tanyas are (more or less) a folk trio out of Vancouver made up of Samantha Parton, Frazey Ford, and Trish Klein. Their style is a modern flavour of folk/country, with the gorgeous harmonies of the three singers layered over top. They saw some critical acclaim with their debut album, 2001’s Blue Horse, and even more with the follow-up, 2003’s Chinatown. I’m honestly not sure if they still exist. The name seems still in use, but it seems to be just Parton and Jolie Holland—who was once part of the original lineup prior to Blue Horse.
Rudy tells the tale of a homeless man, “Rudolph the red-nosed wino”, with lyrics that are searingly critical of social attitudes toward the homeless, and poverty in general.
Christmas has no meaning at all to people of greed and incredible waste. They seek the deeper meaning in the shopping mall in a yuletide spirit of impatience and haste. Rudy is a patient man who tries to see the beauty in everything. Yes, he’s not a very demanding soul, whose only wish is to live until the spring.
The Burning Hell. You haven’t heard of them? That’s probably just as well. Just kidding… if you haven’t heard of them, you’re really missing out. They are one of the most fascinating indie acts in Canada right now, with songs that are equal parts insightful and hilarious, arranged simply but lyrically dense. Check out some of their stuff on YouTube to get an introduction to their sound. I highly recommend the devilishly clever “Fuck the Government, I Love You” (the earlier “probably just as well” joke actually comes from the lyrics of that song; Ariel Sharratt’s expression as the line is delivered is just priceless).
A lot of The Burning Hell’s songs tell fantastic stories, and this one is no exception. This track is deceptive, with the bouncy, cheerful tune contrasting sharply with what’s being described. It’s about a couple who are just enjoying a walk… when they appear to be killed by a train (in a hilarious callback to Stand By Me, and, ironically, the female narrator’s own professed love for trains), and end up in the afterlife. You might think that’s depressing, but the song is actually strangely beautiful, because for all the being mowed down by a train and all, what the song is really about is enjoying the small pleasures of life, even in defiance of the negative: the man’s shoes are hurting but he doesn’t complain, he enjoys the smell of his partner’s hair even though it’s just cheap motel shampoo, and, of course, the heat of the sun on one’s shoulders.
Stan Rogers may be one of the most intriguing “what if?” questions in Canadian music. Rogers was a Hamilton native, but his parents were from the Maritimes, and he spent many summers of his youth visiting there. He started his musical career as a folk artist in 1970, but it was cut short when he died in a fire on board an Air Canada flight in 1983 (blame fell on the pilot, who assumed the smoke belching out of the bathroom was due to someone secretly smoking and improperly disposing of the butt—a common occurrence back then—rather than an electrical fire, but is anyone surprised that Air Canada managed to murder a national musical treasure?). He only managed to release four albums of original music during that time—one posthumously—and never earned significant acclaim in his lifetime, but has since been claimed as a genius and national treasure, largely by politicians who find his lyrical focus on Canadiana appealing. Even Stephen Harper called “Northwest Passage” an alternative Canadian anthem (but take that with a grain of salt; King Steve just seems to have a massive raging hard-on for anything involving the Franklin Expedition). One wonders if such acclaim would have been heaped on Rogers had he not conveniently died so early in his career.
While Rogers’ stature may be somewhat overhyped, there’s no denying that he was a damn good lyricist. In “First Christmas”, Rogers paints three portraits of people spending their first Christmas day away from their home: first a young man trying to make it on his own, forced to work over the holidays; then a young woman from an abusive family whose run away, and is panhandling, ultimately forced to make do at the local Salvation Army shelter; then an old man whose wife has passed and who has had to move in to a retirement home, and is coping with the unfamiliarity of it all and hoping one of the kids might call.
Today the Barenaked Ladies are recognized as one of the premier names in Canadian music, but the tale of how they came into the spotlight is as chock full of silliness as many of their most famous songs. In 1991 they recorded a five-song demo tape – now known as the Yellow Tape – containing the masterpieces “Be My Yoko Ono”, “Brian Wilson”, and “If I Had $1000000” (and, bizarrely, a short cover of Public Enemy’s classic protest song “Fight the Power”). They sent this tape out to every record studio in Canada—and were rejected by every one. But they caught the media’s attention when they were bumped off the bill for the 1991 Nathan Philips Square New Year’s Eve concert because some city hall staffer didn’t like their name. The tape went viral, and became the first independent release in Canada to go platinum. Needless to say, a record deal soon followed.
This song comes from their first independent release since the Yellow Tape, a holiday-themed album called Barenaked for the Holidays, and it highlights why Ed Robertson is among the best songwriters in Canada today. Robertson crafts a tale about the elves going on strike with such brilliant and dense lyricism it makes your head spin.
A full indentured servitude can reflect on one’s attitude, but that silly red hat just makes the fat man look outrageous. And:
We’re used to repetition, so we drew up a petition: We the undersigned feel undermined, let’s redefine employment. It’s an amusing counterpoint to “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “The Night Santa Went Crazy”. The conditions at the North Pole are intolerable, but while Yankovic has Santa flipping out and going on a killing spree, the Ladies have the elves throwing down their tools and forming a labour movement. Which, honestly, just seems more Canadian, right?
Dragonette is a Toronto-based synthpop band fronted by Martina Sorbara, daughter of former Ontario Minister of Finance Greg Sorbara. Sorbara was one of the talents groomed by now-disgraced CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi, although unlike Lights she had parted ways with him years before the scandal broke. Dragonette has yet to find significant independent success, though they had modest success with the cheeky “I Get Around” in 2007. On the other hand, they have had some fairly big hits fronting for other acts like Martin Solveig, Mike Mago, and Don Diablo. They’re worth keeping an eye on, because on top of some generically alright beats, their lyrics are a cut more clever than most of the competition’s, yet still eminently singable (witness the chorus of 2012’s “Let It Go”:
We don’t need a cure for the weight of the world.)
Of all the holiday break-up songs on this list, none has the cathartic fun of this track. While Mitchell mopes about fading away, Sorbara defiantly flips off her ex-lover and says she’s having a much better time without him, along the way tossing out some brilliantly nasty one-liners:
And all the candy cane you got? It doesn’t equal sweet when you’re just plain nuts. By all rights this song should be flooding the Canadian airwaves over the holiday season, but it’s not hard to see why it remains somewhat obscure, with the chorus’s punchline being Sorbara dropping the f-bomb like a tactical nuke.
1971’s Blue is routinely ranked as one of the greatest albums of all time—occasionally even as the greatest ever by a female artist, and the greatest ever Canadian album. “River” was not among the singles released from the album—those were “Carey” and “California”—but it has become one of her signature songs.
Sometimes people ask what makes a vocal performance great. That’s not an easy question to answer. Technical perfection is important, but ironically, depending on the song it may actually detract from the overall picture. There’s actually a good illustration of that here: compare Mitchell’s performance with Sarah McLachlin’s—McLachlin’s performance is technically better… but the technical imperfections in Mitchell’s performance are what elevate it to greatness—the rawness of her emotion really bleeds through.
In the first iteration of this annual list, I named Gordon Lightfoot’s 1967 classic as the perfect non-religious Canadian holiday song, and I stand by that conclusion. The lyrics manage to pull off the delicate balance between specificity and universality with sublime precision. And while the song uses the familiar trope of reminiscing over a distant love, it manages to do so without either becoming maudlin or or glorifying the suffering. Instead, the narrator embraces the pain of separation as a sign of love, and looks forward with hope to reuiniting. And because all of this is done without any religious references, any references that date the scene, or even any indication of the ages or genders of the characters, the lyrics are almost universally inclusive, modulo only the references to snow and winter (and, of course, reading a letter).
While this song may generally be the perfect nonreligious Canadian holiday song, I didn’t feel that it was the perfect song to represent this year. A major theme in the rhetoric of far-right fascists like Trump is the notion of going back to a “better time”, and a song about reminiscing over happy memories, and looking forward to reconnecting with past love, cut a little to close to that. Maybe Gord will top the list again some time in the future. But not this year.
I’ve been a fan of Grimes since “Genesis” and “Oblivion”, off of her third album Visions. Grimes is a very unique talent, taking genres that you wouldn’t normally associated with vocal brilliance—synth pop and electronica—and mixing them with her excellent vocal performances. But there’s a lot more to her music than that. Grimes is not formally educated (in music), and in fact only sort of fell into music making after doing vocals as a favour, then learning how to make her own in exchange for food. She makes music based on pure instinct, and has a way of reflecting “standard” pop tropes filtered as if through an oddly distorted lens. To see what I mean, take a look at what she’s done to the old, classic Charlie Brown tune “Linus and Lucy”.
This song isn’t even actually an official Grimes song. It’s literally just her and her family and friends fucking around over a beat she slapped together—the rapper is her step-brother Jay Worthy; even the accompanying video is just them goofing off. But when someone of Grimes’s talent craps out a tune… they crap out a hell of a tune.