Here are songs #100 to #91 in the 2020 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.
Jimmy Rankin is one of the younger members of The Rankin Family, and of all the Rankins, Jimmy has had the most successful solo career by far. He’s won a pile of CCMAs and East Coast Music Awards, and has been nominated for Junos twice—once for Best Country Artist (2002), once for Country Album of the Year (2012, for Forget About the World).
“Tinseltown” is the sorta-title-track off the 2012 Christmas album Tinsel Town, which was released in a special sleeve that allowed the album to be sent as a Christmas card. It’s a gentle song, with an insistent percussion track, perfect for easy listening. The title might seem to imply disdain at the gaudy trappings of the holiday, but the lyrics themselves don’t bear that out. Instead, the idea of a “tinsel town” is passed off as a good thing.
It might come as a surprise to most Canadians that Sarah McLachlin didn’t release a Christmas song until 2006—almost 20 years into her career. That year she released the album Wintersong, of which this is the title track, which went on to become the biggest Christmas album of the year in both Canada and the US. Unfortunately for our purposes, all the songs on that album (and her subsequent Christmas singles) are religious carols, with the exception of a decent cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River” that became the lead single off the album, and this song, which was never even released as a single.
“Wintersong” has a beautiful, slow, melancholy melody, covered by McLachlin’s dreamy vocals. However, there’s not much to it, and the lyrics aren’t particularly creative either. It’s often said that artists sleepwalk through Christmas albums and singles, and that certainly seems to be true here. On the other hand, when an artist of McLachlin’s talent sleepwalks, the results are still a length ahead of what many other artists can do on their best days. The lyrics seem to be about someone who has passed, with McLachlin reflecting on the memories as she looks over the winter scene.
Zee Avi was discovered quite by accident. She went to school to study fashion design, but found she had so much free time she started writing songs. She wanted a poet friend’s opinion on her first song, “Poppy”, but he hadn’t been able to make her first performance. Lacking technical savvy, Avi had no idea how to create an MP3, so she instead posted a video on YouTube. The intention was just to let him see it, then delete it, because it was haphazardly put together and the quality wasn’t all that great, but the friend convinced her to leave it up. Positive feedback from random strangers all around the world rolled in, and encouraged Avi to post other videos. The last video she posted was supposed to be this song, but then something incredible happened. YouTube made the video a featured video, and the next thing Avi knew she was getting thousands of messages, including multiple record label offers.
This song wasn’t just the song that got her discovered, it was also her first professional release. Since then Avi has had a successful debut with her self-titled album in 2008, and gone on to international success. Her greatest success may be the Malay/English song “Arena Cahaya”, from the soundtrack to the 2016 film Ola Bola, about the 1980 Malaysian soccer team—they had qualified for the 1980 Moscow Olympics with their best record ever, but because Malaysia was one of the countries that boycotted Games in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan…. The film is one of Malaysia’s highest-grossing films of all time, and Avi won numerous international awards for the song.
Tori Kelly is one of the more successful alumni of American Idol… but not in the way you’d expect. She had been trying to break into stardom since childhood, appearing on Star Search in 2003 at age 11, and America’s Most Talented Kid in 2004 at 12, but never really having any luck. She was offered a record deal at 12, but that didn’t work out, and a couple years later she was recording videos on YouTube, trying to get something to go viral. That didn’t work out either, so in 2010 she took yet another swing at being discovered, this time with American Idol. That… didn’t work out either, so in 2013 Kelly simply created her own label, recorded and released her own EP.That finally started to get her some attention… slowly… and over the next couple of years, more and more people noted her as an artist to watch. But it wasn’t until 2015’s Unbreakable Smile that Kelly finally found massive commercial success, and, ultimately, a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. Later she went to win two Grammys… not for pop music, but rather for gospel.
This year, Kelly release her fourth album, a Christmas album titled A Tori Kelly Christmas. It’s mostly covers, but there are two original tracks: this one, and “25th”.
I wish I could tell you more about Mabel, but frankly, she’s so brand new there’s just not much I know about her. Indeed, the only thing I know her for is “Don’t Call Me Up”, an absolute banger of a break-up song that I believe is the only track off her debut album, 2019’s High Expectations, to hit the Canadian charts.
Just a few weeks ago, Mabel released this non-album track as a between-albums holiday song. This would be where many artists just phone it in, and release a middling remake of a classic, or a mediocre original doomed to be forgotten among all the other seasonal pap out there, most of which simply string together a list of observations about the holiday (“It’s Christmas. There are lights. Look, a tree. Children laughing. Etc.”). Not Mabel, though. “Loneliest Time of Year” could have been a lot of things, like an empty-headed reversal of holiday tropes—a song about being sad at the happy time of year, being contrary just for the sake of being contrary—but what it turns out to be is an interesting showing of compassion and empathy. Mabel isn’t singing about how this is the loneliest time of her for her (because she doesn’t have a lover or whatever)… instead she’s concerned about the others who won’t be having a happy holiday:
Can you even imagine all the people that haven’t got no presents, no mistletoe? Some are living without a home.
The last few years have been pretty politically-charged, on all sides, and that political strife has infiltrated just about every corner of pop culture; if you just want to escape it all for a short time, it’s becoming increasingly difficult. Well, if you just want something completely anodyne, completely politically-neutral (insofar as such a thing is actually possible), you can’t much blander than Dan + Shay. They’re a pop duo, sometimes called country, although even their country cred is pretty watered-down, and about as unchallenging and non-threatening as you can get; one of their earliest boosts came as darlings on The Ellen Show, which says a lot. Despite their blandness, they’ve nevertheless become awards darlings, winning Grammys in 2019 and 2020 for “Tequila” and “Speechless” respectively.
Given their background, the song should offer no surprises. It’s one of a pair of Christmas songs (so far) they’ve released in 2020, the second being “Christmas Isn’t Christmas” (though this is the far superior of the pair). It’s a nice listen, catchy enough, so if you’re looking for something not bogged with all the political baggage that everything seems to be bogged down with this year, “Take Me Home For Christmas” should be a nice palate cleanser.
93. ★ “Holiday” – Little Mix
Canada’s had a few shows in the vein of Canadian Idol, Canada’s Got Talent, Popstars, and La Voix (The Voice), where a group of hopefuls compete for a record contract, and, hopefully, stardom, but… can you name any act that’s come out of any of those shows that has gone on to actual success. Some of the American winners, like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, have done well, but of the Canadians, the only names I can even think of are Brian Melo (winner of Season 5 of Canadian Idol) and Carly Rae Jepsen… who didn’t even win, but placed 3rd in Season 5. Things are very different across the pond, with easily a dozen major acts having been given their start in the UK on various idol shows. And some of them are really quite good. I’d count Little Mix—winners of Season 8 of The X Factor—among them.
And they’ve had plenty of success. They’re among the biggest selling all-female groups of all time, rubbing shoulders with the likes of TLC, Destiny’s Child, Japanese supergroup AKB48, and The Pussycat Dolls. This track is the second single off their sixth album, Confetti, released just a couple weeks ago, and already seems on track to challenge 2016’s Glory Days as their biggest album.
If you know who Meghan Trainor is, it’s almost certainly because of That Song. “All About That Bass” is either a feminist anthem about body positivity, or a terrible case of cultural appropriation and glorifying the need for male approval of one’s body, depending on who you ask. But there’s one thing everyone would agree on: the song is absolutely slappin’, with its groovy, unforgettable bass line, and its catchy lyrics. It was nominated for both Song of the Year and Record of the Year at the 2015 Grammys, losing both to Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me”… which… yeah, damn, I’m glad I wasn’t forced to choose between them. Smith also won the Best New Artist that year… however, Trainor would go on to win Best New Artist at the 2016 Grammys.
2020 saw Trainor releasing two full albums, the long-delayed Treat Myself, and A Very Trainor Christmas, from which this song hails. I haven’t heard the full album yet, but most of the songs I’ve heard have been absolutely wonderful, like “My Kind of Present”, “Naughty List”, and this track. This is probably the rare single-artist holiday album worth getting.
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.).