Here are songs #20 to #11 in the 2020 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
When Rolling Stone asked its readers to name the best artists of the 2000s, they picked Coldplay as #4, after only Green Day, Radiohead, and U2. It’s not hard to see why – they practically book-ended the decade with a pair of the most original rock songs for the whole period: “Clocks” and “Viva la Vida”. So of course when they took on the task of writing a Christmas song, they came up with one of the most original-sounding rock songs on this list.
In a rarity for mainstream music “Christmas Lights” has two distinct movements. What’s really amazing is that either of the two could have been spun out into a song on its own and been successful. Combined as they are here, they work well together, with first movement building up tension and drama, then the second exploding into a vibrant release. Not many modern, mainstream bands would try something as bold as a multi-part song with shifting time signatures. Fewer still could actually pull it off. The video is also worth watching for being loaded with easter eggs in the shifting scenes. The brief shot of people releasing balloons from a boat is actually a hundred of their fans, who got the privilege of being in the video. One of the three violin-playing Elvises is actor Simon Pegg, and the text above the stage reads (in Latin) “I believe Elvis lives”. (There’s also something on the piano, but I can’t make it out.)
The Snowman is a 1978 picture book by Raymond Briggs about a boy who goes on a fantastic voyage of imagination with a snowman he built. In 1982, the BBC produced an Academy Award-nominated animated special that has become part of holiday tradition in the UK. Like the book, the animated special is completely wordless, the entire story being told only with the beautiful animation and gentle light orchestral soundtrack… right up until the fifteenth minute, when suddenly the titular snowman and the boy take off into the air in a magnificently animated sequence—with gorgeously hand-animated images of breaching whales under the northern lights—and the soundtrack positively explodes into a glorious choirboy-sung piece titled “Walking in the Air”. Once the song ends, not another word is spoken for the whole piece, right up to its unforgettably melancholy ending.
The song in the special was performed by Peter Auty, who was uncredited, but in 1985 a version by Aled Jones recorded for a Toys “R” Us commercial hit the UK charts and kick-started Jones’s career (Jones did the song because Auty’s voice had cracked in the meantime). This version, by indie group Mimicking Birds, trades the soaring grandiosity of the choirboy versions for a more muted, wistful sound. I find this version easier to listen to, and less demanding on the listener, but your mileage may vary.
Dolly Parton may well be the greatest female country musician ever (and, personally, I’d drop the “female” qualifier, and just call her the greatest ever). As a songwriter, she claims to have penned over 3,000 songs, including classics like “I Will Always Love You” (remade by Whitney Houston as an unforgettable classic in 1992), “9 to 5”, “Jolene”, and “Travelin’ Thru”. As a singer, her distinctive voice has taken ownership of not only her own songs, but the works of dozens of others, such as “Here You Come Again”, “Islands in the Stream” (with Kenny Rogers), and “To Know Him Is To Love Him”, “Telling Me Lies” and “After the Gold Rush” (all with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt). She’s also done some amazing and unforgettably off-beat work that has become legendary in its own right, like a cover of the 1993 Collective Soul alternative rock hit “Shine” with Nickel Creek that won her a Grammy Award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance, and most recently she won the 2017 Grammy for Best Country Duo/Group Performance for an a capella cover of “Jolene” with Pentatonix. (She also won a Grammy in 2020 for Christian music, and is nominated again for another Grammy for Christian music in 2021. And by the way, all the Grammys I’ve mentioned, she won after already having won a lifetime achievement Grammy.)
This song was written by Carol Hall for the 1978 musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which was based on a real-life brothel shut down by political pressure. Dolly Parton starred as the brothel owner in the 1982 film version, which was one of the biggest film musical hits of the 1980s, and garnered an Academy Award nomination (for Charles Durning as the governor), and Golden Globe nominations for Parton and the film itself. Parton re-recorded the song—which, in the film, is sung by her along with some of the prostitutes—and it became a hit.
The Fall was mainly Mark E. Smith—who had a reputation as a notorious asshole—and a revolving line-up of dozens that is often used to break the band’s history into eras. One of the most infamous incidents in the band’s messy history came in April 1998, when a literal fist fight broke out on stage between band members. You might think this was something exceptional, but in fact, this was such a common occurrence that after the first punches flew, the band continued to play at least six more songs before another altercation exploded, and three of the band’s then five members simply walked off the stage in disgust (and, ultimately, quit the band completely, ending that era of the band). And it even gets worse, because the fighting didn’t stop when the show ended; Smith went back to the hotel and proceeded to attack keyboardist Julia Nagle… which ultimately ended up with Smith arrested for assault. (Amazingly, Nagle didn’t quit the band then, and stayed with The Fall until 2001.)
In their four decade plus run, it probably won’t surprise you to hear that The Fall released a number of Christmas tracks, both covers and originals. Nothing, however, is quite as emblematic of The Fall’s weirdness as this track. And it’s also one of the best of their Christmas tracks.
Tuscadero was an indie band from Washington, DC, in the 1990s… and that’s about all I know about them. They were apparently thought to be one of the best acts on their label at the time, but the only two songs I know from them are this tune and the amusing “Angel in a Half Shirt”. As I understand it, they left their indie label and signed with Elektra, releasing only a single album—1998’s My Way or the Highway—which was apparently quite good. However, they didn’t seem to jibe with their new label, and things just sort of… fell apart. The band members went their separate ways, the label dropped them, and that was that.
This song may be their best (at least, so I’ve heard some of their fans say). It’s hard not to like its raw indie energy, and the band’s sound is very appealing. This is definitely a band I would have liked to hear more from.
Scritti Politti’s roots go all the way back to the late 1970s and the punk movement. Nowadays most people think of punk as loud, angry, and antiestablishment bombast, usually associated with anti-intellectualism at least, and straight-up far-right hatred at the worst… but there was another, much more interesting aspect to the punk aesthetic, originally, and that was the “do-it-yourself (DIY) ethic”. DIY wasn’t just an incidental flavour to punk, it was core to punk’s philosophy: punk was about thumbing your nose at the industry gatekeepers that stood between bands and fans—the record labels in particular—and “doing it yourself”—doing your own promoting, selling your music directly to fans with no middleman—was a way that bands could thrive and find listenership without compromising their art… while simultaneously being a way that fans could find music that was new and different, and not just the anodyne, unoriginal pap that some record exec thought would be commercially successful. Post-punk was a movement that took punk’s DIY aesthetic, but combined with different sounds—not just the hard rock of “standard” punk music. This is the philosophical and cultural background of Scritti Politti, who—in the band’s early days—took the DIY ethic so seriously they were literally hand-making their own record sleeves, while also exploring genres far outside those of traditional punk, such as funk and reggae.
This track comes off of 1999’s Anomie & Bonhomie, which was released after an almost decade-long hiatus, and was a reinvention of Scritti Politti’s sound. Its classic synthpop sound was merged with a completely new hip hop flavour. To pull it off, the band enlisted the help of some big names in the UK hip hop industry; for example, this track features Mos Def, fresh out of Black Star, and still a few months away from releasing his incredible solo debut. When I asked for suggestions for this list, I actually had a different Scritti Politti tune suggested, the very lovely “Snow in Sun”. However, I thought this tune, with it’s funkier, more up-beat sound, and its lyrical message about the way time can slip away if you don’t seize the day, was a more interesting choice for this year.
Ah, Beck. How do I describe Beck? Beck is an artist who defies categorization; and I don’t mean that metaphorically, I mean he actively and aggressively defies categorization. Is he country? Hip hop? Folk? Yes and no to all. Is he Canadian? Well, his father was, but his mother wasn’t, and he was born in California, so… 🤷🏼? He’s one of the most famous Scientologists… except in 2019 he not only denied being a Scientologist, he denied ever having been one. How do we even spell his name?! Is it “Beck” or “Bek”?!
Just about the only thing one can say for certainty is that he is a freakishly talented musician, not only producing unforgettable tunes like “Loser”, “Where It’s At”, and most recently “Colors”, but doing so with a style so unique that not only does nobody else sound like him, even he doesn’t sound like himself with each new release. This track is from way back in 1996, around the time of “Where It’s At”, Odelay and his first Grammy wins, from a compilation album of artists signed to the Geffen label.
13. “Keep Christmas With You (All Through the Year)” – Susan, Gordon, Big Bird, Luis, David, Bob, Prairie Dawn, and Ernie
It’s easy to forget now in the face of its relentless marketing of toys, but Sesame Street was a pioneer in the field of “edutainment”. It was the first children’s education show to be based on actual research of what might be best for helping very young children learn, and it flew in the face of conventional wisdom for the time. In fact, they were warned not to show humans and puppets together, because that might confuse children. After early tests showed the advice to be misguided, they defied it, and made history. And it was good… very good. Despite its share of controversies, it’s always been famous for its offbeat humour, and has racked up more awards than any other children’s show, ever.
And the songs, oh the songs. Especially in its early years, the songs of Sesame Street have ranked among the best children’s songs written in the modern era. The Grammy-nominated “Rubber Duckie” (which also made the Billboard Top 20), “C is for Cookie”, “Sing”, “One of These Things is Not Like the Other”, “ABC-DEF-GHI Song”, “Bein’ Green”, the list is incredible. (My personal favourite is “Letter B” by “The Beetles”, to the tune of “Let Her Be” by The Beatles:
When I find I can’t remember what comes after ‘A’ and before ‘C’, my mother always whispers: “Letter ‘B’”. That one actually triggered lawsuit by The Beatles, which only ended when Micheal Jackson bought The Beatles’ catalogue and settled the case for $50.) This particular song comes from the 1978 special Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (which won an Emmy), and has a simple but beautiful melody, with matching lyrics.
I… really don’t know what to say about Fat Les. I’m not sure they were ever really a band, and not just a name that a couple of musicians occasionally released a song under. In fact, I’d always assumed that the only song they ever released was 1998’s “Vindaloo”, which you couldn’t escape hearing when watching the 1998 World Cup in France. (The video is also infamous, being a hilariously chaotic parody of the classic video for “Bitter Sweet Symphony”, by The Verve.)
But it turns out that Fat Les released two songs in 1998, and… amazingly, it’s hard to determine which is the nuttier of the two. Just give it a listen and decide for yourself. It’ll be worth it, because like “Vindaloo”, the chorus is impossible not to sing along to.
A Great Big World is not exactly a one-hit wonder; it would be more accurate to call them a two hit wonder. Their second hit is the absolutely wonderful ballad “Say Something”. In 2013, it caught the attention of Christina Aguilera, who asked them if they would re-record it with her as a duet. How could you say no to a request like that? The result is even more incredible than the original, with Aguilera’s breathy, haunting vocals ratcheting up the emotional sting, and the song went on to win a Grammy in 2015 for Best Pop/Duo Performance, beating out the likes of Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, and Coldplay.
But this song is their first hit, the song that got them discovered. They shopped it around to various TV networks, several of which ended up using it as either insert music or—in the case of MTV’s I Used to be Fat—the main theme. One listen and it’s not hard to see why. The song is almost relentlessly determined in its promise make the future better, no matter what may have happened in the past; a kind of self-aware, self-deprecating optimism that’s really unique to millenials. I think it’s a perfect anthem for ringing in a new year, and one that readily invites others to join in and sing along.