Here are songs #30 to #21 in the 2020 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
These Kids Wear Crowns hail from Chilliwack, B.C.. Their genre is mostly pop rock, but they come to it by way of the boy band phenomenon associated with acts like the Backstreet Boys and One Direction, though they have more in common with Montréal’s Simple Plan (whom they’ve toured with). They trade in high energy, radio friendly teen anthems. Their biggest success so far has been the title track off of 2011’s Jumpstart, but since then they haven’t really followed up on that success. They released a second studio album in 2015 but I can’t recall it making much of a splash. Since then, lead singer Alex Johnson ran in the 2015 election for the Libertarian party in Chilliwack—Hope, so it’s possible the band isn’t really functional anymore.
Whatever the status of the band, this song is undeniably catchy, and hard not to sing along to. It comes from the period while they were recording their debut studio album, released as an iTunes exclusive in 2010. There’s not much to it lyrically—indeed, a lot of the song is made up of repeating phrases. But its infectious, energetic pop brings a warmth and excitement that most of the songs on this list don’t have.
Rupert Holmes started out as a studio musician and songwriter, with an early hit—1969’s “Jennifer Tomkis”—released under the name The Street People. Then in 1970, he performed an absolutely brilliant stunt. When considering how to promote a newly signed band, The Buoys, Holmes hit on the idea of writing a song that would be sure to be banned, thus creating instant notoriety. The result was “Timothy”, a song about trapped miners that obliquely but very clearly implies cannibalism. It worked; in fact it worked too well! The Buoys were catapulted to success, but unable to follow up something so… bizarre… as “Timothy”—turns out you can’t really make a career out of singing about cannibalism. Not long after, Holmes started his own career, which reached its peak with the 1979 classic “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)”.
The Christmas Raccoons was a 1980 CBC animated special that was a surprise hit. Produced by Canadian animation company Atkinson Film-Arts (who were also making the “Harry Canyon” and “B-17” segments of the cult 1981 film Heavy Metal at the same time), it was the #1 animated special in the US in 1980, and was rebroadcast worldwide. The story was decades ahead of its time, with its focus on the environment and capitalism run amok, and the narrative is surprisingly complicated for a 1980 children’s animated special—in the end it leaves you wondering how much of it was real and how much was dream. The special’s success resulted in three more specials—The Raccoons on Ice (1981), the very ambitious The Raccoons and the Lost Star (1983), and the direct-to-video The Raccoons: Let’s Dance! (1984, which was actually really a sneaky pilot for the upcoming series)—and a five-season, sixty episode series between 1985 and 1991.
This song is one of many that can trace its pedigree back to Jimmy Boyd’s 1952 classic, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”. Here we have what seems at first just another playful song about a kid’s perspective of the Santa Claus myth, complete with charming music, topped with Reid’s gorgeous vocal work. But things slowly start sounding… a little suspicious… as Reid describes a scrawny, stubbly Santa… and then the song takes a sudden turn when she asks, with an off-key blast of brass, why her grandma is tied to a chair. From there it’s a delightfully funny ride, sung tongue-firmly-in-cheek by Reid and The Heist, whose child-personas are clearly no 1950s Jimmy Boyds, as they gripe about losing their iPads and seeing their stuff sold on Kijiji, and curse about Santa “jacking their shit”.
I always have a hard time choosing a Reid song for the list each year – one of a very small number of artists for whom that is the case. My rule is one song per artist, but Reid’s repertoire includes not only this tune, but also “Mistress Claus”, which is also fun and funny. It’s a bit more straight-faced than this tune, though, and after this shitty year, I thought something a bit more irreverent would be better.
If you haven’t heard of Chic Gamine, you’re not alone. This Winnipeg/Montréal band’s profile is alarmingly low, given their gorgeous sound. The band has three lead singers – Annick Bremault, Alexa Dirks, and Andrina Turenne – who harmonize together beautifully. They remind me of a less hard rock, more groovy version of The Bangles, but others have compared them to classic Motown acts, albeit with more rock-oriented punch.
This song takes full advantage of their lovely vocal harmonies, laid over a gentle, country-flavoured melody that you can’t help but groove along to. There’s not much to it lyrically – it’s a fairly typical tale of pining for your loved one over the holidays. But you hardly notice the lyrical thinness, what with the soaring vocals and gently rolling melody thoroughly sweeping you away.
Current Swell is a four-man band hailing from Vancouver Island. Their sound is similar to The Black Keys: blues rock with an indie sensibility, with flavours of ska and folk thrown into the mix. Their fanbase has been built up primarily via grassroots, with them performing just about anywhere someone would let them set up – backyards and beaches (the former gets an amusing call-out in their video for “Rollin’”) – along with a strong Internet presence.
Christmas Alone is an amiable tune about missing someone for Christmas, led by an acoustic guitar and with a decent chorus.
Great Lake Swimmers, if one goes by its music, almost sounds like it could be a maritime band, but it’s from the Niagara Region in Ontario (obvious given the band name, I suppose), and nowadays they hang their hats in Toronto. Doesn’t sound like where you’d expect to find such talented folk-rockers, but there it is. They’ve been around since 2003, but 2009 was their banner year—their fourth album Lost Channels was nominated for a Juno and a Canadian Folk Music Award, and shortlisted for the 2009 Polaris Music Prize.
One of the things Great Lake Swimmers is known for is their off-beat recording locations, including castles, churches, and abandoned grain silos. Sadly I haven’t been able to find out where this song was recorded. But at any rate, it’s a catchy, upbeat, memorable tune that captures the festivity of the season, without the gaudiness.
You probably won’t recognize the name, but Rita Coolidge is a part of music history. She was romantically involved with Leon Russell and Joe Cocker—the song “Delta Lady” is about her—as well as Stephen Stills and Graham Nash—her dumping Stills for Nash is allegedly one of the reasons Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young broke up, something Crosby alludes to in the song “Cowboy Movie”. She was married to Kris Kristofferson for a while, and collaborated with him on multiple Grammy-award-winning songs. But she’s also had a very successful career in her own right, mostly doing covers like “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher & Higher”, but she also had a hit the same year this song was released as a single with “All Time High”, the theme song from Octopussy, written by Bond composer John Barry, and legendary lyricist Tim Rice. (In my opinion, although “All Time High” was the bigger hit, this song is far better.)
The Christmas Raccoons was a 1985 CBC animated special that was a surprise hit. Produced by Canadian animation company Atkinson Film-Arts (who were also making the “Harry Canyon” and “B-17” segments of the cult 1981 film Heavy Metal at the same time), it was the #1 animated special in the US in 1980, and was rebroadcast worldwide. The story was decades ahead of its time, with its focus on the environment and capitalism run amok, and the narrative is surprisingly complicated for a 1980 children’s animated special—in the end it leaves you wondering how much of it was real and how much was dream. The special’s success resulted in three more specials—The Raccoons on Ice (1981), the very ambitious The Raccoons and the Lost Star (1983), and the direct-to-video The Raccoons: Let’s Dance! (1984, which was actually really a sneaky pilot for the upcoming series)—and a five-season, sixty episode series between 1985 and 1991. Amazingly, the franchise may not be dead… or maybe? Hard to say. A pitch pilot for a new series was leaked to YouTube in 2018 (and removed not long after), and images of redesigned characters were released not long after. There was supposed be a special aired in April of this year called When Raccoons Fly, that would serve as the pilot for a new series called The Raccoons: The New Adventures. But did you see any of that this year, because I sure didn’t. Could be that COVID-19 put everything on hold.
Oh, you know Carly Rae Jepsen. Her career may have had a slow start, building up to a third place finish in the fifth season of Canadian Idol. But then in 2012 came The Song. It caught the attention of Justin Bieber, who made a video with Selena Gomez, Ashley Tisdale, and others, dancing along to it and goofing off… and the rest is history. “Call Me Maybe” went on to be certified 8× Platinum (and Diamond in the US!), earning Junos for Single and Album of the Year, Grammy nominations for Song of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance, and a whole slew broken chart records that I could spend a thousand words just listing, putting Jepsen in a very exclusive club of female Canadian artists with Avril Lavigne, Nelly Furtado, and… damn, that’s about it.
This year, Jepsen released a new album… sorta kinda. The actual album is 2019’s Dedicated, but Jepsen claims to have written 200 songs for that album, so what ended up happening is that this year she released Dedicated Side B… sort of a continuation/follow-up to Deidcated. You might think that basically just being outtakes from the first album means it’s a lesser product, but it’s actually getting comparable reviews to the original. Now, a Carly Rae Jepsen Christmas song on an alternative holiday playlist? How could that possibly happen? How could mainstream radio possibly have missed a Carly Rae Jepsen Christmas pop tune? Welp, they probably didn’t; they probably just didn’t have time to pick it up yet. So this may go on to become one of those overplayed tunes you get tired of hearing. But for now, it’s still fresh and new.
I seriously doubt I need to introduce Neil Young to readers. Young’s career is one of the most influential in all of modern music. He’s one of only three people to have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame first for his solo career then later as part of a band (the other two are Clyde McPhatter of The Drifters and Rod Stewart of Faces; it’s far more common to first be inducted as part of a group then for a solo career later, for example, as with all The Beatles). I could fill a page with the list of the man’s awards: multiple Junos including Artist of the Year, multiple Grammys including Best Rock Song, even a fricken’ Oscar nomination. All this and yet arguably he’s even more famous these days as a peace activist.
This song first appeared on some rare pressings of 1975’s Tonight’s the Night, but was officially released only on 1977’s Decade, Young’s first and for almost three decades only retrospective compilation album.
Each year I try to make this list as musically diverse as possible, including songs from many different musical genres. But for many years I got criticism because I’d never really included any country songs. Well, you asked, so here’s a bonafide Canadian country star: multi CCMA– and Juno-winning, grade-A Alberta beef, natch … a cattle rancher, no less. Brett Kissel has been kicking around since 2003, always with some measure of success, but his star has really been rising the last couple of years. He had a fairly big hit with 2015’s catchy “Airwaves”, but 2020’s Now or Never has now brought him to American attention, with its lead single “Drink About Me”.
This song covers lyrical ground we’ve heard before – about the fact that real-life Christmases tend not to quite satisfy the Norman Rockwell/Jimmy Stewart-esque ideal. Kissel calls up images of breakers tripping due to the lights, the lack of any Christmas snow, and the standard tropes such as drunken relatives. But Kissel’s take on the theme is enthusiastic and even endearing, embracing the imperfections – celebrating them, even.