Here are songs #40 to #31 in the 2020 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
Sara Bareilles has a string of Grammy and Tony Award nominations under her belt, including nominations for some of the big ones—Album of the Year, Best Original Score, and Best Musical Theatre Album. Ingrid Michaelson has multiple indie chart-topping albums and Billboard 100 hits to her name. Either of these women on their own could be expected to write an amazing holiday tune, but with their talents combined, the result is simply sublime.
“Winter Song” got some small attention in Canada in 2008, but has earned considerable attention elsewhere. It has been used in Grey’s Anatomy, Scrubs, and The Vampire Diaries, and was performed live by Bareilles and Michaelson for President Obama in 2010 at the US National Christmas Tree Lighting. The lyrics are beautifully humanist, evoking the idea of facing hard times with even harder times to come while holding onto the knowledge that happy times will come again, and love is what will pull us through until then. I also recommend watching the animated music video.
Over The Rhine is a husband-and-wife duo originally from the similarly named Cincinnati neighbourhood. Their sound is evocative of the classic image of a dimly-lit piano lounge, with a sultry singer crooning breathily over a slow, jazzy piano, or small backing band. The highlight of their repertoire, so far, has to be the stunning “Ohio”, their 2003 album of the same name, but “All I Ever Get for Christmas is Blue” is a good sample of their style. The band is actually crediting with saving the once crumbling, crime-riddled Over-The-Rhine neighbourhood, based solely on the evocative power of their songwriting.
It doesn’t show up often in their music, but Over The Rhine’s Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist are actually very Christian. One of their albums is actually named after a C.S. Lewis book, and they’ve told stories of their move into a 170 year-old house outside of Cincinnati where they’ve had their marriage restored by planting a garden, found a snake in the attic—which they naturally took as a Biblical omen of sorts—and had the house
quake with the power of musical healing.
Meiko is an American singer/songwriter, and her stage name is pronounced “MEE-koh” (/ˈmiːkoʊ/), not “may-EE-koh” (/meːˈiko/). The reason for that is that Meiko adopted the name to honour her Japanese heritage… without actually knowing any Japanese. The pronunciation stuck, and she wears it to this day. (Her sister, fashion designer Kelly Nishimoto, similarly adopted the name Keiko as “KEE-koh” (/ˈkiːkoʊ/).)
Meiko isn’t the first artist to recognize the potentially erotic overtones to Santa deciding someone has been “naughty”. But there aren’t many songs that play on the idea quite as perfectly as this one. In a breathy, sensuous croon, Meiko admits she’s been a
a bad girl, and that she’s “sinned” with a man… and then doubled down on that by dumping the guy cold. But she’s not the least bit apologetic about any of it. Quite the contrary, she’s “made her bed and is now lying in it”, and is considering maybe being
better next year, albeit in a mischievously noncommittal way.
The Knife was an electronic duo made up of a pair of Swedish siblings that found huge acclaim with four albums (plus one album based on an opera about Darwin)… then abruptly quit in 2014, saying it just wasn’t fun anymore. That was only the last in a career of pop-music-defying antics, like always performing with plague doctor masks on, thumbing their noses at the media, and refusing to attend the Swedish Grammis (even the year they cleaned up there). Their work is far more overtly political than the norm for Scandi-electro music, taking cues from modern gender and queer theory, with strong feminist messaging.
This track is from their first, eponymous album, but it is not the original. The original was simply called “Reindeer”, lacks the jingle bells, and adds a searing guitar solo—less festive, but definitely worth checking out. Whichever version you prefer, the lyrics are the same, giving Santa’s reindeer a somewhat fatalistic attitude toward their duties.
Among the candidates for most depressing song in this list, it may be Rilo Kiley who takes the (Xmas) cake. This song is depressing on its face, with its haunting string/piano melody and vocals that might be better called crying into a microphone than singing. But it goes deeper with that. Jenny Lewis’s lyrics are like razor blades, cutting right at your insecurities:
When I take off my makeup, I look old and defeated. I’m not so dangerous. Or:
You should just give up. ’Cause our love’s become selling secrets to the Russians they don’t need. The Cold War is on between you and me. And that’s just the first verse.
This song was recorded just about at Rilo Kiley’s peak, but sadly they fell apart not long after, apparently due to the toxic working relationship between Lewis and and guitarist Blake Sennett. The two had dated in the past, and always had a somewhat dysfunctional professional relationship, but everything seemed to be working nonetheless, until shortly after 2004’s More Adventurous. Then came Sennett making public accusations of… I dunno, fraud or something, it was never really clear. The band was in a sort of limbo for almost five years, with some saying the band was broken up, others saying they were just on hiatus, and others saying… well, nothing. Sadly, Lewis finally confirmed to the National Post that Rilo Kiley was over. A sad end to the band, which only makes this song that much more melancholy.
This song has a very interesting history. It was written by Yoko Ono—yes, that Yoko Ono—back in 1969, right at the beginning of her rather messy relationship with John Lennon. Lennon may or may not have had a hand in writing it, but the song itself was used as a B-side for multiple projects featuring Lennon, Ono, and/or the Plastic Ono Band. Most notably, it was the B-side for the way-overplayed classic “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” by John Lennon & Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band.
Here it is covered by Galaxie 500, shortly before their 1991 break-up. Galaxie 500 wasn’t around long, but they were quite influential. Their sound has been described as “lo-fi slowcore” or “dream pop”, later taken up by the likes of Low and Lorde. They’ve interpreted this song as a straight cover, but Naomi Yang’s vocal work is much more soothing—and thus more appropriate for the song—than Ono’s, and they ditch the organs for a beautifully echoing guitar.
Today Imogen Heap has multiple Grammy awards and nominations under her belt, but her path to recognition was peculiar. She was discovered at 18 and her debut album generated good buzz… then it all abruptly fell apart when funding for the label was cut, and she was forced to rush a second album to avoid getting dropped. It didn’t work, and she was dropped. She teamed up with songwriter Guy Sigsworth as Frou Frou, and released a critically-acclaimed album… but once again with little commercial success, and then the collaboration also fell apart. Heap decided to go all in and actually get a second album made… and luckily, by this time she had caught the attention of television and film producers, who featured her songs in their soundtracks. Once again, she had critical acclaim, but this time she finally had the sales to go with it, which led to her first Grammy nominations, and the rest is history.
This particular song was originally written for an episode of The O.C. titled “The Chrismukkah That Almost Wasn’t”, but was rejected for being “too dark”. Over the hauntingly beautiful harmonies, the lyrics are about a typical holiday family get together that is… strained, to say the least. Heap struggles to keep up a pleasant and peaceful exterior as she seethes underneath, engaging in passive-aggressive behaviours, and internally screaming, “get me out of here!”
Does Hem still exist? That’s a good question. Their debut album, 2002’s Rabbit Songs, earned widespread acclaim for its sparse arrangements and beautiful songwriting. The follow-up was delayed due their label going under, but eventually took form as 2004’s Eveningland, which traded the spartan sounds of the first album for more sophisticated arrangements. That trend continued—jumping labels and increasingly complex arrangements—culminating with 2006’s Funnel Cloud, which actually featured the band backed by a 21-piece orchestra. And then? Nothing. (Well, not literally nothing; the band did release an award-winning soundtrack to a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in 2009. And of course, there was this song and the EP it came from, along with a couple other EPs.) There were rumours of contention within the band, but no official announcement of anything. Then, seven years later, came 2013’s Departure and Farewell… whose title sounds like a pretty definitive final album. There’s been nothing since, but as far as I know, the band has never officially called it quits.
This track came in 2007, not long after Funnel Cloud. It may be the last original song released by Hem before their long hiatus between Funnel Cloud and Departure and Farewell.
It’s hard to believe that Mumford & Sons have only been around since 2007, and that their first album, Sigh No More only dates back to 2009. The band has managed to create a strange new/old vibe that feels like stuff that’s been around forever, but at the same time completely fresh and modern. To date they’ve racked up a Grammy for Album of the Year and a Juno for International Album of the Year – both for 2012’s Babel – and a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist.
This track is from Sigh No More, and was only their second release ever (after the double-platinum, Grammy Best Rock Song nominated “Little Lion Man”). It has a man considering a love affair just to escape the loneliness and cold, trying to rationalize away the fact that there’s really no love to the affair, just lust. The beautiful lyrics paint the picture of a man more thoughtful and mature than the average pop song protagonist, who has lived through a lot, and bears the scars of it all. Yet despite all that, the song is wistfully optimistic, and very humanist. And of course, it has a kickin’ chorus that’s awesome to sing along with.
31. ★ “Boots” – The Killers
Every year around Christmas between 2006 and 2016, The Killers released a holiday-themed song whose proceeds went to Project Red to fight AIDS in Africa. Some of these songs were incredibly good, most notably the hilarious “Don’t Shoot Me Santa” in 2007, which featured comedian Ryan Pardey as a gravelly-voiced, Southern-accented Santa who looks and sounds two sips away from rehab. The song even spawned two “sequels”, also featuring Pardey, 2012’s “I Feel It In My Bones”—with Santa now hunting down the whole band, and not just front man Brandon Flowers—and 2015’s “Dirt Sledding”, which saw Richard Dreyfuss—no, not even kidding—stepping in to negotiate a truce between Santa and the band.
The Killers are one of the biggest bands in the world today, going right back to the first release, the outstanding “Mr. Brightside” in 2003, and continuing with massive hits like “Somebody Told Me”, and “Human”. 2020 was another great year for the band, with their sixth album Imploding the Mirage being heralded by the catchy “Caution”.