Here are songs #50 to #41 in the 2020 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
I honestly have a hard time deciding if this band is for real or just taking the piss. Their biography is absurd, bordering on unbelievable, with some of the funniest song and album names I’ve ever heard. For example, their first album was named Back in the DHSS, a play on both The Beatles’ album Back in the U.S.S.R. and the name of the social assistance agency that pays welfare, because front man Nigel Blackwell had actually been on welfare before the album was released… so when the band broke up a few years later, their break-up album was naturally titled Back Again in the DHSS. Most of their album and song names are poking fun at their Northern English/Welsh small town background, like albums Four Lads Who Shook the Wirral (from The Beatles’ Four Lads Who Shook the World, and the small town of Wirral), Voyage to the Bottom of the Road, CSI: Ambleside, No-One Cares About Your Creative Hub So Get Your Fuckin’ Hedge Cut, and song titles like “Turned Up Clocked On Laid Off”, “I, Trog”, “Children of Apocalyptic Techstep”, “With Goth On Our Side”, “The Light at the End of the Tunnel (Is the Light of an Oncoming Train)”, “Paradise Lost (You’re the Reason Why)”, “Took Problem Chimp to Ideal Home Show”, “Give Us Bubblewrap”, “National Shite Day”, “Left Lyrics In the Practice Room”, “Westward Ho! – Massive Letdown”, “Theme Tune for Something or Other”, “Old Age Killed My Teenage Bride”, and “We Built This Village on a Trad. Arr. Tune” (from Starship’s “We Built This City” (on rock and roll)). (I’m also fond of the way Achtung Bono takes a poke at U2.) They’re also famously massive fans of soccer—at one point they were offered a spot on the nation-wide music show The Tube, who wanted them so badly they were willing to fly a helicopter out to pick them up… but the band refused because the Meyerside-based Tranmere Rovers were playing that night.
A lot of songs on this list take a rather critical view of the holidays, calling out the commercialism or the emotional toll trying to be jolly can take in the face of real-world problems. Half Man Half Biscuit says sod all that. Mind you, they’re not exactly calling for cheer, they’re just pointing out—as the song title indicates—that it’s clichéd to be cynical. This track comes off of Trouble Over Bridgwater… the title pokes fun at the Simon and Garfunkel classic “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”, and the town of Bridgwater, Somerset.
Santa Claus is a ridiculous fantasy, so if you’re going to ask a ridiculous fantasy for a favour, what is the logic in asking for mundane things like toys, a chance to see a lover, or even one’s two front teeth… you might as well make a ridiculously fantastical request to stay in the spirit of things. That’s the logic here, as Fountains of Wayne asks Santa Claus for… an alien… for Christmas. Yes, an alien. A
little green man, apparently just to hang out with and watch Twilight Zone reruns. The lyrics are cheerfully absurd, and the song is catchy and easy to sing along to.
It’s a mystery to me why this band wasn’t bigger. They had modest success with the Grammy-nominated novelty song “Stacy’s Mom”, but they consistently cranked out catchy, fun songs for almost two decades, without much mainstream notice. It’s not like they were a secret in the industry, either; songwriter Adam Schlesinger had a wall full of Grammys and Emmys from songwriting-for-hire work he’d done for Hollywood and so on. He wrote the Grammy-nominated title song from That Thing You Do!, the Emmy-nominated and Grammy-winning A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!, scored two Emmys for songs on Sesame Street,two more for songs he wrote for Neil Patrick Harris to perform at the Tony Awards, and a whole pile of Emmys for songs from the series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Sadly, Schlesinger was one of the victims of COVID-19. He died in April, at age 52.
I’ve always considered Run–D.M.C.’s “Christmas in Hollis” to be the seminal hip-hop Christmas tune. Well, I got schooled a few years back, when someone pointed out this track. It’s a high-energy, old-school jam that you can’t help but move to. The lyrics are fun, too: basically a couple of wish lists for gifts, each formatted in a way that alludes to “The 12 Days of Christmas”, with some amusing items mentioned, such as “8 Sega tapes”, “8 male strippers”, “7 bus passes”, and of course, “2 girlfriends”.
If you don’t recognize the name Quad City DJ’s (yes, the apostrophe is in their name), don’t be surprised. They’re actually just a pair of producers (with some common associates) who have actually been in a bunch of other acts… notably the 69 Boyz, who are responsible for the classic “Tootsee Roll”. There were also in 95 South, of “Whoot There It Is” fame, along with rapper K-Nock (the rapper who wants a man “with a whole lot of cash flow” in this song). That’s not to say they haven’t and any success under the Quad City DJ’s name: there was the multi-platinum single “C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train)”.
Bo’ Selecta! was a British comedy show that is… hard to explain. The main character is a completely insane celebrity-obsessed stalker who keeps his dead mother in a closet. There are a number of skits featuring impersonated celebrities—impersonated (badly) by show creator Leigh Francis wearing horribly deformed rubber masks only vaguely resembling the celebrities, and for some reason wearing thick glasses. In the video below, that character wearing the Santa hat on the CD cover pictured is supposed to be Craig David (who was reportedly not pleased with the way he was portrayed—the series is actually named after the 1999 Artful Dodger single “Re-Rewind (The Crowd Say Bo Selecta)” that features Craig David). There is also a perverse bear puppet with an enormous pop-up phallus.
That first verse is supposed be sung by Craig David, the second by Michael Jackson (and the voice at the end talking about “the magic” is David Blaine)—impersonated by Francis, of course. Other “celebrities” and characters from the show chip in from time to time. The lyrics largely refer to jokes from the series—Craig David’s peregrine falcon, and Michael Jackson’s pet Bubbles not actually being a monkey (in the series, she is a hot blonde woman that lives with “Jackson”). All that aside, the song is an awesomely catchy and fun pop song, with a chorus that’s hard not to sing along with. Without knowing the references, the lyrics are delightfully absurd, all delivered in a silly argot, and the song works as a funny spoof of any of the countless Christmas songs about being excited about the holiday… with the amusing catch that the singer in this song is so excited he can’t control his bladder.
You may suppose from the title that this is a song about nostalgia for the 1980s. Well, it is… but it comes with a heavy helping of cheek. The lyrics do wax wistful at memories of holidays at the time, but at the same time there’s also a very knowing wink to the listener that the only reason for the nostalgia is that the 80s happen to be when the artists were kids: Christmases in the 80s were better, according to the lyrics, because everyone was playing in the snow and excited about getting presents. The single’s cover amusingly juxtaposes a Christmas tree with a Pac-Man game.
As far as I can tell, this is the last single from The Futureheads before 2012’s Rant. Why is that meaningful? Well, Rant (almost) entirely a capella—no instruments, only vocals—it contains a capella versions of other Futureheads songs, and some covers. This track was the last Futureheads single with their trademark sound until their 2019 reunion.
I confess to knowing very little about the Soul-Saints Orchestra, but as near as I can tell… they never really existed. Instead, let’s go back to Germany right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the time, synthpop was sweeping the land, but a group of musicians in Munich had fallen in love with American soul music of the 1960s and 1970s. They came together as The Poets of Rhythm, and released their debut album, Practice What You Preach, in 1992, introducing a new flavour of “hard funk” that would influence an entire generation, and kick-start a whole new genre of modern funk. During their 11-year career, The Poets of Rhythm used an old trick that bands from the 1950s and 1960s used to increase their sales: they would release singles (on 7” vinyl, natch) under different names, and “compete” against themselves for airplay and promotional time. One of the names they released singles under was… Soul-Saints Orchestra.
This song goes back to the early days of The Poets of Rhythm, all the way back to 1994, though its sound harks back to even earlier eras. Indeed, aside from its slightly harder edge, this tune could be very much at home in the 1960s/1970s catalogue of soul legends like James Brown. In fact, it’s often packaged together with Brown on compilation albums, and I’ve even seen it mislabelled as a James Brown song in places. Lordy, lordy.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) could either be a Christmas movie, or a very rare example of a Halloween holiday movie. In the film, each holiday has its own “town”, and the denizens of Halloween Town stumble on Christmas Town, and are awed by it and its leader Santa Claus… whom they interpret as
Sandy Claws and assume must be a truly horrifying monster. It’s a classic Tim Burton film, naturally scored by his favourite collaborator Danny Elfman. In one scene, the minions Lock, Shock, and Barrel (one of whom is voiced by Elfman) have been ordered to
kidnap the Sandy Claws, and they sing a gleefully demented song discussing various horrible ways to accomplish this, and celebrating their status as minions. Black humour abounds—for example, at one point one of the minions suggests blowing Santa up, an idea which another minions describes as
stupid… but only because if the blow him to bits they run the risk of losing some of the bits.
The version of that song I’ve chosen to highlight is from the 15th anniversary cover/tribute album Nightmare Revisited (2008), which has the film’s songs covered by various contemporary bands. This cover is by nu-metal band KoЯn, who turn the quirky and cute little ditty into something positively sinister and psychotic. In particular, because lead singer Jonathan Davis is singing—alone—what was originally an argument between three characters, it gives the impression of a deranged lunatic arguing with the voices in his head.
It began as, of all things, an attempt by three high school friends to meet the cast of Glee. Kirstin Maldonado, Mitchell Grassi, and Scott Hoying entered a radio contest… and lost. But their signing captured the attention of their friends, and eventually even got some interest on YouTube. However, Maldonado and Hoying graduated and moved on to college. In college, Hoying learned about The Sing-Off, and got the old trio back together to audition. Along the way they picked up Avriel Kaplan—who was already a fairly well-known vocal bass—and Kevin Olusola, on the strength of a YouTube video where he beat-boxes while playing the cello. Maldonado and Hoying had to drop out of college for the audition, and Grassi missed his high school graduation… but they got on the show, and eventually won the third season (winning with—I shit you not—an a capella version of “Eye of the Tiger”)>). Success, right? Not quite. Although the group won a contract as part of their Sing-Off victory, Sony dropped them almost right away. The group then went back to their roots: YouTube. There they found massive success with a series of viral videos, mostly covers of popular songs. But superstar status came after an incredible rendition of the Imagine Dragons’s “Radioactive” in collaboration with violinist Lindsey Stirling won them the 2013 Response of the Year at the YouTube Music Awards. That same year, they released an absolutely astounding medley, “Daft Punk”, which would eventually win them the first Grammy for Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella in 2015. They’d win the same award the next year, and yet another Grammy for Best Country Duo/Group Performance with Dolly Parton for a cover of her 1973 classic “Jolene”. They’re currently one of the top channels on YouTube.
There is only a very small number of artists who have multiple songs that I’ve had a hard time deciding between for this list. Pentatonix has the distinction of being the most difficult choice of all—there are at least a half-dozen Pentatonix songs worth of this list, both covers and originals. Previously I chose a cover of The Neighbourhood’s “Sweater Weather”, but other contenders include a cover of Imogen Heap’s “Just For Now” and a cover of Kanye West’s “Coldest Winter”. Pentatonix has made Christmas their business—they’ve released three Christmas albums, including 2018’s Christmas Is Here!, 2019’s compilation The Best of Pentatonix Christmas, and now 2020’s We Need a Little Christmas. This year, I’ve chosen a song from Tim Burton’s classic The Nightmare Before Christmas (this list has also featured KoЯn’s insane cover of ”Kidnap the Sandy Claws” from the same film).
This song is a devilishly clever comedy song—the humour here is far more witty than you’ll find in your average “Weird Al” song. It purports to be a holiday message sent from “the Andersons” to unspecified family or friends. The Andersons have been captured by evil robot overlords and are being forced to work in their mines, and in the song/message, they try to put a cheery face on it—meanwhile the subtext hints with some brilliantly genre-savvy references that the song might actually be a coded distress message:
Now it’s time for Christmas dinner. I think the robots sent us a pie. You know I love my soylent green.
Incidentally, there’s also an unofficial “original” version floating around with some slightly different lines:
They tried to decorate and make it look more Christmas-y, but what they did looks more like Christmas in Hell. They nailed a Santa to a cross in front of everyone. It wasn’t pleasant but I’m sure they meant well. Apparently the person who commissioned the song was offended by the crucifixion symbolism, so Coulton changed the verse to the one with the red-eyed Santa robots. Personally, I find the original words more clever and subversive.
Devo is most famous for the 1980 novelty hit “Whip It”, whose bizarre video was hugely controversial in the early days of MTV, but they’ve been playing tongue firmly in cheek since 1973. While they are often described as a joke band, they might be better described as satirical performance artists. Their works draw on art deco science fiction themes, and hide subversive social commentary behind bizarre humour.
This track is a perfect example of Devo’s subversive undertones and deadpan humour. On its face it’s an upbeat, cheerful tune about inclusiveness when celebrating the holidays. At the same time it manages to balance a sense of frustration with the need to kowtow to all the different customs. It’s hilariously two-faced, cheerfully urging listeners to:
Believe what you want, nothing’s really true.