Here are songs #60 to #51 in the 2020 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
Sparks is one of those bands I thought I knew, but when I sat down to actually research them for this write-up, everything I knew about them got flipped on its head. For starters, I thought they were a British group, and part of the “British invasion” of the 1960s. Turns out they hail from California—though they were much more popular in the UK than the US—and they only really got started after the “invasion”, in the early 1970s. I also discovered that they were, at one point, part of a project to create a musical film based on Mai, the Psychic Girl—the first Japanese manga to be fully translated into English. The film was going to be directed by Tim Burton, and it only fell apart when Burton chose to make The Nightmare Before Christmas instead. It’s fascinating to wonder how the Mai film might have turned out, in another timeline.
This track is Sparks’s first Christmas track since “Thank God It’s Christmas”, released 41 years earlier on the seminal 1974 LP Kimono My House. It was released in 2015, the same year Sparks did that collaboration with Franz Ferdinand called FFS. Amazingly, Sparks is still very much active, having just released a brand new 2020 album, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip.
The Boy Least Likely To is Pete Hobbs and Jof Owen, two friends from the little village of Wendover in Buckinghamshire, and if there is any band that can make the claim to have “come out of nowhere”, it would be these guys. The pair wrote, recorded, and published their debut album on their own—even creating their own record label for it. By the time they released it, they still hadn’t played any live shows. But that album, 2005’s The Best Party Ever, ended up on numerous lists of the best of the year. The band has been fairly quiet since 2013, but appears to still be alive; they released a new holiday track in 2017—“A Winter’s Tale”—and a greatest hits collection the next year.
This track is from their 2010 holiday album Christmas Special, which is a worthwhile holiday album to check out. I’d also recommend “Christmas Isn’t Christmas”.
There are plenty of songs about mismatched family holiday gatherings, but perhaps none carried off as deftly as this one. Dar Williams tells the tale of Wiccans Amber and Jane—heavily implied to be a lesbian couple—who are travelling during the Solstice season, and need a place to stay. So they call Amber’s “Christ-loving” uncle, who is initially wary, given that they had planned to celebrate a very Christian Christmas, but invites them over regardless. All is pleasant at first as they share a nice meal, but then the Uncle’s child, Timmy, innocently starts asking questions that disturb the fragile facade:
Is it true that you’re a witch? Everyone starts falling over themselves to work around the faux pas… when Amber’s girlfriend Jane suddenly opens up and replies frankly to Timmy.
Jane’s response is frankly astonishing. Brilliant, witty, insightful, and gloriously lyrical, she explains to young Timmy that, yes, they are “witches”, and yes, they are different… but also that, in many ways, they’re also the same. Her beautiful response defuses the tension, and inspires everyone to take another look at the whole situation. By the end of the song, the two groups have found kinship with each other by rediscovering the things they share, rather than the things that make them different, and Amber’s Uncle is even considering reconnecting with Amber’s father, whom he has become estranged from. But this is not a song that sweeps things under the carpet and tosses up the fuzzy, feelgood implication that we can all get along perfectly, and religious differences don’t really matter. At the end of the song, while the two groups manage to get through their shared holiday peacefully—and even manage to connect as a family despite their differences—the divide between them doesn’t just magically go away. In the last lines of the song’s final verse, little Timmy asks his father if he can be a pagan, too, prompting the awkward response:
We’ll discuss it when they leave. Clearly there is still a ways to go, but the song points out how far we’ve already come, and how it is possible to overcome the challenges if we focus on the things we all have in common.
Mew is a Danish indie band with a big sound: rich, layered harmonies over a driving, lush, wall-of-sound base. They were influential in the early Danish indie scene, racking up awards and critical acclaim. Commercial success came five years later, with Frengers in 2003. This song is actually the first and only (official) single from their first album, A Triumph for Man, but since that album only had a very limited release – purportedly only 2,000 copies were printed – it was included on Frengers as well.
Fans have been poring over the lyrics for years, struggling to find an interpretation. The most popular theory is that the song is about a woman who was abused—likely sexually—by a family member, and after staying away for the family for many years is now coming back for a Christmas get-together. The story is told by another family member—perhaps a younger sibling—who is torn between sympathy for what the woman has gone through, and a feeling of betrayal due to her running away.
Slow Club is the UK duo of Rebecca Taylor and Charles Watson, both talented musicians who play several instruments. They count atheist actor Daniel Radcliffe among their fans, and their video for “Beginners” features a single 4-minute shot of Radcliffe pretending to be in a drunken depression, dancing and jumping on tables to play air guitar, all while lip-syncing over Taylor’s vocals.
This tune comes from the band’s very early days—it was only their third single, off of the 20-minutes 2009 LP Christmas, Thanks for Nothing. The lyrics are glorious, talking about finding happiness with a lover, even despite all the shitty things and worries in their lives:
It’s not bad of you to think of what might go wrong. But you can’t blame me for secretly hoping that I’ll prove you wrong.
Local Natives is a band out of California formed mostly by a group of high school friends and some post-college buddies. They got significant buzz for their debut album, 2009’s Gorilla Manor. One of the interesting quirks of the band is that—at least at the time—everybody was involved in everything: all song and even art credits are shared by all members. In fact, the album’s name comes from the house they all shared while putting the album together… apparently it was a chaotic mess, with instruments all over the place and people randomly picking out tunes on whatever was in reach.
This tune came about a year after Gorilla Manor (but a couple years before their follow-up, 2013’s Hummingbird), following bassist Andy Hamm’s ejection from the band. The lyrics are about coming home for the holiday and reconnecting with friends and family. There’s no drama here, just warmth.
The “Christmas Truce” of World War I is one of the most enduring myths about the war, and it’s not hard to understand why. It’s a perfectly romantic story of humanity managing to find a way to emerge even in the bleakest of situations, and something something “the magic of Christmas”. The reality of the Christmas truces (plural) is actually far more interesting… and much more humanist. First, the truces actually had little to do with Christmas itself: Soldiers all across the Western Front routinely found ways to avoid fighting, and to fraternize with the enemy. It became such a problem that by the time Christmas 1914 rolled around, military commanders on both sides were taking active steps to prevent the large-scale, widespread truces they knew were coming around Christmas day. They tried planting false intelligence that the enemy would attack, and desperately tried to suppress any word of the truces making the papers. In the end it didn’t work; the truces happened, and the New York Times defied the publication ban. Ironically, though, one of the biggest impacts of the truces was that military leadership learned how it important it was to utterly dehumanize the enemy before sending troops out to face them, because contrary to conventional “wisdom”, without extensive provocation human nature tends to lead people to prefer chumming around and partying, rather than killing each other.
When McCutcheon performs this song live, he usually prefaces it with a story. These stories have become as much a part of the fabric of the song’s tale as the lyrics. He has several variations, ranging from the story of how he heard of the truces from a janitor, to one about meeting actual German WWI veterans who had been involved in the truces. You can find several of them in the various YouTube versions of the song.
I can’t say I know much about Derik Nelson. His biggest claim to fame seems to be as “the blonde guitarist on Glee”, but his music or singing has been used on several shows aimed at roughly the same demographic, such as How I Met Your Mother,Felicity, and The Voice. These days he seems to have formed a trio with manager/sister Riana and tech guy/brother Dalton, that boasts of both beautiful three-part harmonies, and a high-tech live show.
This song predates Riana and Dalton’s official move into the group, but the song’s beautiful harmonies may be a preview of what Derik Nelson & Family sounds like these days. But as beautiful as the harmonies and guitar may be, the lyrics are absolutely incredible. With gorgeous poetic economy, they tell the tale of a pair of lovers—one of whom has gone to sea, and, it is implied, won’t be returning (“the north wind was singing to the frozen ropes, and the sky, she grew heavy and black; starboard was taking on water, with no sign of giving it back…”)—calling out across the distance with hope and determination, and the promise to try and get closer to each other.
Several music writers have declared this 1987 classic by The Pogues to be the greatest Christmas song ever written. (For example, Dave Bidini of the Rheostatics.) On the surface, such declarations seem bizarre. This is not a song about a happy family enjoying presents and turkey, or even a pair of lovers enjoying each other. This is a song about a dried up drunk in a cell, listening to the morbid lamentations of his cell mates, then losing himself in fond reminiscences… of bitter and acrimonious arguments, him and his lover cussing each other out viciously, and lying around washed out on hard drugs.
Merry Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last. This can’t be a Christmas song; it shouldn’t work as one.
And yet it does. It’s not a single element either; in what seems almost worthy of calling a “Christmas miracle” everything just… comes together, and often in the most astounding ways. It’s a song of contrasts at just about every level. The slow, melancholy first movement contrasts against the upbeat, soaring melodies of the second, almost as if they are two different songs (they were). Shane MacGowan’s gravelly, slurring vocals contrast against Kirsty MacColl’s sparkling, punchy responses, and both artists give as good as they get in the back-and-forth insults. The sad tale of misery and failure, and the bitter fights that followed, are contrasted against the heady joy of their early days, and, in what might just make everything come together, the hope that MacGowan’s character has for a happier future.
Jethro Tull is a legend, with a career spanning six decades. The band is part of music history, with enough stories to fill several books. Black Sabbath wouldn’t exist without Jethro Tull. They once recorded an album that is literally a single song that is 44 minutes long and split over two sides of a record, based on an epic poem by a fictional 8 year-old. Perhaps most famously, Jethro Tull was at the centre of one of the biggest scandals in Grammy history. It began when the Grammys, after years of criticism for ignoring several genres of popular music, finally created new categories for rap and heavy metal in 1989. Both categories were highly controversial. Along with AC/DC, Iggy Pop, Jane’s Addiction, and Metallica, Jethro Tull was nominated for the metal award, leading to much head-scratching—it seems a bit of a stretch to consider Jethro Tull’s Crest of a Knave album “metal”. Metallica, nominated for their album And Justice for All…—now recognized as one of the greatest metal albums of all time—and were widely considered the sure winners. Jethro Tull were even told not to bother to show up, it was so obvious that Metallica were going to win. At the Grammy ceremony, Metallica performed their classic “One”, and then waited for the award announcement. Instead, to everyone’s shock… Jethro Tull won. The crowd booed, and presenter Alice Cooper was visibly baffled, as he ended up accepting the award on Jethro Tull’s behalf… because the band had been told not to bother showing up. Co-presenter Lita Ford laughed. In response, Jethro Tull’s label published a now-famous ad congratulating the band that featured a picture of a flute on top of rebar with the title: “The flute is a (heavy) metal instrument.”
Jethro Tull’s last studio album—other than a collaboration album with a string quartet released in 2017—was 2003’s The Jethro Tull Christmas Album. That album had several original songs, mostly previous releases. This track was one of three completely new songs, along with “Birthday Card at Christmas” and “Last Man at the Party”. Despite rumours throughout 2017 and 2018 that front man Ian Anderson was working on a new Jethro Tull album, it was confirmed in 2019 that what he’d been working on was a solo album, and after an aborted attempt at a tour in 2020 (cancelled due to COVID-19), it seems likely that Jethro Tull has finally retired.