Here are songs #70 to #61 in the 2020 edition of Indi’s alternative holiday playlist.
70. ★ “Christmas” – jesu
“Shoegazing”—also known as “dream pop” or “drone metal” (though jesu is far more associated with the latter term than the former)—is a genre of alternative rock characterized by layers and layers of distorted guitars creating a heavily-textured, droning “wall of sound”. This tune is a pretty decent example of the genre. The name has an amusing etymology; during live performances, the main musicians in shoegazing acts would often stand near motionless with their guitars in hand, looking down at their feet. While this would seem to be a aesthetic affectation in line with the navel-gazing lyrics and dreamy essence, the reality is that in order to create the heavily-textured, “droning wall” sound, these guitarists had banks and banks of foot pedals and effects equipment on the floor in front of them that they were continuously monitoring.
jesu (pronounced “yay-zoo”, apparently, and written all-lowercase) is really just one dude: Justin Broadrick. He was one of the founding members of the influential industrial metal band Godflesh, and that band’s 2002 breakup really had an impact on him. He ended up bailing on a tour and going into hiding, and when the tour organizers came after him for the lost money, he lost his house. jesu was not only named after the (at the time) last Godflesh song on the last Godflesh album, many of the themes and lyrics in jesu’s songs reflect, even if only indirectly, on Godflesh and its demise. jesu became Broadrick’s primary project for years until Godflesh’s reunion in 2010. While jesu has continued to be a thing since then, most people assumed that 2013’s Everyday I Get Closer to the Light from Which I Came would be the last full jesu album, with only EPs and collaborations (most notably with Sun Kil Moon) expected after. However, just last month jesu released Terminus, a brand-new full-length album; the first in 7 years.
Menace Beach is a very recent phenomenon, so it’s too early to tell whether it’s an actual group unto itself, or merely a collaboration project by musicians from other bands. They don’t seem to have a very stable lineup yet. Although they’ve been releasing songs and EPs since 2012, their debut album only came with 2015’s Ratworld. It received rave reviews, and has been quickly followed up with 2017’s Lemon Memory, and 2018’s Black Rainbow Sound.
This tune is the title track off their most recent EP. It’s got a surprisingly positive message underneath the wall of grinding sound about helping out people who aren’t exactly having an easy time during the holiday season. It comes with an absolutely bizarre video with hallucinogenic visuals of kaleidoscopic cats and sheep.
I’m not really a big fan of electronic music, so I’m not surprised that I’ve never heard of Emperor Penguin before, and they may not exist anymore. Their website no longer exists, at least. It turns out that they may also be a joke, making deliberately silly music with throwback instrumentation, like ancient synthesizers, that for all its ironic awfulness nevertheless somehow comes out fascinating. Take, for example, the title track from the album Mysterious Pony.
This track was Emperor Penguin’s contribution to a compilation album from their label, 2000’s The My Pal God Holiday Record 2. Is it weird? Oh, yes, it’s weird. I mean, what else would you expect from the title? But it’s actually a nice mid-fi—neither quite lo-fi nor hi-fi—groove to relax to.
The Nobility’s first album was 2007’s The Mezzanine… but not really. The truth is, the band started out in 2001 as Jetpack. They released a self-titled album in 2002, and a couple of EPs, and then… just as they were breaking out nationally, they were asked to feature in a children’s book about being in a rock band… and another band named Jetpack sent them a cease and desist about their name. The band acted quickly, renaming themselves “Jetpack UK” as a bit of a lark—that was the trick used by UK bands who wanted to expand into the US only to find an existing American band using their name; as for this band, they’re from Nashville, not the UK. Thanks to the children’s book, they did a tour of… no, really… public libraries and school auditoriums… and that tour paid for The Mezzanine, their first album under their new name: The Nobility.
In 2009, the band released an EP of Christmas songs they’d written over the years. I’ve Got a Present For You ended up with six songs, including the title track (which is pretty decent, and has also appeared on this list).
The Long Winters is primarily musician and podcaster John Roderick. It got its genesis when Roderick was playing keyboards as a touring musician for the band Harvey Danger (best known for the 1997 classic “Flagpole Sitta”). In 2001, Harvey Danger was falling apart, so front man Sean Nelson got together with Roderick and Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie (who had just created his own studio and was keen to have a good band to record in it) to create The Long Winters. The next three years were the most productive period for the band, but a series of lineup changes basically tore the band apart. Nelson went back to give Harvey Danger another swing, Walla never really left Death Cab for Cutie, drummers Michael Shilling and Michael Schorr (formerly of Death Cab for Cutie) both got burned out by touring… when all was said and done, the only person left after their second album—2003’s When I Pretend to Fall – was Roderick. He pieced together a new lineup, and managed a third album in 2006—Putting the Days to Bed—but although he’s been promising a new album since 2011, nothing’s materialized.
This track is from late 2004, which would place it about the time everything was falling apart for the band after their second album. It might be one of the last songs released with the lineup of Roderick, Schorr, and Eric Corson. On the other hand, Schorr might have already left, which would mean this might feature the drum work of the very famous promoter and label executive Nabil Ayers, co-founder of Sonic Boom Records.
You could be excused for assuming The Neighbourhood is not an American band based on the spelling of their name. But the truth is they’re from California, and chose that spelling simply because another band named “The Neighborhood” already existed.
“Sweater Weather” has actually appeared on this list before, in the form of an incredible a capella cover by Pentatonix. It is unarguably The Neighbourhood’s best song. It was first released as a single in 2012, then placed on the band’s first EP (2012’s I’m Sorry…), and their first album (2013’s I Love You.), and as a single it went double platinum in the US. While it may be the peak of the band’s commercial success (so far), the band’s critical reputation appears to be on the rise. 2020 saw the release of their fourth album Chip Chrome & the Mono-Tones, but thus far I haven’t seen it make much of a splash.
Ah, Kanye West… or are we supposed to call him “Ye” now? You all know who Kanye is. You’ve heard about his legendary ego. You’ve seen his multiple bizarre actions at awards ceremonies—like blindsiding Mike Myers to say George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people, or crashing the stage in the middle of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech to say Beyoncé should have won (Beyoncé did win, actually—she won the more prestigious award later in the show). And of course, his 2020 presidential campaign. For truly bizarre reasons, he’d supported Trump previously, but claimed that Trump’s terrible response to the pandemic had motivated him to start his own run for the presidency, though it’s hard to be sure that he’s really walked away from supporting Trump, given that Jared Kushner was Kanye’s campaign advisor. Despite endorsements from the like of Elon Musk, West’s campaign was the clown show you’d expect it to be, naming his political party the “Birthday Party” (because, you see, when he wins it will be like it’s everyone’s birthday), missing the deadlines in 29 states (plus the District of Columbia)—thus denying him over 65% of the electoral college vote—plus bungling his applications in 9 other states due to laughably obvious attempts at fraud in his endorsement petitions. He’s already promised to run again in 2024, so… yay?
But whatever else he may be, there’s no denying that West is monstrously talented, musically. He got his start as a producer, working on classics like Jay-Z’s seminal album The Blueprint (released the day of 9/11, coincidentally), and at first had a difficult time transitioning to being a rapper because record executives didn’t think he was “gangsta” enough. Eventually he got his Grammy-winning debut, The College Dropout, in 2004. This track comes at a fascinating point in his career: 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak, arguably West’s most controversial album. In it he trades rapping for (auto-tuned) singing, and pares down his sound to the most minimal arrangements—the “808” in the album name refers to the Roland TR-808 drum machine, the primary instrument on the album—with lyrics that focus on more intimate, introspective subject matter, rather than old-school hip-hop braggadocio. The album has since been credited with changing the entire pop music soundscape in its wake. This track, the album’s closing track (not counting a hidden track), is apparently about his mother, who died shortly before the album from surgical complications.
There is a lot of interesting history behind this song. The first major hit to feature rapping was, famously, the Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 classic “Rapper’s Delight”, but that was an independent release. Kurtis Blow was the first rap artist to be signed to a major label that same year, and the following year he would release 1980’s The Breaks—with its seminal title track (released only a few weeks after this song). But the first track Blow released under Mercury was this song; released for Christmas 1979, it is the first song to feature rapping from a major label.
Hip-hop was a very counter-cultural thing at first (and still is, somewhat), and this track thumbs its nose at the standard Christmas tropes. It opens up with Blow cutting off a recitation of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by saying “that’s played out”, then breaking down into the beat. Being old-school hip-hop—just about as old as old-school hip-hop gets—there’s not much in the way of social commentary. Instead, the lyrics basically retell “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, except that St. Nick happens to drop by the house while it’s in the middle of a party, and joins in.
62. ★ “Holiday” – Lil Nas X
Lil Nas X represents an interesting microcosm of Generation Z musical artistry, and culture in general. Nas X realized early on that the “traditional” paths to success—going through college, or slumming it in clubs until one gets “discovered” by a record label—just don’t apply anymore, so he decided to find success by “going viral”. To that end, he purchased a ready-made beat for $30, and put some simple but irresistibly-singable lyrics over it, creating “Old Town Road”, which he released in December 2018, then promoted by flooding Tik Tok, Instagram, and Twitter with memes. Then in early 2019, a grassroots Tik Tok event labeled “#Yeehaw” happened, where users would post a short video of them dressed up as a cowboy/girl, dancing and sometimes lip-syncing to a song… and by and large, the song of choice for hundreds of millions of them was “Old Town Road”. This caught the attention of Columbia Records, who signed Nas X and gave him the cash and resources to make a video for it. Nas X opted to get Billy Ray Cyrus to join him for a remix of the song, and make a 5-minute mini-movie with cameos from DJ Diplo as a washboard-playing redneck, and Chris Rock as, well, Chris Rock (“boogity, boogity, boogity”). It ended up winning the 2020 Grammy for Best Music Video, and it definitely earned it. It’s a hilarious watch, with scenes of Nas X—ostensibly having travelled in time from the 1880s to a modern-day neighbourhood—square dancing in front of a horse while the bemused residents look on, unsure how to react, challenging Vince Staples to a drag race… with Staples in a car and Nas X on his horse (Staples accuses him of cheating because the horse has a V-12 under the… hood?)… and Nas X rolling into a bingo hall like it’s an old-school western saloon, with a guitar-wielding Cyrus as his posse.
But there’s much more to it than that; in his meteoric rise to stardom, Nas X has also touched several of the cultural nerves of our times. He came out as gay while “Old Town Road” was #1… the only artist to ever do so. This started a lot of discussion about being gay and being a rap star… because that’s still something that isn’t exactly widely accepted. And he even became a flash point for racial issues, when major industry names refused to accept “Old Town Road” as a country song, which some people suggested was due to the latent racism that still permeates the country music scene. Nas X is probably going to release his first album in 2021, and this song may be on it. Even if not, it’s an interesting video; Nas X really seems to like a science fiction aesthetic—see “Old Town Road” and its time-travelling theme, and the amazing video for “Panini”—which I can really get behind.
Westside Connection was a supergroup made up of Ice Cube, Mack 10, and WC, as a sort of protest against the snubbing of West Coast rappers. They made their point damn well with 1996’s “Bow Down”, off the album of the same name, then the three artists went back to their solo careers. They would reunite for one final album in 2003 before their breakup in 2005, but in the meantime, they released several compilation and soundtrack singles, mostly from films featuring Ice Cube. This single is from Friday After Next, the third film in the Friday franchise, which were all written by Ice Cube.
You can probably guess that this is not going to be a bunch of treacly platitudes to Burl Ives-esque visions of the holidays. Sure enough, Cube comes out of the box swinging:
Holla if ya clear n***r, it’s Ice Cube and you can call me the Grinch. I got your Christmas list, but I ain’t buying you shit. The song’s about a bunch of guys that intend to relax and have some fun for the holidays, “fun” being mostly lots of getting laid and high (hence the “daze” in “holidaze”), which actually doesn’t sound like a bad Christmas to me.