Many of us have a love-hate relationship with holiday music. Etta James, a hot toddy and snowfall is an easy combination to love for the season. But the plague of new holiday albums each year leaves something to be desired, whether attempted by pop artist Jessica Simpson or bands that should know better, like Anthrax. The result is usually cheesy and grating, and almost never as good as the classic versions. Some indie musicians, however, have figured out the recipe: Don't do a whole holiday album, just make a single. This year, we offer you six new holiday songs that are actually good, and may turn your cynicism to good cheer.
"All I Want is Truth for Christmas," The Mynabirds
It's risky to describe this Christmas single from The Mynabirds without it sounding incredibly preachy and depressing. The anti-consumerist song touches on climate change, political inertia and war, and it suggests that the best thing you could do is hand over your presents to the Salvation Army and be satisfied with the non-material things in life. This is the kind of thing that gives liberals the Debbie-downer reputation. The trick is, frontwoman Laura Burhenn's Dusty Springfield-like vocals are anything but sarcastic or pontifical. Combine her pipes with a steel guitar, a pretty melody and a slightly upbeat rhythm, and it makes this a charming single even if it's all about the un-candy-coated truth.
"On Holiday," The Hush Now
When we think of the winter holidays in Montana we think of big wet snowflakes, the smell of pine, and gathering with friends at one of the local breweries wrapped in our warmest clothes. "On Holiday" alludes to a different environment with its rumba beats and dream-pop vocals. It sounds more like you're having Christmas at a seaside town, shimmying under the palm trees, and drinking fruity cocktails at an open air, hipster dance club. Lines about mistletoe and a "Jingle Bells" horn interlude remind you that this is a Christmas song, and Noel Kelly's Morrissey-tinged vocals suggest there's a certain pretty loneliness to the holidays no matter where you are.
"Dreidel, Dreidel" Campfire OK
Somebody remembered to give Hanukkah a little indie folk rock love. Campfire OK's version of the "Dreidel Song" stays true to the original lyrics but repackages the melody into something you might hear from Neil Young. The darker, clap-happy tune transforms the traditional song into a more profound experience. The intimate minor-key guitar strumming and outbursts of "Woo!" from lead singer Mychal Cohen give it the kind of edge and emotion that makes it seem like it must be more about the human condition than merely about a Jewish children's game.
"Presents in June," Pictures of Then
Holiday songs usually celebrate things rather than question them. Minneapolis-based Pictures of Then breaks that mold by questioning things from the get-go: "Is the snowfall just too much? Or maybe not enough? Have the trees all given up? Daylight turned to dusk?" What makes it a great song is its ethereal approach evoking Julee Cruise ("Twin Peaks" soundtrack) and its waves of fuzzy guitar riffs. Lines like, "May you keep a candle bright until I make it home," tip you off that it's a song about two people being apart. But it manages to still feel warm and hopeful in the melancholy vein of traditional songs like
"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
"Christmas isn't Christmas," The Boy Least Likely To
Here's yet another song about people being apart during the holidays, though this one feels like a break-up rather than a matter of geographical distance. It's sort of funny with self-pitying lyrics about resorting to eating pizza with a holly sprig stuck in it. It's also about the sort of bad decisions people make when they're pining: kissing strangers under mistletoe, getting drunk out of sorrow, that sort of thing. It still manages to blend in with other holiday songs because of its breathy Beach Boys' style and sparkling holiday bells that almost mask the misery.
"Get Down for the Holidays," Jenny O
Apparently this song by Jenny O is on a Target compilation, but it has no resemblance to anything from the holiday mainstream. In fact, searching the Internet brings up very little about the singer from Los Angeles. That's strange because this song blows almost any non-traditional holiday fare out of the water. It offers great lines like "You bring the ice cream and I'll be apple pie" and "I like a rainbow candy-cane/call me settled in my ways/yeah/not tryin' to eat and run, but I can't stay-ay-ay." The warm strumming evokes Simon & Garfunkle but O's vocals are almost as strikingly odd as Joanna Newsom. It's sort of a cheerful song with just enough of a nostalgic fleeting feel to give it the kind of sincerity that so many holiday standards lack.