Don’t Call Me Ishmael “Mary and Joseph” (2015)

Don't Call me Ishmael Dark Christmas E.P.

DROMA Records
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP) | Bandcamp (Compilation)

Stafford, England’s Don’t Call Me Ishmael are big fans of Christmas. I’m honestly amazed that I had not discovered them until this year, as they have multiple Christmas EPs, with releases every year since 2015. I’ve got a lot to choose from, but the song I’m going to highlight is the beautiful, and powerful, “Mary and Joseph,” off of 2015’s Dark Christmas EP. What immediately caught me was this sensation that I’m hearing an amazing Billy Bragg Christmas song. I’ve got this live Billy Bragg record that has been in my CD changer (yes, I have one) for YEARS… I stress, YEARS, because it always seems to pop on when my soul needs it. “Mary and Joseph” scratches that same itch. No accompaniment, just two voices reminding us to be grateful for what we have at Christmas. I’m most certainly looking forward to their upcoming Christmas release slated for Monday, December 9th. Follow them on Facebook, their label on Bandcamp, etc, to be the first to hear it! And dig into those older tracks too!

Bottom Line: Powerful simplicity in the vein of Billy Bragg… which is high praise.

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The Good Tidings “Christmas for Cowboys” (2019)

Self Released
Buy: Soundcloud (Free!)

The Good Tidings are the musical accompaniment to the Brooklyn-based Christmas movie series, The Christmas Club. While I believe the movies have continued since 2005, the band has remained quiet since 2013. That final round of releases included the excellent John Cale cover, “A Child’s Christmas in Whales,” which I wrote about back in the day. To my surprise, two new tracks popped up today, one of which I found just delightful. I rarely feature covers of John Denver’s classic “Christmas for Cowboys” tune on here, as nearly all the covers sound the same. The Good Tidings have thrown out the old formula and plugged in the synths. The production is beautiful and oddly soothing, with some standout brass synth solos to boot. The Good Tidings are back, and they brought their best stuff with them.

Bottom Line: A cowboy Christmas, basking in the light of a synthetic moon – a contrast that Christmas Underground can cosign.

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Dariynn Silver “Rest Ye Merry” (2018)

Dariynn Silver "Rest Ye Merry"

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

I don’t normally write about straight-up Christmas carols. This is generally a pretty secular Christmas music blog… and if you want Christmas carols, there are a million other places to listen to them. That said, every so often, a treatment just hits me. British Columbia’s Dariynn Silver released a version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” last year that deserves some notice. The vocal melodies are great – her pacing and the words she highlights are truly unique. However, it may be piano in the bridge that just got me. It was just beautiful, and frankly, I thought you might think so as well.

Bottom Line: Who would have thought it? A honest-to-goodness Christmas carol on Christmas Underground. I am full of surprises today.

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Virgin of the Birds “Christmas in the Borough of Our Birth” (2019/2016)

Abandoned Love Records
Buy: Bandcamp

GTFO. This song F*ING RULES. San Francisco’s (or is it, as Facebook states, Seattle’s) Virgin of the Birds has written the BEST Destroyer-yet-not-Destroyer Christmas song I have ever heard, and I am including the Destroyer Christmas songs in this calculation. From the fascinating lyrics (Brutalist doesn’t mean what you think it does / Hosanna wasn’t over when you wished it was / Kiss me on the mouth, it’s Christmas Eve / I have stars in my eyes, I have winter seeds), to the see-saw vocal melodies and guitar solos, this song is a breath of fresh air. Their description of the song is succinct and wonderful as well:

“Christmas in the Borough of our Birth” is a song about hope, lust and regret set during the holidays with references to midnight mass and a second-hand sighting of American character actor M. Emmett Walsh. Plus a righteous dude choir made up of Bart CameronLevi Fuller & the LibraryCasey Ruff Music and Sam Russell & The Harborrats.”

This track is going to come out on Black Friday, but you can still jam to the stream until then. Of course… you can buy it anytime though!

EDIT: So… there was an earlier version of the song on the Home for the Holidays: A Christmas Songbook compilation, which came out in 2016. The earlier version feel closer to a demo version when compared with the 2019 version… I’m truly glad they revisited it.

Bottom Line: Thirty seconds in and I was grinning from ear-to-M*F*-ear. Why am I not saying the dirty words this morning? Fucking shit I’m slipping.

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Where do you buy your digital music?

I’ve run two music blogs in my day. The first one was all about limited edition and import music. Cool vinyl pressings and bonus tracks, all before vinyl got crazy. Now, I run a Christmas music website, which is quite different, yet so similar in many ways. Both required a whole lot of searching for that special song, that great record, and both required my reader to BUY something. Christmas Underground is not, and will never be, your place for free Christmas music. Yes, some songs are free by the generosity of the artist, but if I can, I always try to encourage them to, at the very least, set up a Bandcamp with a “name your own price.” Art is work, and artists deserve to be paid. With that, I’m curious as to what services you all actually buy your digital music from. I always defer to services with the highest source material (Bandcamp and 7Digital offer FLACs), but realistically, most folks shop at Amazon. So… let me know if I’m either wasting my time by posting so many options or equally, let me know if I’m not posting the site that you most like to do business with.  Feed my curiosity and please answer the poll below.

Update: So, for some reason, the poll did not allow multiple answers, but it does not. You can choose up to 4 answers.

Wood Hitch “Auld Lang Syne (Don’t Waste My Time)” (2019)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

As we gear up for the Christmas season, I thought… what would be better than a New Year’s song? Hehe. My Christmas mix is a much more of a seasonal mix – I work in December, snow, New Year’s… I cast a wide net. A folk-pop duo from Los Angeles, Wood Hitch have blessed us with the first solid New Year’s song of the season, “Auld Lang Syne (Don’t Waste My Time).” The song is full of booze and regret, as every good NYE should be. They harmonize well together, with the rough edges of Brady Harris’ voice supporting the beautiful pipes of Rose Shawhan. I mean, try not to sit up straight that first moment that Rose’s vocals enter the song; she really has something. And with that, press play and drink up!

Bottom Line: Wood Hitch are serving the first, great pregame cocktail to our New Year’s party.

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Magne Furuholmen – White Xmas Lies (2019)

Drabant Music
Buy: 7Digital (FLAC/MP3) | Drabant Music (CD/Vinyl) | Apple Music | Amazon MP3/CD/Vinyl | Amazon.uk MP3/CD/Vinyl | Amazon.de MP3/CD/Vinyl | Amazon.fr MP3/CD/Vinyl

This record caught me completely off guard. The keyboardist and co-writer for most of the iconic hits from Norway’s pop-powerhouse a-ha, Magne Furuholmen has created one of the most interesting Christmas records I have heard in years. He walks this fine line between the avant-garde and accessible and manages to pull it off incredibly well. An album packed with largely all originals, Magne did not intend to create a normal holiday album; he wanted to make an album that was “an antidote to the ‘schmaltzy Christmas-music which is spewed out every year… a seemingly never-ending stream of cheesy versions of existing Christmas song.'” It was as if Magne was creating a Christmas music for me.

This album can be heartbreakingly beautiful. There are moments, such as in the leadoff track “There Goes Another Year,” where you can find these simple, evocative phrases that just hit you. “In the darkness of December / as the fire turned from spark to ember (<-Wow, what a line) / these are things I will remember / now xmas time is here / there goes another year.” And yet again, later in the song: “What we say but do not mean / every word and in-between / for every manhole in this town / there is someone falling down (<-Damn, loved that line!).” As you can see, Magne is going deep here, not necessarily celebrating the holiday in a fashion one might expect, as he talks about the album as being for those who might not have someone to keep them warm at Christmas.

I wanted to try and make an album which would be meaningful also to those who fall outside our commercial Christmas frenzy – an album which looks at the more melancholic, darker sides to Christmas: broken family ties, things we sweep under the rug, resentment hidden behind fake, jocular smiles – an album for holiday contemplation, not just sentimental decor.’

Magne does not rely on a spectacular voice (I have never been partial to amazing singers, but rather, amazing songwriters), he lets the synths and his lyrics do the heavy lifting. However, every so often his vocal melody just gets me. Like in the hungover “A Punch-up on Boxing Day,” Magne’s voice rises just after that first stanza, “you’re just wasting your time / yyeeaaahhhh,” and it brings this emotion to the song that I wasn’t anticipating. There are other moments where the music makes you sit up and go “shit, that is fantastic,” such as in the final verse of “Caprice Des Dieux,” which is one of the more slow and contemplative tracks on the record, as it explodes with musical color.

There are a few outliers on here as well, songs that does not appear to be connected to Christmas at all. The best example of would be “This is Now America,” a harsh portrait of America from an observer’s perspective – school shootings, border walls, drones and bad loans. “This is now America / oh how little have we learned / This is now America, is there no way to return?” So… not a Christmas song, and damn, quite disheartening to hear how we appear to others.

There are two covers on the record, AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” and The Kinks’ “Father Christmas.” The AC/DC cover appears to be part of the aforementioned outlier collection of songs, songs that aren’t normally connected to Christmas, but Magne is determined to bring them into conversation with the emotions of the season. The treatment itself is pretty damn interesting. Slowed down with synths providing a haunting melody, this is AC/DC much more along the lines of Mark Kozelek’s versions, should Mark have also utilized autotune. The Kinks’ cover is going to be released to the streaming community on a later date… so you’ll have to check back on that one.

This record is a damn interesting listen, one that I’d encourage anyone to experience, and hopefully with multiple listens. I for one, most certainly found new moments that I appreciated the second and third time around. Of note, Magne is also a very accomplished visual artist, and there is a vinyl edition of 200 that he hand-painted. They look to be truly beautiful, and if I had an extra €150… I might grab one. (Wait… they are all gone now!)

Bottom Line: One of the most surprising and satisfying Christmas albums I have heard in a long time.

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Francis Lung “To Make Angels In Snow” (2019)

Memphis Industries
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP)

Francis Lung is an alternative pop artist from Manchester, England, whose debut album, A Dream is U (still available on limited pink vinyl, amongst other formats), came out earlier this year on the always-excellent label Memphis Industries. Francis snuck a fantastic 3-song Christmas release by me last year (which I HAD planned to post a review of soon) titled A Francis Lung Xmas EP, but he was not so lucky this year! I’ve got you, Francis Lung! “To Make Angels in Snow” is a beautiful, perfectly timed (3:02- I love a short Christmas song), an alternative pop song that harkens back to the best of indie-Christmas legends Pas/Cal. The instrumentation is glorious – clarinet, tenor sax, flute, bass clarinet and a baritone sax line that brings up all my RIYL-Ezra Furman feelings of love. A breath of fresh air indeed.

Bottom Line: This song does not leave any room for boredom – the vocal harmonies and instrumentation paint every corner of the canvas. Francis Lung has outdone himself this year. Can’t wait for next year’s (hint, hint, Francis Lung).

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Meskerem Mees “Charlemagne” (2019)

Self Released
Buy: Soundcloud (FREE!)

Continuing from earlier in the month… when we all enjoyed an extremely short song about the end of Halloween… I bring you a beautiful and somewhat disturbing song that takes place around Christmas. Meskerem Meesi is a singer/songwriter from Gent, Belgium, with a beautiful, beautiful folk voice. I say folk voice, because she does not sing songs that stretch her capabilities, as you might find in pop music, but it does contain that one quality that is most necessary: personality. Meskerem’s voice has a warmth that soothes, even when she’s singing about eyes and dead flies. “Charlemagne” is a fun little folk tale about (IMO) an ex who is going to extreme lengths to get attention. Why did I add that IMO? Because I asked Meskerem, and she says that the song just wrote itself and was very open to my interpretation. So, don’t assume my opinion is the “right” one – take your own stab at finding meaning in this song. Thus is the subjective beauty of art.

(Post has been edited to reflect the name that Meskerem Mees now performs under. I’d imagine “Messi” was hard to get search results on!)

Bottom Line: Meskerem’s voice draws me in on this one. The song’s imagery is quite odd for something that might end up on a Christmas mix, but isn’t that kind of awesome? Can’t you just picture your friends pausing for a second, wondering if what they heard was correct, then just losing themselves in the chorus anyway? Yeah… I sure can.

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Johnathan Rice and Courtney Marie Andrews “We Won’t Be Lonely This Christmas” (2018)

Johnathan Rice and Courtney Marie Andrews - We Won't Be Lonely This Christmas

Mano Walker Recordings
Buy: Apple Music | Google Play | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

There is no perfect release schedule when it comes to Christmas music. SO MUCH comes out in such a SMALL AMOUNT OF TIME, that no artist can be sure that their song will have the time to break through the flurry of competing songs. Last year’s fantastic track by Johnathan Rice and Courtney Marie Andrews is a prime example of this problem. Here we have two notable artists collaborating on a fantastic song, and I didn’t hear a peep about it until stumbling upon it a few months ago. The song tells the story of immigrants trying to make a better life, but instead, get caught up in Trump’s child jails. You know, the kind of track to put next to “Santa Baby” on your mix.

Johnathan gave some context to the writing of this song on his Facebook page last December. You would think that after a year passed, things would be looking better… but alas, this story could have been written yesterday:

This song is a story I wrote with Jason Boesel and Courtney Marie Andrews. It’s about a child and his mother trying to make it to the other side of the border. Reasons beyond their control intervene, and they don’t make it. This song is my way of calling attention to the current humanitarian crisis taking place at our border with Mexico. Like many of you, I was devastated by the images in the press of mothers being gassed, of little children in cages sleeping on foil blankets. Believe me – as bad as those images are – the worst is yet to come if we do not act immediately.

A few months ago I traveled down to the U.S.-Mexico border with a group of like-minded people to learn more about the situation, and hear about how to help. I started writing this song on the bus ride home. It was recorded in LA a few weeks ago.

Johnathan finished his post with a pitch to donate to Al Otro Lado, whose border rights program “hosts know-your-rights training and legal orientation workshops in migrant shelters in Tijuana, Mexico, and provides direct legal representation to detained asylum seekers in Southern California.” So, if you are so inclined, you can donate here.

Bottom Line: The story is moving and Johnathan and Courtney’s voices blend beautifully. Should you want to add a little bit of humanity to a normally sugary-sweet holiday mix, look no further than this song.

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