I began this whole underground Christmas music search sixteen years ago. While many of my online Christmas-music hunting friends have been in the game even longer, it is still a pretty solid amount of time. My 2005 Christmas mix can now drive with a permit, is looking at colleges and thinks the music I listen to is pretty lame. Now that I’ve established myself as at least kinda old, sort of experienced and somewhat knowledgable, I’ll say that I can recall when that very first Ho! Ho! Ho! Canada came out (the download is unfortunately 404’d these days). It was glorious – I was heavily into the Arts & Crafts and Paper Bag labels, and believed that all the best indie rock must be fueled by the arts funding of Canada. Three songs off that initial release would end up on a mix… which for one single Christmas compilation, is pretty much incredible. Now Ho! Ho! Ho! Canada is nearly a teenager, with their twelth volume having dropped this week. This year’s offering does not disappoint, with so many excellent songs that I am hesitant to single out any, for to do so is to rank one over another… and I just haven’t lived with it enough to be completely sure that these are my favorites. However, into the fray I go with my highlights off, as we look at this latest edition, Ho! Ho! Ho! Canada Volume XII!
The Acorn was on Ho! Ho! Ho! Canada’s debut volume with their beautiful track “Snowfall”, which also ended up on my 2010 Christmas mix, Write About Xmas! Thus, I was quite excited to see them on here again. Their latest seasonal song, “Skipping Stones,” features Jazmine Wykes on vocal harmony as well as a murderer’s row of players – Sylvie Smith (Evening Hymns/ Habitat), Joseph Shabason (Destroyer/Diana), and Jon Hynes (Kathleen Edwards). The song is not explicitly seasonal, as it is more evocative of the moment the song was written – a decade ago, writing about a loss on the precipice of the holidays. So, it would most certainly be a stretch for a mix, but it is a beautiful, melancholy song that I couldn’t ignore.
The absolute best first 15 seconds on this comp belong to one-time The Burning Hell and Evening Hymns member Michael C. Duguay‘s “Yankee Swap.” That bass saxophone vibrates everything inside you in the best possible way. The song runs off from there and slowly works into this complicated, emotional story, whose tension is broken by that big, beautiful chorus. Loved this song so much, and is most certainly one to go read the liner notes of; Reading the liner notes gives even more context and the song feels so much more powerful when you get the whole story behind the artist who made it.
Kristian Noel Pedersen is an alternative Christmas stalwart, having also released his twelfth-holiday record, A Kristian Kinda Christmas XII (out now!!), this year. That number is actually a little deceptive, as he has also released an entire cover record of Hanson’s Snowed In as well… so he’s working on 13 at least. Kristian often has a song on the HHHC comp, but this year’s, “Everything’s The Same Except It Isn’t,” may be my favorite of the bunch. This is a COVID-Christmas song, but without the overt references, which gives it a shelflife beyond this year (which I greatly appreciate). The shimmering indiepop guitars, the jingle bells and Kristian’s soft, thoughtful voice make this song feel both personal and universal – kinda sneaking under your skin as if you had thought of it yourself.
I am most surprised by how much I enjoyed this ambient track by Droni Mitchell (AKA NNGM). “Teach Your Feet To Fly” was inspired by Joni Mitchell’s classic “River,” but they decided to cover the ideas in the song, rather than the song itself. The skates over the (what sounds to me as) cello lines play beautifully off each other, with a reference to the “Jingle Bells” refrain tying the two songs together. I loved this bit from the liner notes: “In a difficult year when a lot of us have spent more time than ever stuck indoors, the idea of the freedom and gracefulness of being able to skate away on a frozen river under the open skies is definitely one that appeals.”
Those from Canada may be more familiar with this song, as it originally appeared on Inuk singer-songwriter Etulu Aningmiuq’s 2018, Juno and Polaris prize-nominated album, The Ballad of the Runaway Girl. Elisapie covers “Quanniuguma” (Inuktitut for “If I Were A Snowflake”) with the help of Beatrice Deer, as the percussive stings are trance-inducing, driving the song until the usual percussion instruments come in as reinforcement. The song almost explodes at 3:30, and by then, you are completely under its hypnotic spell. The liner notes are equally enlightening with this track (Did I tell you how much I appreciated those liner notes??? I am telling you again! They are really, really interesting!): “The lyrics of Quanniuguma speak to the idea of the freedom afforded by being a snowflake- the ability to be directed by nature and travel everywhere, with no worries about the future, certainly ideas that are at the foremost in a lot of minds in 2020.”
Vancouver’s Bookclub has the most on-the-nose sound and subject matter for what Mr. Christmas Underground is going to like. Synthy-indiepop Christmas with a nostalgic bent? That is like giving me a bag of chocolate-covered pretzels… I’m gonna eat that whole damn bag. Love the sound, dug the lyrics, and especially love the brevity. (I LOVE A QUICK CHRISTMAS SONG – leave them WANTING MORE.) Pure indiepop perfection that will be part of the Kingfisher Bluez Charity Christmas Village collection. Pick up the 7″ and help support 1-800-SUICIDE and Crisis Center BC.
Those happen to be my favorites for the moment, but I don’t need to remind you, art is subjective and I am by no means the only judge. So grab this for yourself, dive into those liner notes, and I’m sure you’ll find some other gem in here that I’ve passed over. Why not add it to the comments?? Let me know what you loved! I love comments!!
Bottom Line: Twelve years in and going strong as ever, the beloved Ho! Ho! Ho! Canada Volume XII is once again a wonderful snapshot of Canada’s indie music scene.