Hiss Golden Messenger – O Come All Ye Faithful (2021)

Hiss Golden Messenger - O Come All Ye Faithful

Merge Records
Buy: Merge | Bandcamp | Amazon | Amazon.uk | Amazon.de | Amazon.fr

We all have been there. An artist you really like releases a Christmas record, and you get very excited. Overly excited, as it is not very often that someone you listen to on a regular basis ALSO releases a Christmas record. Immediately after, the dread sets in – it is quite an emotional rollercoaster, these record announcements. The expectation rarely matches the result, but you just cannot kick those glorious, glorious expectations. However, I’m not going to make you read any longer, worrying about whether my heart was broken or not, as it most certainly has grown two sizes larger after listening to this record. Hiss Golden Messenger (M.C. Taylor) has dipped his toes into seasonal sounds in the past, but O Come All Ye Faith is his first dedicated holiday release. The tracklist is certainly interesting enough to make me excited – three originals, three traditional songs, and three unexpected covers. M.C. recorded the album last fall and talks a bit about his motivation in the press release: “Big, brash holiday music—the type that we hear in big-box stores in the middle of December—has never resonated with me, and this past year it felt absolutely dissonant. I wanted to make a seasonal record that felt more in step with the way that I, and so many others, experience this time of year: quiet, contemplative, searching and bittersweet. The intention was to make a seasonal record with vibe.”

Preach.

I am now awaiting my “Peak vinyl” version, which contains a 6-track dub reinterpretation of HGM titled The Sounding Joy: Hiss Golden Messenger Meets Revelators on South Robinson Street. However, I have jumped in and checked it out on Spotify, and you can probably already imagine my takeaways. First, you know I’m digging the originals. The lead track “Hung Fire” is lyrically haunting and beautiful, with life-affirming saxophones sprinkled throughout. “Grace” kicks in and you’ll be excused if you begin clapping your hands to the rhythm, as this is a spiritual, with a choir and everything. “By the Lights of St. Stephen” is a wonderful country trot, a story-song with a catchy chorus. All three are truly worthy of inclusion in any holiday mix, and the glutton inside me wants more, more, more. However, M.C. leaves us only with that snack. The rest of the meal might not have the spice of a brand-new holiday song, but don’t worry, his flavoring is truly inspired.

The first cover on the record is Spiritualized’s “Shine a Light,” is beautifully arranged and a welcome new track to be claimed by the holiday music canon. Woody Guthrie’s “Hanukkah Dance” is full of foot-stomping, hand-clapping, and fiddle solos – perfectly executed and joyous. If you haven’t already noticed the theme of light being at the fore of this record yet, then the cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “As Long As I Can See the Light” will… “shine a light” (callback!) on that for you. The waves of warmth exuding from this song would be one of those goosebump-inducing moments, should we ever be able to experience it live.

Here at Christmas Underground, I admit I shy away from traditional covers. We’ve all heard them, and rarely are they dressed up in interesting clothes. M.C., however, does not disappoint. Oddly, it is the title track, “O Come All Ye Faithful,” that stays closest to the melody and phrasing we might expect, while “Joy to the World” and most especially (and astoundingly) “Silent Night” sound incredibly new and fresh. M.C. makes these small choices, highlighting one word or another or ending phrases in unexpected places so frequently, that you leave feeling invigorated. Despite the gentle, beautiful production, your brain is buzzing and delights in the unexpected. Truly lovely stuff.

I feel like M.C. is one of us.

Bottom Line: Put this on and let it play. This record is one of the best, most listenable Christmas records I’ve heard in a good while.

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Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard “Christmas Is Coming (We All Know the Score)” (2018/2020)

Communion Records
Buy:
7Digital (FLAC/MP3) | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

You know that a band must love Christmas if one of their earliest songs is an epic xmas tune. Welsh indie/glam/britpop band Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard released this stomper back in 2018, but brought it around last year with an accompanying video and back onto my radar. The lyrics are fascinating, and well worth a watch of the video so you can sing along. You’re bound to find a line that makes you smile and shake your head, as I did with “I can still hear the west dropping bombs of peace / Oh for you and me.” This really is a corker. They also have their proper debut, Backhand Deals, coming out in February, so maybe we’ll get lucky with another tune this season?

Bottom Line: Big glam sound with intriguing lyrics make this a must-listen.

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Geese “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” (2020)

Self Released
Buy: Stream!

Everyone needs a layup here and there, and this faithful cover of Sufjan Stevens’ modern classic “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” affords me that luxury. Yes, the Irish folk band Geese’s approach is much more of a parallel line rather than a perpendicular explosion, but there are some subtleties that I very much enjoyed. Their keyboard atmospherics give the song an etherial feel, while the original trades in the warmth of an occasional piano. Their notes also tend to linger longer than the original, a shimmer to Sufjan’s soft crackle. These changes in approach haven’t changed the heart of the song – it still very feels like the song we all love, just a bit grander in scope.

Bottom Line: Another excellent cover of a great song. I swear I’m not getting lazy – just catching up on some deserving songs! Also, who the heck are Geese? I can ONLY find them on Soundcloud so far…

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Gold Baby “Looks Like A Cold, Cold Winter” (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

Yes, I do have more Australian Christmas/Holiday/New Years songs ready… but I think we can all agree that was getting ridiculous. So lets take a quick break and head back to the OG colonizer, England! Last year, London’s Gold Baby put out an extremely nice Bing Crosby cover, which of course was not technically written by Bing – but lets not get too far into the weeds here. The harmony and instrumentation feel just as cozy and warm as the lyrics, which on this first day of sub-40 degree weather in Virginia, has been most appreciated. I also like that this isn’t one of the Bing classics that get extremely overplayed, though perhaps that’s my experience, not yours. Either way – and extremely nice cover by a truly lovely band.

ALSO, the proceeds benefit the Campaign to End Loneliness, which makes this song choice even more appropriate. Well done.

Bottom Line: Pick a good song and do it well – Is that so hard? Gold Baby sure doesn’t think so!

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Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders “Xmas in Rehab” (2021)

Endless Recordings
Buy:
Bandcamp | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

I’m three for three writing about Australians so far this month. I feel like I need to maintain this streak… luckily I woke up this morning wanting to take Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Lloyd Cole and Leonard Cohen and shake them up in a jar, but Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders beat me to it. Sydney, Australia’s Jack Ladder (Tim Rogers IRL) has teamed up with his band the Dreamlanders, which contain a name or two you might also recognize (Kirin J Callinan, Donny Benét, and Laurence Pike) for his sixth record, Hijack!, which contains a deeply personal, dark, funny Christmas track – the self-explanatory “Xmas in Rehab.” Having checked himself into rehab back in January of 2020, the song contains small vignettes of his experience there, with touching, funny, sad, hopeful scenes all colored by these mundane, yet honest and emotionally powerful details, that draw you in. The door is open to us all to become better, healthier, happier people – Jack/Tim just opened up his door for us to all to see, and it was truly beautiful.

Bottom Line: Jack Ladder’s baritone guides us through one of the most beautiful, honest Christmas songs of the year.

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Gretta Ray “It’s Almost Christmas in Philly” (2021)

EMI Australia
Buy:
7Digital MP3 | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

There are some years when a single country looms large over my blog… and this may be the year of Australia. Here we have yet another excellent Melbourne-based artist (though this is certainly more on the pop side) with a debut album and an excellent Christmas single. While Maple Glider’s was a complicated emotional story of love and pain, Gretta Ray in both lyric and tone is a 180-degree flip of healing and optimism. The anticipation of Christmas in Philadelphia while helping a friend get over a broken heart, you feel that incredible warmth inside the tour van despite its mechanical issues. Perhaps a bit more radio-pop that I normally skew on this site (I do love an extremely poppy indiepop of course), but something about it hooked and stuck. Sad songs often make me feel better… but sometimes you just want a hug.

Bottom Line: Gretta Ray brings a warmth that I am happy to bask in.

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Maple Glider “Mama It’s Christmas” (2021)

Partisan Records
Buy: Bandcamp | 7Digital MP3/FLAC | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

Let’s kick up the season… with something beautiful and sad! What else can you expect from this blog?? Melbourne’s Maple Glider, aka Tori Zietsch, has penned this absolutely heartbreaking, fragile finger-picked beauty to close her debut album, To Enjoy is the Only Thing. Zietsch’s background is incredibly interesting, being brought up in a religious sect that she only refers to as “The Religion” (referred to in this song), which kept her from much interaction with the outside world until she and her mother left at 15. She formed a band, fell in love, broke up and moved to Brighton, England after Googling “places to live.” There she began writing what became Only Thing. Zietsch’s creative reemergence came shortly after moving back to Melbourne in 2019, when she played a few songs for friends, including the new song “Mama It’s Christmas.” This deeply personal song sung to her brother has emotional tentacles that may very well leave you tearing up with empathy. In these tumultuous times, many find themselves either struggling themselves, or caring for those for which the pain persists… mental, physical, spiritual pain. It is in the air, and Maple Glider has captured this perfectly.

You called me that night
Said babe don’t you worry now
All I could manage was I love you

But I should have reached through the phone
Slapped you hard on the cheek
So that you could know pain like I do when you leave

Edit: In perhaps one of the craziest coincidences I’ve had recently, this afternoon I found a note from July from a reader (Hi Christian!) recommending this exact song to me. So, Christian, thanks for the tip – it was most obviously a good one. Also – I promise to be better checking my various forms of communications now that I’m making an earnest attempt to get back on the site for the season. BUT, hot tip… Twitter is your best bet. This is NOT the first time that I’ve missed a message on Facebook recommending something that I then write about…

Bottom Line: Fragile beauty from down under.

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YACHT “Christmas Alone” (2015/2020)

Yacht - Christmas Alone

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

I swear. I will stop talking about how I always burn out at the end of the season, and will no longer begin every post with an apology for not posting it sooner. But.. especially when songs are topical, and (HOPEFULLY) very specifically attached to one particular year, it does feel like a missed opportunity (so… sorry). Los Angeles’ YACHT have been on my radar for years, and I do recall their fun, oddball electro-pop track “Christmas Alone” from that inaugural Indie for the Holidays playlist that Amazon released back in 2015. That first version was mainly about how much they love spending time home alone on Christmas – having fun grabbing takeout and going to the movies and such. Well, this past Christmas had its own unique circumstances, and they rewrote the song for our 2020 COVID Christmas. The fun imagery is gone, replaced by these truly beautiful lines, disguised inside this bouncy, Waitresses’ evoking track.

Mom and Dad are vexed we’re spending Christmas far away,
But love is not a test, love is opening to change

We don’t need a Christmas tree and we don’t need a chimney
We just need each other and to stay home watching TV

Remember the days before money ate the mission
Maybe now’s the time to make some new traditions

This year we’re just happy we can celebrate our luck
We made this far and that should be enough

Everybody has to stay at home
This Christmas it’s you and me alone

All we need is love to make a home
So this Christmas it’s you and me alone

Hope is a relation tween the future & the past
Time is so short but dreaming helps it last

Give a little this year to the ones who need it best
lost a lotta living but we’re grateful for what’s left

Gear up for another year you think is gonna break ya
Keep holding up the ones you love and keep each other safer

Doesn’t even matter if it’s Christmas Day today
When we have each other, every day’s a holiday

Everybody has to stay at home
So next Christmas we won’t be on our own

All we need is love to make a home
So this Christmas it’s you and me alone

I’ve been looking for those bits of hope, those bits of love. Those are the songs I gravitated to last year. So… even though I’m a bit late to the post, and even though this song may not have as much potency beyond last Christmas (PLLLLEEEAAASSEEE be so), it is still a worthy song.

Bottom Line: YACHT converted this fun, poppy song into a poignant, yet still fun, poppy song. All money goes to the Los Angeles Food Bank, so don’t be scared off that $5 price tag.

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The Pats Pats “Christmas” (2020)

Self Released?
Buy:
Bandcamp

When I crash, I crash hard. Christmas 2020 was like a brick wall. After an exhausting 2020, the deluge of songs and records that hit in those last 2-3 days before Christmas was overwhelming. I have so many tabs open that they haunt my dreams. I didn’t know when I was going to feel motivated enough to dip my toes back in, but I’ve been driving my wife’s car the past few days (which has a CD player) and popped in my latest Christmas mix… I really love those songs. So now I need to find good Christmas and Christmas-adjacent tunes once more…

I don’t speak Japanese, but I do speak fun (…sometimes). The Pats Pats are a “girl band from Tokyo” (I don’t believe you need to qualify what the sex of a band is, but they specifically do), and their particular brand of upbeat DIY-pop is an absolute pleasure. I have so little more to say about this perfect little pop nugget, which may be why this song is exactly what I needed to get back to this gig. Zero pressure, all fun.

Bottom Line: Japanese-DIY-pop perfection for anxiety-riddled, demanding jerks like me.

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The Ornaments “A Coca-Cola Classic Christmas” (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

This Christmas band began as a reason for its two members, Mike Behrends and Lance Owens, to spend some time together. Their hang sessions have resulted in some of the most dark, poignant and interesting Christmas music I’ve ever encountered. Mike tipped me off that The Ornaments were indeed on track to release a song in 2020, which had me spinning with possibilities. In a normal year they’ve written about plane crashes… so what will an extremely fucked up waste of a year bring? Like all of the Ornaments songs, “A Coca​-​Cola Classic Christmas” paints a simple, yet vivid portrait from the fringes of the holiday. The song is a holiday card, written to someone the narrator would like to see, but hasn’t in a good number of years. Personally, this feels like an estranged parent, with lines like, “filled it with ornaments from your childhood Happy Meals,” hinting at the more-than-Facebook relationship they once had. That final entreaty is so simple and heartbreaking, “If this sounds nice, I’ll be in room 104 just left of the coke machine.” This short vignette of a holiday apart conveys so much awkward love in so few words, that I find it tough to decide whether the song is terribly sad, or oddly sweet. The Ornaments always leave me with questions… so I keep coming back.

The Ornaments have big plans for 2021, as we all do, and have plans for a 2-song 7-inch, so be sure to follow them on Bandcamp if you want a shot at that . I believe that first 7-inch only had about 8 copies or so pressed…

Bottom Line: The Ornaments are a rare treat, though perhaps an acquired taste. However, once you got it… you’re in it for the long haul.

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