Have Yourself a Merry Indie Christmas Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 (2022)

A Benefit for Crisis
Buy:
Bandcamp

I often think about what it would be like to be just now getting into this hobby of underground Christmas music mix-making. When I got in the game (18 years ago!), there wasn’t quite the wealth of indie rock/pop/alt.country/etc Christmas releases to hunt down. Bandcamp, the venue which I primarily exploit to find cool new songs, wasn’t founded until 2007, and it wasn’t until 2010 that I could have even embedded a track on a site like Christmas Underground. It is both exhilarating and terrifying to think about dipping my toes in for the first time in 2022… there is just so much to listen to – years and years of great songs to get through, let alone all the new releases that come out every year. Well, lucky for my imaginary self, as well as that very real person taking their first stab at making a cool Christmas mix, fellow weirdo Christmas music fan Kevin McGrath has created the perfect introduction to this niche of holiday music with the massive, expansive collection of 108 songs, Have Yourself a Merry Indie Christmas Vol. 1 & Vol. 2. This is like one of those The Greatest ________ Album in the World collections I used to bump into in the import sections of the 2000s – packing an absolute ton of the tracks you need to hear to fully get what has been going on. The sheer effort that it took to clear 108 songs is astounding, let alone the challenges of contacting bands that are no longer together, and there are some wonderful ones represented here, to which I’m delighted their musical legacy will persist. Readers of this site will find some familiar faces and names, such as Sweet Tempest, St. Lenox, Charlie’s Hand Movements, The Ornaments, Les Bicyclettes de Belsize, and many, many more.

Just know you are bound to discover a new classic or two that you’ve never bumped into before. Christmas Underground is a one-person shop, and I can’t and won’t be able to know every single cool indie Christmas song out there… as I’m currently sitting here listening to Volume 1, bobbing my head to a song I’ve never heard – and I love it. All this great music also benefits a great cause, Crisis, a UK charity that helps the homeless. So, while the suggested price for each massive collection is a mere £7/$8.50, just know that you don’t necessarily have to give only $8.50. Maybe make yourself a sandwich each day this week for lunch and give a bit more? This is the season of giving, and in a world where billionaires aren’t going to save us, we need to look out for each other.

Bottom Line: These two releases could fashion 3-4 years of indie Christmas mixes for your friends and family. It is an absolutely essential purchase for new and old collectors alike.

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Herr Wade – Weihnachten​.​.​. Willkommen zur​ü​ck! (2022)

Platiruma!!!
Buy:
Bandcamp (CD/Digital) | Apple Music | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

Jørn Åleskjær (The Loch Ness Mouse, Monobird, Sapphire & Steel) and Sebastian Voss (Nah…, The Fisherman and his Soul, Cinema Engines) have teamed up for some cross-cultural, Google-translatable Christmas tunes. I speak ein bisschen Deutsch, and no Norweigain, but I do speak indiepop and this is some lovely stuff. I’ve featured The Fisherman and his Soul multiple times here on Christmas Underground, so I knew there would be something here I was likely to really connect with. Perhaps it is my faint familiarity with the language that draws me to the German-language tracks, but I have to take special note of “Und sie tanzen I’m Himmel,” which translates to “And they dance in the sky.” I’m going to continue to utilize Google translate, so please give me some grace should Google screw it up a bit – but I loved these sweet lyrics.

can you remember?
It’s been a few years…
We looked up at the sky and
Then you said to me:

“I know a secret
And I’m happy to let you in on it.”
And I nodded, agreed, and suddenly it started snowing.

“Exactly! Here, that’s the point.” You said in a low voice.
“Every single flake is a little dancer.
And up there in the sky they dance day in and day out. And when they feel like it, it starts to snow.”

And they dance in the sky

The track also had that mid-tempo, jangly indiepop groove that I need at least every 3-6 months to survive, so that certainly plays into my love of this track as well. There are wonderful moments in the other songs as well, little choices like the beautiful banjo in “Domino,” and the sweetness of the leadoff track, “You’ve Come A Very Long Way (For Being Such A Close Friend),” are undeniable.

Bottom Line: There is a lot to love in a tiny little EP.

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Bjéar – A Christmas with Bj​é​ar and Friends Vol​.​1 & Vol. 2 (2022)

Terrazzo Recordings
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Bandcamp

I am easily scared. Of what, you might ask? You appear to be a complete badass who eats nails for breakfast. Well… how wrong you are. I often look at full Christmas records and head for the hills. Write about more than one song?! The horror! Well… Adelaide, Australia’s Bjéar has not only challenged me to face my fears… but he is just rubbing it in by releasing two full records at the same time, A Christmas with Bjéar and Friends Vol. 1 & Vol. 2. I am accepting this challenge, as Bjéar has made it extremely easy for me… because these are great. Turns out that this massive outpouring of seasonal work has not been in the works for very long either. Bjéar had been thinking about putting out a Christmas record, but only truly began work on it in earnest this August, anticipating maybe one album or maybe just an EP. However, they just kept churning out arrangements and new songs until two records and 80 minutes later… the Bjéar Christmas opus. Grab some eggnog and let me pull out a few tracks for you to taste.

A mix of standards and originals, both records blend seamlessly from song to song making it an extremely easy listen. The standards are performed beautifully, with arrangements that will sound both familiar and refreshing. I particularly loved when Joy to the World busts open with a new melody provided by the brass section.

Some of the covers are barely what one might consider a cover. While some songs may contain all of the lyrics you are expecting, you may be surprised when a song just teases the source material. Such is the atmospheric world that surrounds Bjéar’s treatment of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which makes me think of what a Sigur Ros Christmas record might sound like – a beautiful mess that resolves into a few recognizable lines, that little slice of familiarity within the new, magical soundscape in front of you, and only one line from the song.

While I loved the classics, it is the originals where these records really take off. There are some excellent original instrumentals, of course, as I have previously been taken by Bjéar’s arrangement abilities in the past. However, I’d like to highlight “The Lights Came Down,” the first non-instrumental original on Vol. 1. There is an obvious beauty that lead singer Brea McKee and collaborator Ella Ion create when their voices intertwine; they are two voices meant to sing together. The song’s lyrics are far more explicitly religious than most songs I feature on this secular Christmas blog, but even this grinch can feel the spirit coming out of this song.

I don’t think I need to state the obvious comparison to Sufjan Stevens, but I must if only to say that the internet would be freaking out about this song had it been Sufjan’s. Frankly, both these records are front-to-back more listenable than any of Sufjan’s Christmas EPs, and I feel quite comfortable making that claim.

The curiously-titled “Christmas Eve, 1818,” is a beautiful reworking of “Silent Night,” which is also featured under its usual title on Vol. 2. The arrangement appears to be inspired by a 2017 version of “Silent Night” that Ella recorded, with more orchestration. The song begins as a showcase for Ella Ion’s voice, bare and beautiful, only to have it heighten and highlight the incredible emotional quality of her tone. It is downright astounding.

I just mentioned that Vol. 2 does indeed have a version of “Silent Night,” and the strings (likely provided by Frank Henry) and the brass section create the most exhilarating outro this song has ever had. There are many folks who contributed to these records, Frank Henry and Dan White amongst many additional instrumentalists, and we’re likely hearing a lot of them here.

I would be remissed if I were not to mention one more song, which would be yet another original featuring the vocals of both Brea and Ella, “Sleep Sound.” The warmth of the guitar lines and Ella’s voice are a beautiful lullaby, made even sweeter when Brea joins in harmony halfway through. The beauty of this song is in their incredible ability to capture emotion on tape. Some records sound sterile, this record wraps you up in a sonic hug.

Bottom Line: The spirit of Christmas compels you to listen, as it has compelled Bjéar to create these wonderful records. I’m warning you, these records might just become part of your holiday for years to come… so you might want to buy them now.

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The Martial Arts – Christmas With The Martial Arts (2020/2022)

wiaiwya
Buy:
Bandcamp (digital/lathe-cut vinyl)

Look at me… now I am REALLY just copying Christmas A Go Go as I essentially update and repost an older post with exciting new information (rather than have to write a whole new post… which is WORK!) The wonderful Where It’s At is Where You Are (wiaiwya) label has just dropped 50 lathe-cut, 10″ copies of The Martial Arts’ excellent Christmas EP, Christmas with the Martial Arts. And hey – it’s Bandcamp Friday, so Bandcamp isn’t even taking their cut! Go buy it now! And now, my original review:

I’m in a mood tonight. I want to just yell and swear (in a good way) about every record I find. You have no idea what I’ve already written and deleted for this review, but let your mind go crazy. Glasgow’s The Martial Arts is a project of Paul Kelly, whose CV is a murderers row of great bands (BMX Bandits / Carla J Easton / The Primary 5 / Ette / Radiophonic / Tuckshop / How to Swim / The Hector Collectors) has put together this just FUCKING FUN AND WONDERFUL Christmas EP, recorded over eight years and finished over lockdown. The first two bouncing, beautiful tracks, “Stockings” and “Snow Flakes,” just take off like a rocket and shoot sparklers out of their ass for four minutes a piece. I devoured every second, with a giant grin on my face. “My Christmas was in June” is a cover of a Ze Malibu (feat. members of Redd Kross and that dog) song, and while the tempo slows to a stroll, the scenery is gorgeous. The final track and the only one actually fully-recorded in 2020, “Blinded by the Night” takes me back to the 80’s, to an emotional moment in a movie with lots of driving in the rain and staring out the window. “Stare into my bright disco eyes,” god I love that line. Go buy this record, but wait a few hours for #Bandcampfriday, why don’t ya?

Bottom Line: This is an indie/power/retro pop mixture that, like the unholy concoction the Long Island iced tea, will fuck you up real good.

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Baby Club – Naivety Scene (2021)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

This time of year is when EVERYTHING is released. My Bandcamp wishlist swells with a seemingly infinite collection of things I need to go back and listen to. I start searching regional and genre tags for those gems that aren’t tagged properly… it is a whole lot of work. Perhaps my entries here suffer a bit, as I might not have the sheer volume of posts I could, nor do I give proper time to the records that I do write about. So… let me take a little bit of time (obviously not enough!) and tell you about this wonderful little EP by New York City’s Baby Club.

Baby Club is the bedroom recording project of Josephine Painter, at least that is what I have gleaned from her now-defunct website and Instagram accounts. That, or Josephine is also a painter, and those were just clever URL choices. Right off, the title Naivety Scene is extremely clever, and was enough to get me in the door. The production is quite simple, a slow affair of keyboards and vocals. The droning tones and Josephine’s beautiful voice can’t help me from imagining that I’m listening to a stripped-back Beach House Christmas EP. Everyone, please take that as the massive compliment that I intend it to be. The vibe of this record isn’t going to knock you on your ass (which ,of course, is a vibe I also enjoy), but I suspect there are going to be some folks out there (like me) where Naivety Scene gets under your skin…. and I predict it will be during the chorus of “So It Goes.” For folks looking for something more familiar, Baby Club’s version of “Silver and Gold” will scratch that itch while giving you a simple, beautiful organ and vocals version that could just sneak onto a late-night playlist. I see playing cards in front of a fire, drinking hard eggnog while it plays in the background. Maybe invite me over? I’ll be there in six hours!

Bottom Line: Beauty in simplicity.

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Randolph’s Leap – Christmas Album (2021 Additions)

Self Released
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Bandcamp

The absolutely WONDERFUL Scottish band Randolph’s Leap has become almost a yearly feature on Christmas Underground, as they have been putting out some of the most wonderful, cleverly-written political Christmas songs that I have ever heard. Sometimes they release songs with a good bit of fanfare, like the amazing “Christmas, Burn it All,” and other times they sneak one in at the last second when I’m not paying attention like the hilarious “Christmas is a Conspiracy.” This year is a bit of both… they’ve quietly added three tracks to their stellar, ever-growing Christmas Album, but did so with plenty of time a few weeks back. Now why it has taken me this long to really sit down with these songs and listen is an indictment of both my intuition and taste level. Why? Because I should have KNOWN these would be great. It is as if I was taking Randolph’s Leap and their incredible ability to churn out amazing Christmas songs for granted, and for this oversight, I apologize. The main track that I initially focused on was the deceptively-titled “New Pair of Socks.” Who would have thought such an innocuous title would house such a timely anti-Tory Christmas song? Let’s dive into this first verse:

I am a simple uncomplicated man.
I take what I get, I give what I can.
Forgive me for saying,
but you’ve got a nerve.

Now there are expenses,
and I’ve got a few.
You’ve got your own,
but I pay them too.
Won’t you give something back
to those who you claim to serve?

Cause all I want for Christmas
is a tree and some decorations,
a nice new pair of socks,
and some cabinet resignations.

So much of my Twitter feed is UK bands and fans who keep me pretty well informed as to the recent corruption scandals in the Tory government, as well as all those incredible photos of officials flouting the COVID guidelines. I find myself oddly invested in the political fate of a country that I do not live in. But we both have a right-wing that is primarily invested in their self-interest, so it is not hard to imagine the song working on both sides of the pond… ah hell, I’m babbling. The song is beautiful, clever and vicious, and only gets more pointed after that first verse. So, if you are like me and like a little anti-asshole politics in your Christmas music, you’ll dig it.

There are some songs that I rarely ever press play for. You know… those ol’ chesnuts that I (unjustly) associate with little-kid Christmas music, rather than the “adult” stuff I’m usually trying to sniff out. I would put “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” solidly in that category… but I may need to reassess this bias after hearing the other two tracks Randolph’s Leap has added to this record. “Jingle Bells (2021 Version)” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” are both extremely listenable, at times bordering on astounding versions that have shaken me. “Rudolph” is a revelation, with a beautiful arrangement that elevates this song to the absolute top of the Rudolph pile. However, what makes this (I can’t believe I’m typing this) song mix-worthy is their phrasing; All the notes that you are anticipating from a song you’ve known your entire life are slightly askew, and it is like a drug for your brain.

“Jingle Bells (2021 Version)” isn’t far behind the “Rudolph” triumph, though it hits slightly closer to expectations, so I’m not going to go quite as far in my praise. The arrangement and production, as well as that guitar madness at the end, certainly push the song into the “Jingle Bells” stratosphere. I am completely astounded and delighted and hope you will be too.

What a band. I’m in awe.

Bottom Line: Randolph’s Leap is on an incredible, Christmas song hot streak. If you haven’t bought this record yet, you need to turn in your alternative Christmas music membership card.

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Ho! Ho! Ho! Canada XIII (2021)

The Line of Best Fit
Buy:
Bandcamp (NYOP)

The Line of Best Fit is the home of one of the most reliable, most wonderful Christmas compilations in existance, Ho! Ho! Ho! Canada, which continues this tradition with its thirteenth wonderful collection of Canadian soundscapes, indiepop, folk, indie rock and the like – you know, genres and artists who aren’t churning out records with themselves laughing in sweaters on the cover and a whole bunch of boring covers on the record. This is music for the rest of us (which is what this site is ALL about), and I’m going to do my best to highlight just a few of my favorites from this year. However, as with ANY compilation, please listen to the whole thing – as what I single out may very well not be what you would have! I also get intimidated by reviewing large comps, and cap myself at 4-5 feature songs, no matter the quality of the whole thing… I am one person, with a kid, dinner to make, and a secret, international cock-fighting ring to run. So here we go!

June Thrasher‘s expansive “Sleep Through the Night” opens the record, immediately bending the rules of what a Christmas/holiday compilation should be. The song rings out with these tones and drones that remind me of blowing wind, waving plants in the wind. It certainly feels chilly, and while it doesn’t have jingle bells (ha!), I’ll allow it – because it is quite beautiful.

JF & Lail (JF Robitaille and Lail Arad) provide the lovely “First Christmas,” an incredibly sweet folk song made by a couple splitting time between Montreal and London, while traveling with their newborn during a pandemic. It is funny, touching, and extremely personal, yet completely relatable to anybody who has ever tried to attempt anything challenging with a young child. Planes, museums, quiet dinners, nothing is the same, but you’re in it… and you’re hoping… hoping…

The This‘ “Winter Tires” is short and upbeat, which checks two big boxes for me as I’m putting together a mix. Throw in that the song has a semi-polished, Mountain Goats feel, and I’m pretty much telling you to take my money. Lucky for me, I can do that, as this song also features on the Kingfisher Bluez Christmas Single 2021. SO, grab this and 3 other tracks on beautiful vinyl!

“Xmas Oranges” is the heaviest track on here, as well as a standout from Marlaena Moore‘s excellent 2020 release, Pay Attention, Be Amazed. Marlaena mines some deep emotional content, bathed in somewhat ominous (yet beautiful) cello and horns. While I was most attracted to the incredible instrumentation, Marlaena’s voice is undeniable, as she sings some really amazing lines: “Christmas oranges. / I don’t care for sticky citrus. / You can’t even tell the difference / between love and fatal interest.” Damn.

Kristian Noel Pedersen is the beating heart of Canadian indie Christmas music. Not only does he feature on many of the wonderful Ho! Ho! Ho! Canada compilations, but he also released Songs About Christmas (AKKCXIII), his thirteenth Christmas release. His songs keep getting better and better, and this track might be my favorite yet. “Deck the Halls” seesaws between these beautiful Real Estate-ish guitar lines, and a fuzzed-out power chord chorus, which are like orange and chocolate to me: two great tastes that I hadn’t realized would taste so great together. Delicious!

Bottom Line: Yet another strong compilation to mine for mix-worthy singles, and there are most certainly some gems here!

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Ingeborg von Agassiz – Coventry Carols (2021)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

I exist to help the modern Christmas mixer populate or finish a Christmas mix. That is largely the goal when I set out looking for something to write about. However, every so often a record crosses my path, that might not be the kind of thing you would chop up or extract a track or two from. Duluth, Minnesota’s Ingeborg von Agassiz has put together one of these records, one that feels like each song needs the song before it as much as the one that follows to feel truly at home. The songs are connected through their sparse instrumentation, a base of electronic tones and beats with a few choice colors to compliment her wonderful voice. But don’t let you think that every song sounds the same; There are so many unique moments – From the heartbeat rhythm of “St. Children’s Choir,” to the suggestion of a music box on gorgeous “We Are Not Tired,” these arrangement choices are just so spot on. In a genre that often rewards the “more is better” ethos, it is downright refreshing to hear something so complete, yet with so much open space. I recommend a full listen, headphones on, perhaps while walking through a city if you are so fortunate.

Bottom Line: A truly original Christmas record that is most certainly worth your time.

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Laurie Shaw – Snow Day EP (2021)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

Kenmare, Ireland’s Laurie Shaw has packaged an absolutely lovely little Christmas EP with two Christmas songs, a Springsteen cover, and another song that might be appropriate for another date-specific mix, “Graduation Day.” We are going to briefly chat about the two proper Christmas songs, which are both stellar. “Snow Day” is a stroll of a song, which will feature on Laurie’s upcoming LP, The Great Southern. It is equal parts beautiful and ragged, similar in feel and style to my beloved Wave Pictures. “Christmas in Kenamre” is a gorgeous portrait of Christmas in a small town. Babysitters, conversations, memories, family, Christmas tv, and frozen lips kissing… the little details are truly wonderful.

Bottom Line: In a year where I embraced more pop sounds than I usually do, Laurie Shaw’s slow, emotional and beautiful songs bring me back home.

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Sharks’ Teeth – The Christmas on Christmas (2019)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

By far, the most ambitious Christmas record I have come across in recent years is The Christmas on Christmas, by New Orleans’ Sharks’ Teeth. This record is massive – 25 original songs written from a perspective that no other band (that I’m familiar with) has come within yards of. To give you some more context, this is how the band introduced the record when it was released in 2019: “We call it our ‘Occult/Polytheistic/at times aggressively astrological Christmas album’ and it’s 25 tracks of brand new, original, slightly subversive yuletide pop… This record is meant to celebrate and create through the array of frameworks of traditions from this world that eventually became our Christmas. Hopefully we’ve done that without promoting monotheism or intrinsically saying that anyone else’s spiritual worldview is wrong or invalid.” Honestly, reading that makes my eyes cross and my attention pique in tandem. Sonically, the record sounds fantastic, with some particularly wonderful guitar lines. I love how the songs often have multiple movements, perhaps best experienced between the prayerful first half, and the upbeat second half of “And You Know it isn’t Christ,” which contains some of my favorite guitar work. The Christmas on Christmas sounds like a War on Drugs-meets-Flaming Lips opera, bubbling with steady-beat indie rock, vaguely 80s guitars, experimental detours, and filtered vocals. It is one of the most fascinating Christmas records I’ve ever heard – I honestly feel like the best advice I can give is to throw them a few bucks (it is name-your-own price) and go for a nice walk.

Bottom Line: Massive in scope, this record is like nothing else you’ll hear this season… or next season… or next… or…

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