Big Society – Big (Christmas) (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

The last few days leading up to Christmas are really nuts. Nearly everybody releases their Christmas song or HUGE Christmas compilation, and my inbox explodes. My family has a bit less tolerance for late nights of searching and writing – because the mix is done! So… you might see my posts slow. All that said, I am saving a TON of links in the hopes that I’ll be able to get to them later. The lucky few… I’ll get to right now.

Manchester’s Big Society has dropped a very nice 4-track EP of really, really solid Christmas tunes. With touches of Cheap Trick and Queen, a dash of banjo and bossa nova, and a healthy heaping of indie rock, every single one of these songs is pretty great. I’m not quite sure which song is my favorite yet, as I am kinda tempted to grab a set of headphones and go for a walk with record. So… maybe I’ll get back to you, but feel free to let me know if one grabs you.

Bottom Line: Well dammit! These Christmas originals are quite worthy of your money (and mine). All proceeds go to The Booth Centre, community centre run with and for people affected by homelessness.

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Joseph Bradshaw – Xmas (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

That name. I I know that name. I had lost track of Joseph Bradshaw for a few years, but I won’t do that again. Joseph Bradshaw’s “Christmas is Always” off his 2015 release with Kyle Cox remains one of my favorite folk-Christmas tunes, and it appears he has not lost a step. Recorded last week at the kitchen table “while the family slept and studied,” these songs exude the warmth of that kitchen. The writing is exquisite on the two originals on the EP, “Santa Claus Can Keep His Bag” (written with Sandra McCracken) and “Mercy for All.” (I can give-or-take a “Silver and Gold” cover, so please pardon me for spending time on the rest of the EP.) Each song tells a story, with lines of beauty and humor that leave you searching for your favorite. However, I found myself uncharacteristically more impressed by Joseph’s voice than anything else on the record, as I’m normally a sucker for lyrics. The moments at the edges of his voice where he maintains a quiet control, convey an emotion and warmth that brought me even deeper in. Joseph doesn’t have a big voice, but it has great character and he knows how to use it beautifully. I’m so on board should he ever consider a full Christmas record. (Sending that into the world!)

Bottom Line: They might only be a few songs, but these songs born at a dinner table, have left me full and happy.

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Rusty Spork – Christmas Down Home (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp (NYOP)

Gainesville’s Rusty Spork has created this DIY folk Christmas EP that, in its simplicity and its subtle phrasing choices has made some very trite songs (Jingle Bells, Silver Bells, and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas) sound fresh and easy. The recordings are intimate, letting you hear the setup and the fuck-up, and it helps to draw you in, to maybe pull up a chair. A cover of the Jason Mraz & Justin Bieber mashup, “Mistletoe (I’m Yours),” is far less cloying than the saccharine sweet originals, rounding out a record that might not knock your socks off, but might certainly cause you to put on your most comfortable pair.

Bottom Line: There aren’t many ornaments on this tree, but it makes the room feel pretty damn cozy.

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Randolph’s Leap “Stay Away This Christmas” (2020)

Olive Grove Records
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Bandcamp

Randolph’s Leap had one of the highlights of last season with the EPIC “Christmas, Burn it All),” and they have returned with yet another addition to their already-stellar Christmas Album. “Stay Away This Christmas” is the #xmas2020 anthem we have all been waiting for – a gently aggressive message to just stay the fuck to ourselves and sit this one out to keep each other safe.

“Stay away this Christmas, I don’t want you coming near
Please maintain your distance cause you aren’t welcome here.
I’m sure we can cope without tradition for one year.
Stay away this Christmas, I don’t want you coming near.”

The song has Randolph’s Leap sounding their most dangerous – driving in the fast lane, passing cars and weaving in and out of traffic with these atypical garage-rock riffs. A great change of pace indeed, while still maintaining the melody and instrumental flourishes (that ending!) that you expect from this excellent Scottish indie pop/rock band. They really just nailed it for the second year in a row.

Of note – the track was simply tagged on to their already-excellent, and quite substantial Christmas album which they’ve been adding to for a number of years. In fact, it was a damn pleasant surprise to already own this song! So… if you don’t already, grab the record, and maybe you’ll also get something in your Randolph’s Leap stocking in the future – who knows?!

Bottom Line: Randolph’s Leap continues to impress with yet another perfectly-timed Christmas song. You all are spoiling us… (I can’t wait for next year! Pretty please!!)

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Sugar World – A Sugar Christmas (2020)

Sunday Records
Buy:
Bandcamp (NYOP)

I swear I listen to stuff that isn’t indiepop or the Captain Underpants soundtrack (I swear it is my son), but when there is great indiepop, I always pay attention. San Diego’s Sugar World has dropped a 4-song EP of covers, and I’m thoroughly digging it. From the fuzzed-out cover of Low’s “Just Like Christmas,” to the synthy, understated cover of Nixon’s “Anorak Christmas,” to the glitchy clipping on “Blue Christmas,” and the static on the Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas Darling,” the band tweaks each song enough to make them interesting and fresh. Solid!

Bottom Line: Even more excellent indiepop for those who like that DIY alt-Christmas sound.

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A Very Cherry Christmas E.P. 2020 (2020)

Cherryade Records
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Bandcamp

2020 has seen the hiatus of some of our most beloved, underground Christmas traditions – most notably to this humble blogger – the storied Fowler VW and Blackwatch compilation. Things were looking grim all around, yet in spite of the obvious COVID obstacles, one indie-Christmas tradition found a way to make it happen. A Very Cherry Christmas was staring down a 15th edition this year, and while that release is pushed to next year, we are pleased to receive a scaled-back release with their very first digital EP, A Very Cherry Christmas E.P. 2020. These six songs are gathered together for the benefit of the Music Venue Trust, an organization whose goal is to help struggling grass-roots live music venues, and there is plenty of indie-pop holiday goodness to be had. For those who have delighted in jangly guitars, poppy electronic beats and off-center subject matter, look no further. There is a debut (Jane and John, a lockdown creation); indie-pop-holiday royalty (The Hannah Barberas – who also have ANOTHER holiday EP out today!); otherworldly inspiration (the Spanish-language “Navidad Interstelar”); pissed-off punk elves (“ELF RIOT!”); a cover of indie-Christmas legends Helen Love (by newcomers Little Ways); and what could be a theme song to slowly developing genre in its own right (“Surfin’ Santa”). Bite size and tasty, this has a little bit for everyone.

For further indie Christmas fun – AVCC compiler Gareth Jones also has a 3-hour Christmas radio show, full of new Indie/Alternative Christmas songs plus an interview with David Gedge of The Wedding Present. Check it out on Mixcloud!

Bottom Line: Goonies Indiepop Christmas never die!

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

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

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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Christmas Aguilera “Why Can’t I Go To Sleep” (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp | Bandcamp (Full Album)

There are a few bands who this blog is pretty much wholly devoted to, and Christmas Aguilera is one. I have yet to miss a post on a release, and as long as they continue to record them, I’ll continue to write about them. They can hit you with something that makes you smile, something that make you cry, or fucking both! This year they’ve got a few things up their sleeves, but we’ll concentrate on the new song first. “Why Can’t I Go To Sleep” is actually a song that they wrote around the time of their first EP, the self-titled Christmas Aguilera. Played live but never recorded, the band rediscovered it amongst some bedroom recordings, and decided to give it a go. COVID being what it is, the extra time afforded some more collaboration – a guest drummer, a bass player and a choir of friends joined the effort. The recordings were passed around and each person added their part, until we have this beautiful, choral mantra to open the song, “Go to sleep / Why Can’t I / Go to sleep / Sheep counting / Go to sleep / Why Can’t I / Go to sleep.” Then, the tension of the mantra breaks and the song bursts open. You can feel the joy and love in this song, as the voices raise and the shouts go up. You get the feeling that the collaborative production of the track was a pressure release valve. To participate in this song was to press play on a world that has been perpetually paused… a light at the end of the tunnel. The excitement of Christmas, and of the future, comes through beautifully, and is just what I needed.

Christmas Aguilera have something else up their sleeve this year – they are finally going to be on all those fancy streaming services. I know most of you are on Spotify, and so am I, but I gotta say – I’m seriously considering Tidal because it pays artists more. I’m pretty invested in Spotify, but maybe we’re a two-streaming service family for a bit? I could get the family on board… give Tidal a run… and help all those people whose music I love buy dinner, pay for a kid’s college, etc. You know I don’t post many streaming links here – it takes 1500 streams to equal one song (Billboard) – but the convenience is unavoidable. I encourage you to buy the song. I want you to buy records (I bought 3 today), buy t-shirts and buy livestream tickets. Think about how great it feels to be told you did a good job! That is what buying someone’s record feels like to them – it is validation for their hard work and worth as an artist! SHOW YOU LOVE THEM, don’t just tell them. Oh yeah, I started this paragraph by saying that the entire Christmas Aguilera catalog is going to be on streaming. This is wonderful, and please help spread their music – AFTER you purchase it on Bandcamp and help support Shelter, a UK charity that aids the homeless, because that is who Christmas Aguilera continues to support with all their proceeds. This is a year like no other to think of the less fortunate… so let’s not just think, let’s do.

Bottom Line: Christmas Aguilera pull a treasure out of the closet and wow us once more.

LISTEN

Thom Stone – Christmas at the End of the World (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

Thom Stone has been featured here on Christmas Underground many times before under his previous nom de plume, Young War, who were fucking fantastic (you can still buy their records! Buy them!). This time around, Thom is recording under his own name, and has more than doubled his previous holiday catalog in one shot. Having always wanted to write a Christmas record, Thom took the second lockdown in November and decided to make something positive out of it. So he gathered one microphone, one guitar and some sleigh bells stolen from his two-year old’s music set, and created Christmas at the End of the World. The album features eight songs, all of which blend the uncertainty and creeping optimism that so many of us are feeling right now. On “Merry Christmas (What a Hell of a Year),” Thom looks at our world running at 1/4 speed, and instead of focusing on the obvious crisis, finds reasons to be sincerely thankful and embraces the spirit of Christmas and a hope for change. I want to take this sentiment and bottle it:

Our time, we’re so terrified of wasting our time
But I’m thankful for the chance to waste mine
It’s a gift
Nothing else there, on my list

So hold on, something’s got to change
And I hear, something kind of strange
Sleigh bells, in the air
Magic, everywhere

And I apologize for getting sentimental
I’m only trying to be sincere
I guess there’s nothing much left to say
Merry Christmas what a hell of a year
Merry Christmas what a hell of a year

The lyrics on this record continue to impress, even when the song only lives for 50 seconds, as in “A Manger Incident:”

What if nobody ever found Jesus?
What if there was no star in the sky?
What if Mary told Joseph her secret?
And Joseph went out of his mind?

What if Gabriel just couldn’t make it?
And God couldn’t handle the guilt?
What if the three wise men were three wise women?
Imagine what we could’ve built

I could write about every single song on this record – the gorgeous sentiment of “Could It Be Christmastime,” the apocalyptic beauty of “Christmas at the End of the World,” the mantra of “Noel, noel, go ring the bell / I see the snow on the leaves” in “Snow on the Leaves,” as each song is deserving of appreciation. But alas, you all need to experience them for yourself as well, without the power of suggestion that a reviewer might add. So listen, then buy it. All proceeds from this record go to the Manchester Cares charity, a community network bringing younger and older neighbors together to tackle isolation and loneliness. If that isn’t something we all can relate to after this year…

Bottom Line: Thom Stone has tapped into something special with Christmas at the End of the World, the most poignant lockdown Christmas record of the season.

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Wake Up And Smell The Sun – Electric Snow (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp (NYOP)

Philadelphia’s Wake Up and Smell the Sun have expanded on 2019’s excellent 2-track Christmas single, Holiday Hymns for People, and created one of the best Christmas records I have heard in years with Electric Snow. This record, with its thumping drums, woozy guitars and big vocals make you sit back and ponder if Spiritualized or the Verve would be fucking jealous of this record. The instrumentation and production on this record is just so damn good that it can both sound so BIG, like the slowly built epic “Gingerbread,” and small and intimate on “Country Western Holiday Meltdown,” with both feeling like sonic siblings, wonderfully at home on the same record. This cohesive feel truly comes across on this 7-track release even more than their initial 2-track single – you really get a feel for the sound as a whole.

As you might imagine, I would be recommending this record based on the stellar music/production/vibe even if they gave up on lyrics entirely and sang nonsense words… but if you’ve come for the dinner, why not have a glorious fucking show too? Once you get into the music (and you will), you may find that you actually love this record for the lyrics. There were moments that I just began shaking my head and smiling, like during the title track “Electric Snow:” “Beneath the minor keys, the majorettes, and bells,  / Sweet little girls with missing teeth seek inner peace within themselves (WHAT A LINE) / I’d like to share my Christmas Story, come on over / I once was haunted by a ghost, it mostly taught me how to coast / And when I tried to kick the habit, it gently pushed me in to traffic (AGAIN!) / Let it snow, electric snow, electric snow.” WHAT!?! There are so many incredibly interesting and clever lyrics on this record that I’ve been genuinely stressing out about how much I want to feature. I keep discovering new lines, and feel this absurd need to give every single lyric some sort of context. SO, with deep apologies to Wake Up And Smell The Sun for not writing this epic review delving into every single track… I am just too excited to share it with everyone, and I have an itchy publish finger.

If you are not already onboard, just press play. Problem solved.

Bottom Line: Frankly, I can’t wait to put this record on with some good headphones, because those guitars are going to surround me, and I’m going to happily surf the jet stream with this fantastic record.

LISTEN

I am going to post every song individually, as I cannot choose a favorite, and I want the Hype Machine to index every… single… song.