Baby Club – Naivety Scene (2021)

Self Released
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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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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
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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
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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
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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
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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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Andrew Sa – The Christmas Ball (2011)

Andrew Sa - The Christmas Ball

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp (Free!)

One of my underground Christmas music heroes is Kurt Reighley (AKA DJ El Toro), the fine purveyor of Festive! Fanzine, one of the OG publications in this whole scene. Last holiday season, Kurt discovered Chicago crooner (and self-described queer country singer-songwriter) Andrew Sa after Kelly Hogan (a friend of Festive! and an alt. country luminary in her own right) shared a video of Andrew covering one of my favorite Neko Case songs, “I Wish I Was the Moon.” Andrew’s cover is so haunting and soulful – I was floored. Kurt was writing about a holiday livestream Andrew hosted, which I am so very sad I missed, but it did send me over to his Bandcamp to find out more. There I found a delightful, three-song EP of classic Christmas covers. Yes, covers are never what I am truly seeking out, but I’ll always let some good ones fall in my lap, for sure. On the first two tracks, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town (The Argument)” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas (The Through),” simple piano accompaniment frames Andrew’s lovely vibrato – the economy of the arrangement is quite refreshing and beautiful. Heck, the Bessie Smith cover of “At the Christmas Ball (The Striptease)” has only a simple snapping finger to keep the time. Strip these songs down to the studs, add Andrew’s beautiful, emotional vibrato, and you hear them as wholly new songs. Truly, discovering this small collection of Christmas covers was most certainly an unexpected-yet-expected (parse that one out) delight.

Bottom Line: There is something there in this Andrew Sa’s voice that (for me) is just undeniable. I’ll like a second serving please, whenever you’re ready Andrew. 🙂

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The Caraway – Another Christmas Will Come Around This Year (2020/2021)

blue-very label
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Bandcamp

Do you want some big, happy indiepop Christmas music? Well then! Tokyo’s The Caraway has jangly guitars, jingling bells, and a synth brass section that is destined to get you off your feet and bouncing around. “Another Christmas Will Come Around This Year” was recorded last year, but the indiepop hordes demanded a vinyl release (so I’m told by their Bandcamp page) and viola! Now you can pick up a sweet little 7″, which will give you a bonus seasonal song with a short, strolling version of “Silent Night,” casual whistling and everything! Two additional tracks on the b-side that are just fun, and are not holiday jams… so check them out at your peril!

Bottom Line: TOP-notch indiepop Christmas!

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Big Society – Big (Christmas) (2020)

Self Released
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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
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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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