A Very Cherry Christmas 15 (2021)

Cherryade Records
Buy:
Bandcamp

How will you know when the world is back to normal? I rather doubt it ever will be “normal” again, but we’ll move the baseline. Some things will go away (perhaps drinking after each other), while other parts will return… such as this wonderful indiepop tradition, Cherryade RecordsA Very Cherry Christmas. This is the first full-length release since COVID threw a wrench in the gears, and there is a ton here–21 tracks ranging from fantastic Spanish indiepop (“Llega la Navidad” by The Yellow Melodies), to muddy guitars rocking a classic Shakin’ Stevens tune (“Merry Christmas Everyone” by Mouses), uptempo reinterpretations of their own fantastic indiepop classics (“Hey Santa Claus! (Faster Claus Version)” by the Hannah Barberas), and brand-new indiepop Christmas bangers (“This Christmas” by Super 8). There is something for everyone here and an extremely limited supply! As always, only 200 copies are being pressed on CD, and there is NO digital release. If you are just beginning your alternative Christmas collection, or you have been in this game for years, these releases are a consistent source of inspiration, completely worth your time and money.

Bottom Line: The proper, full-length A Very Cherry Christmas is back, and with it returns a wonderful part of our alternative Christmas universe.

LISTEN

24 (2021)

Where It’s At Is Where You Are
Buy: Bandcamp

One of the great indiepop labels has spring a wonderful collection of 24 holiday-themed songs on us this year – and for those early preorder folks, the opportunity to a hand-knit wool sleeve. Where It’s At is Where You Are (WIAIWYA) has a wonderful track record of indiepop holiday releases, most notably (for me) Christmastime, Approximately, which features a couple tracks that have featured on my yearly mixes. Let me just say… when more than one track off a comp ends up on a mix… that is a BFD. Compilations are always a roll of the dice, because you’ve got a whole mess of different styles, tastes, etc all coming together – and art is subjective! To have more than one song hit YOU specifically makes that entire record feel even more important by association.

24 features… you guessed it, 24 tracks, which I cannot bring myself to cover fully. I have NEVER come close to a comprehensive review of a record of this size… so please take the time to explore those other tracks that I am not singling out here. Once more, art is subjective, and the Christmas mix I would make does not come close to sounding like the one my friend Ned would… so let’s go exploring! I’ll open the door for you, now it is your job to walk on in and poke around a bit more.

The record starts out setting that beautiful, upbeat indiepop tone, with a wonderful track by Seattle’s Dolour, “Christmas with My Baby.” I love that first verse, which sets the stage well for 2021, but doesn’t get TOO specific as to pigeonhole it to not be listenable year-after-year: “Last year was such a dreaded affair / the year before that I didn’t even care / basically every year before I had no one to share / the holiday cheer with until you were here / but now this year I can hardly wait / so much joy, there’s no room for hate / let it snow, I don’t mind / as long as I’m here with this true love of mine.” This song has that attitude that I think a lot of us (vaxxed) share this year – the optimism that comes with time and understanding. Grab that person you love and don’t let the shit that surrounds you interfere.

Classic Sarah Records’ Scottish indiepop stalwarts The Orchids slow it down with “I Wish I Was,” a beautiful, nostalgic track that may very well be my favorite (at this moment) on the comp. The vignettes they create of a childhood Christmas, accented by their perfect use of brass color, hit you in the head and heart with equal force. Just beautiful.

With my next selection, I invite you to ruin Christmas with Laura and Mike from firestations, aka L&M Kingsize. “We Ruined Christmas” begins by dressing down a Christmas meal, beginning an emotionally complex and fascinating journey. Everything is the same, but you like it that way. You’re miserable, but you’d rather not be at home. We ruined Christmas, can’t wait to see you, same time next year. This song is just kinda fascinating and unexpected.

The BV’s “Krautmas” is more of a groove than a song – those playful guitars over a steady digital beat are as soothing as the first snow flurry. Coming in at track 13, it serves as the perfect intermission between the two halves of the record. Simple and wonderful.

“December Boy” by The Rhynes is the sweetest song on the record. Full of warmth, love, and vocal harmonies, it has some of the best lines on the record as well. I particularly like the first bit here: “You can keep whichever god you’re dreaming of, / but I’ll take all the peace and all the love. / Cause it feels so good to be alive, / We’ve made another December twenty-five. / You make my heart laugh / This December boy’s still got it bad.” If could eat that sentiment for breakfast every day I would.

There are plenty of other great songs on here, the vast majority exclusive to this release. In fact – should you feel so inclined, I’d LOVE to know what YOUR favorite tracks off this record are. Tweet at me (@xmasunderground) or comment here! I may just update this review with your input as well!

Botton Line: As expected from this truly excellent indiepop label, WIAIWYA has delivered yet another underground Christmas classic. Truly enjoyable from front to back, this is one of those rare comps that you can just put on and press play.

LISTEN

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.

LISTEN

Richard Edwards and the Velvet Ocean “Happy Christmas (the whole world has changed)” (2020)

Profound Discomfort
Buy:
Bandcamp | 7Digital | Apple Music | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3 | Google Play

Richard Edwards, known in a previous life as the lead singer and songwriter for Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s, has been releasing some pretty beautiful records for the past few years (largely on Joyful Noise), and his latest, The Soft Ache and the Moon” is no exception. He has teased us with a Christmas-ish song in the past with a cover of Big Star’s “Jesus Christ” on the Joyful Noise Snowflathe series, but never quite so explicit as “Happy Christmas (the whole world has changed.” This song is raw emotion. The lyrics are vivid, brutal, and deeply personal. You can take it from me, or from Richard himself:

“Maybe my favorite song on the album and the most difficult to write in certain ways. It was a little too raw and painful for me, but Dave Palmer, the brilliant piano player got me to do it. And I’m glad he did, even if it hurts a little.”

Richard Edwards

This song is full of dream imagery, scenes filled with fog on the edges – suffering, atonement and just squeaking by. It is not your normal Christmas song, but this is not your normal Christmas site. Settle in.

Bottom Line: Some songs make you both wish the writer never had to write this song, while appreciating the beauty of what they created; This is one of those songs.

LISTEN

Brittain Ashford & Matt Bauer “Tinsel and Snow” (2018)

Commodore Trotter / Ball of Wax Audio Quarterly
Buy: Bandcamp

I am not the kind of blogger who seeks out a great voice. So many of my favorite singers couldn’t sing (How I miss David Berman), but even I can still fall for a voice. Ball of Wax Audio Quarterly is a fantastic blog and music-compiler based in Seattle, and their most recent release is Ball of Wax 58: The Ball of Wax Winter Spectacular, featuring this truly beautiful song by Brittain Ashford & Matt Bauer. Honestly, I’m having a tough time describing Brittain’s voice in a better manner than Ball of Wax did:

The teller of this tale is Broadway star and thematic alchemist* Brittain Ashford. With a voice that balances diaphragmatic force with childlike vulnerability, Ashford paints the sort of holiday portrait that those of us who suffer from melancholy particularly this time of year can appreciate and empathize with, and what’s more—what we need most during the dark season—she infuses every line with a tattered but palpable hope.

This song was almost too pretty for me… but those distinctive qualities of Brittain’s vocal delivery were undeniable. The music is also quite lovely, but after learning of composer Matt Bauer‘s folk and banjo background, I am SO intrigued to hear a version with banjo. Damn that could be cool.

Edit: Turns out this song was initially released in 2018 on an EP, Tinsel and Snow & Other Mid-Winter Missives. Go check it out!

Bottom Line: Like Messi’s “Charlamagne,” this song is defined by a beautiful and distinctive voice.

LISTEN

A Very Cherry Christmas 14 (2019)

Cherryade Records
Buy: Bandcamp

So, do you fancy yourself a collector of underground Christmas records? If you are like me, and began this extremely hip search back when Yahoo still ruled the internet and Facebook was but a baby website only opened to ivy leaguers… well then you’ve been a fan of this CD-only (physical media!) collection of the scrappiest, kookiest, raunchiest, and indiepoppiest Christmas songs available. The latest edition of A Very Cherry Christmas has great tracks by some folks I’ve previously showered with adoration (Frank Sexuality and the Negative Emotions, A Mild Peril), as well as some great songs from bands I’m just getting accustomed with (Jacqui and Geoff, Ballard). There is something for everyone – from the hilarious “What If Santa Claus Is Just 20 Ferrets In A Red Suit” to an exuberant satirization of consumerism with “Consume! Consume! Consume!” So take out your credit card (or your Paypal password), and celebrate the patron saint of buying shit… and fucking buy it! (Grab the few copies of older releases that are still available too!)

Bottom Line: A tradition for all the misfits, one to be celebrated and feared! ONLY 200 COPIES! You are warned.

 

 

Magne Furuholmen – White Xmas Lies (2019)

Drabant Music
Buy: 7Digital (FLAC/MP3) | Drabant Music (CD/Vinyl) | Apple Music | Amazon MP3/CD/Vinyl | Amazon.uk MP3/CD/Vinyl | Amazon.de MP3/CD/Vinyl | Amazon.fr MP3/CD/Vinyl

This record caught me completely off guard. The keyboardist and co-writer for most of the iconic hits from Norway’s pop-powerhouse a-ha, Magne Furuholmen has created one of the most interesting Christmas records I have heard in years. He walks this fine line between the avant-garde and accessible and manages to pull it off incredibly well. An album packed with largely all originals, Magne did not intend to create a normal holiday album; he wanted to make an album that was “an antidote to the ‘schmaltzy Christmas-music which is spewed out every year… a seemingly never-ending stream of cheesy versions of existing Christmas song.'” It was as if Magne was creating a Christmas music for me.

This album can be heartbreakingly beautiful. There are moments, such as in the leadoff track “There Goes Another Year,” where you can find these simple, evocative phrases that just hit you. “In the darkness of December / as the fire turned from spark to ember (<-Wow, what a line) / these are things I will remember / now xmas time is here / there goes another year.” And yet again, later in the song: “What we say but do not mean / every word and in-between / for every manhole in this town / there is someone falling down (<-Damn, loved that line!).” As you can see, Magne is going deep here, not necessarily celebrating the holiday in a fashion one might expect, as he talks about the album as being for those who might not have someone to keep them warm at Christmas.

I wanted to try and make an album which would be meaningful also to those who fall outside our commercial Christmas frenzy – an album which looks at the more melancholic, darker sides to Christmas: broken family ties, things we sweep under the rug, resentment hidden behind fake, jocular smiles – an album for holiday contemplation, not just sentimental decor.’

Magne does not rely on a spectacular voice (I have never been partial to amazing singers, but rather, amazing songwriters), he lets the synths and his lyrics do the heavy lifting. However, every so often his vocal melody just gets me. Like in the hungover “A Punch-up on Boxing Day,” Magne’s voice rises just after that first stanza, “you’re just wasting your time / yyeeaaahhhh,” and it brings this emotion to the song that I wasn’t anticipating. There are other moments where the music makes you sit up and go “shit, that is fantastic,” such as in the final verse of “Caprice Des Dieux,” which is one of the more slow and contemplative tracks on the record, as it explodes with musical color.

There are a few outliers on here as well, songs that does not appear to be connected to Christmas at all. The best example of would be “This is Now America,” a harsh portrait of America from an observer’s perspective – school shootings, border walls, drones and bad loans. “This is now America / oh how little have we learned / This is now America, is there no way to return?” So… not a Christmas song, and damn, quite disheartening to hear how we appear to others.

There are two covers on the record, AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” and The Kinks’ “Father Christmas.” The AC/DC cover appears to be part of the aforementioned outlier collection of songs, songs that aren’t normally connected to Christmas, but Magne is determined to bring them into conversation with the emotions of the season. The treatment itself is pretty damn interesting. Slowed down with synths providing a haunting melody, this is AC/DC much more along the lines of Mark Kozelek’s versions, should Mark have also utilized autotune. The Kinks’ cover is going to be released to the streaming community on a later date… so you’ll have to check back on that one.

This record is a damn interesting listen, one that I’d encourage anyone to experience, and hopefully with multiple listens. I for one, most certainly found new moments that I appreciated the second and third time around. Of note, Magne is also a very accomplished visual artist, and there is a vinyl edition of 200 that he hand-painted. They look to be truly beautiful, and if I had an extra €150… I might grab one. (Wait… they are all gone now!)

Bottom Line: One of the most surprising and satisfying Christmas albums I have heard in a long time.

LISTEN

Stella Donnelly “Season’s Greetings” (2019)

Secretly Canadian
Buy: 7Digital (MP3/FLAC) | Bandcamp (Full Album) | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

The latest single off of Stella Donnelly’s latest, Beware of Dogs, is one of those sneaky, semi-hidden holiday songs. I did not realize this track existed until Consequence of Sound posted the new video for “Season’s Greetings”…  and this truly has me questioning my #xmasmusichuntingskillz. The song reminds us northerners that those in the southern hemisphere enjoy a summertime Christmas, something that Brutalligators highlighted last year with their wonderful “Christmas in July.” The song (and the video) present a summertime Australian Christmas picnic, and we get to sit back and watch it all fall apart. BONUS: Extra profanity for the profanity-starved.

Bottom Line: I think I busted my plugger I enjoyed this so much.

LISTEN

UPCOMING: Josh Rouse – The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse (11/01/2019)

The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse

Yep Roc Records
Buy: YepRoc CD/Vinyl/Ornament | Bull MooseAmazon | Amazon.UK | Amazon.DE | Amazon.FR

Well here we go! This one will make all the media rounds no doubt, as Josh Rouse has a large back catalog and fans that span 20+ years. I remember getting that Dressed up Like Nebraska cassette promo single was back when I was but a boy. That first record was great. Josh’s second, Home, is a modern classic record (for me). 1972 was a risk that paid off beautifully. Find a copy of Bedroom Classics Vol. 1 and you will be treated to “Michigan,” which is an incredible, incredible song. I don’t want to go into this with the level of expectation that I might… as I haven’t been quite on the Josh Rouse train for a number of records. But here I am… likely to buy the double-vinyl edition. The first pressing of the CD/Vinyl comes with an extra disc featuring 3 bonus tracks, and 3 demo versions of songs found on the record. So… if you are considering this record, the first pressing is by far the way to go.

The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse LP
The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse LP

Bottom Line: Click and buy. It’ll be better than most Christmas records, and could possibly be great.

LISTEN

Lor “Christmas Morning: Busza’s in the Garage” (2017/2019)

Lor "Christmas Morning: Busza’s in the Garage"

TBA Music / Wydawnictwo Agora
Buy: 7Digital MP3 | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3 | Discogs (CD)

Polish folk group Lor may have released their heartbreaking track “Christmas Morning: Busza’s in the Garage” back in 2017, but this humble blogger didn’t stumble across it until their first proper album, Lowlight, was dropped earlier this year. I’ve been piecing together a bit about the band, largely from translated Polish websites, and I must admit a wry smile crossed my face when I saw they had cited recent CU favorite Tom Rosenthal as an early inspiration. These four girls, Julia Skiba, Paulina Sumera, Jagoda Kudlińska and Julia Błachuta, are still teenagers, and when you press play below, you will be somewhat astounded. “Christmas Morning” is a delicate song, deeply sad, yet somehow comforting. Written about a man who spends Christmas alone, Lor draws you gently into this scene. Then there is the video, shot and directed by Mateusz Mleczko (you can see the full credits on the Youtube page), which adds even more to the drama of an already emotional song and compliments it beautifully. They teamed up with Anna Dymna’s Against the Odds Foundation (donate here), who “help intellectually disabled adults by giving them a place where they can be happy and have a substitude (sp?) of home,” and this connection feels wholly appropriate with this song. This is a heavy one, but very much worth your time.

Bottom Line: To be teenagers, already opening for the likes of Rhye, and displaying this level of talent, taste, and sophistication… incredible.

LISTEN