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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Pedro the Lion “Yellow Bike” (2019)

Pedro the Lion "Yellow Bike"

Polyvinyl Records
Buy: Bandcamp | Polyvinyl | 7Digital | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

David Bazan is no stranger to Christmas music, and even when he isn’t writing specifically-Christmas songs… he still sometimes writes an almost-Christmas song. “Yellow Bike” is the latest single from David’s recently resurrected Pedro the Lion project, and it is perfectly situated in the Venn diagram that is my life: Christmas songs and cycling. It begins…

“On a desert Christmas morning, 1981
One month shy of six years old
In the valley of the sun
My first two-wheel bicycle stood by the tree
My heart thumping in my chest
Though I’d tried, I couldn’t ride one yet”

The song is a beautiful tale of nostalgia, longing, and communion, facilitated by the memory of that first bike David got for Christmas. Just. Loved. It.

Bottom Line: Chapeau David, it’s a stunner. Lots of vinyl options out there for folks who want to pick up the entire album, which I would also recommend.

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Red Sleeping Beauty “The Swedish Winter” (2019)

Red Sleeping Beauty "The Swedish Winter" (2019)

Labrador Records/Matinée Recordings
Buy: Bandcamp | Matinée Recordings CD | iTunes  | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

I am no stranger to stretching the definition of a Christmas song; I fully embrace a good winter song, the imagery of falling snow, the chill in the air, etc. However… this might be the most Van Damme I will get on this blog. Red Sleeping Beauty are the kind of Swedish synth-pop that I can get behind, as all their previous Christmas tunes have found a way onto these digital pages. (If you share members with my beloved Acid House Kings, you will get noticed by me.) So, I was excited to receive a DM from RSB a few weeks ago hipped me to a new single! “The Swedish Winter” certainly tackles the long, cold nights that those in the upper-regions of the northern hemisphere suffer through – but the celebration that bursts from the song is all about summer. This is definitively NOT a Christmas song. Yet somehow… I began to think that this song might be a good finale to a Christmas/winter mix. Christmas (and your mix) is over… so what else do you have to look forward to? Summer. “You lose your faith / and you lose your mind / the Swedish winter / The darkest times / and the darkest thoughts / the Swedish winter/ Then suddenly, a ray of light / to save your soul / Get ready cause here comes the summer / and everything feels right.”

Bottom Line: This is synth pop at its synthiest and popiest, and will most certainly satisfy fans of the genre.

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Said Fantasy “Chorus Noel” (2018)

Plastiq Musiq
Buy: Bandcamp

If you follow me on Twitter, you know this is a tough week for bloggin. So, I’m going to be brief! Said Fantasy is Ronnie Martin, and he knows his way around a MOOG. “Chorus Noel” is a fantastic experimental synth-pop song that I wish could be replicated 5 times on one record… because I’d buy that shit on vinyl. “Chorus Noel” comes as the lead, title track of their 5-track Christmas EP, out now on CDr (100 copies), as well as digital download on Chicago’s Plastiq Musiq. I’m not as down with the traditional covers, but it is totally worth it for that lead track. So… let that be your bit for the day. Best of luck you all in your mixin’ endeavors, and send me stuff you think I’d like – @xmasunderground!

Bottom Line: Some awesome synth-pop for your ear-holes. I do wish you could buy a single track though….

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Milton and Jones – This Life (This Christmas) / Love Actually (2018)

Milton and Jones - This Life

Too Many Fireworks
Buy: Bandcamp | A Very Cherry Christmas Vol. 13 CD

If you have been following my blog, placing pins on the map every time I go international, grab yourself a pin and find Poland… because we’re heading off to Warsaw! Indiepop producer and songwriter Neil Milton (The Frozen North) has teamed up with Seattle-born singer and screenwriter Jules Jones (Ephrata) to create this new 2-track single, which is also their first recordings together as Milton and Jones! “This Life (This Christmas)” is a 60’s-wall-of-sound-inspired celebration of the end of a relationship. “We’ll never meet again / not gonna be friends / this is a happy end / This life’s gonna start, / this Christmas.” This fantastic premise was driven by Jules’ research into holiday music for her film’s soundtrack, and how she couldn’t find anything that quite fit:

“Researching holiday music for our film’s soundtrack, I couldn’t find any empowering break-up songs. Everything out there was either, ‘I want you back for Christmas’ or ‘I’m so happy we’re together under the Christmas tree.’ If I ever took the opportunity to write a Christmas song, I knew I would write something for those better off leaving their crappy exes behind them. A few months later, Neil mentioned the single and I was ecstatic – here was the chance!”

“This Life (This Christmas)” is a brilliant celebration of failure, and truly a success in my book. The b-side is equally successful, and even has its own cinematic connection. As you might have gleaned from the title, this beautiful little ditty about a happy couple, snuggling together watching movies… ends with them on Christmas day watching the modern classic Love Actually. “It’s Christmas day, don’t go away. / We’ll spend the day in bed. / “A movie’s on TV tonight- / Love Actually,” you said.” This pitch-perfect indiepop sweetness has everything you might want – soft vocals, simple production, dreamy imagery and pop culture references. Fun fact that will also knock your Christmas socks off: “Love Actually” went from nothing to a fully-produced song in 37 minutes! This song is truly a Christmas miracle!

Now… I’m going to cover this more in-depth later, but I do need to mention that you can also pick up the fantastic A-side on the brand-new A Very Cherry Christmas Vol. 13

Bottom Line: Polish Indiepop perfection!

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Edit: Working on the embed. Sorry if you can’t see it 😛