Baby Club – Naivety Scene (2021)

Self Released
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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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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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Nadal a 10 bandes (vol. 2) (2021)

Discos Pinya
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I don’t know Spanish, nor do I know Catalan. However, I will never shy away from a great sound or Google Translate. The second volume of Barcelona punk label Discos Pinya‘s Nadal a 10 bandes (vol. 2) is a perfect example of this. There are some great songs on here, all in the punk, hardcore, ska genres. A few songs really stood out to me, most especially Les Salvatges‘ “Fins que rebentem,” a reworking of the classic Bobby Freeman song from 1958, “Do You Wanna Dance,” into a Catalan punk Christmas jam about eating way too much at the holidays. On first listen, that song alone is worth me picking up the cassette they are offering (they also have a volume 1!).

I also really, really loved “Està tot molt mal” by Meconio, where they sound like they are having the most fun possible singing about some real heavy shit. Google translate this song – it is a left-wing punk rock anthem with some jingle bells tacked on. Want to sneak some politics onto your mix without your relatives realizing it? Done! Here’s a taste of the end:

It’s all very bad
they keep raping (and killing) us
and abortion
it is still illegal

It’s all very bad
and we’re up to our pussy
but with the guitar
we will continue to make songs

Vidal Soler‘s “Curset de nadales” also stood out, a meta song about writing a song, but while warning you not to let the songs or the season drag you into the consumerist trap. Incredibly short and awesome, they get what they need to say done in a minute and a sneeze. Truly fantastic.

This compilation hits more frequently than most, and at name-your-own-price on Bandcamp, is as close to a sure thing as you can get. Throw them some money and pick out your own favorites, why don’t you?

Bottom Line: The best punk compilation I’m come across in a good while, this record has some mix-worthy stuff for sure.

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+/- (Plus/Minus) “All the Light Left Behind” (2021)

Ernest Jenning Record Co.
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+/- (Plus/Minus) are a great indie rock/pop or “indietronic” (thanks Wikipedia) band that I’ve actually got some discs from on my shelf behind me. I grew up a big Versus fan, and Plus/Minus is the project of James Baluyut, who had played guitar in that wonderful band. When Versus took a long hiatus, James continued on with Plus/Minus, along with Versus’ drummer Robert Ramos (now playing guitar) and drummer Chris Deanor. My friend Ned hipped me to this latest Plus/Minus track, which happens to be a very beautiful, dreamy and nostalgic Christmas song, “All the Light Left Behind.” The song acts as a mantra, repeating the same verse as the music builds, which under the right circumstances, can get pretty emotional. Certainly a mix-worthy song I’m going to live with for a while.

Bottom Line: Thinking about your youth at Christmastime can be both beautiful and sad – can make you smile while you cry, and this song might just do that to you.

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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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Wake Up and Smell the Sun – Ye Miner St. Christmas Hymnal (2021)

Self Released
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Bandcamp (NYOP)

After releasing one of the highlights of the underground Christmas music genre, 2020’s Electric Snow, Wake Up and Smell the Sun (the musical moniker of John Murray) has returned with many gifts. For the past few weeks, WUaStS has been releasing early versions and unreleased demos which have all been pretty damn great. Dark, most certainly, really cool, interesting songs to tide us over while we wait for the new record. These songs did not prepare me for what was coming – one of the sweetest songs I have heard all season. What a happy, and beautiful song “The Tearful Joy of Joyful Noise” is. I am not exaggerating when I say that I teared up listening to this song… I must not be the only one, as the title suggests! Don’t let the first line fool you: “They say “kindness makes the holidays, and mothers make the rules.” / And yet so many solid ways we make us feel uncool….” because the song turns into an amazing affirmation of love:

“So smile away ‘til Christmas Day.
Nobody makes the rules.
And who the hell were they to say what’s precious or uncool?

Sugar plums and turtle doves. Who cares what boy or girl you love?
So true. So true.
I could care less. I’m with you.
So true. So true.
I could care less. I’m with you.

We always knew. We always knew.
We always loved you. We always do.”

Legit tears. So beautiful. Wake Up and Smell the Sun always has such fantastic wordplay, coming up with these great images and interesting angles… but I never expected this simple, direct approach, nor for it to feel both so original and powerful. I am honestly stunned.

Something, in particular, to listen for on “The Tearful Joy of Joyful Noise” is the drumming of Pat Berkery, a friend of Murray’s who has played on records and in bands including the Bigger Lovers, Wesley Stace, Danielson, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, the War on Drugs, and many others including and most recently touring with Strand of Oaks. Turns out his drumming was epic enough to change the name of the song! Playing keyboards and organs on both songs is Robbie Bennett, also from The War on Drugs, who plays on my favorite record of the year, The War on Drugs’ I Don’t Live Here Anymore. I wholeheartedly agree with Murray, he does add a “special Christmas boogie” to the flip side of this single, the full-on rocking “Kris Kringle and the Midnight Soul.”

“Kris Kringle and the Midnight Soul” exists as a groove as much as it does a song. The lyrics are fun and playful, my favorite line being classic Murray, “I dream in songs and nativity scenes.” The instrumentation and production of this track are absolutely stellar, a testament to Murray’s aforementioned friends as well as the producers Brian and Amy at Miner Street Recordings, who not only produce and play on these records but are deservedly included in the title of this release.

Murray is often cryptic in his writings, as his tweets and the liner notes suggest we might be receiving even more from him this year. You truly never know – he snuck another one out late last year as well. While that would most certainly be wonderful, these two songs have certainly made me full and happy… and yes, with some joyful tears.

Bottom Line: I fully expect a new release by Wake Up and Smell the Sun to be amazing, but I never expected it to be so damn happy and beautiful.

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Ingeborg von Agassiz – Coventry Carols (2021)

Self Released
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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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The Ornaments “Cryin'” (2021)

Folkmonger Records
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Bandcamp

Mike Behrends and Lance Owens’ seasonal project, The Ornaments, is something that I look forward to all year. The chances that the song is going to skew a bit dark is pretty high, but you NEVER know how they are going to get there. This year’s song, “Cryin’,” finds their wonderful, dark storytelling in contrast with their most heartwarming music. The juxtaposition between the story of an overworked, neglectful father making his son cry amidst a forgotten Christmas with the outro’s airy hallelujahs, quiet strumming, gentle piano lines, and beautiful trombone colors is striking. This song has all the dark, complex, detailed storytelling I’ve come to love about The Ornaments, while suggesting that they might just have the sweetest song ever somewhere in there… who knows? Stranger things have happened!

I could listen to that outro for another five minutes, easy.

Bottom Line: The Ornaments continue to amass some of the most interesting Christmas music in existence. I, for one, cannot wait for the absolutely necessary full-length one day.

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Beatrice Deer “Christmas” (2021)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

You know what I love to find? I love to find those Christmas songs that are hidden amongst the “regular” songs on a “normal” release. Think weeding through the deluge of Christmas singles for something great is tough? Try looking in places where no Christmas songs are expected to be found! Montréal’s Beatrice Deer has hidden an incredible Christmas song at the end of her most recent record, SHIFTING. Beatrice recorded the LP during the pandemic, and when circumstances allowed, recording live and in the studio with her bandmates, some of whom Beatrice shares with the excellent Land of Talk (Bucky Wheaton-drums & Chris McCarron-guitar). Appropriately titled “Christmas,” this is actually NOT the first Inuktitut-language song I’ve featured on Christmas Underground! Beatrice Deer appears with Elisapie on last year’s excellent Ho! Ho! Ho! Canada XII, covering “Quanniuguma” and blew me away. That song is an Etulu Aningmiuq cover, and while it is absolutely wonderful, “Christmas” feels much more like the Beatrice Deer song that it is. And what a song! This is Inuktitut indie pop! It opens slowly, gently fanning out with a new layer here, a new layer there, until the cymbals crash and all the colors explode, shimmering and spinning around the room. The lyrical beauty of the Inuktitut lyrics is undeniable, the language most certainly loves to be sung. This song is mix-worthy my friends.

Bottom Line: An indiepop highlight of 2021, no doubt about it.

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Bek Sarkoezy “New Year” (2021)

Self Released
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Bandcamp

It is almost time for Christmas… perfect time for an early New Year song! How about a stone-cold perfect New Year song? One written by an Australian perhaps? I certainly did not see that one coming…

Sydney’s Bek Sarkoezy maintains Australia’s 2021 Christmas Underground dominance, a trend which I am both tempted and taunted to maintain, by dropping this perfect song, “New Year,” in June of all times. Where do I begin with this song… the part where Bek sings “I just wanna go home,” and the horns kick in – that right there is magic. There are so many great lines too – “I wonder if this mess is the best that I can be.” Such a simple thought that we’ve all pondered, but perhaps not in such a perfect way before. There is so much to love in this song, that you really just need to listen to it… and buy it.

Bottom Line: A highlight of 2021 indeed. Bek Sarkoezy, I’ve got my eye on you.

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