Randolph’s Leap – Christmas Album (2021 Additions)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

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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+/- (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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One Member of Loose Articles & One Member of Hallan “Christmas in Hulme” (2021)

Self Released
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Soundcloud (Stream)

How about a bit of fun? Such a descriptive band name as One Member of Loose Articles & One Member of Hallan deserves an equally straightforward Christmas song. Want to know what this song is about… well, it appears that it is about wanting to spend “Christmas in Hulme.” But you know what? I can get behind this silliness. You can taste the joy, the pure fun they had putting this together. Nothing deeper than that – just a song recorded across from a pub by two friends, which sounds vaguely like a cheeky Eddie Argos, speak-sing single.

Bottom Line: Just a bit of fun that made me smile. Hope this is the first of many!

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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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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
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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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Andy Clockwise “Collect Call to My Baby” (Merry Christmas) (2012)

Self Released
Buy:
Soundcloud (FREE!) Apparently no longer downloadable…

Australian ex-pat Andy Clockwise (aka Andy Kelly) is a recent discovery for me, but most certainly a welcome one. Andy’s very excellent Christmas song “Collect Call to My Baby (Merry Christmas)” evaded me for 9 years… which is quite a feat for such a great song. From the very first moment, the groove will get you handclapping along – that is unless you’ve been drinking too much to keep the rhythm, as this song has a heavy pour of booze and would fit perfectly in with Christmas A Go Go’s recent “Drunken Christmas” series. “Collect Call” sounds both retro and modern at the same time – sharing production choices with the 60’s classics while being lyrically more playful than anything that would have been pressed to wax back then. I wouldn’t change a note in this song, and there isn’t much room to tinker when it comes in at about 3:20 – most certainly in the sweet spot for Christmas tunes. Hell… I loved this thing enough to have it feature on this year’s Christmas mix!

Be sure to check out Andy Clockwise’s regular music as well, it is extremely good. When I was listening to this song a bunch a while back, I would catch myself happily listening down his Soundcloud feed. So, please partake, as you are encouraged to get a little drunk on Andy Clockwise too.

Bottom Line: You never know what you are going to find when you are digging around Soundcloud… sometimes you find gold.

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Laurie Shaw – Snow Day EP (2021)

Self Released
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Bandcamp

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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Hans Pucket “I Don’t Know What To Get You For Christmas (Do I Really Love You​?)” (2021)

Self Released
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Bandcamp

Well, this is just a delight. Wellington, New Zealand’s Hans Pucket come in with this fantastic song and make me wish I hadn’t just made, handed out, and shipped 85 copies of my yearly Christmas mix. Well… be rest assured, this song about questioning whether you really love someone because you can’t think of what to get them for Christmas is going to be on next year’s. First, I love the angle they came at this song from; I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered a Christmas song wrestling with such a question. THEN they add in those horns and I pretty much lose my mind. So… is your mix not quite finished? I’m jealous as shit.

There is a 7″ lathe cut of this amazing song (with a B-side I am not able to sample yet), but it does appear to be exclusively for New Zealanders… as their Facebook page and the shipping prices suggest.

Bottom Line: I do know what I want for Christmas… and it is this lathe cut. BLAST, such a good song.

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