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

Invisible Music “When the Lights” (2012)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

John Ralston, the frontman of Invisible Music, has previously been featured on this blog with his brilliant Jesus Christ/A Marigny Christmas 7″, as well as on my 2017 Christmas mix, Snow Man. Today, we round out his seasonal selections with the emotional “When the Lights,” from their 2012 self-titled album. This is an alt.country ballad about how the holidays can amplify how much you miss someone; a sentiment that, for most people, is quite relatable. The lyrics are quite beautiful:

When the lights start spinning / hold on tight, it’s just the beginning
I’ve been there before / my face on the floor / passed over and frozen in time / I loved you much more before you started to read me my rights

Christmas lights all shining / down on us with their good tidings / there’s a chill in the air / I forgot my coat there / on the hotel room chair by the door / I’m just not that sure that it’s possible to miss you much more

The song is simple, poignant, and relatable – super solid stuff. For you vinyl folks (like me!), you may be interested to know that you can pick up the entire record (limited to 300) for only $12. Even a miser a like Scrooge can’t complain about that price. (Hoping they might make it available as a single-track download, for now, it is part of the whole album. The record sounds great though!)

Bottom Line: John’s got a touch for these emotional Christmas songs. If you’re reading my blog, you likely appreciate that. Hope you enjoy.

LISTEN

UPCOMING: You Wish (A Merge Records Holiday Album) (2019)

Merge Records
Buy: Discogs | Bandcamp

You leave town for the weekend and everything blows up. This record is probably going to be all over Stereogum in a matter of minutes (as that is where all the bigger indie labels seem to go), but for now, let’s talk about this upcoming Merge Records holiday record! Merge is celebrating their 30th year, and with that they started a celebration subscription at the beginning of the year. I was one of the ones who decided to party along with them, and boy am I glad I did. Over the weekend I received this amazing, unannounced, Christmas record from one of my favorite labels, You Wish (A Merge Records Holiday Album). Pressed on peppermint vinyl and containing tracks by a couple folks who have already made a CU Xmas mix (Coco Hames, The Essex Green, Mac McCaughan and Telekinesis), as well as many that I hope might make it this year! These full-length releases always take longer to write about, and I get antsy, so let this post and the tracklist just be that little teaser for the upcoming review, hopefully coming sometime this week if I’m lucky.

Of note – there are a few copies on Discogs right now, and while it is subscription-only, Merge has been making their 30th anniversary records available in indie record stores on standard black vinyl. As for digital, it will probably come out on all the usual services, since their last release (Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible covered by A Giant Dog) is available digitally.

A1. Coco Hames – Keep Your Christmas
A2. The Essex Green – Green Christmas
A3. Mike Krol – Won’t Be Alone Tonight
A4. Mac McCaughan & Annie Hayden – Down We Go (Sledding Song)
A5. Fruit Bats – Baby In The Hay
A6. Apex Manor – White Christmas
A7. William Tyler – Jesus Christ
B1. Hiss Golden Messenger & Lucinda Williams – Christmastime In Prison
B2. Eric Bachmann – I Was Made For Losing You
B3. Telekinesis – Christmas Time Is Here (Uh Oh)
B4. Mikal Cronin – Christmastime Heist
B5. Will Butler – Love Asked Me To Stay
B6. Tracyanne & Danny – Santa, Don’t Say No
B7. Shout Out Louds – Blue Christmas

LISTEN

Lachlan Denton & Studio Magic “This Christmas” (2019)

Lachlan Denton & Studio Magic - This Christmas

Bobo Integral / Spunk Records / Osborne Again
Buy: Bandcamp

Melbourne’s Lachlan Denton, best known for his work in The Ocean Party, has written one of the most honest and heartbreaking Christmas songs that I’ve ever heard. “This Christmas” is written for Lachlan’s brother Zac, who passed away suddenly last year. This song is bourne out of grief, and while the words are Lachlan’s, the sentiment is everyone’s. That first Christmas without someone you hold dear… is a Christmas of sadness, but also simple memories that suddenly have so much more importance. This is a painful song, while being a truly beautiful one. Zac would be proud.

Bottom Line: Lachlan shares his grief with us, and we are blessed he did.

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

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.

LISTEN

Fowler VW presents A Blackwatch Christmas Vol. VIII: The Sounds of the Season (2018) + WIN SOME VINYL!

Fowler VW/Blackwatch Studios
Buy:
Bandcamp (NYOP)

This season has been… long. I’ve been working until 9:30 a bunch, and still have things like laundry, dishes and the various domestic duties that we do as we strive not to look like a hoarder. I’m beginning to see the sun, or normalcy at the very least. And as those clouds part, I begin to catch up… and I have the pleasure of basking in the ALWAYS excellent Fowler VW and Blackwatch Studios release! The Sounds of the Season is their best one yet – and that is a high bar to clear. And you know what, there isn’t a version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” anywhere to be found! These are originals! Now, lets talk favorites… WAIT A SECOND – I LIKE THIS WHOLE THING! From the 70s groove of Sports, to Home Alone-inspired indiepop of Chair Model and the relaxed indie rock of Spaceface featuring LABRYS – this record will take your party to wonderful places. There are a whole handful of tracks on here that I have on my shortlist for next year… this record is fantastic.

BUT WAIT – THERE IS MORE! I live in Virginia, but continually find myself jealous of everything going on in Norman, Oklahoma. Fowler VW and its ownership are incredibly involved in making their town a better place, often taking part in efforts to help fund the public schools, as well as being great patrons of the arts in their community. This holiday season, I’ve been watching them promote Wrap Up Homelessness. This program sells locally designed wrapping paper, and is coordinated by the Curbside Chronicle, which is a street paper that “provides employment and empowerment to men and women transitioning out of homelessness.” Last year they helped get 41 people off the street and back into housing, which is pretty damn incredible. You know what else is incredible? There is some wrapping paper designed by Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips! So, you know that paper is crazy awesome! I would like to take this moment and encourage you to order some paper, or simply donate some money to this fantastic cause. Fowler VW does so much for their local community, but they also do so, so much for our alternative Christmas music community as well. As an added bonus, if you order some wrapping paper or donate to Curbside Chronicle, then tweet me, FB me, or e-mail proof that you did (screenshot will do!), you will be entered to win a copy of THE SOUNDS OF THE SEASON on VINYL! I’ve got a couple copies sitting here for you… so lets all show some Christmas spirit, help those in need and give thanks to those who bring us this great music year after year.

THE FINE PRINT: I got these LPs a little later than I had hoped, as the mail lost the first shipment, so they are likely not going to get to you by Christmas. BUT YOU CAN JAME TO THIS 1) Whenever OR 2) NEXT CHRISTMAS! This contest will run from Dec. 17-21, and you can email me at christmasunderground(at)gmail.com, tweet at me @xmasunderground, or comment on the Facebook post for this entry. Please use the hashtage #fowlervwisawesome whenever entering, either in your tweet/FB post or email subject line. I will choose a few folks at random, and ship you some records. UNFORTUNATELY, this offer is NOT open to our international friends. It costs about $24 to ship ONE LP outside the country. I’m terribly sorry… I just can’t afford to do it.

Bottom Line: I love a record you can enjoy all the way through. Fowler VW and Blackwatch Studio continue this glorious tradition, and somehow keep getting better!

LISTEN

Joyful Noise Recordings’ Holiday Party Vol. 2 (2018)

Joyful Noise Recordings
Buy: 7″ Lathes | Bandcamp

Joyful Noise has done it again! Those delicious little lathe-cuts are back for a second season – only 100 of each song. You buy a snowflake, you get all the tunes! Or, you can pay $10 and just get the songs. Some highlights from this year are the Netherlands-based Eerie Wanda‘s cover of Yoko Ono’s “Listen, The Snow is Falling” and the Low Anthem‘s original “Fairy on Top of The Christmas Tree.” The crazy part about this whole project is that these songs are all tracked in one hour! They roll them in, figure out their parts (the bands also bleed over into each other’s tracks), and lay it down. In addition, 100% of the net proceeds will be donated to Second Helpings, a non-profit that rescues perishable food, to feed people in need, all while providing culinary job training for disadvantaged adults. Now that sounds like a plan!

Bottom Line: These snowflakes are for a good cause, and with a lineup like Kishi Bashi, Danielson, No Joy amongst many other notable purveyors of indie rock, it is certainly worth checking out.

LISTEN

Whyte Horses “Next Year Will Be Mine / Coldest Night of the Year” (2018)

CRC Records
Buy: Limited 7″ | iTunes | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

Truly, what more can I say about this record? First, Snowflakes Christmas Singles wrote a full history of them! If you dig this – then please go there and find out all about them… you’ll find that this is an indie super-project of sorts! That said – If there is one release this holiday season that all my blogger friends can seem to get behind, it is most certainly this one. Manchester’s Whyte Horses have put together a fantastic double-A-sided 7″, with one original and a perfectly-chosen cover on the flip. “Next Year Will Be Mine,” in all its Phil Spector-glory, will leave folks at your Christmas party asking “who sings this??” The mistakes, problems, and shit of the last year are a memory – replaced by a hope that this new year is going to be different. The content is pretty heavy at times, but the music wraps it up in beautiful paper, a wonderful dichotomy indeed. The cover, “Coldest Night of the Year,” is pitch-perfect. Lucy Styles and Natalie McCool’s vocals both have an uncanny Vashti Bunyan-quality, while the orchestration’s subtle changes are just beautiful. This whole thing is a standout of the season.

Bottom Line: Whyte Horses have laid down the first release that everyone I know loves, and since I know you… so you will love it too.

LISTEN