2020 Addition: This COVID/anxiety-riddled/dumpster fire of a year has brought few bright moments. Today is an exception (for the moment), as one of my favorite Christmas records of the past few years is reintroduced to the world on beautiful, red-marbled vinyl. Zach Malm‘s The Darkest time of Year has been released in a limited pressing of 100 copies, and I strongly suggest that one of those copies should be yours. Heck, there is even a bonus song that wasn’t on the original release! This is your chance to have a fantastic private-press Christmas record that future generations of weirdo Christmas music fans will be alllllll about. Let us take a moment to look back upon my 2018 review of this beautiful record that completely floored me.
December can overwhelm a tired Christmas-music blogger. Often, the casualties of a lack of time and a wealth of music, are the large compilation and the full album. Singles are so much quicker to consume and write about. Seattle’s Zach Malm was a casualty of last year, as he put out a very interesting experimental, electronic pop record that I did not get to, and most certainly deserves our 2018 ears. There are some damn interesting songs on here, many of which are awash in a Novation Bass Station II synth. Zach’s cover of “Walking in the Air” has a fantastic buzzing bassline powered by that synth, as well as these great fluttering melodies interspersed throughout; It is truly beautiful. Zach’s wonderful original “Magical Night,” is much less electro, bringing in guitars while crafting a beautifully sweet song about a child’s anticipation of Christmas. It is simple, poignant and wholly mix-worthy. Zach’s other originals, “Christmastime is Always,” “The Darkest Time of the Year,” and “Half the Fruit” all reflect the album’s title in a way the sweet “Magical Night” did not. They are dark, but with these brilliant moments of light, such as this line in “Half the Fruit:”
If nothing else, we still have Christmas If nothing else, we still have Jesus And even though the meaning changes If nothing else, we still have Christmas
Zach has created a true album – the “Kid Conversation” tracks are great on their own, but not really “songs” – but they work beautifully, stitching together this wonderful collection of largely original, both in content and approach, Christmas tunes. Zach has nailed it with this one, and you should check it out (as well as forgive me for not getting to this fantastic record last year).
Bottom Line: Zach Malm has created a wonderfully cohesive record – a true Christmas album – beautiful to listen to in its entirety.
What more can you say? Nobody does it like this Fowler VW/Blackwatch Studios crew. For nine years now, they have released the most consistently-wonderful Christmas compilation out there. The quality of their releases makes you marvel at how it is humanly possible to achieve. Well… this year… I asked.
The project began with Fowler Volkswagon owner Jonathan Fowler and his friend/marketing partner Mary Ann Osko. They were kicking around ideas for how to tie the recently-opened Fowler VW to the arts community in Norman, Oklahoma. A number of ideas were floated until a Christmas record was settled upon, as Jonathan and Mary Ann were into Christmas music, and Jonathan’s wife was a Christmas vinyl collector. It was in this convergence of interests that the first and only yearly, underground Christmas compilation that is pressed on vinyl was born. They initially began working with Chris Harris at Echo Sound, releasing the first compilation, Checking it Twice – The 2010 Nice People Holiday Companion (Seen in the photo on the right! That record is fantastic!). The project moved over to Blackwatch in 2011, as Fowler imagined moving the record around to various studios in the area, but the 2011 edition (and first dual-branded edition), Fowler Volkswagon presents A Blackwatch Christmas, was such a success that it just kinda stuck.
Of note, that first compilation in 2010 features Norman, Oklahoma’s Samantha Crain, who also contributed the spellbinding cover of John Denver’s “Christmas for Cowboys” on this year’s album.
I was definitely curious about the process of putting this thing together. How do they get these bands to contribute? How can they be sure that the songs they get will be any good? Blackwatch producer/engineer/musician Jarod Evans was very helpful in explaining the behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts of the whole project. Fowler and Blackwatch will often start mapping out the record in February, sometimes with a concept in mind (A Blackwatch Christmas Vol III (Holly-Tonk & Jingle Beats)), but more often than not, the theme comes together as the tracks and artwork are being finalized. While the compilation has broadened its pool of bands to include many wonderful, in and out-of-state bands, their heart remains in Norman. “The local music community in Norman is filled with lots and lots of old, close friends,” Evans says. “There’s always a deep Rolodex of friends of the studio to call upon.” The approach to what song they’ll record, or how they’ll go about it, is quite fluid. “Sometimes we ask artists to write a song in advance, then bring it in to record,” says Evans. “Other times, we invite artists to just come in with an open mind so we can write and develop something together.” Jarod and his Blackwatch partner, musician/producer/engineer Chad Copelin, will also take the opportunity to write a song, then call someone in to sing or help write lyrics over the track; It turns out there are many ways to skin a cat or write a Christmas song. The loose, varied approach perfectly highlights the important main thread running through this whole endeavor, the taste level that Blackwatch brings to the table. Christmas compilations are notoriously spotty in quality, and there has not been a dud in this bunch. From the planning and production, to the vinyl pressing and the release party, the sheer amount of work and dedication the Folwer and Blackwatch team have to put this record out every year is just astounding. These records are a beautiful distillation of their love of art, music, Christmas, and Norman, Oklahoma. It is truly inspiring.
The 2019 edition, Christmas in Color, is yet another triumph. I am not one to go track-by-track, and I’m not going to start now… too much to live up to with too little time! However, I’m going to pull out a few of my favorites – and please know… the entire record is great, and taste is subjective! You will probably love a song I didn’t write about. So here it goes!
Right out of the gate, Oklahoma City’s LCG & the X unleash the best version of “Last Christmas” that I have heard this year. There are only a few versions of this Wham! classic that I consider listenable, let alone truly love… and they managed to do it with their DETAILS. Created in concert with producer Jarod Evans, the song’s beat becomes funky, with added electro-pop flourishes and what sounds like bongos(?) bouncing around in the background. I am on board for this madness.
After grooving to that amazing “Last Christmas” cover, did I think I would fall in love with a melancholy slow jam? No. However, San Francisco’s Mini Trees, you got me immediately me with those saxophones. The fluttering brass lines have this quality that raises the hair on the back of your neck – a perfect mixture of beauty, unexpectedness, and comfort. There are some great lines in here too, my favorite being, “I know at times it feels foolish / but we all need something to believe.” Capturing a large idea simply is one of the toughest things to do, and Mini Dresses nails it.
Husbands (Yes, THAT Husbands!) are making their Fowler/Blackwatch debut (maybe? They might be in one of the “fake” bands… dunno!) with a truly 100%-pure Husbands’ track, “Santa is a Lie.” Their sonic landscape and wry sense of humor have always made them truly distinctive in the alt-Christmas universe, and this dream-pop dirge is a perfect example of what they do best.
The second appearance of the John Denver “Christmas for Cowboys” is a completely different affair from the synth-driven The Good Tidings version. Samantha Crain‘s version conveys an otherworldly, emotional quality. From the white noise ambiance of an old recording to Samantha’s phrasing of the familiar lyrics, she transforms this song to another time. You’re immersed in how much they love their place on the range; It no longer feels like a song, but a life. Samantha is channeling something here.
There is so much more on this record, from the sexy fun of Colourmusic’s “Christmas Dreams,” to the wordplay of Jake Tittle‘s “Captain Morgan” and the timelessness of Twigg’s “Meltin with You,” this is the best Fowler VW & Blackwatch compilation yet. There is not one skippable track on here… and that is nearly unheard of in the world of Christmas compilations.
Bottom Line: The view from way up on top of the mountain must be pretty great for Fowler VW and Blackwatch, because they’ve been building a beautiful place up there at the top of the indie Christmas world.
I should just leave the review with that, in that those who understand, those in the know, would just see that and buy the record. However, I’m not going to be so presumptuous, and think that every single person reading my blog already knows the Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club. This label is devoted wholly to Christmas music, creating a yearly tradition of 3-4 limited 7″ vinyl Christmas singles, featuring a wide array of fantastic bands contributing an A-side original seasonal song, with a B-side cover of their choosing. Paris trio SuperBravo is a particular highlight for me this year. Their original, “La Nuit” is Pinback-esque in rhythm and melody, but with these fascinating noises interjected throughout. Honestly, Snowflakes’ writeup captured it pretty damn well: “The song itself sounds like magic, as a fairytale come to life, with strange little creatures making weird sounds, angels harmonizing ‘Noel Noel’ and dreamy vocals – as dreamy as only French female vocals can sound.” This truly sounds like no other Christmas song I’ve heard, and that is most welcome.
The B-side, “Chanson Pour Les Enfants l’Hiver” (‘Song For The Children Of The Winter’) is a poem published by Jacques Prévert in 1946. Their take collages sounds overtop a chiptune/toytronica base, which wonderfully frames how classicly French-pop Armelle Pioline’s vocals are; They add beauty to every canvas they touch. This is a solid one-two punch of a Christmas single.
Bottom Line: Fascinating French pop that bends the genre to its will.
Memphis psych-rock taco afficianados Spaceface are quickly building a reputation for their badass Christmas songs. 2018 saw Spaceface release two holiday tracks, their woozy psych rendition of “Christmas Time is Here,” as well as their collaboration with LABRYS (Penny of Broncho), “Single Star,” which was a highlight from Fowler VW presents A Blackwatch Christmas Vol. VIII: The Sounds of the Season. This year (so far), they are releasing a lathe-cut, limited to 68 copies, naughty psych-rock jam called “Xmas Party (Nice & Naughty).” This song is an orgy for the ears, with a groove that recalls the kind of party music that Grapes and Friends throw down, combined with the naughty voiceover styles of Ryan Lindsey (of Broncho). Sandwich this song within a playlist, and who knows what is gonna happen. There does not appear to be a digital download of this… yet.
Bottom Line: This groove should sustain you all for a good while!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Bottom Line: Click and buy. It’ll be better than most Christmas records, and could possibly be great.