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.
London’s Night Flowers are known for dropping excellent Christmas singles every yearor so, and last year was no different. Hey, I should have written about it! But that is the problem with running a Christmas music blog – everything comes out all at once. “Snowfall,” Night Flowers’ first original Christmas song since 2016, is an absolute joy of a song. Their jangly guitars light the spark, as the bass and drums feed the flames surrounding these beautiful harmonies, creating a warm feeling of nostalgia that is only heightened by the holiday season. This song is a pure winner, and a total layup had I had the sense to write about it last year.
Bottom Line: Night Flowers return with perhaps their greatest holiday track yet. There truly is something in the indiepop water over there in London… you gotta export that shit.
I love pretty things. I hate pretty things. I find no contradiction in this. I can be both blown away by an amazing voice, and find another one boring as fuck. There is no rhyme or reason to what captures my ear, and Münster, Germany’s The Fisherman and his Soul are proof-positive of that. I am delighted by this song. I find his voice both unimpressive and perfect. “Christmas Tree Bright as a Lighthouse” is glorious indiepop, paired with dense lyrics that require the steady hands of a surgeon to dissect; A fascinating nut of a song that entices you to take a crack at it. But truly, I also love the visual of that title. I can picture that tree… and it makes me smile.
Bottom Line: I honestly don’t know who I would recommend this track to, but I’m pretty positive that some of you will feel the same way.
Faye and the Scrooges are one of those hidden gems that only our little community of weirdo Christmas music will ever know about. Why? Well, the band exists only in the context of these delicious, one-off Christmas singles, hopefully to be finished before the big day. 2019’s offering is classic Faye and the Scrooges, blending poppy melodies and profane language with equal parts of the bitterness and sugary sweetness found in the holiday season. I only wish I could have given them the last-minute PR bump “Christmas Is Lit” deserved… but alas, 2019 ended as a portent of things to come… with me quite sick and exhausted. Perhaps this little gem will help you claw your way out of the funk of 2020, as it has certainly helped me.
Bottom Line: Faye and the Scrooges don’t come out to play every year, but when they do, you know the song will certainly make it onto your playlist.
Someone has managed the previously unimaginable… gotten me off my ass to write about Christmas music. Berlin’s The Romantidote drew me in with that clever-as-fuck name, then kept me listening with those clever-as-fuck lyrics. He hears the same old trite music, observes the fascist bloviating of his uncle and the drunkenness of his dad, and yet still finds that moment of hope and cheer.
“Change the channel over to a choir of children
Their voices singing faces smiling ear to ear
No that’s a snowflake melting just below my eye dear
It’s not a yearly drop of sentimental seasonal good cheer
See your drunken family round the dinner table
Look out through the window as the snowfall starts
There are so many other days to be a humbug
So maybe just for this one you could show the world a bit of heart”
The music is big, full of color and momentum. It is not like I don’t like the treatment, but I would love to hear a stripped-down version as well. After hearing his voice on some other tracks (check out his Soundcloud!), I feel like the sugary-sweet instrumentation can make his voice sound almost too sweet at times. I dunno… just a thought. This song could go from really good to fucking great with a tweak or two.
An added bonus to this track – all proceeds go to Tiny Changes, the mental health charity started in the memory of Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchinson, who I miss terribly.
Bottom Line: Isn’t it amazing that we live in a time where we are acknowledging the creep of fascism in Christmas songs? Crazy times. The Romantidote has crafted a really good track for your mix, which will lighten the sonic mood, as well as make a jab at any of your relatives who might have strayed from the path of our shared humanity.
I would normally either get their email, flip out, and post the new Christmas Aguilera song within the span of 20 minutes. This year, it came a bit late, when my time is in high demand to go get this out of the attic, to go to the store, to finish up that laundry before everyone gets here. So, while my post comes late, perhaps you’ve found “Icicle Trickle” before I’ve told you about it, and thus you have an extra day to enjoy it during the proper seasonal setting. This seventh release by one of the great Christmas bands working is also their most funky. While the very beginning has the boys channeling Queen, they quickly transition to cheeky Grapes & Friends’ boogie-down territory. The lyrics are a trip:
Be my tinsel
And wrap yourself around my tree
Make me grin so
Let’s keep it going for a week
I love you too much
Your foot’s on my clutch
Though Christmas is beyond my skillset
Stuck in this sweater
It’s scratchy as heck
Jump in that’s better
Gonna stay forever in this pickle
Until the Icicle Trickles
The overt sexual innuendo is nothing new to Christmas Aguilera, as that is part of what made me love them with their first self-titled EP, with the fantastic “I Wanna Give You a Present” setting a great, playful tone. However, then they manage to sneak this beautiful line in amongst the silliness, “Yeah Christmas holidays / Make them every day / And stretch this elastic band of love.” What a line! The production on this latest is a rich as ever, making you wonder how they heck they pull it together at the last minute like this – they only had a CA song meeting a few weeks ago! Be sure to check out their regular gig, Guilt Coins, who also recorded a remarkable cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River” this year.
Bottom Line: Bands like Christmas Aguilera are why I write this blog. A true pleasure every year that they bless us with a song.
Always a joy to find a new Saintseneca song in my mailbox, whether it is a holiday song or not. This Columbus, Ohio band have put out some of the most sonically and lyrically interesting Christmas songs over the past few years, nearly making this a holiday tradition. Unsurprisingly, “Winter Breaking” fits beautifully inside of their bespoke holiday soundtrack. The song takes place as everyone goes their own way for winter break. There are some beautiful passages here: “The night before you get picked up / I stop by your new place / you got a dog and a sawed-off / say they make you feel safe / some old soul song is changing all the air around the room / you say you hear the sadness in the singer’s voice / maybe I do too.” Man… that is a movie in my head. The music is warm, his voice is genuine, and the lyrics are interesting – a perfect Christmas blend.
Bottom Line: Saintseneca are just a fantastic band. I just assumed the song would be great when I saw it was released, and yup, it is.
If you buy this today on Bandcamp, BE SURE to download it. I have learned the hard way recently. Nothing is forever.
After a long absence, Detroit’s The Strange Echo (fka Computer Perfection) have begun making fun noises again. Earlier in the year, they shared 2 tracks they recorded with Camelot Six, including a fantastic cover of the Talking Heads’ “This Must be the Place (Naive Melody).” I saw this come through my Soundcloud feed, got very excited, but then saw that they were originally recorded back in 2010. Crestfallen, I sunk back into the Soundcloud black hole… hoping for a light to flicker once more. Then, a few weeks back, some instrumental tracks began showing up on their profile (since deleted). From the title… it really suggested a holiday/Christmas song. Well.. what do you know. The indiepop goodness of “We Can Weather Winter” was released today, and I’m quite happy to have The Strange Echo grace my blog once more. The steady drum beat, the walking keyboard melody, and the slow swing of the bassline evoke the calming slow repetition of falling snow. What a lovely return – may we have many more visits from you.
Bottom Line: In a day of comebacks (Cherry Ghost), The Strange Echo has returned with a beautiful wintery gift.
Manchester’s Cherry Ghost is back with his first track in five years. Hell, Wikipedia has the entire entry in the past tense, so, apparently, this return is more unexpected than anticipated. Their return is a whopper though, with the cheekily-titled “Blue Christmas.” I know, you and I both thought… this must be another crap cover. NO! This is one of the more explicitly political songs of the season. Written only 24 hours before the announcement of the final results of the UK election, Cherry Ghost (Simon Aldred) lays down a song of sarcastic, fantastical hopes shouted into a bag and doused in jingle bells. Dig this first verse:
I hope that Santa Claus gets you a conscience this Christmas
I hope he leaves a beating heart underneath your tree
I hope you wake up to the taste of your hypocrisy
So when you proudly raise a toast to humanity
You realize you turned a blind eye to the cruelty
We all know that isn’t going to happen. But even as brutal as this song is, there is some hope at the end.
We’re only as strong as the weakest among us
We’ll be alright just as long as we have love
We have love
All proceeds go to Lifeshare, helping homeless and vulnerable people in Manchester and Salford. I’m sure Boris is quite concerned about those folks… (how do I properly express sarcasm in print…. hmmm…)
Bottom Line: A short, sharp, political gem indeed. I doubt it will shame anyone into changing their minds… but it is a cathartic listen nonetheless.
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.