Christmas Underground (2001)

christmas-underground

bumbleBEAR/Planting Seeds Records
Buy: Discogs Good luck!

It was only a matter of time until I reviewed the inspiration for my blog’s title. Christmas Underground was a 2001 release by Planting Seeds Records & bumbleBEAR Records, with the 30+ tracks (some are just greetings) shared by both their indiepop/lo-fi rosters. I wish I could say that it was the gem that I was hoping it would be. The main reason I hunted this comp down was the slight overlap with Kindercore Records Christmas 2, one of my absolute favorite Christmas records of all time. When I say slight, I truly mean slight – I think one band overlaps, The Wee Turtles. Their track, “By Golly, They’ve Dehydrated Christmas,” is one of two tracks that I can come back to. The other is The National Splits “Let’s Wrap Each Other,” which is a frolicking song that begins with “My nose just started to bleed / and there’s grass stains on my jeans / aw, there’s your red and your green.” I just like the attitude that comes off that song. Bugs Eat Books also contribute “Waiting on the Sun,” which has a nice atmosphere and contains the title amongst its lyrics. The rest of the album has some somewhat passable originals and traditional songs (which I normally find quite boring), but it also has some stuff that I just can’t listen to for more than 15 seconds.

Bottom Line: Could be the victim of high expectations – I can admit that. That doesn’t change the fact that I just don’t enjoy most of this record.  2.3/5

LISTEN

The National Splits – Let’s Wrap Each Other

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Peace on Earth (2007)

Peace on Earth

Hard to Find a Friend
Buy: Maybe here?

The first of two compilations by the much-missed blog, Hard to Find a Friend. Somehow, this blog was able to assemble exclusive songs by some relatively big names (indie big), to benefit Toys for Tots. This is a good-enough release that it would certainly sell, and make more money for Toys for Tots if it were available on Bandcamp. I have made an effort to contact them in the past, but to no avail. So, the link for vol. 1 is still “live,” but I have no idea if the purchase will work. Perhaps they will find my post and remedy the situation…

There are plenty of tracks to highlight from this release… so I’m going to rattle off a few of them quickly, with embedded tracks where available.

The record begins with “Shepherd’s Song” by The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers. What a band name! Well, I am led to believe that this track is not exclusive, because they released a Christmas EP years ago which is well out-of-print. Certainly a beautiful tune that is worth your time.

Quiet Company give a rocking rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which is not something you tend to hear. A great treatment that doesn’t fit into the traditional mold.

Great Lake Swimmers‘ “Gonna Make it Through This Year” is a FANTASTIC song that made a mix of mine a few years ago. Lucky for us, they have made it available elsewhere!

Someone Still Love You Boris Yeltsin & Sweetwater Abilene‘s “The Wheels are Off” is equally wonderful – and just like the GLS track, much more focused on the end of the year, rather than Christmas… but that’s fine by me!

David Karsten Daniels‘ rendition of “In the Bleak Midwinter” is as slow and haunting as one would expect, and while it does not reinvent the version that many like to attempt, it may be one of the best of the bunch.

Casiotone for the Painfully Alone‘s “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is an instrumental rendition of the song, with a hip-hop beat behind it that adds much more interest than I would expect. Certainly a good version if you’re into the more traditional stuff, with a very nice twist.

The Winston Jazz Routine‘s “Through the Snow” is a gorgeous acoustic song that would fit perfectly in that contemplative section of your mix.

The Long Winters‘ “Sometimes You have to Work on Christmas” is a great indie rock Christmas song, reminding me of when all my friends worked in coffee shops, restaurants and record stores.

Ohtis‘ “American Christians” is a fantastic track… and I can’t find THIS version anywhere. They have 2 other version on their website, free for download. They vary slightly, the one on their proper record, and the one on their demos record. I am particular to this version… but below is the LP version.

Aaron Robinson‘s “End of the Year” completes the trifecta of great year-ending themed songs. This is a fantastic tune, and I do hope that Aaron hunts it down for his Bandcamp site soon (It may have been lost in a hard drive crash!).

Some songs, such as the Chris Walla track, left me undwhelmed, but I have to say, that feels like a MINORITY of tracks. There are still some great tunes I didn’t highlight, but those above are my favorite ones. Certainly the tracks by Via Audio, TW Walsh, and American Music Club are worth checking out (Full tracklist here). If you try to buy it, and are successful, please let me know in the comments.

Bottom Line: One of the top Christmas compilations I have – so many good songs, and for a good cause. Wish it was as easy as a Bandcamp site to purchase though. 4.5/5

Jesse Malin “Fairytale of New York” (2008)

One Little Indian
Buy: Discogs (CD) | iTunes

Jesse Malin has been on my radar since his first solo record, The Fine Art of Self Destruction (which also has a Christmas tune…). Yes, I missed his days in D Generation, but I am not Superman, and I give myself a pass. In 2008, Jesse put out a covers record, and I dutifully picked it up. To my delight, track 12 became my absolute favorite cover of “Fairytale of New York” that I’ve ever heard. Jesse Malin and Bree Sharp have a grittiness to their version that I love about the original, but Malin’s distinctive voice and phrasing really gives his version its own life. Again, this is one of Jesse’s multiple Christmas tunes (which I may cover later), so if you are intrigued, certainly do a bit more digging.

Bottom Line: Makes it his own, without washing the bits of grit and grime from the original. Loses points only because that .2 goes to the original. 4.8/5

This Christmas (with Anthologies and Hide & Seek) (2012)

This Christmas (with Anthologies and Hide & Seek) (2012)

Anthologies / Hide & Seek Records
Buy: Donate

A very admirable, and higher quality (than most) charity compilation by Anthologies has come out two years in a row now, and I do hope it becomes a yearly seasonal occurrence. Donation amounts are left up to the giver, and all proceeds go towards supporting the homeless.

While I must admit, there was nothing that I fell in love with, I found it a very listenable compilation. The Birthday Kiss‘ “Sentimental Christmastime” was released outside of this compilation first, but is certainly a welcome addition. I happen to be a fan of The Lodger, so a Lodger side-project (The Birthday Kiss) will always garner a bit more attention from me. Dancing Club’s “Silent Night” brings new phrasing and instrumentation to what I normally find a very boring song. His voice is odd, yet good enough to be interesting – and I do love a banjo. Finally, These Men‘s “How Come You’re Only Nice to Me at Christmas,” is another to check out – great lyrics, nice music and short – always a bonus. The rest of the record is certainly listenable, and your personal song preferences will likely direct you to like songs that I might simply cross off out of my personal prejudices. For example, I hate “Wonderful Christmastime.” HATE it. So, that’s me.

Bottom Line: Good cause and overall very listenable. Keep em coming Anthologies. 3.8/5

LISTEN

Jens Lekman “I Don’t Know What to Do With This Information” (2011)

Jens Lekman

Self-Released
Buy: Stream

Its been a whopping week or so since I’ve written about Jens Lekman. What can I say, he’s top-5 all-time for me. However, this may be my last post about Jens for a good while, in that I don’t know of any other Jens’ Christmas tunes. Please feel free to correct me, and subsequently, make me forever in your debt.

“I Don’t Know What to Do With This Information” has only been performed live so far, with a very high quality version coming from a Maida Vale Session back in 2011. Such a sad song, not in the sentimental way that “Christmas Shoes” (BARF) is, but with a realism that brings it a little close to home, even if you haven’t specifically lived through something like that. Its called empathy and Jens brings it out well.

Bottom Line: So, so very sad. I can’t bring it over 4 because I just can’t listen to such a sad song over and over again. 3.9/5

LISTEN

Super Furry Animals “The Gift that Keeps Giving” (2007)

Super Furry Animals - Hey Venus

Rough Trade
Buy: Discogs (CD/LP) | 7Digital FLAC/MP3 | iTunes

Super Furry Animals have a wonderful little Christmas song hidden away on their 2007 release, Hey Venus, which you need to become aquatinted with. Also released as a Dec. 25, 2007 free download from their website, “The Gift that Keeps Giving” is the Christmas single that Gruff Rhys believed needed to be on a SFA “pop record.” Its such a sweet song, but of course, Gruff Rhys and the SFA can’t be believed as sweet, sentimental artists. The video certainly expresses their true intentions, a disturbing sendup of commercial Christmas, which makes it much more fun.

Bottom Line: Love this song. Love this band. Buy the whole record: It’s all good. 5/5

LISTEN

Annie Hall / Gonzo48K – Goldenbread (2007)

Goldenbread cover

Pipolla Music
Buy: CD (Italy)

High hopes are never a good place to start. Though I know you should never judge a book by its cover, a swedish indie pop band named Annie Hall checks three of my boxes: Swedish, indiepop and a Woody Allen reference. How could it go wrong? Well, first off, this thing was a huge pain to get ahold of. You can’t order from the label (they do not ship to the US), and thus I had to get it from France, and pay more in shipping than the CD cost. Not looking good already, because if you know this blog, cost to obtain certainly plays into the overall rating.

Annie Hall begins the disc with “Morning News,” a fine-enough little song that I can’t for the life of me figure out how its seasonal. Their second song, “Walk Around,” does begin with “It’s Christmas time / Here’s an old song / for a new year.” They also mention snowballs… but really, its a bit of a downer right out of the gate with the dour music. Not something I really want to listen to again. Bummer.

Gonzo48K is the Japanese wildcard of this release – I really had no expectations, as I don’t listen to much Japanese indiepop. “Snowman’s Tears” has the kind of music that I wish Annie Hall had – upbeat, poppy, certainly in a Swede-pop vein. The lyrics, well… “So darling / You make me colder / you make me older / you close my folder?” Not exactly what I’m looking for, but really, english is their second language and they write better songs in English than I do in Japanese. “Turn off the Radio” is a much better attempt. It may even be on a shortlist for future mixes… I dig the backing beat, and the lyrics are much better: “Walk through the street light / in the Christmas time / Back to the starlight / Where the children write / Turn off the Radio / Turn off the Radio.” Still not quite telling a story, but certainly evocative when complimented by the contemplative backing track. I can’t find it posted anywhere, but you can preview 30 seconds of it on Last.fm.

Bottom Line: Good luck trying to buy it, especially in the US. Certainly not worth the price it cost to import, with only one possible song. Loses points for all the wrong reasons. 1.2/5

LISTEN

Fireflies “Xmas Song” (2007)

Fireflies

Music is My Girlfriend
Buy: Bandcamp | iTunes | CD (Discogs)

A beautiful indiepop Christmas tune is hard for me to ignore. Fireflies hit the nail on the head with “Xmas Song” back in 2007, and was featured on my 2010 mix, Write About Xmas. The melancholy, the atmosphere, the brevity… it has it all. While it certainly borders on twee, its so good that those twee-phobes you are friends with may even find this song palatable. As an added bonus (and what prompted me to write this entry), Fireflies has added At Home to his Bandcamp. At Home is a collection demos, alternate version and unreleased songs, and at “name your own price” is a wonderful place to begin. On this record you will find a demo version of “Xmas Song,” along with two other mix possibilities, “Snowstorm (Original Demo)” and “Winter Has Come.”

I’ll get back to the tougher reviews when I get a bit more free time.

Bottom Line: Pure indiepop gold. 5/5

LISTEN

Jens Lekman – Christmas in San Francisco (2011)

Jens-Lekman

Self-Released
Buy: Free!

Lets get this ball rolling again.

This is the second of my series of Jens Lekman posts. What prompted me to so quickly dive back into the Jens Lekman catalogue? Well, he updated his website yesterday, and seems to suggest that he sold only 16 records last year. While I find this absolutely baffling, I would still like you to take a moment and discover Jens’ music if you haven’t already. If you are already a fan, you may be excited to know that he is presently accepting orders directly from his home for signed CDs at a “pay what you wish” price point, as long as you also cover postage. Normally I would jump all over this, but I already have all his records, and had the pleasure of meeting him a few years ago and he graciously signed my 12″ of When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog.

Enough exposition about Jens and why he needs the support of those who love him, and those who have yet (but most certainly will) to love him. Back in 2011, Jens surprised us with a small present on his Smalltalk blog, a modest, 3-song zip file of holiday piano pieces he wrote in San Francisco back in 2005 – hence the title. They are all instrumental, but each quite lovely. Certainly a worthy pickup for its price: Free. Take that money you saved by not having to buy anything and buy one of his other records, for yourself or for a friend.

Bottom Line: Simple, thoughtful piano pieces from one of my absolute favorite artists. For the price, it cannot be beat. In the right context, I might even sneak it on to a mix. 5/5