24 (2021)

Where It’s At Is Where You Are
Buy: Bandcamp

One of the great indiepop labels has spring a wonderful collection of 24 holiday-themed songs on us this year – and for those early preorder folks, the opportunity to a hand-knit wool sleeve. Where It’s At is Where You Are (WIAIWYA) has a wonderful track record of indiepop holiday releases, most notably (for me) Christmastime, Approximately, which features a couple tracks that have featured on my yearly mixes. Let me just say… when more than one track off a comp ends up on a mix… that is a BFD. Compilations are always a roll of the dice, because you’ve got a whole mess of different styles, tastes, etc all coming together – and art is subjective! To have more than one song hit YOU specifically makes that entire record feel even more important by association.

24 features… you guessed it, 24 tracks, which I cannot bring myself to cover fully. I have NEVER come close to a comprehensive review of a record of this size… so please take the time to explore those other tracks that I am not singling out here. Once more, art is subjective, and the Christmas mix I would make does not come close to sounding like the one my friend Ned would… so let’s go exploring! I’ll open the door for you, now it is your job to walk on in and poke around a bit more.

The record starts out setting that beautiful, upbeat indiepop tone, with a wonderful track by Seattle’s Dolour, “Christmas with My Baby.” I love that first verse, which sets the stage well for 2021, but doesn’t get TOO specific as to pigeonhole it to not be listenable year-after-year: “Last year was such a dreaded affair / the year before that I didn’t even care / basically every year before I had no one to share / the holiday cheer with until you were here / but now this year I can hardly wait / so much joy, there’s no room for hate / let it snow, I don’t mind / as long as I’m here with this true love of mine.” This song has that attitude that I think a lot of us (vaxxed) share this year – the optimism that comes with time and understanding. Grab that person you love and don’t let the shit that surrounds you interfere.

Classic Sarah Records’ Scottish indiepop stalwarts The Orchids slow it down with “I Wish I Was,” a beautiful, nostalgic track that may very well be my favorite (at this moment) on the comp. The vignettes they create of a childhood Christmas, accented by their perfect use of brass color, hit you in the head and heart with equal force. Just beautiful.

With my next selection, I invite you to ruin Christmas with Laura and Mike from firestations, aka L&M Kingsize. “We Ruined Christmas” begins by dressing down a Christmas meal, beginning an emotionally complex and fascinating journey. Everything is the same, but you like it that way. You’re miserable, but you’d rather not be at home. We ruined Christmas, can’t wait to see you, same time next year. This song is just kinda fascinating and unexpected.

The BV’s “Krautmas” is more of a groove than a song – those playful guitars over a steady digital beat are as soothing as the first snow flurry. Coming in at track 13, it serves as the perfect intermission between the two halves of the record. Simple and wonderful.

“December Boy” by The Rhynes is the sweetest song on the record. Full of warmth, love, and vocal harmonies, it has some of the best lines on the record as well. I particularly like the first bit here: “You can keep whichever god you’re dreaming of, / but I’ll take all the peace and all the love. / Cause it feels so good to be alive, / We’ve made another December twenty-five. / You make my heart laugh / This December boy’s still got it bad.” If could eat that sentiment for breakfast every day I would.

There are plenty of other great songs on here, the vast majority exclusive to this release. In fact – should you feel so inclined, I’d LOVE to know what YOUR favorite tracks off this record are. Tweet at me (@xmasunderground) or comment here! I may just update this review with your input as well!

Botton Line: As expected from this truly excellent indiepop label, WIAIWYA has delivered yet another underground Christmas classic. Truly enjoyable from front to back, this is one of those rare comps that you can just put on and press play.

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Nicky William – It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (2021)

Icons Creating Evil Art (ICEA)
Buy:
Bandcamp

There is something about Gothenberg that breeds oddly wonderful, crooning indiepop artists. Of course, there is Jens Lekman (a personal favorite)… and now there is Nicky William, certainly a future favorite of mine. I’ve been listening to Nicky’s new Christmas single for a little bit now (it was on Soundcloud earlier than Bandcamp), and it has most certainly grown on me. My initial reaction was, “Well, this is nice, but it is just another cover.” However, a few listens in, and there is just something about the marriage of this classic song, the simple instrumentation, and Nicky’s deep voice that I’ve really fallen for. I find it quite earnest and beautiful, oddly soothing in its nature. However, this pretty song may very well be a divisive Christmas Rorschach test (or what color was that dress test!), as his intention was quite interesting:

Talking about his new single, Nicky William says: ”We wanted to make a version of a classic but still add something new to it. In this song, we tried to add an uncertainty about whether the message in the song was ironic or not, hoping that the listener would have a different experience hearing the song, depending on how they feel about the holiday.”

There is also an “Alte Glühwein Version” (AKA Old Mulled Wine Version) that adds a touch here and there, such as the crackle at the beginning – either an old recording or a warm fire – you choose. Both are quite lovely… or are they quite sad? Just how jaded are my readers… we shall see.

Bottom Line: A beautiful little Christmas test, tailor-made for this Swedish indiepop loving blogger.

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Benjamin Francis Leftwich “Tinsel in the River” (2021)

Dirty Hit
Buy:
Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

The track all over the blogs today is this little, melancholy beauty by Benjamin Francis Leftwich, titled “Tinsel in the River.” I’m going to crib the same quote that everyone else is to give you some background:

“‘Tinsel In The River’ is a song about sitting alone over the Christmas period and reflecting over the previous year of love, loss and what could have been – but flew out of one’s hands… The song is set against the Christmas party season in the town in Yorkshire where I am from. The city comes alive with: the party, the bag, loving fellowship – and also chaos.”

There are some great lines in here, and I’m particularly fond of the second verse:

Now, I’m not one for wishing
On a star so far away
But they’ve made the city glisten
With lights you can’t escape
Well, there’s tinsel in the river
And the world is on the piss
Still I’d carol sing forever
If you turned up on December 25th

The production is simple, airy, and warm – wrapping the song in a snug little package. I don’t really have any notes here – it’s just lovely. I’m guessing some of you are going to love this short little melancholy tune as much as I do.

Bottom Line: Short, emotional, and beautifully produced.

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Sara Noelle “Like Snow (Slowly Falling)” (2021)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

After last year’s wonderful “Christmas at Sea,” Los Angeles’ Sara Noelle just mike make these holiday songs a tradition. Similar to last year, we get one original song and one cover. Hmmm… sounds like Sara needs to hook up with the Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club – cause that’s what they do too! “Like Snow (Slowly Falling)” has left the Bon Iver-reminiscent acoustic/electronic collage of “Christmas at Sea” for much more ethereal production. As the title suggests (by not referencing Christmas), this is much more of a winter tune, which Sara describes as a “wintry song about getting lost in a swirling snow globe of emotions.” I found it to be quite beautiful, and look forward to next year’s edition!

Bottom Line: Emotional and ethereal beauty.

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Daði Freyr “Something Magical” (2021) / “Every Moment is Christmas with You” (2020/2018)

Samlist
Buy:
7Digital MP3 | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

One of the delights I discovered this year in my random Twitter searches was an announcement a month or so ago from the captivating Icelandic indie popster Daði Freyr. So… I check him out. At first glance, the insane videos make you believe that this might just be a joke, but you quickly realize that the songs are absolutely fantastic. As I awaited the new single to drop, I went down the rabbit hole, with every song (and video) poking that spot in my brain that made me smile really, really big. Kinda an uncomfortable, oversize smile that makes you look crazy as if I was in a Daði Freyr video. I was especially happy to find two Christmas songs in Daði Freyr’s back catalogue, though truly… it was only one song – in two different languages! “Every Moment is Christmas with You/Allir dagar eru jólin með þér” has that schmaltzy, classic Christmas crooner feel with modern-synth instrumentation. Be rest assured though, there is a quality to Daði Freyr’s voice that can make schmaltzy go down quite smoothly. The new track, “Something Magical,” is the polar opposite–a short, boogie-down track that is TOTALLY what Chromeo would do if they had made a Christmas song. It is GLORIOUS. I can’t stop fidgeting as I write this review. Just listen to it. This is a Christmas tradition that I am 100% down for.

Christmas-A-Gogo was equally excited for this new track... and 10,000 (or two) Christmas music blogs can’t be wrong!

Bottom Line: Daði Freyr’s mixture of crooning, synths, nostalgia, and humor is Something Magical. How cheesy was that??? You are welcome.

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2020’s “Every Moment is Christmas with You”

2018’s “Allir dagar eru jólin með þér”

Brooke Annibale “Christmas, Happy You’re Here” (2021)

Brooke Annibale - Christmas, Happy You're Here

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

I assume that Providence, RI singer-songwriter Brooke Annibale has been hanging around my house, peering in the windows these past few years. I mean, baking cookies and playing records is pretty much my holiday jam, and I am extraordinarily unique. In “Christmas, Happy You’re Here,” the vignettes Brooke paints of cookies, records, sipping coffee, and spending time with loved ones is what I want to think about when I think about the holidays. I don’t want to think about all those stressful parts that come along, I want to zero in on that wondeful, often unattainable, ideal. I might as well have a beautiful voice with some warm keyboards to guide me there.

Bottom Line: Lovely sentiment lovingly executed.

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John Mark Nelson, Tancred & Jenny Owen Youngs “Fireside” (2021)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

John Mark Nelson & Jenny Owen Youngs are both no strangers to these pixels I call home. They both write thoughtful, introspective seasonal songs, and this year’s collaboration between the two ropes in Jess Abbott (Tancred) to create a Voltron of emotional, gentle, beautiful strumming and plinking. YOU ARE WARNED! Prepare to look INWARD! The lead single “Fireside” is exactly as Jenny describes,” a crisp homage to indoor rumination in December, and keeping warm with loved ones when daylight is brief and winter nights are long.” Nailed it Jenny. Their voices blend beautifully, most especially during the chorus when the song flares like a flame catching that perfect piece of kindling. They also hit that sweet spot at nearly three minutes in length, this song is that perfect blend of short and sweet, as one does not want a cup of hot chocolate to get cold. Delicious!

Bottom Line: Snuggle up next to this song.

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Have Yourself a Dandy X-Mas (2021)

Have Yourself a Dandy X-Mas

Dandy Boy Records
Buy:
Bandcamp

This excellent Dandy Boy Records compilation of Bay-Area bands has been on my radar longer than any other 2021 release… and while a long wait could lead to unrealistic expectations, I am quite happy to express the opposite. This is one of those rare occasions when a compilation is excellent all the way through. With five originals (some previously released as singles by the bands) and one classic cover, each song has a distinctly different feel, yet nothing feels out of place.

The leadoff track, “Christmas in the Tenderloin” by the 1981, is a rollicking wine-soaked singalong.

On “Lonesome Christmas Blues,” Stevie and the Scrooges sing about drugs with swagger and just enough horns to give me that beautiful brass contact high.

The Wind-Ups add a few syllables here and there on “Where are You this Christmas?,” their fantastic fuzzed-out take on the classic “missing you at Christmas trope,” whose ragged edges feel much more realistic to the usual “Baby, Please Come Home” shimmer.

Coctails sound like an indiepop Replacements on their excellent “‘Tis the Season,” with jangly guitars meeting late 80’s indie rock.

FLTY BRGR GRL‘s dreamy song to an ex, appropriately titled “Ex-Mas,” taps into that emotional vein of lost love at Christmas, and draws deep.

The only cover (I think? I’m not an expert, despite having a website) is “I’ll be Home for Christmas” by Yea-Ming and the Rumours. It is an absolutely lovely rendition – delicate but not too precious, and a perfect way to end the record.

Bottom Line: I tip my hat to you Dandy Boy Records, you are floating in rare air. Snag yourself a copy on cassette if you can, as there are only 100 with proceeds going to the bands & Toys for Tots.

The Caraway – Another Christmas Will Come Around This Year (2020/2021)

blue-very label
Buy:
Bandcamp

Do you want some big, happy indiepop Christmas music? Well then! Tokyo’s The Caraway has jangly guitars, jingling bells, and a synth brass section that is destined to get you off your feet and bouncing around. “Another Christmas Will Come Around This Year” was recorded last year, but the indiepop hordes demanded a vinyl release (so I’m told by their Bandcamp page) and viola! Now you can pick up a sweet little 7″, which will give you a bonus seasonal song with a short, strolling version of “Silent Night,” casual whistling and everything! Two additional tracks on the b-side that are just fun, and are not holiday jams… so check them out at your peril!

Bottom Line: TOP-notch indiepop Christmas!

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Hiss Golden Messenger – O Come All Ye Faithful (2021)

Hiss Golden Messenger - O Come All Ye Faithful

Merge Records
Buy: Merge | Bandcamp | Amazon | Amazon.uk | Amazon.de | Amazon.fr

We all have been there. An artist you really like releases a Christmas record, and you get very excited. Overly excited, as it is not very often that someone you listen to on a regular basis ALSO releases a Christmas record. Immediately after, the dread sets in – it is quite an emotional rollercoaster, these record announcements. The expectation rarely matches the result, but you just cannot kick those glorious, glorious expectations. However, I’m not going to make you read any longer, worrying about whether my heart was broken or not, as it most certainly has grown two sizes larger after listening to this record. Hiss Golden Messenger (M.C. Taylor) has dipped his toes into seasonal sounds in the past, but O Come All Ye Faith is his first dedicated holiday release. The tracklist is certainly interesting enough to make me excited – three originals, three traditional songs, and three unexpected covers. M.C. recorded the album last fall and talks a bit about his motivation in the press release: “Big, brash holiday music—the type that we hear in big-box stores in the middle of December—has never resonated with me, and this past year it felt absolutely dissonant. I wanted to make a seasonal record that felt more in step with the way that I, and so many others, experience this time of year: quiet, contemplative, searching and bittersweet. The intention was to make a seasonal record with vibe.”

Preach.

I am now awaiting my “Peak vinyl” version, which contains a 6-track dub reinterpretation of HGM titled The Sounding Joy: Hiss Golden Messenger Meets Revelators on South Robinson Street. However, I have jumped in and checked it out on Spotify, and you can probably already imagine my takeaways. First, you know I’m digging the originals. The lead track “Hung Fire” is lyrically haunting and beautiful, with life-affirming saxophones sprinkled throughout. “Grace” kicks in and you’ll be excused if you begin clapping your hands to the rhythm, as this is a spiritual, with a choir and everything. “By the Lights of St. Stephen” is a wonderful country trot, a story-song with a catchy chorus. All three are truly worthy of inclusion in any holiday mix, and the glutton inside me wants more, more, more. However, M.C. leaves us only with that snack. The rest of the meal might not have the spice of a brand-new holiday song, but don’t worry, his flavoring is truly inspired.

The first cover on the record is Spiritualized’s “Shine a Light,” is beautifully arranged and a welcome new track to be claimed by the holiday music canon. Woody Guthrie’s “Hanukkah Dance” is full of foot-stomping, hand-clapping, and fiddle solos – perfectly executed and joyous. If you haven’t already noticed the theme of light being at the fore of this record yet, then the cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “As Long As I Can See the Light” will… “shine a light” (callback!) on that for you. The waves of warmth exuding from this song would be one of those goosebump-inducing moments, should we ever be able to experience it live.

Here at Christmas Underground, I admit I shy away from traditional covers. We’ve all heard them, and rarely are they dressed up in interesting clothes. M.C., however, does not disappoint. Oddly, it is the title track, “O Come All Ye Faithful,” that stays closest to the melody and phrasing we might expect, while “Joy to the World” and most especially (and astoundingly) “Silent Night” sound incredibly new and fresh. M.C. makes these small choices, highlighting one word or another or ending phrases in unexpected places so frequently, that you leave feeling invigorated. Despite the gentle, beautiful production, your brain is buzzing and delights in the unexpected. Truly lovely stuff.

I feel like M.C. is one of us.

Bottom Line: Put this on and let it play. This record is one of the best, most listenable Christmas records I’ve heard in a good while.

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