Toad Venom – The Ingen vidare jul (Christmas is cancelled) EP (2021)

Welfare Sounds & Records

If I had a nickel for every time I said, “You name your band Toad Venom, and I’m going to check you out.” Well, a bunch of psych rock musicians from Vikingstad, Sweden finally took me up on this well-known offer, and have also made some absolutely excellent psych Christmas music! 2021’s The Ingen vidare jul (Christmas is cancelled) EP is two tracks of badass psych, as the leadoff track “God Jul” blasts off, a soaring Swedish Christmas anthem (to which I have no clue what is being said). The flip, “Merry (Christmas) and me,” is in English, and very much suits their style as described on Bandcamp: “A band, experimenting the void between spaghetti western and psychedelic rock.” Those twangy western guitars that introduce the track – so terribly cool. The song builds and builds, at times triggering me to think a bit about Spiritualized for some reason. There are so many cool movements to this song, yet it still comes in at an economical 4:00. Perhaps one of the most badass Christmas tunes I’ve come across in a good while.

Bottom Line: Two extremely good tracks from my new favorite band and best friends (pending).


Bird Friend “Christmas Song​” (2021/2022)

Sedan Is Real
Bandcamp (NYOP)

From the cold reaches of Portsmouth, New Hampshire comes Bird Friend, compiling their two seasonal singles onto one handy cassette/digital release. The Christmas song, appropriately titled “Christmas Song,” was initially released on their 2021 EP, Songs About Crime, and is a warm story-song of love without much money, a reality that a lot of us can relate to at some point in our lives… maybe even today. Love can find you at any moment in your life, whether you have enough money for wine or not – and thankfully they don’t get caught shoplifting:

when we went on christmas eve
to the convenience store
i was a bum and you were venus
in the front seat of your honda accord

heads or tails would determine who would go
steal us a bottle of booze
you slipped that bottle of wine into your purse
like it was what you were born to do

and i knew
i had to have you

Bottom Line: Short, sweet, and with that bit of vice that can spice up any holiday song, this hard-scrabble love story is quite worth your time.


Brittany Ann Tranbaugh “The Christmas Flannel Song” (2021/2022)

Self Released

I often say that if you can record a fantastic Christmas song, then your “regular” songs are likely going to be amazing. Writing an interesting Christmas song – with all of their seductive cliches – requires a fresh prospective that eludes even the best of bands. So when I find an artist whose Christmas song catches my ear, I smash that follow button. Philadelphia’s Brittany Ann Tranbaugh is the latest to score a follow, and is one more artist to watch in what is becoming an absolutely incredible queer folk/country scene. Over the past few years, that scene has become by far the most interesting collective within the genre. Folks writing from a different point-of-view than we’ve all be programmed to expect… that sounds fucking fantastic to me. Brittany Ann began working on her new Christmas song, “Christmas Flannel Song,” back in 2021 (well, at least she released her demo then), and in that simple vocal and guitar arrangement, you really get to appreciate the quality of her voice.

The lyrics tell the story of a Christmas present never given, and while the song is certainly one rooted in certain sadness, there is a cleverness to the her wordplay that shimmers with silver linings.

I’m holding onto this one thing
You won’t find it under your tree
It’s the shirt that I got you for Christmas
Cuz it looks pretty good on me
Fa la la la la la la la la la la la la la, fa la la la la la la

Guess it’s more like a dirge than a carol
That I sing while the fireplace burns
And I’m donning my new gay apparel
Cuz it’s final sale no returns

This season, Brittany Ann has fleshed out the production, as the song has reached a spectacular final form adding percussion, banjo, piano, bass and perfect vocal harmonies to give the song a welcome warmth. This song alone is most certainly worth a follow, a purchase, and a place on your mix.

Bottom Line: I don’t shy away from a dirge, especially when it is this good.


Bad Bad Hats “Sally Sweet Tooth” (2021)

Don Giovanni

I am finally getting through all the stuff I meant to listen to last year. If you are someone who feels as though a shitload of browser tabs is a personal failing, let me introduce you to the largest failure I know… Me. Thankfully, every so often you find something that makes saving that session worth it. Minneapolis’ Bad Bad Hats has been producing a song a month on their Patreon since at least October of 2020, and what do you know… December 2020’s theme was Christmas! Let’s let them tell you a bit more:

“I was listening to all the holiday classics to get inspired and I was struck by how many great characters there are in the Christmas canon: Rudolph, Frosty, a run-over Grandma. So I wanted to add a new character to the mix. She’s a little sweet, she’s a little sassy. She’s Sally Sweet Tooth. And you’d be wise to give her your cookies.”

The song was deemed worthy to bust out of the Patreon $5 tier jail to the wider world last December, in all its early-2000s alternative/power-pop goodness. So rejoice, and remember not to be stingy with your cookies… she’ll get ya.

Bottom Line: An extremely delicious jam to spread all over your Christmas mix.


Katy Kirby “So Much Wine, Merry Christmas” (2021/2022)

Keeled Scales
Bandcamp | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | MP3 | MP3 | MP3

The Handsome Family’s “So Much Wine, Merry Christmas” has slowly become an underground classic, being covered by the likes of Andrew Bird and The Minus 5’s Scott McCaughey, amongst many, many others. Each new year brings new voices to this beautiful, yet dark song, and 2021 welcomed the wonderful Katy Kirby to the growing chorus. A solo, acoustic version of “So Much Wine, Merry Christmas” debuted at Radio Milwaukee late last year, while a fully-produced version found its way onto the extended edition of her wonderful 2021 release, Cool Dry Place. Katy’s cover is technically based on the Andrew Bird arrangement, which I have already heaped some praise upon, but I am finding myself even more taken by Katy’s approach. Her soulful voice nestled amongst warm piano lines will leave you wishing for a crackling fire to stare at… perhaps some (spiked) eggnog as well. Indeed, this is a thing of beauty.

Bottom Line: Katy Kirby enters the top tier of “Too Much Wine” covers, and most certainly muscles her way on to many a discerning Christmas mixtape.


Caleb Nichols “(I Fell In Love On) Christmas Day” (2021/2022)

caleb nichols - i fell in love on christmas day

Kill Rock Stars
Bandcamp | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | MP3 | MP3 | MP3

My fellow holiday-blogger DJ El Toro sparked off Festive! Fanzine’s holiday season with a fantastic interview with San Luis Obispo’s Caleb Nichols. As Festive! went through the effort to interview Caleb, I would like to send you there to learn more about this song and Caleb as a wonderful-song-writing human being. I will, however, let you know a few basic things about the song. First, it appeared last year on Kill Rock Stars’ It’s Hard To Dance When It’s Cold And There’s No Music: Kill Rock Stars Winter Holiday Album Volume 2, but has since also been released on Caleb’s excellent 2022 record, Ramon. Secondly, these lyrics are that mixture of joy and sadness that I am so terribly attracted to. “What Dickens knew I now intone / that without love you die alone. / Though we all must die alone, / maybe love can take the sting away. / Oh Tannenbaum, oh tinsel tree, / oh silver bells, oh misery. / If you can find someone to share / the misery with, you’ll be square. / So fall in love each Christmas day, / cause only love can take away / the loneliness and the bitter pain / that you feel on days like this.” What a lovely sentiment from a lived life.

Bottom Line: This is emotional without being sentimental. Truly a rare treat in the Christmas genre.


Hannah Glavor – Find a Light (2021)

Self Released

What is up with me? Why am I writing about covers of traditional hymns? Is it because people are actually DOING something cool with them? The question is the answer, duh. Portland’s Hannah Glavor has transformed “O Little Town of Bethlehem” into something that I genuinely enjoy. It has the warm feel of a Midlake record, as I caught myself thinking a whole lot about “Roscoe” (one of my all-time favorite songs). She has fleshed out and modernized a nice handful of tracks here – “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Away in a Manger,” and even “Silent Night” feels like something completely brand new. She takes bits and pieces of the original melody, then adds in all these other lines that your brain is just not ready for. This thing is a workout for your old noodle. There is one modern-day Christmas song being covered here, Josh Garrels’ “May You Find a Light.” Of all the songs on here, this is the one that feels the most similar to the original. That may be because I’m so programmed to know those traditional carols, and not familiar with Josh’s song. Either way, it is a very lovely song. This is folk-pop Christmas at a very high level.

Bottom Line: Very surprising, solid EP that makes the classics seem new once again.


Baby Club – Naivety Scene (2021)

Self Released

This time of year is when EVERYTHING is released. My Bandcamp wishlist swells with a seemingly infinite collection of things I need to go back and listen to. I start searching regional and genre tags for those gems that aren’t tagged properly… it is a whole lot of work. Perhaps my entries here suffer a bit, as I might not have the sheer volume of posts I could, nor do I give proper time to the records that I do write about. So… let me take a little bit of time (obviously not enough!) and tell you about this wonderful little EP by New York City’s Baby Club.

Baby Club is the bedroom recording project of Josephine Painter, at least that is what I have gleaned from her now-defunct website and Instagram accounts. That, or Josephine is also a painter, and those were just clever URL choices. Right off, the title Naivety Scene is extremely clever, and was enough to get me in the door. The production is quite simple, a slow affair of keyboards and vocals. The droning tones and Josephine’s beautiful voice can’t help me from imagining that I’m listening to a stripped-back Beach House Christmas EP. Everyone, please take that as the massive compliment that I intend it to be. The vibe of this record isn’t going to knock you on your ass (which ,of course, is a vibe I also enjoy), but I suspect there are going to be some folks out there (like me) where Naivety Scene gets under your skin…. and I predict it will be during the chorus of “So It Goes.” For folks looking for something more familiar, Baby Club’s version of “Silver and Gold” will scratch that itch while giving you a simple, beautiful organ and vocals version that could just sneak onto a late-night playlist. I see playing cards in front of a fire, drinking hard eggnog while it plays in the background. Maybe invite me over? I’ll be there in six hours!

Bottom Line: Beauty in simplicity.


Randolph’s Leap – Christmas Album (2021 Additions)

Self Released

The absolutely WONDERFUL Scottish band Randolph’s Leap has become almost a yearly feature on Christmas Underground, as they have been putting out some of the most wonderful, cleverly-written political Christmas songs that I have ever heard. Sometimes they release songs with a good bit of fanfare, like the amazing “Christmas, Burn it All,” and other times they sneak one in at the last second when I’m not paying attention like the hilarious “Christmas is a Conspiracy.” This year is a bit of both… they’ve quietly added three tracks to their stellar, ever-growing Christmas Album, but did so with plenty of time a few weeks back. Now why it has taken me this long to really sit down with these songs and listen is an indictment of both my intuition and taste level. Why? Because I should have KNOWN these would be great. It is as if I was taking Randolph’s Leap and their incredible ability to churn out amazing Christmas songs for granted, and for this oversight, I apologize. The main track that I initially focused on was the deceptively-titled “New Pair of Socks.” Who would have thought such an innocuous title would house such a timely anti-Tory Christmas song? Let’s dive into this first verse:

I am a simple uncomplicated man.
I take what I get, I give what I can.
Forgive me for saying,
but you’ve got a nerve.

Now there are expenses,
and I’ve got a few.
You’ve got your own,
but I pay them too.
Won’t you give something back
to those who you claim to serve?

Cause all I want for Christmas
is a tree and some decorations,
a nice new pair of socks,
and some cabinet resignations.

So much of my Twitter feed is UK bands and fans who keep me pretty well informed as to the recent corruption scandals in the Tory government, as well as all those incredible photos of officials flouting the COVID guidelines. I find myself oddly invested in the political fate of a country that I do not live in. But we both have a right-wing that is primarily invested in their self-interest, so it is not hard to imagine the song working on both sides of the pond… ah hell, I’m babbling. The song is beautiful, clever and vicious, and only gets more pointed after that first verse. So, if you are like me and like a little anti-asshole politics in your Christmas music, you’ll dig it.

There are some songs that I rarely ever press play for. You know… those ol’ chesnuts that I (unjustly) associate with little-kid Christmas music, rather than the “adult” stuff I’m usually trying to sniff out. I would put “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” solidly in that category… but I may need to reassess this bias after hearing the other two tracks Randolph’s Leap has added to this record. “Jingle Bells (2021 Version)” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” are both extremely listenable, at times bordering on astounding versions that have shaken me. “Rudolph” is a revelation, with a beautiful arrangement that elevates this song to the absolute top of the Rudolph pile. However, what makes this (I can’t believe I’m typing this) song mix-worthy is their phrasing; All the notes that you are anticipating from a song you’ve known your entire life are slightly askew, and it is like a drug for your brain.

“Jingle Bells (2021 Version)” isn’t far behind the “Rudolph” triumph, though it hits slightly closer to expectations, so I’m not going to go quite as far in my praise. The arrangement and production, as well as that guitar madness at the end, certainly push the song into the “Jingle Bells” stratosphere. I am completely astounded and delighted and hope you will be too.

What a band. I’m in awe.

Bottom Line: Randolph’s Leap is on an incredible, Christmas song hot streak. If you haven’t bought this record yet, you need to turn in your alternative Christmas music membership card.


Nadal a 10 bandes (vol. 2) (2021)

Discos Pinya

I don’t know Spanish, nor do I know Catalan. However, I will never shy away from a great sound or Google Translate. The second volume of Barcelona punk label Discos Pinya‘s Nadal a 10 bandes (vol. 2) is a perfect example of this. There are some great songs on here, all in the punk, hardcore, ska genres. A few songs really stood out to me, most especially Les Salvatges‘ “Fins que rebentem,” a reworking of the classic Bobby Freeman song from 1958, “Do You Wanna Dance,” into a Catalan punk Christmas jam about eating way too much at the holidays. On first listen, that song alone is worth me picking up the cassette they are offering (they also have a volume 1!).

I also really, really loved “Està tot molt mal” by Meconio, where they sound like they are having the most fun possible singing about some real heavy shit. Google translate this song – it is a left-wing punk rock anthem with some jingle bells tacked on. Want to sneak some politics onto your mix without your relatives realizing it? Done! Here’s a taste of the end:

It’s all very bad
they keep raping (and killing) us
and abortion
it is still illegal

It’s all very bad
and we’re up to our pussy
but with the guitar
we will continue to make songs

Vidal Soler‘s “Curset de nadales” also stood out, a meta song about writing a song, but while warning you not to let the songs or the season drag you into the consumerist trap. Incredibly short and awesome, they get what they need to say done in a minute and a sneeze. Truly fantastic.

This compilation hits more frequently than most, and at name-your-own-price on Bandcamp, is as close to a sure thing as you can get. Throw them some money and pick out your own favorites, why don’t you?

Bottom Line: The best punk compilation I’m come across in a good while, this record has some mix-worthy stuff for sure.