Have Yourself a Merry Indie Christmas Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 (2022)

A Benefit for Crisis
Buy:
Bandcamp

I often think about what it would be like to be just now getting into this hobby of underground Christmas music mix-making. When I got in the game (18 years ago!), there wasn’t quite the wealth of indie rock/pop/alt.country/etc Christmas releases to hunt down. Bandcamp, the venue which I primarily exploit to find cool new songs, wasn’t founded until 2007, and it wasn’t until 2010 that I could have even embedded a track on a site like Christmas Underground. It is both exhilarating and terrifying to think about dipping my toes in for the first time in 2022… there is just so much to listen to – years and years of great songs to get through, let alone all the new releases that come out every year. Well, lucky for my imaginary self, as well as that very real person taking their first stab at making a cool Christmas mix, fellow weirdo Christmas music fan Kevin McGrath has created the perfect introduction to this niche of holiday music with the massive, expansive collection of 108 songs, Have Yourself a Merry Indie Christmas Vol. 1 & Vol. 2. This is like one of those The Greatest ________ Album in the World collections I used to bump into in the import sections of the 2000s – packing an absolute ton of the tracks you need to hear to fully get what has been going on. The sheer effort that it took to clear 108 songs is astounding, let alone the challenges of contacting bands that are no longer together, and there are some wonderful ones represented here, to which I’m delighted their musical legacy will persist. Readers of this site will find some familiar faces and names, such as Sweet Tempest, St. Lenox, Charlie’s Hand Movements, The Ornaments, Les Bicyclettes de Belsize, and many, many more.

Just know you are bound to discover a new classic or two that you’ve never bumped into before. Christmas Underground is a one-person shop, and I can’t and won’t be able to know every single cool indie Christmas song out there… as I’m currently sitting here listening to Volume 1, bobbing my head to a song I’ve never heard – and I love it. All this great music also benefits a great cause, Crisis, a UK charity that helps the homeless. So, while the suggested price for each massive collection is a mere £7/$8.50, just know that you don’t necessarily have to give only $8.50. Maybe make yourself a sandwich each day this week for lunch and give a bit more? This is the season of giving, and in a world where billionaires aren’t going to save us, we need to look out for each other.

Bottom Line: These two releases could fashion 3-4 years of indie Christmas mixes for your friends and family. It is an absolutely essential purchase for new and old collectors alike.

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Herr Wade – Weihnachten​.​.​. Willkommen zur​ü​ck! (2022)

Platiruma!!!
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Bandcamp (CD/Digital) | Apple Music | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

Jørn Åleskjær (The Loch Ness Mouse, Monobird, Sapphire & Steel) and Sebastian Voss (Nah…, The Fisherman and his Soul, Cinema Engines) have teamed up for some cross-cultural, Google-translatable Christmas tunes. I speak ein bisschen Deutsch, and no Norweigain, but I do speak indiepop and this is some lovely stuff. I’ve featured The Fisherman and his Soul multiple times here on Christmas Underground, so I knew there would be something here I was likely to really connect with. Perhaps it is my faint familiarity with the language that draws me to the German-language tracks, but I have to take special note of “Und sie tanzen I’m Himmel,” which translates to “And they dance in the sky.” I’m going to continue to utilize Google translate, so please give me some grace should Google screw it up a bit – but I loved these sweet lyrics.

can you remember?
It’s been a few years…
We looked up at the sky and
Then you said to me:

“I know a secret
And I’m happy to let you in on it.”
And I nodded, agreed, and suddenly it started snowing.

“Exactly! Here, that’s the point.” You said in a low voice.
“Every single flake is a little dancer.
And up there in the sky they dance day in and day out. And when they feel like it, it starts to snow.”

And they dance in the sky

The track also had that mid-tempo, jangly indiepop groove that I need at least every 3-6 months to survive, so that certainly plays into my love of this track as well. There are wonderful moments in the other songs as well, little choices like the beautiful banjo in “Domino,” and the sweetness of the leadoff track, “You’ve Come A Very Long Way (For Being Such A Close Friend),” are undeniable.

Bottom Line: There is a lot to love in a tiny little EP.

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Beau Jennings & the Tigers “Midnight Service” (2022)

Black Mesa Records
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Beau Jennings wowed us all a few years back with his stunning Christmas LP, The Christmas Light, and we can all be thankful (it is nearly Thanksgiving!) that he took another stab at a seasonal song – because we all know it is going to be great. “Midnight Service” is a slow burn, with a simple, shimmering guitar line that flutters from ear-to-ear, a delicate flurry of musical snow to encase Beau’s “internal Christmas journey.” The song beautifully captures the transition between a child’s Christmas and an adult’s, and an embrace of something new. This is best captured in his last beautiful lines:

“Now I don’t worry anymore / about the kind of Christmas I knew before
I let it come and I let it go / like the northern wind or the falling snow.”

Bottom Line: This song is full of heart and beauty, and is a wonderful addition to Beau and Co.’s stellar seasonal catalog.

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Bjéar – A Christmas with Bj​é​ar and Friends Vol​.​1 & Vol. 2 (2022)

Terrazzo Recordings
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Bandcamp

I am easily scared. Of what, you might ask? You appear to be a complete badass who eats nails for breakfast. Well… how wrong you are. I often look at full Christmas records and head for the hills. Write about more than one song?! The horror! Well… Adelaide, Australia’s Bjéar has not only challenged me to face my fears… but he is just rubbing it in by releasing two full records at the same time, A Christmas with Bjéar and Friends Vol. 1 & Vol. 2. I am accepting this challenge, as Bjéar has made it extremely easy for me… because these are great. Turns out that this massive outpouring of seasonal work has not been in the works for very long either. Bjéar had been thinking about putting out a Christmas record, but only truly began work on it in earnest this August, anticipating maybe one album or maybe just an EP. However, they just kept churning out arrangements and new songs until two records and 80 minutes later… the Bjéar Christmas opus. Grab some eggnog and let me pull out a few tracks for you to taste.

A mix of standards and originals, both records blend seamlessly from song to song making it an extremely easy listen. The standards are performed beautifully, with arrangements that will sound both familiar and refreshing. I particularly loved when Joy to the World busts open with a new melody provided by the brass section.

Some of the covers are barely what one might consider a cover. While some songs may contain all of the lyrics you are expecting, you may be surprised when a song just teases the source material. Such is the atmospheric world that surrounds Bjéar’s treatment of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which makes me think of what a Sigur Ros Christmas record might sound like – a beautiful mess that resolves into a few recognizable lines, that little slice of familiarity within the new, magical soundscape in front of you, and only one line from the song.

While I loved the classics, it is the originals where these records really take off. There are some excellent original instrumentals, of course, as I have previously been taken by Bjéar’s arrangement abilities in the past. However, I’d like to highlight “The Lights Came Down,” the first non-instrumental original on Vol. 1. There is an obvious beauty that lead singer Brea McKee and collaborator Ella Ion create when their voices intertwine; they are two voices meant to sing together. The song’s lyrics are far more explicitly religious than most songs I feature on this secular Christmas blog, but even this grinch can feel the spirit coming out of this song.

I don’t think I need to state the obvious comparison to Sufjan Stevens, but I must if only to say that the internet would be freaking out about this song had it been Sufjan’s. Frankly, both these records are front-to-back more listenable than any of Sufjan’s Christmas EPs, and I feel quite comfortable making that claim.

The curiously-titled “Christmas Eve, 1818,” is a beautiful reworking of “Silent Night,” which is also featured under its usual title on Vol. 2. The arrangement appears to be inspired by a 2017 version of “Silent Night” that Ella recorded, with more orchestration. The song begins as a showcase for Ella Ion’s voice, bare and beautiful, only to have it heighten and highlight the incredible emotional quality of her tone. It is downright astounding.

I just mentioned that Vol. 2 does indeed have a version of “Silent Night,” and the strings (likely provided by Frank Henry) and the brass section create the most exhilarating outro this song has ever had. There are many folks who contributed to these records, Frank Henry and Dan White amongst many additional instrumentalists, and we’re likely hearing a lot of them here.

I would be remissed if I were not to mention one more song, which would be yet another original featuring the vocals of both Brea and Ella, “Sleep Sound.” The warmth of the guitar lines and Ella’s voice are a beautiful lullaby, made even sweeter when Brea joins in harmony halfway through. The beauty of this song is in their incredible ability to capture emotion on tape. Some records sound sterile, this record wraps you up in a sonic hug.

Bottom Line: The spirit of Christmas compels you to listen, as it has compelled Bjéar to create these wonderful records. I’m warning you, these records might just become part of your holiday for years to come… so you might want to buy them now.

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The Walters “Another Christmas” (2022)

Self Released?/Warner?
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7Digital (FLAC/MP3) | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.de MP3

I love those Crookes’ Christmas records that they used to put out… and Chicago’s The Walters has me feeling those sorts of feelings once more. TikTok brought them back together after 4-year hiatus, just in time for their first seasonal single, “Another Christmas.” The song shares some DNA with those great indiepop/rock singles of I loved – sentimental and catchy to the point that you end up bobbing down the street singing the chorus in your head. While the main thrust is somewhat sad, spending Christmas alone and such, the end of the song, “everybody’s singing / Christmas bells are ringing” suggests that everything is going to be alright.

Thanks to Tim for the tip!

Bottom Line: A classic “Christmas alone” song with an indiepop hook that’s gonna snag you.

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BumbleWasps “Mr Christmas” (2022)

Self Released
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Bandcamp

I’m rather active on Twitter, and will not let the giant turd who owns it keep me from hanging out, spouting off, and never clicking on ads. Shrewsbury, England’s BumbleWasps gave me a shout the other day, hipping me to his latest Christmas single, “Mr Christmas.” I always listen to suggestions at least once, and this track was interesting enough to not only have me listen to it a few times but to dig a bit deeper and discover that this is not BumbleWasps first rodeo. He put out an 7-song Christmas mini-album last year, F U Christmas, that is packed full of catchy hooks and seasonal fucking sentiment. Hey, BumbleWasps gets a bit fresh, and I will too. So… let’s just say that I was getting prettyyyyy amped as dove into the discography. “Mr Christmas” is BumbleWasps’ indiepop diss track targeting Mariah Carey, Shakin’ Stevens, Bing Crosby, Elvis, Elton John, Wham! (amongst others), pretty much all the Christmas legends… and it is both catchy and goddam hilarious. I don’t think I’m mistaken in thinking this is some of the best-produced bedroom pop that a little bit of money and a lot of effort can produce (confirmed!). F U Christmas obviously shares the same humorous point-of-view, but you’re going to find some touching shit in there as well. Thanks for reaching out BumbeWasps, you obviously checked out my blog and had an idea that I’d be down for your weirdo Christmas tunes.

Bottom Line: BumbleWasps is carving his own xmas niche, and (if you enjoy reading this blog) you’re going to like this fucking niche.

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Christian Lee Hutson “Silent Night” (2022)

ANTI- Records
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Bandcamp | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

Christian Lee Hutson only recently popped onto my radar with his 2020 record, Beginners. Picked it up and really enjoyed it, yet somehow forgot to follow him on Bandcamp and be alerted that he might just release a Christmas song… as he did in 2020, with a very good version of “The Christmas Song.”

This year Christian dropped another record, Quitters, and once again we’ve been gifted a new Christmas single. I’m seeing a trend here – release a record and follow it with a seasonal single. I mean, you’re in the studio already, let’s lay it down! Thus, “Silent Night” drops a few days ago, and I figure it’s yet another version of the classic carol to be thrown on the pile. However, I’m happy to be proven very, very wrong. Yes, the melody remains, but Christian has wholly rewritten the song. Each verse is a flickering moment, a 15-second scene from a movie filled with minimal dialogue and lots of eye work. A very fresh approach indeed. I really felt this one, and you might too.

Bottom Line: What an unexpected delight. Christian has proven himself as one to watch. When his record count grows, let’s hope his Christmas catalog continues as well.

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Phoebe Bridgers “So Much Wine” (2022)

Dead Oceans
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Bandcamp | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

Who would have guessed… the Handsome Family classic underground Christmas song “So Much Wine” has finally broken through to the mainstream with Phoebe Bridgers selecting it as her yearly Christmas song. I must say… it is her best one yet. I am genuinely torn as to whether I like hers or Katy Kirby’s better, and I believed Katy’s to be a 2022 Christmas mix lock. Sit back and enjoy… this one is so terribly good.

EDIT: I thought that was Andrew Bird whistling in the background… and yup, it was.

Bottom Line: Phoebe has really knocked it out of the park with this year’s Christmas song… and solidified the Handsome Family’s “So Much Wine” with solid, underground (and maybe mainstream??) classic status.

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

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

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.

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Titus Andronicus “Drummer Boy” (2022)

Merge Records
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Bandcamp | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

Have you ever heard a song and wondered, “what took so long?” Titus Andronicus popped into my Bandcamp feed this morning with a reworking of a classic song that absolutley everybody knows… but as a Christmas song. It makes so much sense… as if it was always there in the ether and somebody just needed to grab it. I really don’t want to ruin the smile that you’ll have when you immediately realize what they’ve done. This is indeed a Drummer Boy that I can get behind :).

Bottom Line: Just a good bit of fun.

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