Magne Furuholmen – White Xmas Lies (2019)

Drabant Music
Buy: 7Digital (FLAC/MP3) | Drabant Music (CD/Vinyl) | Apple Music | Amazon MP3/CD/Vinyl | Amazon.uk MP3/CD/Vinyl | Amazon.de MP3/CD/Vinyl | Amazon.fr MP3/CD/Vinyl

This record caught me completely off guard. The keyboardist and co-writer for most of the iconic hits from Norway’s pop-powerhouse a-ha, Magne Furuholmen has created one of the most interesting Christmas records I have heard in years. He walks this fine line between the avant-garde and accessible and manages to pull it off incredibly well. An album packed with largely all originals, Magne did not intend to create a normal holiday album; he wanted to make an album that was “an antidote to the ‘schmaltzy Christmas-music which is spewed out every year… a seemingly never-ending stream of cheesy versions of existing Christmas song.'” It was as if Magne was creating a Christmas music for me.

This album can be heartbreakingly beautiful. There are moments, such as in the leadoff track “There Goes Another Year,” where you can find these simple, evocative phrases that just hit you. “In the darkness of December / as the fire turned from spark to ember (<-Wow, what a line) / these are things I will remember / now xmas time is here / there goes another year.” And yet again, later in the song: “What we say but do not mean / every word and in-between / for every manhole in this town / there is someone falling down (<-Damn, loved that line!).” As you can see, Magne is going deep here, not necessarily celebrating the holiday in a fashion one might expect, as he talks about the album as being for those who might not have someone to keep them warm at Christmas.

I wanted to try and make an album which would be meaningful also to those who fall outside our commercial Christmas frenzy – an album which looks at the more melancholic, darker sides to Christmas: broken family ties, things we sweep under the rug, resentment hidden behind fake, jocular smiles – an album for holiday contemplation, not just sentimental decor.’

Magne does not rely on a spectacular voice (I have never been partial to amazing singers, but rather, amazing songwriters), he lets the synths and his lyrics do the heavy lifting. However, every so often his vocal melody just gets me. Like in the hungover “A Punch-up on Boxing Day,” Magne’s voice rises just after that first stanza, “you’re just wasting your time / yyeeaaahhhh,” and it brings this emotion to the song that I wasn’t anticipating. There are other moments where the music makes you sit up and go “shit, that is fantastic,” such as in the final verse of “Caprice Des Dieux,” which is one of the more slow and contemplative tracks on the record, as it explodes with musical color.

There are a few outliers on here as well, songs that does not appear to be connected to Christmas at all. The best example of would be “This is Now America,” a harsh portrait of America from an observer’s perspective – school shootings, border walls, drones and bad loans. “This is now America / oh how little have we learned / This is now America, is there no way to return?” So… not a Christmas song, and damn, quite disheartening to hear how we appear to others.

There are two covers on the record, AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” and The Kinks’ “Father Christmas.” The AC/DC cover appears to be part of the aforementioned outlier collection of songs, songs that aren’t normally connected to Christmas, but Magne is determined to bring them into conversation with the emotions of the season. The treatment itself is pretty damn interesting. Slowed down with synths providing a haunting melody, this is AC/DC much more along the lines of Mark Kozelek’s versions, should Mark have also utilized autotune. The Kinks’ cover is going to be released to the streaming community on a later date… so you’ll have to check back on that one.

This record is a damn interesting listen, one that I’d encourage anyone to experience, and hopefully with multiple listens. I for one, most certainly found new moments that I appreciated the second and third time around. Of note, Magne is also a very accomplished visual artist, and there is a vinyl edition of 200 that he hand-painted. They look to be truly beautiful, and if I had an extra €150… I might grab one. (Wait… they are all gone now!)

Bottom Line: One of the most surprising and satisfying Christmas albums I have heard in a long time.

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Francis Lung “To Make Angels In Snow” (2019)

Memphis Industries
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP)

Francis Lung is an alternative pop artist from Manchester, England, whose debut album, A Dream is U (still available on limited pink vinyl, amongst other formats), came out earlier this year on the always-excellent label Memphis Industries. Francis snuck a fantastic 3-song Christmas release by me last year (which I HAD planned to post a review of soon) titled A Francis Lung Xmas EP, but he was not so lucky this year! I’ve got you, Francis Lung! “To Make Angels in Snow” is a beautiful, perfectly timed (3:02- I love a short Christmas song), an alternative pop song that harkens back to the best of indie-Christmas legends Pas/Cal. The instrumentation is glorious – clarinet, tenor sax, flute, bass clarinet and a baritone sax line that brings up all my RIYL-Ezra Furman feelings of love. A breath of fresh air indeed.

Bottom Line: This song does not leave any room for boredom – the vocal harmonies and instrumentation paint every corner of the canvas. Francis Lung has outdone himself this year. Can’t wait for next year’s (hint, hint, Francis Lung).

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Messi “Charlemagne” (2019)

Self Released
Buy: Soundcloud (FREE!)

Continuing from earlier in the month… when we all enjoyed an extremely short song about the end of Halloween… I bring you a beautiful and somewhat disturbing song that takes place around Christmas. Messi is a singer/songwriter from Gent, Belgium, with a beautiful, beautiful folk voice. I say folk voice, because she does not sing songs that stretch her capabilities, as you might find in pop music, but it does contain that one quality that is most necessary: personality. Messi’s voice has a warmth that soothes, even when she’s singing about eyes and dead flies. “Charlemagne” is a fun little folk tale about (IMO) an ex who is going to extreme lengths to get attention. Why did I add that IMO? Because I asked Messi, and she says that the song just wrote itself and was very open to my interpretation. So, don’t assume my opinion is the “right” one – take your own stab at finding meaning in this song. Thus is the subjective beauty of art.

Bottom Line: Messi’s voice draws me in on this one. The song’s imagery is quite odd for something that might end up on a Christmas mix, but isn’t that kind of awesome? Can’t you just picture your friends pausing for a second, wondering if what they heard was correct, then just losing themselves in the chorus anyway? Yeah… I sure can.

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Johnathan Rice and Courtney Marie Andrews “We Won’t Be Lonely This Christmas” (2018)

Johnathan Rice and Courtney Marie Andrews - We Won't Be Lonely This Christmas

Mano Walker Recordings
Buy: Apple Music | Google Play | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

There is no perfect release schedule when it comes to Christmas music. SO MUCH comes out in such a SMALL AMOUNT OF TIME, that no artist can be sure that their song will have the time to break through the flurry of competing songs. Last year’s fantastic track by Johnathan Rice and Courtney Marie Andrews is a prime example of this problem. Here we have two notable artists collaborating on a fantastic song, and I didn’t hear a peep about it until stumbling upon it a few months ago. The song tells the story of immigrants trying to make a better life, but instead, get caught up in Trump’s child jails. You know, the kind of track to put next to “Santa Baby” on your mix.

Johnathan gave some context to the writing of this song on his Facebook page last December. You would think that after a year passed, things would be looking better… but alas, this story could have been written yesterday:

This song is a story I wrote with Jason Boesel and Courtney Marie Andrews. It’s about a child and his mother trying to make it to the other side of the border. Reasons beyond their control intervene, and they don’t make it. This song is my way of calling attention to the current humanitarian crisis taking place at our border with Mexico. Like many of you, I was devastated by the images in the press of mothers being gassed, of little children in cages sleeping on foil blankets. Believe me – as bad as those images are – the worst is yet to come if we do not act immediately.

A few months ago I traveled down to the U.S.-Mexico border with a group of like-minded people to learn more about the situation, and hear about how to help. I started writing this song on the bus ride home. It was recorded in LA a few weeks ago.

Johnathan finished his post with a pitch to donate to Al Otro Lado, whose border rights program “hosts know-your-rights training and legal orientation workshops in migrant shelters in Tijuana, Mexico, and provides direct legal representation to detained asylum seekers in Southern California.” So, if you are so inclined, you can donate here.

Bottom Line: The story is moving and Johnathan and Courtney’s voices blend beautifully. Should you want to add a little bit of humanity to a normally sugary-sweet holiday mix, look no further than this song.

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Shadowlark “Christmas Time” (2018)

Self Released
Buy: Stream

You might think my Christmas music hunt is scientific – that I have specific terms and techniques that I use. In some ways, you are right. There is most definitely a place for an educated search. However, there is also a place for just clicking and clicking and clicking, going down the rabbit hole to see where it might lead. This time, it somehow lead me to somewhere familiar, and I discovered Shadowlark. The voice behind this band is Ellen Smith, previously of the much more folky Ellen and the Escapades. I would often check back in and see what they were up to, as I loved Ellen and the Escapades (they have been featured on CU before!). Yet somehow, time passed and I had completely missed this new project, the synth-heavy Shadowlark. To my surprise, they even released a Christmas song last year, “Christmas Time.” I listened… and it sounded quite familiar. The song is a rework of one of the final released recordings of Ellen and the Escapades, expanded from its stripped-back original with some more production and additional lyrics. There are qualities to both versions that I really love, and I would leave it to you to decide which one you prefer. They even released a video with an acoustic version, which is also quite good. Three versions to parse, to compare, to enjoy.

Bottom Line: I could listen to Ellen Smith sing Christmas songs all day long. Her originals are exquisite, and her covers are gorgeous. Should anyone ever come across her version of “Silent Night,” please do share.

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Stella Donnelly “Season’s Greetings” (2019)

Secretly Canadian
Buy: 7Digital (MP3/FLAC) | Bandcamp (Full Album) | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

The latest single off of Stella Donnelly’s latest, Beware of Dogs, is one of those sneaky, semi-hidden holiday songs. I did not realize this track existed until Consequence of Sound posted the new video for “Season’s Greetings”…  and this truly has me questioning my #xmasmusichuntingskillz. The song reminds us northerners that those in the southern hemisphere enjoy a summertime Christmas, something that Brutalligators highlighted last year with their wonderful “Christmas in July.” The song (and the video) present a summertime Australian Christmas picnic, and we get to sit back and watch it all fall apart. BONUS: Extra profanity for the profanity-starved.

Bottom Line: I think I busted my plugger I enjoyed this so much.

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Steven Branstrom “Christmas” (2011/2015)

Self Released
Buy: Stream

I really should have posted this on November 1. Frankly, I’ve had this song in my pocket for YEARS. I meant to write about it way back in 2015. That’s at least when I sent Steven Branstrom a note on Soundcloud, in the hopes that he’d give me a bit more info beyond the 3 tracks on his account. (Of note… there is an additional account under the same name, with this song, that was posted way back in 2011!). Enough background, little information as it provided, let’s get into the song. “Christmas” may very well be the shortest song that I’ve ever featured, clocking in at only 40 seconds. BUT, it is a very nice 40 seconds, and with slightly tongue-in-cheek lyrics coupled with a beautifully sincere delivery, transitioning us from Halloween to Christmas.

So let’s grab the spider webs and put away the skulls.
Clean up the fake blood that got splattered on the walls
Let’s put everything scary out of our sight
cause Santa’s coming baby in 54 nights.

Streaming-only… but there are ways, should you decide you need this little guy on your mix.

Bottom Line: And that’s it! Short and sweet!

The Turtlenecks – The Turtlenecks Do Christmas (2018)

Sea Speak Recordings
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP)

TELL ME SOMETHING ABOUT THIS BAND! I mean come on! Searching, and searching, and searching. The label is nearly as mysterious as the band, but they at least have a Bandcamp! This little Christmas EP by the elusive The Turtlenecks is a damn pleasant trio of lo-fi indiepop holiday tunes. Catch me on the right day, and one of these simple, synthesizer-driven tunes might just sneak their way onto a mix of mine. From the chill repetition of “With Care,” to the pulsing “Snowblind,” or the boozy fun of “Christmas Bender,” pop on The Turtlenecks Do Christmas, chill out, and let these tunes soothe your DIY-jones.

Bottom Line: Three solid tracks by some band from somewhere, released on a label that might be from Louisville. Occam’s razor would suggest that it must, therefore, have been recorded by me, in my sleep, with no musical training. Enjoy!

I should have contacted them before writing this piece – but I’ll update it if they write me back 🙂

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Summer Salt “Abominable Snowman” (2017)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP)

Austin’s Summer Salt have this mix-worthy, summery (just listen) Christmas jam just sitting there on their Bandcamp, waiting for you to name-your-own price and download it. Wonderful melody, great vocals with an original story. The song is about an abominable snowman, enjoying a beautiful Christmas. I listen to enough Christmas music to know that I haven’t heard of a song like this before. Below are the lyrics to the whole song, because they just tickled me.

There’s a big log cabin
High above the junction
Near a broken down roller coaster park
There’s a mountain breach
High above the creek
Where I’ll be hanging up some Christmas lights tonight

Now I know this is all I’ve ever wanted to call my home
But I don’t know if this is all that I need

Soon I’ll come again
Running amok under the moon
Soon I’ll need a friend
Living the life of an abominable snowman

There’s some roaring thunder
Miles among the tundra
There’s a pack of wolves singing songs beside a fire
There’s a faucet leak
To give the pipes some heat
There’s an avalanche I’ll be surfin’ tonight

Bottom Line: A great, summery-sounding tune about an abominable snowman Christmas. A sentence I never thought I would write in my entire life. Really, really enjoy this one.

Edit: Stubby beat me to this song by well over a year. Based on the 61K listens on Soundcloud, so did a lot of you. In my defense, it has been on my “to do” list since before last Christmas!

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Rubber Band Gun & Katy Rea – Quick Themes from a Christmas iPhone (2018)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP)

Kevin Basko (Rubber Band Gun) is back, and this time he is bringing Katy Rea along for the ride! First off, I cannot believe that these two songs were recorded on an iPhone 6. These sound way better than most of the junk I listen to on Bandcamp. Kevin recorded one of the more out-there and enjoyable Christmas records of 2017 with Festive as Hell, and while those interesting edges remain exposed, these two tracks with Katy Rea are much more slimmed-down and straightforward. The first track “I’ll Be Good” is a love song to Santa, an entreaty to Santa for an extramarital fling in New York. I honestly don’t know if I’ve heard a song quite like it. I certainly believe I’ve heard love songs to Santa, but rarely (if ever) do they acknowledge Mrs. Claus, let alone suggest she is annoying. Hehe. The second song, “Willow St,” is a beautiful song, a tableau of a simple, warm and loving Christmas shared together in a house on Willow Street. The fact that they sing this song together, two voices blending perfectly, makes the song that much more vivid. This song is about sharing Christmas with a loved one, and having both there voices there sharing the song, underlines the sentiment. A beautiful song wonderfully executed.

Bottom Line: These two songs, recorded on iPhones, have justified the technology that has addicted us all.

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