Al Riggs - Hell House

Al Riggs “Christmas Parade” (2017)

Bull City Records Presents
Buy: Bandcamp

Durham, North Carolina’s Al Riggs is one of the most prolific singer/songwriters I’ve come across on Bandcamp. You know those links that let you buy entire discographies? I can only imagine how much it would cost… because you would be about 70 releases! The record I want to highlight now is his latest, Hell House. Included on this warm recording of sad songs is the beautiful “Christmas Parade.” The song is a vignette of a moment right before Christmas, where just being with a friend means more than whatever you might be doing with them – “Neither of us like the Christmas parade / but it means a lot. / but it means a lot / ….” Al’s voice is not terribly pretty, it is genuine –  exactly how I like my singers (e.g. David Berman, Mark Eitzel, etc). This really is a beautiful song, the production matches the sentiment perfectly… wouldn’t change a thing. (Again – thanks Ned!)

Bottom Line: Al is not a stranger to Christmas tunes (When the Saints Go Stag, Good Reasons to Freeze to Death,Yulemen), and while I have only scratched the surface, I think you may dig what you find underneath.

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UPCOMING: The Minus 5 – Dear December (2017)

Yep Roc
Buy: Record Store Day (LP) | Amazon.fr (LP)?

The Minus 5 is essentially Scott McCaughey and his band of merry, quite famous and somewhat famous friends rocking out and taking names. I presently have his Down with Wilco on my shelf, which, you can imagine, features members of Wilco. My friend Ned just hipped me to the fact that Scott also likes to hang with friends… and record CHRISTMAS SONGS. Dear December features M. Ward, Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie/Postal Service), Peter Buck (R.E.M. – duh), Mike Mills (ditto), Colin Meloy (Decemberists), Chuck Prophet, Tammy Ealom (Dressy Bessy), The Posies, Kelly Hogan (The Flat Five/Neko Case), Nora O’Connor (The Flat Five/solo badass) and more. That’s a rather impressive lineup, as most of the Minus 5 albums are… which obviously raises my expectations. The first single, “When Christmas Hurts You This Way,” does not disappoint. It is a downer with a Wilco AM vibe: “When the last one your remember / is the last one you deserve / you look back at all the mistakes you make / that somehow made much worse.” DARK! Love it! This is not a safe leadoff single, and that is what make this a great leadoff single. Hell, I love Nick Lowe, but I’d much rather listen to this than “Christmas in the Airport” – it is just so much darker and interesting to me! (No offense Yep Roc, you continually release Chatham County Line records, so you’ve got my love.) McCaughey can write a great song, and he obviously is respected enough by some stellar artists to lend their name to the project; Thus, if the rest of the songs are as good as this… well hot damn.

Dear December will be a Record Store Day release on vinyl, with an advent calendar-inspired gatefold sleeve on colored vinyl, limited to 1500 copies. It will also be released on December 1 on CD, as well as on your favorite digital retailers (7Digital??? Bandcamp??? They have FLACs!!!)

Bottom Line: Looks damn promising. Yep Roc – hook me up! I want it early! (In a curious twist of fate, most of the stuff I get sent is not Christmas-related at all… not gonna happen.)

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Marble Gods “I Remember Xmas” (2016)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

Scottish popsters Marble Gods somehow snuck a sweet little indiepop Christmas tune by me last year… and if I ever find out how, there will be hell to pay! They even have it tagged properly! “I Remember Xmas” is a lovely, jangly little indiepop song that is right up my alley. Upbeat guitars with a dash of melancholy in the lyrics… the perfect indiepop blend for your anorak Christmas. “Driving home I remember Christmas / when we were young. / We thought would last forever. / Oh how we were wrong / So it’s Christmas time, / and you’re everything I want. / But my only fear / is that you will break my heart.” Beautiful!

Bottom Line: Marble Gods’ “I Remember Xmas” is some finely chiseled, indiepop perfection.

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Jay Stansfield's "Christmas is..."

UPCOMING: Jay Stansfield & SAY – Christmas is… (2017)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp (Preorder)

Popping over to Bandcamp for a second to find something new on the top of the new arrivals list, I don’t normally expect to find something I haven’t seen (there is not a lot of turnover this time of year), let alone something this promising. I often judge Christmas tunes by their covers, and it rarely surprises me. Jay Stansfield‘s Christmas is… sports a simple cover of the decapitated snowman, which was odd enough to get me curious, even as I thought the typography could be a bit more interesting (sorry Jay, I can’t get the graphic design snob out of me). The cover may have gotten me in the door, but it was the description that convinced me to press play.

“Over the years I have written many happy, optimistic Christmas songs featuring death, homelessness, zombies and old people burning alive. This album celebrates those moments along with four miserable tracks from the SAY Archives.”

Well that sounds interesting! Only two tracks are available to preview, and both are solid. The Beach Boys’ harmonies of “Wake up the Children” bloom into some lovely holiday sentiment that could inspire any Grinch to feel optimistic. The second track, “The Man in Red” has moments when you imagine Vampire Weekend has put out a Christmas record, which would no doubt light up any indie-kid’s holiday season. Both these tracks are really strong – from the lyrics, to the music and the production – this may be the Winterval of 2017. (Of note, Jay’s got another from 2014, “Christma$ Twenty Fourteen,” and while it has its moments, it is not quite as strong as these two tracks… but worth a listen too!)

Bottom Line: Two tracks in and I’m willing to call Jay Stansfield’s Christmas is… a winner. Can’t wait to hear more, but we’ll have to wait till Dec. 1.

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Prints Jackson - Reindeer Reindeer

Prints Jackson “Reindeer Reindeer” (2016)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP)

Prints Jackson‘s epic task, to write a song every month till he dies, may have ended (is he still alive??) in February, but before the streak ended (36-months in), he did produce three Christmas tunes for your enjoyment. Each has its own indie-rock charm, but my favorite is certainly last year’s “Reindeer Reindeer.” Why you ask? Well, I love how the song builds from the pulsing synth, bringing in indie rock colors of all sorts as it progresses. But what really drew me in are the lyrics. They are clever, funny, and at times political (“Sweet baby Jesus, / what with Brexit? / It’s hard to have faith / when the President’s a sexist. / Do we still pretend he’s a circus clown? / Let liberal kids knock him down and make yellow snow.”). So, check out this excellent original Christmas tune, as well as Prints Jackson’s back catalogue, because it is all pretty damn great.

(Author’s note: Those who have been reading this blog most certainly have a clue as to my political leanings, and if you have just come across it, and find yourself offended by this track… well, just don’t listen to this song, or go somewhere else? Free society is freedom of choice. I certainly wouldn’t be hanging out on a site that was saying any of the million “Trump Train” songs were any good. Also… because none of them are!)

Bottom Line: Prints Jackson may have ended his run of a song a month, but we are most certainly lucky that he was still writing in December 2016.

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Diane Coffee - It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

Diane Coffee “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” (2015)

Western Vinyl
Buy: Soundcloud (FREE!)

Take a song that feels rather formulaic, one where 1 + 1 obviously equals two… and to throw a wrench (and maybe a tab of acid) in the works. Diane Coffee‘s rendition of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” is just this… it nudges the classic formula gently off the cliff and all of a sudden you are in the middle of this amazing fuzzed-out guitar, and you’ve forgotten how to count. For those unfamiliar with Diane Coffee, he has released two fascinating art-pop records on Western Vinyl (most notably the original home of Dirty Projectors), as well as being the initial drummer for friends (and sonic brothers) Foxygen. This one-off track was released in 2015, and is still available for free on Soundcloud, which is extremely generous. This track is good enough to be released on its own… perhaps Diane Coffee should record another xmas tune this year and release a 7″? I’d buy it, no doubt. For now, we’ll have to settle for a non-holiday 7″, as his new release Peel will be out on Polyvinyl on October 20th.

Bottom Line: It’s beginning to look a lot like art-pop Christmas, Diane Coffee, and I’m totally cool with it. Let’s get freaky.

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Follies "Grave Matters"

Follies “Christmas Day” (2017)

Self Released
Buy: Stream

Random strokes of luck, that is often what Soundcloud feels like to me. Don’t get me wrong… I LOVE SOUNDCLOUD, and would be lost without it. But anyone who has ever done a keyword search knows my pain. Thankfully, every so often you strike silver and gold (Christmas pun!). Kate Siefker, also known as Follies, has fought her perfectionist tendencies and released a bunch of tracks that she was working on in 2013-14 under the title Grave Matters (2013-2014). Included amongst these beautifully layered tracks is, yes, a Christmas song! “Christmas Day” is a beautifully raw track, with ukulele, (maybe guitar too?), beats and handclaps circling each other for just over two minutes. It is certainly not your usual ukulele fare, so those expecting the expected… you may be pleasantly surprised.

Bottom Line: Short, raw and beautiful. Best of luck with your move Kate (if you see this.)

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Okay Kaya "Holiday Song"

Okay Kaya “Holiday Song” (2016)

Self Released
Buy: Stream

NJ->Norway->NYC singer/songwriter Okay Kaya (aka Kaya Wilkins) released this little gem on YouTube last season, and it was deservedly touted by my Christmas-music-blogger-in-arms Christmas-A-GoGo. Her voice is beautiful, yet with a mournful quality, and the message, while not your typical cheery Christmas romp, is most certainly relatable. My favorite line is, “I want to talk, I want to talk, I don’t want to talk, I want to talk loud and confidently.” There is something refreshing to the honesty found in the struggle embedded in the lyrics. I don’t think I’m far off-base to say that a quick glance at the central premise of this song might lead a listener to quickly dismiss it (as I think it would be terrible as either the pop-punk or twee song I imagined in my head), the line “All I want for Christmas is therapy,” threatens to be both trite and precious in equal parts, but Okay Kaya does a wonderful job to fully develop this song into a beautiful and complicated view of the other side of Christmas.

Bottom Line: Okay Kaya built upon a concept that I was almost reflexively suspicious of, and made me a believer.

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Deleted Scenes - Birdseed Shirt

Deleted Scenes “Get Your Shit Together for the Holidays” (2009)

What Delicate Recordings
Buy: Bandcamp | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | iTunes

I’ve been considering this track by Washington, DC’s Deleted Scenes for more than 5 years now… and that is by no means a knock against the song that it has yet to make a mix. Mixes are delicate creations, a balance of tempos and moods… all stuff you already know I’m sure. That said, “Get Your Shit Together for the Holidays” is damn heavy.

“get your shit together for the holidays
you can cheer up, take some medication
keep your shit together for a couple days
you can fake whatever it takes. ”

It is moving, explicit, heavy, oddly uplifting and best listened to loud. The music is delicate and epic, moving as the tides through the song. There is very much something here… it just has to have the right neighbors.

Bottom Line: The Deleted Scenes may have deleted themselves back in 2014, but good music knows no expiration.

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Bitter's Kiss & Blue Stone - These Bells Will Ring

Bitter’s Kiss and Blue Stone “These Bells Will Ring” (2015/2016)

Self Released
Buy: 7Digital (FLAC)Amazon MP3 | Amazon.UK MP3 | Amazon.DE MP3 | Amazon.FR MP3 | iTunes

Weehawken NJ’s Chole Grace, formerly known as Bitter’s Kiss and now professionally known as Baker Grace (and apparently signed to Republic Records), collaborated with electro-pop group Blue Stone with “These Bells Will Ring.” It’s a call for peace in the holiday season; You can’t get much simpler than that. It is short, poignant and beautiful. I have a version from 2015 that is 30 seconds shorter and with MUCH less production value than the slightly celtic version that adorns this video… and I prefer the stripped-down version a bit more. Still dig the new one, just not as much.

Bottom Line: Short, thoughtful and beautiful. Make the original version available again and I’ll be a happy, happy blogger. It’s back!

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HEY! Look! The original version!