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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The Ornaments “A Coca-Cola Classic Christmas” (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

This Christmas band began as a reason for its two members, Mike Behrends and Lance Owens, to spend some time together. Their hang sessions have resulted in some of the most dark, poignant and interesting Christmas music I’ve ever encountered. Mike tipped me off that The Ornaments were indeed on track to release a song in 2020, which had me spinning with possibilities. In a normal year they’ve written about plane crashes… so what will an extremely fucked up waste of a year bring? Like all of the Ornaments songs, “A Coca​-​Cola Classic Christmas” paints a simple, yet vivid portrait from the fringes of the holiday. The song is a holiday card, written to someone the narrator would like to see, but hasn’t in a good number of years. Personally, this feels like an estranged parent, with lines like, “filled it with ornaments from your childhood Happy Meals,” hinting at the more-than-Facebook relationship they once had. That final entreaty is so simple and heartbreaking, “If this sounds nice, I’ll be in room 104 just left of the coke machine.” This short vignette of a holiday apart conveys so much awkward love in so few words, that I find it tough to decide whether the song is terribly sad, or oddly sweet. The Ornaments always leave me with questions… so I keep coming back.

The Ornaments have big plans for 2021, as we all do, and have plans for a 2-song 7-inch, so be sure to follow them on Bandcamp if you want a shot at that . I believe that first 7-inch only had about 8 copies or so pressed…

Bottom Line: The Ornaments are a rare treat, though perhaps an acquired taste. However, once you got it… you’re in it for the long haul.

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Big Society – Big (Christmas) (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

The last few days leading up to Christmas are really nuts. Nearly everybody releases their Christmas song or HUGE Christmas compilation, and my inbox explodes. My family has a bit less tolerance for late nights of searching and writing – because the mix is done! So… you might see my posts slow. All that said, I am saving a TON of links in the hopes that I’ll be able to get to them later. The lucky few… I’ll get to right now.

Manchester’s Big Society has dropped a very nice 4-track EP of really, really solid Christmas tunes. With touches of Cheap Trick and Queen, a dash of banjo and bossa nova, and a healthy heaping of indie rock, every single one of these songs is pretty great. I’m not quite sure which song is my favorite yet, as I am kinda tempted to grab a set of headphones and go for a walk with record. So… maybe I’ll get back to you, but feel free to let me know if one grabs you.

Bottom Line: Well dammit! These Christmas originals are quite worthy of your money (and mine). All proceeds go to The Booth Centre, community centre run with and for people affected by homelessness.

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Ho! Ho! Ho! Canada XII (2020)

The Line of Best Fit
Buy:
Bandcamp (NYOP) | Free MP3s @ The Line of Best Fit

I began this whole underground Christmas music search sixteen years ago. While many of my online Christmas-music hunting friends have been in the game even longer, it is still a pretty solid amount of time. My 2005 Christmas mix can now drive with a permit, is looking at colleges and thinks the music I listen to is pretty lame. Now that I’ve established myself as at least kinda old, sort of experienced and somewhat knowledgable, I’ll say that I can recall when that very first Ho! Ho! Ho! Canada came out (the download is unfortunately 404’d these days). It was glorious – I was heavily into the Arts & Crafts and Paper Bag labels, and believed that all the best indie rock must be fueled by the arts funding of Canada. Three songs off that initial release would end up on a mix… which for one single Christmas compilation, is pretty much incredible. Now Ho! Ho! Ho! Canada is nearly a teenager, with their twelth volume having dropped this week. This year’s offering does not disappoint, with so many excellent songs that I am hesitant to single out any, for to do so is to rank one over another… and I just haven’t lived with it enough to be completely sure that these are my favorites. However, into the fray I go with my highlights off, as we look at this latest edition, Ho! Ho! Ho! Canada Volume XII!

The Acorn was on Ho! Ho! Ho! Canada’s debut volume with their beautiful track “Snowfall”, which also ended up on my 2010 Christmas mix, Write About Xmas! Thus, I was quite excited to see them on here again. Their latest seasonal song, “Skipping Stones,” features Jazmine Wykes on vocal harmony as well as a murderer’s row of players – Sylvie Smith (Evening Hymns/ Habitat), Joseph Shabason (Destroyer/Diana), and Jon Hynes (Kathleen Edwards). The song is not explicitly seasonal, as it is more evocative of the moment the song was written – a decade ago, writing about a loss on the precipice of the holidays. So, it would most certainly be a stretch for a mix, but it is a beautiful, melancholy song that I couldn’t ignore.

The absolute best first 15 seconds on this comp belong to one-time The Burning Hell and Evening Hymns member Michael C. Duguay‘s “Yankee Swap.” That bass saxophone vibrates everything inside you in the best possible way. The song runs off from there and slowly works into this complicated, emotional story, whose tension is broken by that big, beautiful chorus. Loved this song so much, and is most certainly one to go read the liner notes of; Reading the liner notes gives even more context and the song feels so much more powerful when you get the whole story behind the artist who made it.

Kristian Noel Pedersen is an alternative Christmas stalwart, having also released his twelfth-holiday record, A Kristian Kinda Christmas XII (out now!!), this year. That number is actually a little deceptive, as he has also released an entire cover record of Hanson’s Snowed In as well… so he’s working on 13 at least. Kristian often has a song on the HHHC comp, but this year’s, “Everything’s The Same Except It Isn’t,” may be my favorite of the bunch. This is a COVID-Christmas song, but without the overt references, which gives it a shelflife beyond this year (which I greatly appreciate). The shimmering indiepop guitars, the jingle bells and Kristian’s soft, thoughtful voice make this song feel both personal and universal – kinda sneaking under your skin as if you had thought of it yourself.

I am most surprised by how much I enjoyed this ambient track by Droni Mitchell (AKA NNGM). “Teach Your Feet To Fly” was inspired by Joni Mitchell’s classic “River,” but they decided to cover the ideas in the song, rather than the song itself. The skates over the (what sounds to me as) cello lines play beautifully off each other, with a reference to the “Jingle Bells” refrain tying the two songs together. I loved this bit from the liner notes: “In a difficult year when a lot of us have spent more time than ever stuck indoors, the idea of the freedom and gracefulness of being able to skate away on a frozen river under the open skies is definitely one that appeals.”

Those from Canada may be more familiar with this song, as it originally appeared on Inuk singer-songwriter Etulu Aningmiuq’s 2018, Juno and Polaris prize-nominated album, The Ballad of the Runaway Girl. Elisapie covers “Quanniuguma” (Inuktitut for “If I Were A Snowflake”) with the help of Beatrice Deer, as the percussive stings are trance-inducing, driving the song until the usual percussion instruments come in as reinforcement. The song almost explodes at 3:30, and by then, you are completely under its hypnotic spell. The liner notes are equally enlightening with this track (Did I tell you how much I appreciated those liner notes??? I am telling you again! They are really, really interesting!): “The lyrics of Quanniuguma speak to the idea of the freedom afforded by being a snowflake- the ability to be directed by nature and travel everywhere, with no worries about the future, certainly ideas that are at the foremost in a lot of minds in 2020.”

Vancouver’s Bookclub has the most on-the-nose sound and subject matter for what Mr. Christmas Underground is going to like. Synthy-indiepop Christmas with a nostalgic bent? That is like giving me a bag of chocolate-covered pretzels… I’m gonna eat that whole damn bag. Love the sound, dug the lyrics, and especially love the brevity. (I LOVE A QUICK CHRISTMAS SONG – leave them WANTING MORE.) Pure indiepop perfection that will be part of the Kingfisher Bluez Charity Christmas Village collection. Pick up the 7″ and help support 1-800-SUICIDE and Crisis Center BC.

Those happen to be my favorites for the moment, but I don’t need to remind you, art is subjective and I am by no means the only judge. So grab this for yourself, dive into those liner notes, and I’m sure you’ll find some other gem in here that I’ve passed over. Why not add it to the comments?? Let me know what you loved! I love comments!!

Bottom Line: Twelve years in and going strong as ever, the beloved Ho! Ho! Ho! Canada Volume XII is once again a wonderful snapshot of Canada’s indie music scene.

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Oihana & Tamu “Una noche más” (2020)

El Nébula Recordings
Buy:
Bandcamp

I sit here a broken man. After weather reports promised 5-8 inches of snow, I gaze out upon our lawn and its slushy, icy mess, and a single tear ran down my cheek… only to freeze before it falls. Then, a DM comes in, announcing a new track by some of my favorite indiepop Christmas folks, and things begin to turn around. Following the triumph that was last year’s Christmas single, Oihana and Tamu return with “Una noche más ,” yet another shimmering Christmas present. The pulsing beat propels their dreamy vocals, as more synths swirl in to season this lullaby for the year that has passed. I was graciously provided an English translation of the lyrics, and they are simply gorgeous.

One more night the year’s over
And we, together, say goodbye
One more night you’ll come with me
Looking -both of us- for a little love

And the light will guide us to the manger, again
And the snow will cover the road as we walk
One more night One more night we’re peaceful
I see you shine in the dark
And the light will guide us to the manger, again
And the snow will cover the road as we walk
One more night.

Should you find yourself wanting even more Oihana and Tamu, and you will, there is much more to enjoy. Oihana leads the band Melenas, whose last fantastic LP, Días Raros (which I am listening to and fucking loving as I type this), came out in May on Chicago’s Trouble in Mind. You can look for Tamu’s band Exnovios, to have a new record in 2021, but in the meantime, you can rock out to their 2020 EP, Exnovious (Apache), which is also available as a 7″. So much good music to spend your Christmas money on…

Bottom Line: There are few bands I can rely on to send me absolutely anything, and I can be rest assured I will love it. Oihana & Tamu have officially joined this club, as they continue their streak of incredible indiepop/garage/dream pop Christmas tunes.

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Stephan & Johnny “Too Broke for Presents” (2016)

The Flowershop
Buy:
Bandcamp (NYOP)

Santapalooza noted this release on twitter a week or so ago, noting that while it was from 2016, it was “new to us.” Indeed, it was new to us. I’m not sure it was on Bandcamp before, but I could easily be mistaken. What got me was the cover… It was terrible but fantastic. The band is composed of members of two Chicago punk bands, Stephan (Nervous Passenger) and Johnny (Rat Hammer). Their unholy alliance produced three songs – two covers and an original, “Too Broke for Presents.” The covers… let’s just pretend they don’t exist. They are fine, but they are songs that are so over-covered that need to be amazing to be even acknowledged. The original, “Too Broke for Presents,” is another story altogether. The sound is what you’d expect from these guys – it has attitude, humor and a chorus that demands crowd participation – shout out that shit! “Yeah, I’m to broke for presents and I’ve got nothing for you/ I’m too broke for presents and I hope that we’re still cool. / Cause I don’t have a job to buy you anything / but I hope we’re still cool / I totally think you rule.” Yesssss.

Bottom Line: Their energy is infectious, and in a pandemic year, let’s hope that this song is the only thing you catch.

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The BV’s “I Hope There’s No Snow” (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp (NYOP)

Likely used to the challenges of socially-distanced recording, the BV’s hail from both Falmouth in Cornwall and Ausburg, Germany. This year, they found some time to scratch that itch – you know, the one when you want a little Joy Division mixed into your indiepop Christmas mix! I’m sure I should be able to think of a couple other touchstones, but man… really feeling that Joy Division sound, and it is just what I needed. Between the steady beat, those glimmering guitar lines, to those talk-singing lyrics of woe, this is the prettiest dirge I’ve heard this year.

Bottom Line: This downer is fucking fun!

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Porlolo “Christmas in Hollis” (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

WHAT THE WHAT? I’m amazed that I’ve never quite encountered an approach to Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis” like this before! Denver’s Porlolo have scored a SOLID Christmas hit, with this saxophone-heavy rendition of the classic tune. I am so DOWN with that wind section! They do such a great job with it, that what might have been a joke song ends up feeling perfectly inevitable. Of course this song works as a strolling indie folk song… how could I have ever doubted it? Love love love.

Bottom Line: This song might just be the most unexpected delight of the season.

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Lost Map Christmas Card Compilation (2020)

Lost Map Records
Buy:
Bandcamp

Ever since I first discovered Kid Canaveral about five years ago, Lost Map has been a label that I continue to obsess over. I covet their Visitations series, as well as nearly every release they put out – they just have excellent taste in music (and their graphic design is phenomenal too – RESPECT!) and I wish I had all the money in the world to buy everything and then pay the shipping to the States. International shipping is just a killer, and keeps on record blocking me… I shake my fist at you shipping costs! Thankfully their postcards do not cost as much to ship, as I have partaken in a limited-edition Pictish Trail Christmas postcard in the past. That is a deep cut that I relished putting on last year’s Christmas mix. This year was even better, with a full Christmas compilation postcard from our Scottish friends! So, you buy the postcard (or simply, the digital download) and you get nine tracks from Lost Map bands. First off, you may notice the similarity between three tracks, all with the same title, “I Remember Xmas.” This song may even SOUND familiar to longtime readers of the blog, as I covered it back during the song’s first incarnation, as performed by Marble Gods. Marble Gods soon became Happy Spendy, and Happy Spendy’s woodwind wing, Happy Clarinetty, grabbed the song as well. Thus the compilation features THREE versions of the same great song! I’m totally OK with this, as obviously, I’m a fan of the song. The Happy Clarinetty is, as you might imagine, the most sonically distinct of the three, and a welcome addition.

A.R. Pinewood features quite heavily on this release with three songs on the record… and while I would like to give you some background on him as well, I’m just going to defer to the press release:

A.R. Pinewood is the heartbroken cyber-cowboy you’ve been dreaming of. Fully loaded with a baseline encyclopaedia of American musical influences from Abner Jay to Woody Guthrie and Buckweat Zydeco, built with a harmonica for an oesophagus, a pitch-perfect auto-tuned voice, double-denim as standard and a strangely human heart, this machine writes classics, every time.

This cyber-cowboy indeed does write classics, every time, as my favorite track off an already fantastic record is the beautiful “Tis the Season.” The pitch modification on A.R.’s tracks is initially sonically curious, but I quickly settled in to the lyrics: “Tis the season for lovesick fools.” That is one incredible line. A.R.’s cover of “Silent Night” is solid, with his vocal tweaks being the most interesting aspect of the performance until his lonely guitar is joined by a heavenly host of additional voices and instrumental colors. The song most certainly gets better as it progresses, just as a song should – especially one you already know so well. A.R.’s final contribution is the groovy “This Year,” with its’ big, singalong chorus, it is most certainly a crowd-pleaser. Three great tracks, but what more can you expect – he was programmed to do this!

Friends of the Guinness jump in the mix with two tracks, and you might be asking – who the heck are these people? I googled ’em and came up with NOTHING. Well, they are a new supergroup! Martha Ffion and Eimear from Happy Spendy, accompanied by Romeo Taylor, Craig and Beth from Savage Mansion and Ryan from Catholic Action have joined forces for this Google-challenged band, and these two tracks are their first releases. This band really knows their way around a chorus, which is that most addictive of musical drugs. “Ciara” is a snowy tale of lost love with a catchy chorus that almost tricks you into thinking you’re singing a happy song. “Town for Tomorrow” begins with this classic sound, but the keyboard melody snaps the song out of the past. I found the song is best experienced loud, so when those big chords of the chorus hit, they overwhelm. What a fantastic introduction to this new band, and I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Last, but certainly not least, London’s Fell has created this incredible dayglow indiepop Christmas song that is bound to move your ass. This song shimmers, but the music doesn’t overwhelm the lyrics, which include some incredible lines like “You know you’ve only come to get drunk on a memory.” Incredible from top to bottom, start to finish, Fell’s “Fear of Christmas” is indiepop perfection.

Lost Map has nailed it. Pick up 2 postcards and send them to a friend, and even better… subscribe to the Postmap Club!

Bottom Line: Rarely do I tackle an entire compilation, but this one was too good to pass up.

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Jeff Hulett “Know by Now” (2020)

Small Batch Records
Buy:
Bandcamp (NYOP)

Memphis’ Jeff Hulett has popped up on one other excellent Christmas comp that I know of (Oh Holy Crap: A Very Makeshift Christmas – which I may feature at some point too… I mean, that Star and Micey song!), but it but his latest, the original “Know by Now,” that deserves a few inches of solo coverage. “Know by Now” is most certainly my favorite track off the new Small Batch Records’ Spiked Nog: A Small Batch Holiday Compilation. The laid-back stroll of this song paints such peaceful images, both lyrically and in the bits of musical color added to the rhythmic bed of the song. I just want to have a fire on, a great beer in my hand and have this on the radio. Hell, I kinda want the the radio to be just that little bit shitty, to create a bit more ambiance. Yeah…

While I’m not tackling the entire compilation (I am in the midst of Christmas mix production!), there are certainly a few more solid tracks on there. Pick up the whole thing and throw them a few bucks so they make another!

Bottom Line: Just a beautiful tune. There’s even a barking dog in it… oh doggo, you did great.

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