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

Terrazzo Recordings
Buy:
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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Bek Sarkoezy “New Year” (2021)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

It is almost time for Christmas… perfect time for an early New Year song! How about a stone-cold perfect New Year song? One written by an Australian perhaps? I certainly did not see that one coming…

Sydney’s Bek Sarkoezy maintains Australia’s 2021 Christmas Underground dominance, a trend which I am both tempted and taunted to maintain, by dropping this perfect song, “New Year,” in June of all times. Where do I begin with this song… the part where Bek sings “I just wanna go home,” and the horns kick in – that right there is magic. There are so many great lines too – “I wonder if this mess is the best that I can be.” Such a simple thought that we’ve all pondered, but perhaps not in such a perfect way before. There is so much to love in this song, that you really just need to listen to it… and buy it.

Bottom Line: A highlight of 2021 indeed. Bek Sarkoezy, I’ve got my eye on you.

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Andy Clockwise “Collect Call to My Baby” (Merry Christmas) (2012)

Self Released
Buy:
Soundcloud (FREE!) Apparently no longer downloadable…

Australian ex-pat Andy Clockwise (aka Andy Kelly) is a recent discovery for me, but most certainly a welcome one. Andy’s very excellent Christmas song “Collect Call to My Baby (Merry Christmas)” evaded me for 9 years… which is quite a feat for such a great song. From the very first moment, the groove will get you handclapping along – that is unless you’ve been drinking too much to keep the rhythm, as this song has a heavy pour of booze and would fit perfectly in with Christmas A Go Go’s recent “Drunken Christmas” series. “Collect Call” sounds both retro and modern at the same time – sharing production choices with the 60’s classics while being lyrically more playful than anything that would have been pressed to wax back then. I wouldn’t change a note in this song, and there isn’t much room to tinker when it comes in at about 3:20 – most certainly in the sweet spot for Christmas tunes. Hell… I loved this thing enough to have it feature on this year’s Christmas mix!

Be sure to check out Andy Clockwise’s regular music as well, it is extremely good. When I was listening to this song a bunch a while back, I would catch myself happily listening down his Soundcloud feed. So, please partake, as you are encouraged to get a little drunk on Andy Clockwise too.

Bottom Line: You never know what you are going to find when you are digging around Soundcloud… sometimes you find gold.

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Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders “Xmas in Rehab” (2021)

Endless Recordings
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Bandcamp | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

I’m three for three writing about Australians so far this month. I feel like I need to maintain this streak… luckily I woke up this morning wanting to take Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Lloyd Cole and Leonard Cohen and shake them up in a jar, but Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders beat me to it. Sydney, Australia’s Jack Ladder (Tim Rogers IRL) has teamed up with his band the Dreamlanders, which contain a name or two you might also recognize (Kirin J Callinan, Donny Benét, and Laurence Pike) for his sixth record, Hijack!, which contains a deeply personal, dark, funny Christmas track – the self-explanatory “Xmas in Rehab.” Having checked himself into rehab back in January of 2020, the song contains small vignettes of his experience there, with touching, funny, sad, hopeful scenes all colored by these mundane, yet honest and emotionally powerful details, that draw you in. The door is open to us all to become better, healthier, happier people – Jack/Tim just opened up his door for us to all to see, and it was truly beautiful.

Bottom Line: Jack Ladder’s baritone guides us through one of the most beautiful, honest Christmas songs of the year.

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Gretta Ray “It’s Almost Christmas in Philly” (2021)

EMI Australia
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7Digital MP3 | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

There are some years when a single country looms large over my blog… and this may be the year of Australia. Here we have yet another excellent Melbourne-based artist (though this is certainly more on the pop side) with a debut album and an excellent Christmas single. While Maple Glider’s was a complicated emotional story of love and pain, Gretta Ray in both lyric and tone is a 180-degree flip of healing and optimism. The anticipation of Christmas in Philadelphia while helping a friend get over a broken heart, you feel that incredible warmth inside the tour van despite its mechanical issues. Perhaps a bit more radio-pop that I normally skew on this site (I do love an extremely poppy indiepop of course), but something about it hooked and stuck. Sad songs often make me feel better… but sometimes you just want a hug.

Bottom Line: Gretta Ray brings a warmth that I am happy to bask in.

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Maple Glider “Mama It’s Christmas” (2021)

maple glider - mama it's christmas

Partisan Records
Buy: Bandcamp | 7Digital MP3/FLAC | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3 | Limited 7″ Vinyl Single

Let’s kick up the season… with something beautiful and sad! What else can you expect from this blog?? Melbourne’s Maple Glider, aka Tori Zietsch, has penned this absolutely heartbreaking, fragile finger-picked beauty to close her debut album, To Enjoy is the Only Thing. Zietsch’s background is incredibly interesting, being brought up in a religious sect that she only refers to as “The Religion” (referred to in this song), which kept her from much interaction with the outside world until she and her mother left at 15. She formed a band, fell in love, broke up and moved to Brighton, England after Googling “places to live.” There she began writing what became Only Thing. Zietsch’s creative reemergence came shortly after moving back to Melbourne in 2019, when she played a few songs for friends, including the new song “Mama It’s Christmas.” This deeply personal song sung to her brother has emotional tentacles that may very well leave you tearing up with empathy. In these tumultuous times, many find themselves either struggling themselves, or caring for those for which the pain persists… mental, physical, spiritual pain. It is in the air, and Maple Glider has captured this perfectly.

You called me that night
Said babe don’t you worry now
All I could manage was I love you

But I should have reached through the phone
Slapped you hard on the cheek
So that you could know pain like I do when you leave

Edit: In perhaps one of the craziest coincidences I’ve had recently, this afternoon I found a note from July from a reader (Hi Christian!) recommending this exact song to me. So, Christian, thanks for the tip – it was most obviously a good one. Also – I promise to be better checking my various forms of communications now that I’m making an earnest attempt to get back on the site for the season. BUT, hot tip… Twitter is your best bet. This is NOT the first time that I’ve missed a message on Facebook recommending something that I then write about…

Bottom Line: Fragile beauty from down under.

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King Gizzard and the Shitpost Wizard “Christmas Lights” (2018)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

There is nothing complicated about this song, with the exception of who the fuck is singing it. King Gizzard and the Shitpost Wizard is an anonymous Youtuber who specializes in making weird ass videos around King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard songs, like the featured video which is “Rattlesnakes” with the every instance of the word rattlesnakes replaced by a member of the band repeating “mean brown rice stir fry.” On their Bandcamp, there is and entire record using a sample of someone saying “eggs.” Somehow mixed amongst this insanity is a simple, yet oddly satisfying, parody Christmas song. “Christmas Lights” is a parody of KGatLW’s “Vegemite,” and frankly, I prefer the parody! I think this song passes as a legit Christmas song all on its own, with the reworked lyrics not being too silly, yet silly enough to not take itself too seriously. It rides that perfect groove of near-silliness, one might say… perhaps you’ll agree.

when everyone says september is too early
i string lights up with my girlfriend
and then we’ll toast, to scrooge’s ghosts, and what i love most, is christmas lights

i love i love my christmas lights
theyre bright as hell on dark ass nights
i keep my bulbs all screwed in tight
and plug them in whenever i like

Bottom Line: This parody song didn’t go far enough if they think I’m not gonna like it as a Christmas song. GAUNTLET THROWN King Gizzard and the Shitpost Wizard. Make a sillier tune for us, and I won’t fuck with all your parody plans the next time around…

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Alex the Astronaut “Christmas In July” (2020)

Nettwerk/Minkowski Records
Buy: 7Digital (FLAC/MP3) | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3 | Google Play | Spotify

I was driving the other day listening to WNRN (one of our local nonprofit radio stations), and this track came on that I really liked. Honestly, I can’t tell you what song it was now… but I recall the DJ coming on saying “That was Alex the Astronaut giving us some really big Courtney Barnett vibes.” I wholly agreed, and found myself making a mental note of the singer so that I might later see if there was a vaguely Christmas song I could mine for my mix (and my blog). WHAT DO YOU KNOW? Not only is there a song, but it is a single as well. I don’t get the same Barnett vibes from “Christmas in July,” and I’m sure she wouldn’t appreciate her folktronic sensibilities to be lumped in with Courtney’s wordy indie guitar rock simply because they are both Australian. Initially, I expected the song to be more about celebrating Christmas in July, as many folks in the southern hemisphere wish to have a pop-culture-approved Christmas celebration during their winter. However, this is quite specifically a love song, and the reference to “Christmas in July” is very much in the “traditional” vein. Alex uses Christmas imagery to express how exuberant and lucky she feels to be with her love – as if she is getting a wonderful and unexpected gift outside of the holiday of Christmas. Alex’s voice brilliantly expresses emotion, fragile and powerful in equal parts. The simple piano lines build anticipation, leading us to drums that burst open the song like a brilliant flower. There is an energy, a physical and emotional motion to this song that I greatly appreciate. And yes, this is not specifically a Christmas song, but I have bent the rules for less. So… enjoy this bit of Christmas in September.

Bottom Line: It is a beautiful, emotional song that gets better with multiple listens, so hit that replay button a few times.

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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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