You never quite know what to expect, yet fully know what to expect, when you are awaiting the new Ornaments Christmas single; The one thing you know is that you will never quite hear a Christmas song like this from anyone else. This seasonal project of Mike Behrends and Lance Owens is entering its sixth year, and after we all contemplated death in 2016, we find ourselves celebrating (new) life in 2019. “Married and Joseph” is a brilliant short story, borne out of Mike’s early upbringing in Minnesota attending a conservative Lutheran Church. The characters take part in the classic Christmas pageant, one where their performance is so successful that it leads to sex, a baby and blackmail. I don’t want to give away the whole story, listen for yourself! An added bonus for 2019, the Ornaments are offering up a wonderfully appropriate tote bag in “Lutheran prayer book green.” The bag is wonderfully emblazoned with “Christmas Music or Die Trying.” I can think of a number of folks who are going to NEED this (or be insanely bummed they missed out). Best of luck grabbing one of the
15 (14 now that I’ve gotten one), you weirdo Christmas music fanatics.
Bottom Line: The Ornaments are truly on their own Christmas music island, every year throwing a party and treating us to a fascinating new entree to devour. Delicious!
Buy: Bandcamp | Spotify
Nashville’s Charlie Marie just released one heck of a combination of classic-country Christmas originals. Charlie’s voice is the kind that you’ll immediately recognize, soulful and strong, the kind of voice that you would have heard forty years ago coming out an AM radio. Those folks out there who wish to save country music will no doubt find solace in this voice. “Old Fashioned Christmas” is simple and pure in presentation and purpose; the song is about wanting a simple Christmas with family. The only flourishes in this song reside in her voice, where you fully understand how much it means to her. To convey so much beyond the words on the paper, simply through the emotive quality of her voice… you are going to recognize this as the defining feature of Ms. Charlier Marie. “Under the Mistletoe” is ALL about that chorus. I may have mentioned Charlie’s voice one or two times before, but here is where she takes you for a ride. Sit down and read the lyrics to “Under the Mistletoe,” and you may find it fun to have a “Home Alone” reference, and smile with a story of working for a moment away from the kids to connect. Charlie’s voice takes that basic frame and blows it up into an incredible song, adding a vividness that only a big, soulful voice like hers can provide. Charlie Marie could make the phone book sound important and meaningful – her voice is just that good.
Bottom Line: Charlie Marie, thank you for hipping me to your songs, you just made my night. These are some absolutely stunning classic-country Christmas songs deserving of your ears.
Norman, Oklahoma has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to underground Christmas music. Of course, the Fowler Volkswagen/Blackwatch Studios compilations are based in Norman, and so are a bunch of fantastic musicians. One such musician is singer/songwriter Beau Jennings. Having earlier contributed the dark, yet excellent “Christmas Bus” to 2013’s Fowler VW/Blackwatch compilation (Volume 3), Beau returns with a full Christmas record, The Christmas Light. The album is a collection of originals, with a few excellent covers sprinkled in. There is some real beauty in this sparsely-orchestrated affair, most notably in some of the lyrics in the title track, “The Christmas Light.”
“Woke up that morning to ta wonderland
The TV said that school was closed
Mom made hot chocolate in the microwave
We put on our winter clothes
The snow just fell as the day went on
We smelled the neighbor’s fireplace
Inola Oklahoma 1985
Oh if Christmas had a face.”
The imagery is simple, but damn if you can’t feel it. The warmth and love that emanates from that track is undeniable and can be found in the tone and pacing of the instrumentals as well. Beau’s motivation for creating this beautiful record is one of love, but also of loss.
In many ways, I made this record for my mother. She died earlier this year and it’s the first Christmas my family will spend without her. Because I recorded it late October and into November of this year, I suppose it was a way to keep her spirit present as the holidays approached. But it also turned into a larger reflection of how memories of holidays past can sometimes define or refine a holiday’s meaning in the present. I’ve always felt ‘the Christmas spirit’ most acutely when it’s late at night and I’m the only one awake, and so I wanted to capture that feeling as best I could.
Similar to Lachlan Denton’s “This Christmas,” Beau is using his music to keep his mother’s memory alive, and dammit if I’m not getting a little emotional thinking about it. You can’t quite imagine how it is going to feel… or how you are going to move on. Beau shares his journey with us, and it is beautiful.
Bottom Line: Warm, simple and full of love. That sounds like a great Christmas to me.
Commodore Trotter / Ball of Wax Audio Quarterly
I am not the kind of blogger who seeks out a great voice. So many of my favorite singers couldn’t sing (How I miss David Berman), but even I can still fall for a voice. Ball of Wax Audio Quarterly is a fantastic blog and music-compiler based in Seattle, and their most recent release is Ball of Wax 58: The Ball of Wax Winter Spectacular, featuring this truly beautiful song by Brittain Ashford & Matt Bauer. Honestly, I’m having a tough time describing Brittain’s voice in a better manner than Ball of Wax did:
The teller of this tale is Broadway star and thematic alchemist* Brittain Ashford. With a voice that balances diaphragmatic force with childlike vulnerability, Ashford paints the sort of holiday portrait that those of us who suffer from melancholy particularly this time of year can appreciate and empathize with, and what’s more—what we need most during the dark season—she infuses every line with a tattered but palpable hope.
This song was almost too pretty for me… but those distinctive qualities of Brittain’s vocal delivery were undeniable. The music is also quite lovely, but after learning of composer Matt Bauer‘s folk and banjo background, I am SO intrigued to hear a version with banjo. Damn that could be cool.
Edit: Turns out this song was initially released in 2018 on an EP, Tinsel and Snow & Other Mid-Winter Missives. Go check it out!
Bottom Line: Like Messi’s “Charlamagne,” this song is defined by a beautiful and distinctive voice.
Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club
Buy: 7″ Vinyl | Bandcamp
Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club.
I should just leave the review with that, in that those who understand, those in the know, would just see that and buy the record. However, I’m not going to be so presumptuous, and think that every single person reading my blog already knows the Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club. This label is devoted wholly to Christmas music, creating a yearly tradition of 3-4 limited 7″ vinyl Christmas singles, featuring a wide array of fantastic bands contributing an A-side original seasonal song, with a B-side cover of their choosing. Paris trio SuperBravo is a particular highlight for me this year. Their original, “La Nuit” is Pinback-esque in rhythm and melody, but with these fascinating noises interjected throughout. Honestly, Snowflakes’ writeup captured it pretty damn well: “The song itself sounds like magic, as a fairytale come to life, with strange little creatures making weird sounds, angels harmonizing ‘Noel Noel’ and dreamy vocals – as dreamy as only French female vocals can sound.” This truly sounds like no other Christmas song I’ve heard, and that is most welcome.
The B-side, “Chanson Pour Les Enfants l’Hiver” (‘Song For The Children Of The Winter’) is a poem published by Jacques Prévert in 1946. Their take collages sounds overtop a chiptune/toytronica base, which wonderfully frames how classicly French-pop Armelle Pioline’s vocals are; They add beauty to every canvas they touch. This is a solid one-two punch of a Christmas single.
Bottom Line: Fascinating French pop that bends the genre to its will.
So, do you fancy yourself a collector of underground Christmas records? If you are like me, and began this extremely hip search back when Yahoo still ruled the internet and Facebook was but a baby website only opened to ivy leaguers… well then you’ve been a fan of this CD-only (physical media!) collection of the scrappiest, kookiest, raunchiest, and indiepoppiest Christmas songs available. The latest edition of A Very Cherry Christmas has great tracks by some folks I’ve previously showered with adoration (Frank Sexuality and the Negative Emotions, A Mild Peril), as well as some great songs from bands I’m just getting accustomed with (Jacqui and Geoff, Ballard). There is something for everyone – from the hilarious “What If Santa Claus Is Just 20 Ferrets In A Red Suit” to an exuberant satirization of consumerism with “Consume! Consume! Consume!” So take out your credit card (or your Paypal password), and celebrate the patron saint of buying shit… and fucking buy it! (Grab the few copies of older releases that are still available too!)
Bottom Line: A tradition for all the misfits, one to be celebrated and feared! ONLY 200 COPIES! You are warned.
Let’s talk about records. I mean, an album as a full album. Some indie Christmas folks have done this well, creating an album of largely originals that you can listen to and critique as a whole – Chris Farren initially comes to mind. Milwaukee’s L’Resorts have created a lo-fi, tropical indiepop Christmas tour-de-force. Last year’s 4-song Christmas EP has expanded into an incredible collection of fascinating, cohesive Christmas tunes. Depending on your mood, you might find yourself humming the tropicala-infused “Shutdown Mode,” or the contemplative and confrontational “Christmas is a Time for Dreaming,” there is a song on here for everyone. Some of the lyrics are downright incredible too – such as my favorite line from “Christmas is a Time for Dreaming”, “Christmas is a time for screaming / into the pillow that nothing has meaning.” HA! This band has earned a spacious place in my heart. As a whole, one of the strongest Christmas albums of the season, without a doubt.
All proceeds from the sale of this album during the month of December will benefit The Black String Triage Ensemble, a group of classical musicians who play music at Milwaukee crime scenes after the law enforcement teams have left. So, buy early and often, because you are not only showing the band your appreciation, but also supporting a cause they feel close to.
Bottom Line: This may be the shortest review of a full record, only mentioning two songs and two lines of lyrics. Why? Because you don’t need to waste any more time not listening to this!
Well fucking shit. This fucking Christmas song is a great time. I’ve decided that today is devoted to songs that you can’t play around your fucking kids. Sean Keller was kind enough to tweet his song at me overnight, and I’m fucking glad he did. Sean keeps a day job writing for television shows and writing/composing musicals like SLASHED! The Musical. Recently, his free time has involved getting together with friends to shout along to profane Christmas tunes; This man is living his best life. The song is a boozy romp that would nicely serve as the climax to your office-party playlist, provided everyone is drunk enough. Let’s shout-along together: “Holy fucking shit it’s Christmas / God I’m so glad it’s here again I’m sorry I was such a Scrooge / Holy fucking shit it’s Christmas / Everything is so holly jolly just so long as I have you.” I feel like I’ve joined the drunken choir. I’ll have another round, Sean!
Bottom Line: The song is fucking fun as hell.
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP) | Bandcamp (Compilation)
Stafford, England’s Don’t Call Me Ishmael are big fans of Christmas. I’m honestly amazed that I had not discovered them until this year, as they have multiple Christmas EPs, with releases every year since 2015. I’ve got a lot to choose from, but the song I’m going to highlight is the beautiful, and powerful, “Mary and Joseph,” off of 2015’s Dark Christmas EP. What immediately caught me was this sensation that I’m hearing an amazing Billy Bragg Christmas song. I’ve got this live Billy Bragg record that has been in my CD changer (yes, I have one) for YEARS… I stress, YEARS, because it always seems to pop on when my soul needs it. “Mary and Joseph” scratches that same itch. No accompaniment, just two voices reminding us to be grateful for what we have at Christmas. I’m most certainly looking forward to their upcoming Christmas release slated for Monday, December 9th. Follow them on Facebook, their label on Bandcamp, etc, to be the first to hear it! And dig into those older tracks too!
Bottom Line: Powerful simplicity in the vein of Billy Bragg… which is high praise.
I don’t normally write about straight-up Christmas carols. This is generally a pretty secular Christmas music blog… and if you want Christmas carols, there are a million other places to listen to them. That said, every so often, a treatment just hits me. British Columbia’s Dariynn Silver released a version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” last year that deserves some notice. The vocal melodies are great – her pacing and the words she highlights are truly unique. However, it may be piano in the bridge that just got me. It was just beautiful, and frankly, I thought you might think so as well.
Bottom Line: Who would have thought it? A honest-to-goodness Christmas carol on Christmas Underground. I am full of surprises today.