Alex Exists “Never Christmas Without You” (2022)

The Confidence Emperors
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Bandcamp

Sometimes you just want some swagger. Toronto’s Alex Exists is overflowing with such swagger in his big, glam-infused Christmas single, “Never Christmas Without You.” The guitars bend, the vocals soar, and the attitude seeps out of every line. While the song’s first notes immediately place this song within the Christmas canon, the lyrics are far more interesting than you may anticipate. There are these couplets of contradiction that I thought are so perfect and relatable:

Love and hate
Are both the same
You can’t control where
Your heart is aimed
We hated the cold but
Still loved the snow

Delivered with Alex’s expressive vocals, this song is filled with huge brush strokes of emotion. I found his delivery to be captivating – he isn’t singing a song, he is completely engaged in performing it. While I might continue on to opine about what his motivation might be when writing this song, Alex explains it quite well on his Bandcamp page:

This is a song for anyone that feels crestfallen during the holiday season. Love it or hate it, the holidays bring out a lot of different and often complicated emotions in us all. This is a sentimental song that bites back and evokes a bit of sass towards all those hurtful moments in life. If you’re feeling lonely, like I used to during these times, you might resonate with this song. No matter how tragic life gets for you, there is always an extra seat at our table.

Bottom Line: A big, beautiful, emotional song for a complicated time of year.

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Safia Nolan “Le sentier de neige” (2016)

Bonsound
Buy:
Bandcamp | Apple Music | Amazon.fr MP3

EDIT: WELL WELL WELL. This was a cover! Anybody who read the earlier version of the review, I do apologize for not realizing, and will do better next time.

I hope you all are mapping out a tracklist for the Now That’s What I Call a Very French Canadian Christmas! compilation that you all are now undoubtedly crafting… because the hits just keep on coming. Montréal’s Safia Nolan has this gorgeous cover on her 2016 record, Reprises Vol. 1, whose simple beauty shines through both the sentiment of the song and perfect execution. The original version by Les Classels (1964) is a much grander production, while Safia’s single guitar beautifully frames this simple, vivid story of sharing a kiss in the snow. Things may be lost in translation, but I did love this part very much (especially those last two lines):

I told you “I love you” (Je t’ai dit “je t’aime”)
In the peace of the woods (Dans la paix des bois)
snow in poem (La neige en poème)
Melted under our feet (Fondait sous nos pas)

Of course, this is not a Christmas song… but if you read this blog, you know that this most certainly counts 🙂 And thank goodness, because it is fucking beautiful.

Bottom Line: Safia Nolan’s simply-adorned portrait of a sweet scene of love amongst the falling snow continues our journey into the best of French Canadian Christmas… who have low-key been just killing it for the past few years. Sorry for just digging in now!

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Elliot Maginot “Christmas On My Mind” (2022)

Audiogram
Buy:
Bandcamp

I bet you thought I’d keep posting French-language songs… so here’s the latest from Montréal, the English-language romantic with the French last name, Elliot Maginot. This singer-songwriter has been writing original Christmas songs for a few years now, each one with a different tone, but always with crisp pop production and big emotions. Elliot’s journey begins with 2018’s “Christmas Ain’t Enough,” with its familiar rhythms and retro feel, as well as some unexpected, beautiful lyrical moments. Take a listen below.

2019’s “I’ll Know My Savior (Christmas All Around),” takes the previous year’s retro pop production and turns the knob to the 1980s, with a shimmering, romantic 1980s pallet. I’m talking precise synths, a saxophone solo or two, big vocals, and even the 80s staple, chimes – the whole deal. It can feel a bit over-the-top, and it is wonderfully so.

Elliot’s 2020 release, “The Ballad of Mrs. Claus,” also has those 80s chimes and sax solos, yet somehow feels the most contemporary of his earlier tracks. The concept of the song – Mrs. Claus singing to Santa, worrying over him and this whole enterprise – is a concept that could easily have been made into a joke, but it is treated with such thoughtfulness that it is easy to forget that it is about Santa Claus.

After a year hiatus, Elliot returns once more with the beautiful “Christmas on My Mind.” This is his most lush production yet, as his voice turns into a choir singing out over a string section, and perhaps a soprano saxophone or two. However, it is the lyrics that steal the show. That first verse is a thing of beauty:

I never claimed to be a modern man/guess it just wasn’t in my bones
I know I used to be so stubborn then/just wandering like a rolling stone
Between my endless need for love/And everything I thought I knew
I should have known it wouldn’t really feel like Christmas without you.

In each of these songs, Elliot proves to have a wonderful, direct pipeline into some deep, emotional worlds… he must have a wonderful therapist. Please give me the number.

Honestly, there was something about Elliot’s aesthetic that initially made me suspect him and the pop sensibilities he gravitates toward. This is very much not a pop Christmas blog. But there is always something a little askew with him… like in “I’ll Know my Savior,” when he goes pop, he leans in so hard that you start to imagine how big and fantastic it might sound on stage in your local venue. He drove right through my suspicions and busted out the other side. It has truly been a journey listening to these songs by Elliot Maginot.

Bottom Line: These songs feel devotional, without being specifically religious – very much the qualities I enjoy in a Sufjan Stevens Christmas song, just with vastly different production. Somewhat of a revelation, I’m 100% on board with Elliot’s unique, emotional Christmas catalog.

Maude Audet “C’est No​ë​l, je m’en fous” (2015)

Bravo musique
Buy:
Bandcamp (FREE!)

In what might just become the year that I hunt down every cool French Christmas song I possibly can, I present Montréal’s Maude Audet and her wonderful 2015 Christmas single, “C’est No​ë​l, je m’en fous,” which translates to “It’s Christmas, I Don’t Care.” The song is all about how it may be Christmas, but the narrator doesn’t care about the weather, the presents, the tree or anything at all, as she only cares that she’s with you. It is a lovely slice of French indie folk, as delicate banjos pluck along under the steady chime of sleigh bells, perhaps sparking a gentle sway as you sit at your desk. Equally lovely in sentiment and sonics, this song is a delight indeed. Magnifique!

Bottom Line: I continue my search for fantastic French Christmas songs and appear to only be pulling aces. I’m sure this will last… 🙂

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Julie Aubé “Ça c’est No​ë​l” (2020)

Self Released
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Bandcamp

As I continue to sift through my tabs and tabs and tabs of Christmas tunes I’ve been meaning to check out for about a year, I will continue to highlight the best of the bunch as we settle in and wait for the deluge of 2022 Christmas tracks. Now, you may know that I don’t know French, but I would imagine you agree that it sounds lovely in Christmas music. “Ça, c’est Noël” by Moncton, New Brunswick’s Julie Aubé is the latest addition to that beautiful playlist where I have no idea what they are singing about. Julie’s vocal delivery, along with this classic, French pop (with garage-rock edges) instrumentation gives the song a timeless vibe that is essential to a great Christmas song. Folks will be Googling this song, expecting to find it released on 45 in 1966… mark my words.

You’ll also likely love her non-Christmas offerings, as I’m also getting into her 2022 release, Contentment. Lots to love here.

Bottom Line: Just sing Christmas songs to me in French, Julie Aubé. I’ll bring enough eggnog for everyone.

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Beatrice Deer “Christmas” (2021)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

You know what I love to find? I love to find those Christmas songs that are hidden amongst the “regular” songs on a “normal” release. Think weeding through the deluge of Christmas singles for something great is tough? Try looking in places where no Christmas songs are expected to be found! Montréal’s Beatrice Deer has hidden an incredible Christmas song at the end of her most recent record, SHIFTING. Beatrice recorded the LP during the pandemic, and when circumstances allowed, recording live and in the studio with her bandmates, some of whom Beatrice shares with the excellent Land of Talk (Bucky Wheaton-drums & Chris McCarron-guitar). Appropriately titled “Christmas,” this is actually NOT the first Inuktitut-language song I’ve featured on Christmas Underground! Beatrice Deer appears with Elisapie on last year’s excellent Ho! Ho! Ho! Canada XII, covering “Quanniuguma” and blew me away. That song is an Etulu Aningmiuq cover, and while it is absolutely wonderful, “Christmas” feels much more like the Beatrice Deer song that it is. And what a song! This is Inuktitut indie pop! It opens slowly, gently fanning out with a new layer here, a new layer there, until the cymbals crash and all the colors explode, shimmering and spinning around the room. The lyrical beauty of the Inuktitut lyrics is undeniable, the language most certainly loves to be sung. This song is mix-worthy my friends.

Bottom Line: An indiepop highlight of 2021, no doubt about it.

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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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Kristian Noel Pedersen “Everyone Knows the Claus” (2019)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

It is quite possible that Kristian Noel Pedersen has written more original Christmas songs than anyone, ever. (Well…. maybe Make Like Monkeys has given him a run for his money…) Kristian is headling into his 11th year producing a Christmas album of all originals, which should make bands who struggle to write one new Christmas song… feel a little inadequate. So why am I writing about Kristian recording a COVER song? Well, because when Kristian decides to record a cover, he goes big. To my knowledge, I can’t recall a full reimagining of an entire Christmas album until Kristian took on the challenge (I’m sure some of my fellow Christmas-music aficionados will correct me). His target? Hanson’s Snowed In, an album that I am not familiar with, despite my dedication to Christmas music. But that leaves me to ponder, what album should/would you need to cover to truly make this a worthwhile endeavor? You have to cover a record that is known because especially within Christmas music, there are only a few that maintain catalog sales (and this one is one of them). Then, you also have to choose an album with originals, otherwise, it is as if you are just covering a sequence of tracks, rather than a specific artist’s album. So, I really think Kristian made a great choice targeting the Hanson LP. The first two singles are up, but the original is where the interest truly lies. “Everybody Knows the Claus” does NOT sound like Hanson. I’m going to have to agree with Kristian in his correspondence with me, his version has turned the song into a “weirdly fucked punk thing.” With dramatic vocals and a driving, fuzzy bassline, I can’t imagine Hanson ever sounding like this. I’m very much looking forward to hearing what the rest of this record sounds like and I will not forget the donuts.

Yet another album to look forward to, A Kristian Kinda Christmas XI is coming to an internet near you in the next few weeks. Luckily you have a new Hanson LP and TEN previous records to tide you over. Tune in and listen as Kristian adds to his likely world-record worthy Christmas music legacy.

Bottom Line: Kristian’s Christmas-music ambition is boundless and inspiring. I love this effort, which only looks even more impressive with every new boring cover of “Blue Christmas.”

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Dariynn Silver “Rest Ye Merry” (2018)

Dariynn Silver "Rest Ye Merry"

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

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.

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Ariane Zita “Christmas Can’t Be Far Away” (2018)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP)

Someday I’ll finish my mix… but in the meantime, maybe I’ll help you finish yours. Ariane Zita, an indie folk singer/songwriter from Montreal, has a Christmas advent calendar that is turning out to be quite lovely, Un Noël à Botch. The first track, “Christmas Can’t be Far Away,” is an Eddy Arnold cover, and TBH, not a song I was familiar with. Ariane’s voice is is beautiful, and her arrangement makes the song feel particularly intimate. The calendar continues in a similar fashion, each song building a soundtrack to that first snow.

Bottom Line: This is truly the season of beautiful songs, and Ariane Zita could very well put out more than everyone else combined…

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