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!
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.
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.
As we gear up for the Christmas season, I thought… what would be better than a New Year’s song? Hehe. My Christmas mix is a much more of a seasonal mix – I work in December, snow, New Year’s… I cast a wide net. A folk-pop duo from Los Angeles, Wood Hitch have blessed us with the first solid New Year’s song of the season, “Auld Lang Syne (Don’t Waste My Time).” The song is full of booze and regret, as every good NYE should be. They harmonize well together, with the rough edges of Brady Harris’ voice supporting the beautiful pipes of Rose Shawhan. I mean, try not to sit up straight that first moment that Rose’s vocals enter the song; she really has something. And with that, press play and drink up!
Bottom Line: Wood Hitch are serving the first, great pregame cocktail to our New Year’s party.
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Continuing from earlier in the month… when we all enjoyed an extremely short song about the end of Halloween… I bring you a beautiful and somewhat disturbing song that takes place around Christmas. Messi is a singer/songwriter from Gent, Belgium, with a beautiful, beautiful folk voice. I say folk voice, because she does not sing songs that stretch her capabilities, as you might find in pop music, but it does contain that one quality that is most necessary: personality. Messi’s voice has a warmth that soothes, even when she’s singing about eyes and dead flies. “Charlemagne” is a fun little folk tale about (IMO) an ex who is going to extreme lengths to get attention. Why did I add that IMO? Because I asked Messi, and she says that the song just wrote itself and was very open to my interpretation. So, don’t assume my opinion is the “right” one – take your own stab at finding meaning in this song. Thus is the subjective beauty of art.
Bottom Line: Messi’s voice draws me in on this one. The song’s imagery is quite odd for something that might end up on a Christmas mix, but isn’t that kind of awesome? Can’t you just picture your friends pausing for a second, wondering if what they heard was correct, then just losing themselves in the chorus anyway? Yeah… I sure can.
Mano Walker Recordings
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There is no perfect release schedule when it comes to Christmas music. SO MUCH comes out in such a SMALL AMOUNT OF TIME, that no artist can be sure that their song will have the time to break through the flurry of competing songs. Last year’s fantastic track by Johnathan Rice and Courtney Marie Andrews is a prime example of this problem. Here we have two notable artists collaborating on a fantastic song, and I didn’t hear a peep about it until stumbling upon it a few months ago. The song tells the story of immigrants trying to make a better life, but instead, get caught up in Trump’s child jails. You know, the kind of track to put next to “Santa Baby” on your mix.
Johnathan gave some context to the writing of this song on his Facebook page last December. You would think that after a year passed, things would be looking better… but alas, this story could have been written yesterday:
This song is a story I wrote with Jason Boesel and Courtney Marie Andrews. It’s about a child and his mother trying to make it to the other side of the border. Reasons beyond their control intervene, and they don’t make it. This song is my way of calling attention to the current humanitarian crisis taking place at our border with Mexico. Like many of you, I was devastated by the images in the press of mothers being gassed, of little children in cages sleeping on foil blankets. Believe me – as bad as those images are – the worst is yet to come if we do not act immediately.
A few months ago I traveled down to the U.S.-Mexico border with a group of like-minded people to learn more about the situation, and hear about how to help. I started writing this song on the bus ride home. It was recorded in LA a few weeks ago.
Johnathan finished his post with a pitch to donate to Al Otro Lado, whose border rights program “hosts know-your-rights training and legal orientation workshops in migrant shelters in Tijuana, Mexico, and provides direct legal representation to detained asylum seekers in Southern California.” So, if you are so inclined, you can donate here.
Bottom Line: The story is moving and Johnathan and Courtney’s voices blend beautifully. Should you want to add a little bit of humanity to a normally sugary-sweet holiday mix, look no further than this song.
TBA Music / Wydawnictwo Agora
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Polish folk group Lor may have released their heartbreaking track “Christmas Morning: Busza’s in the Garage” back in 2017, but this humble blogger didn’t stumble across it until their first proper album, Lowlight, was dropped earlier this year. I’ve been piecing together a bit about the band, largely from translated Polish websites, and I must admit a wry smile crossed my face when I saw they had cited recent CU favorite Tom Rosenthal as an early inspiration. These four girls, Julia Skiba, Paulina Sumera, Jagoda Kudlińska and Julia Błachuta, are still teenagers, and when you press play below, you will be somewhat astounded. “Christmas Morning” is a delicate song, deeply sad, yet somehow comforting. Written about a man who spends Christmas alone, Lor draws you gently into this scene. Then there is the video, shot and directed by Mateusz Mleczko (you can see the full credits on the Youtube page), which adds even more to the drama of an already emotional song and compliments it beautifully. They teamed up with Anna Dymna’s Against the Odds Foundation (donate here), who “help intellectually disabled adults by giving them a place where they can be happy and have a substitude (sp?) of home,” and this connection feels wholly appropriate with this song. This is a heavy one, but very much worth your time.
Bottom Line: To be teenagers, already opening for the likes of Rhye, and displaying this level of talent, taste, and sophistication… incredible.
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…
Oh those seasonal bands. Those spectacular seasonal bands. There are a few, a few bands who come together for explicitly Christmas music, the obvious ones (for my readers being Christmas Aguilera and Sunturns), and now Forest Creatures are making their claim for elite status. Not only do they only release Christmas music, and not only have they released something for the past three years in a row, but they have released FULL ALBUMS three years in a row. There are some bands that have matched this feat… but Forest Creatures are really taking this to another level. A healthy mix of originals and covers, all performed beautifully – so beautifully that you find yourself wondering where they find the time? This year’s entry is Noble Fir, which follows in last year’s beautiful Was That Christmas? in brilliant fashion. The title track is a standout for sure. Their interesting arrangement for “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was pretty damn great and unexpected. The calming bliss of the other two originals, “Silent Morn” and “Christmas at the Cabin,” combined with this coffee I’m drinking has put me in a serene, blissful mood that this bitter, overworked Christmas blogger kinda, really, truly, definitely needs. This record is fantastic, for those who like that sort of thing…
EDIT: Woah. Mind. Blown. All three originals have EXACTLY the same running time… 2:37. That is crazy.
Bottom Line: Forest Creatures have maintained an incredible track record of fantastic, FULL-LENGTH Christmas records – a nearly unmatched feat.
Asthmatic Kitty Records
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Denison Witmer is a great songwriter. This I know is a fact. I remember being in college, watching a friend of a friend open for Denison, and this guy had a pretty big crowd. Filled with fraternity brothers and such, they were there for their boy. Passable strumming ensued, and when he was done, those guys pretty much all left. A smaller, but much more dedicated crew was left, and we all realized that THAT is how you write a good song. The difference was truly astounding; I was shook. Well, it is now over 15 years later, and my man Denison is releasing a Christmas EP under his own name. He has popped up on others’ works, Sufjan and Rosie Thomas, but I don’t believe he has ever done his own. Now all we have to do is have him write some originals… The EP sports a traditional instrumental, a song who-shall-not-be-named, as well as an old hymn, “For the Beauty of the Earth.” It is a touching song, simple in its arrangement, but full of fragile emotion; the imperfections in Denison’s voice emote more than any singer from The Voice could ever muster. This is certainly more on the religious side that I would normally write about, but the fact that it was Denison (a good guy), since it was so damn pretty, and that it is only available until Jan. 1 has put me over the top. If you want this, get it now. Hat tip to Christian for making me aware of this!
Bottom Line: This is also a charity release, with all proceeds going to a friend and fan who is battling Leukemia. So… count your blessings and spread the love.
Oh hey – Denison has this other Christmas track from his The 80’s EP.
And Rosie, Sufjan and Denison…