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.
Sometimes you just get attracted to a feeling. This new Christmas single by The Reds, Pinks & Purples have created a beautiful, contemplative and melancholy Christmas single. The single features two originals from the DIY kitchen pop project of Glenn Donaldson from Skygreen Leopards, Art Museums, Thuja, and The Blithe Son, etc, etc. The lead track, “We Won’t Come Home at Christmas Time,” is a rather sad song, but with delicately upbeat music in true indiepop fashion. It somehow reminds me of Morrissey with a dash of Mark Eitzel and another artist that I am just at a loss for. I HATE it when that happens. The B-side is an absolutely gorgeous instrumental that is only the second instrumental that I’ve come across this season that I could see as mix-worthy. There truly is an expert craftsman at work here, no doubt about it.
H/T to No Love for Ned, who is always on the lookout for new Christmas songs for me 🙂
Bottom Line: Simple, beautiful and brief. You can’t ask for much more from an original Christmas song.
That name. I I know that name. I had lost track of Joseph Bradshaw for a few years, but I won’t do that again. Joseph Bradshaw’s “Christmas is Always” off his 2015 release with Kyle Cox remains one of my favorite folk-Christmas tunes, and it appears he has not lost a step. Recorded last week at the kitchen table “while the family slept and studied,” these songs exude the warmth of that kitchen. The writing is exquisite on the two originals on the EP, “Santa Claus Can Keep His Bag” (written with Sandra McCracken) and “Mercy for All.” (I can give-or-take a “Silver and Gold” cover, so please pardon me for spending time on the rest of the EP.) Each song tells a story, with lines of beauty and humor that leave you searching for your favorite. However, I found myself uncharacteristically more impressed by Joseph’s voice than anything else on the record, as I’m normally a sucker for lyrics. The moments at the edges of his voice where he maintains a quiet control, convey an emotion and warmth that brought me even deeper in. Joseph doesn’t have a big voice, but it has great character and he knows how to use it beautifully. I’m so on board should he ever consider a full Christmas record. (Sending that into the world!)
Bottom Line: They might only be a few songs, but these songs born at a dinner table, have left me full and happy.
Gainesville’s Rusty Spork has created this DIY folk Christmas EP that, in its simplicity and its subtle phrasing choices has made some very trite songs (Jingle Bells, Silver Bells, and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas) sound fresh and easy. The recordings are intimate, letting you hear the setup and the fuck-up, and it helps to draw you in, to maybe pull up a chair. A cover of the Jason Mraz & Justin Bieber mashup, “Mistletoe (I’m Yours),” is far less cloying than the saccharine sweet originals, rounding out a record that might not knock your socks off, but might certainly cause you to put on your most comfortable pair.
Bottom Line: There aren’t many ornaments on this tree, but it makes the room feel pretty damn cozy.
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.
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.
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.
Hamburg’s Meiko has dipped her toes into the alternative Christmas world before, with the excellent 2018 track, “Merry Christmas Wherever You Are,” and she is back with yet another original! This one is even more to my interest, as I LOVE a good splash of bitters in my Christmas cocktail. The soft vocals and lightly strummed melody stand in beautiful contrast with the obvious message of this wonderful song. “Oh this year can kiss my ass \ So let’s cheers to Christmas past…” Lots of dimes for the swear jar on this one, so listen, then empty the jar, and jam it into your computer to buy the song.
Bottom Line: This is certainly not going to be the last of the “fuck this year” songs, but it is certainly going to be one of the best.
Continuing this season of phenomenal Christmas folk music, London’s Grace Eden has released three songs of exquisite beauty, each one with its own unique approach. There is an original, a poem backed by music, and a cover of her favorite Christmas carol. Her original Christmas song, “Hold You,” introduces us to her beautiful voice, often singing perfectly in harmony with itself. There is a warmth to this song – fuck, it is cozy as hell, and I am feeling it. “Oh, Let’s raid the fridge / Let’s pretend we’re still kids.” YES! I might normally skip over a poetic interlude, but after that first song, I was on board. “Fortune” is quite nice in its own right, adorned by a sparse guitar track, Grace has an unsurprisingly lovely speaking voice which I’m happy to listen to. The final track, “In the Bleak Midwinter” is a simple and lovely cover of a song that I am happy to listen to when done well, and this is most certainly performed and produced beautifully. With a portion going to Mind, a mental health charity, this EP is an easy buy.
Bottom Line: A perfect trio of holiday songs that can each stand on their own, but taste even more wonderfully together.
Thom Stone has been featured here on Christmas Underground many times before under his previous nom de plume, Young War, who were fucking fantastic (you can still buy their records! Buy them!). This time around, Thom is recording under his own name, and has more than doubled his previous holiday catalog in one shot. Having always wanted to write a Christmas record, Thom took the second lockdown in November and decided to make something positive out of it. So he gathered one microphone, one guitar and some sleigh bells stolen from his two-year old’s music set, and created Christmas at the End of the World. The album features eight songs, all of which blend the uncertainty and creeping optimism that so many of us are feeling right now. On “Merry Christmas (What a Hell of a Year),” Thom looks at our world running at 1/4 speed, and instead of focusing on the obvious crisis, finds reasons to be sincerely thankful and embraces the spirit of Christmas and a hope for change. I want to take this sentiment and bottle it:
Our time, we’re so terrified of wasting our time But I’m thankful for the chance to waste mine It’s a gift Nothing else there, on my list
So hold on, something’s got to change And I hear, something kind of strange Sleigh bells, in the air Magic, everywhere
And I apologize for getting sentimental I’m only trying to be sincere I guess there’s nothing much left to say Merry Christmas what a hell of a year Merry Christmas what a hell of a year
The lyrics on this record continue to impress, even when the song only lives for 50 seconds, as in “A Manger Incident:”
What if nobody ever found Jesus? What if there was no star in the sky? What if Mary told Joseph her secret? And Joseph went out of his mind?
What if Gabriel just couldn’t make it? And God couldn’t handle the guilt? What if the three wise men were three wise women? Imagine what we could’ve built
I could write about every single song on this record – the gorgeous sentiment of “Could It Be Christmastime,” the apocalyptic beauty of “Christmas at the End of the World,” the mantra of “Noel, noel, go ring the bell / I see the snow on the leaves” in “Snow on the Leaves,” as each song is deserving of appreciation. But alas, you all need to experience them for yourself as well, without the power of suggestion that a reviewer might add. So listen, then buy it. All proceeds from this record go to the Manchester Cares charity, a community network bringing younger and older neighbors together to tackle isolation and loneliness. If that isn’t something we all can relate to after this year…
Bottom Line: Thom Stone has tapped into something special with Christmas at the End of the World, the most poignant lockdown Christmas record of the season.