Randolph’s Leap – Christmas Album (2021 Additions)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

The absolutely WONDERFUL Scottish band Randolph’s Leap has become almost a yearly feature on Christmas Underground, as they have been putting out some of the most wonderful, cleverly-written political Christmas songs that I have ever heard. Sometimes they release songs with a good bit of fanfare, like the amazing “Christmas, Burn it All,” and other times they sneak one in at the last second when I’m not paying attention like the hilarious “Christmas is a Conspiracy.” This year is a bit of both… they’ve quietly added three tracks to their stellar, ever-growing Christmas Album, but did so with plenty of time a few weeks back. Now why it has taken me this long to really sit down with these songs and listen is an indictment of both my intuition and taste level. Why? Because I should have KNOWN these would be great. It is as if I was taking Randolph’s Leap and their incredible ability to churn out amazing Christmas songs for granted, and for this oversight, I apologize. The main track that I initially focused on was the deceptively-titled “New Pair of Socks.” Who would have thought such an innocuous title would house such a timely anti-Tory Christmas song? Let’s dive into this first verse:

I am a simple uncomplicated man.
I take what I get, I give what I can.
Forgive me for saying,
but you’ve got a nerve.

Now there are expenses,
and I’ve got a few.
You’ve got your own,
but I pay them too.
Won’t you give something back
to those who you claim to serve?

Cause all I want for Christmas
is a tree and some decorations,
a nice new pair of socks,
and some cabinet resignations.

So much of my Twitter feed is UK bands and fans who keep me pretty well informed as to the recent corruption scandals in the Tory government, as well as all those incredible photos of officials flouting the COVID guidelines. I find myself oddly invested in the political fate of a country that I do not live in. But we both have a right-wing that is primarily invested in their self-interest, so it is not hard to imagine the song working on both sides of the pond… ah hell, I’m babbling. The song is beautiful, clever and vicious, and only gets more pointed after that first verse. So, if you are like me and like a little anti-asshole politics in your Christmas music, you’ll dig it.

There are some songs that I rarely ever press play for. You know… those ol’ chesnuts that I (unjustly) associate with little-kid Christmas music, rather than the “adult” stuff I’m usually trying to sniff out. I would put “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” solidly in that category… but I may need to reassess this bias after hearing the other two tracks Randolph’s Leap has added to this record. “Jingle Bells (2021 Version)” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” are both extremely listenable, at times bordering on astounding versions that have shaken me. “Rudolph” is a revelation, with a beautiful arrangement that elevates this song to the absolute top of the Rudolph pile. However, what makes this (I can’t believe I’m typing this) song mix-worthy is their phrasing; All the notes that you are anticipating from a song you’ve known your entire life are slightly askew, and it is like a drug for your brain.

“Jingle Bells (2021 Version)” isn’t far behind the “Rudolph” triumph, though it hits slightly closer to expectations, so I’m not going to go quite as far in my praise. The arrangement and production, as well as that guitar madness at the end, certainly push the song into the “Jingle Bells” stratosphere. I am completely astounded and delighted and hope you will be too.

What a band. I’m in awe.

Bottom Line: Randolph’s Leap is on an incredible, Christmas song hot streak. If you haven’t bought this record yet, you need to turn in your alternative Christmas music membership card.

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Ho! Ho! Ho! Canada XIII (2021)

The Line of Best Fit
Buy:
Bandcamp (NYOP)

The Line of Best Fit is the home of one of the most reliable, most wonderful Christmas compilations in existance, Ho! Ho! Ho! Canada, which continues this tradition with its thirteenth wonderful collection of Canadian soundscapes, indiepop, folk, indie rock and the like – you know, genres and artists who aren’t churning out records with themselves laughing in sweaters on the cover and a whole bunch of boring covers on the record. This is music for the rest of us (which is what this site is ALL about), and I’m going to do my best to highlight just a few of my favorites from this year. However, as with ANY compilation, please listen to the whole thing – as what I single out may very well not be what you would have! I also get intimidated by reviewing large comps, and cap myself at 4-5 feature songs, no matter the quality of the whole thing… I am one person, with a kid, dinner to make, and a secret, international cock-fighting ring to run. So here we go!

June Thrasher‘s expansive “Sleep Through the Night” opens the record, immediately bending the rules of what a Christmas/holiday compilation should be. The song rings out with these tones and drones that remind me of blowing wind, waving plants in the wind. It certainly feels chilly, and while it doesn’t have jingle bells (ha!), I’ll allow it – because it is quite beautiful.

JF & Lail (JF Robitaille and Lail Arad) provide the lovely “First Christmas,” an incredibly sweet folk song made by a couple splitting time between Montreal and London, while traveling with their newborn during a pandemic. It is funny, touching, and extremely personal, yet completely relatable to anybody who has ever tried to attempt anything challenging with a young child. Planes, museums, quiet dinners, nothing is the same, but you’re in it… and you’re hoping… hoping…

The This‘ “Winter Tires” is short and upbeat, which checks two big boxes for me as I’m putting together a mix. Throw in that the song has a semi-polished, Mountain Goats feel, and I’m pretty much telling you to take my money. Lucky for me, I can do that, as this song also features on the Kingfisher Bluez Christmas Single 2021. SO, grab this and 3 other tracks on beautiful vinyl!

“Xmas Oranges” is the heaviest track on here, as well as a standout from Marlaena Moore‘s excellent 2020 release, Pay Attention, Be Amazed. Marlaena mines some deep emotional content, bathed in somewhat ominous (yet beautiful) cello and horns. While I was most attracted to the incredible instrumentation, Marlaena’s voice is undeniable, as she sings some really amazing lines: “Christmas oranges. / I don’t care for sticky citrus. / You can’t even tell the difference / between love and fatal interest.” Damn.

Kristian Noel Pedersen is the beating heart of Canadian indie Christmas music. Not only does he feature on many of the wonderful Ho! Ho! Ho! Canada compilations, but he also released Songs About Christmas (AKKCXIII), his thirteenth Christmas release. His songs keep getting better and better, and this track might be my favorite yet. “Deck the Halls” seesaws between these beautiful Real Estate-ish guitar lines, and a fuzzed-out power chord chorus, which are like orange and chocolate to me: two great tastes that I hadn’t realized would taste so great together. Delicious!

Bottom Line: Yet another strong compilation to mine for mix-worthy singles, and there are most certainly some gems here!

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The Ornaments “Cryin'” (2021)

Folkmonger Records
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Bandcamp

Mike Behrends and Lance Owens’ seasonal project, The Ornaments, is something that I look forward to all year. The chances that the song is going to skew a bit dark is pretty high, but you NEVER know how they are going to get there. This year’s song, “Cryin’,” finds their wonderful, dark storytelling in contrast with their most heartwarming music. The juxtaposition between the story of an overworked, neglectful father making his son cry amidst a forgotten Christmas with the outro’s airy hallelujahs, quiet strumming, gentle piano lines, and beautiful trombone colors is striking. This song has all the dark, complex, detailed storytelling I’ve come to love about The Ornaments, while suggesting that they might just have the sweetest song ever somewhere in there… who knows? Stranger things have happened!

I could listen to that outro for another five minutes, easy.

Bottom Line: The Ornaments continue to amass some of the most interesting Christmas music in existence. I, for one, cannot wait for the absolutely necessary full-length one day.

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Gabrielle Aplin “Just Like Christmas” (2021)

Never Fade Records
Buy:
7Digital MP3 | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

People like to talk about how there hasn’t been a new, modern Christmas standard since “All I Want for Christmas is You.” Stereogum is trying to shoehorn a whole bunch of forgettable songs into the standards category, but you have to scroll to the comments to get the true answer… Low’s majestic “Just Like Christmas” is indeed a new standard. How so? Well… because it has been and will be consistently covered from now until eternity by artists of taste and stature (and of no particular stature as well!). Will Ariana’s “Santa Tell Me” get covered by anybody but some big pop act? Probably not – and frankly my guess is her song will likely live on as largely a trendy clothing store playlist experience. “Just Like Christmas,” however, is beautiful, simple, and downright incredible. Its simplicity lends itself to reinterpretation (as the true classics often do), and year-upon-year an artist or two adds a new stellar version to the mix. This year I present English singer-songwriter Gabrielle Aplin‘s version to be considered as one of the best out there. Gabrielle strips it down, chooses some interesting lyrical phrasing, and leaves me shaking my head with how brilliantly she controls her voice. Color me impressed and put yet another brick on the pedestal lifting Low’s new holiday standard.

Bottom Line: Gabrielle Aplin wields her vocal weapon with perfection on this most excellent cover.

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Memorial “In the Arms of December” (2021)

Memorial - In the Arms of December

Real Kind Records
Buy:
Apple Music (so far)

Soundcloud has been paying off rather well lately, with the latest discovering coming in the form of this beautiful, Christmas-adjacent song from the UK’s Memorial. The folk duo premiered their new song on the blog Wonderland about a week ago, and it is one of those writeups that really makes you wonder whether you should even try to say anything else about it–but here it goes. It makes me think of those distant relationships, those relationships that you deeply value, but are slowly fading. We all have those, they warm us with memories and meaning, while making us cry. Their voices, in tandem with the simple, airy production fits the lyrics so perfectly, to surgically attack that part of your brain where you hold both your love and regret. So… you are forewarned.

Bottom Line: One of those perfect, emotional songs bound for the kind of Christmas mixer that reads this blog.

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Benjamin Francis Leftwich “Tinsel in the River” (2021)

Dirty Hit
Buy:
Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

The track all over the blogs today is this little, melancholy beauty by Benjamin Francis Leftwich, titled “Tinsel in the River.” I’m going to crib the same quote that everyone else is to give you some background:

“‘Tinsel In The River’ is a song about sitting alone over the Christmas period and reflecting over the previous year of love, loss and what could have been – but flew out of one’s hands… The song is set against the Christmas party season in the town in Yorkshire where I am from. The city comes alive with: the party, the bag, loving fellowship – and also chaos.”

There are some great lines in here, and I’m particularly fond of the second verse:

Now, I’m not one for wishing
On a star so far away
But they’ve made the city glisten
With lights you can’t escape
Well, there’s tinsel in the river
And the world is on the piss
Still I’d carol sing forever
If you turned up on December 25th

The production is simple, airy, and warm – wrapping the song in a snug little package. I don’t really have any notes here – it’s just lovely. I’m guessing some of you are going to love this short little melancholy tune as much as I do.

Bottom Line: Short, emotional, and beautifully produced.

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Sara Noelle “Like Snow (Slowly Falling)” (2021)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

After last year’s wonderful “Christmas at Sea,” Los Angeles’ Sara Noelle just mike make these holiday songs a tradition. Similar to last year, we get one original song and one cover. Hmmm… sounds like Sara needs to hook up with the Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club – cause that’s what they do too! “Like Snow (Slowly Falling)” has left the Bon Iver-reminiscent acoustic/electronic collage of “Christmas at Sea” for much more ethereal production. As the title suggests (by not referencing Christmas), this is much more of a winter tune, which Sara describes as a “wintry song about getting lost in a swirling snow globe of emotions.” I found it to be quite beautiful, and look forward to next year’s edition!

Bottom Line: Emotional and ethereal beauty.

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Annie Booth “Christmas Time (Keep It Together)” (2018)

Self Released
Buy:
Soundcloud (FREE!)

Ah, to tell the story of discoveirng this song. Annie Booth posted this song on Soundcloud back in 2018, but only for a brief period, as it was gone when I first looked. I had been running down random threads on Facebook, stumbled upon Annie and evidence of past Christmas singles (she’s also done some covers!), and immediately messaged her. I must say… it is rare that a band will ever respond to me, let alone send me to the song I’m asking about. However, Annie Booth most certainly did, and I absolutely flipped out. I have been wanting to write about this for two years now, always hoping that Annie would release it properly so that I could encourage you all to pay her money for her wonderful efforts… but alas, it is back on Soundcloud and Annie has made it free for you all to download. So, enjoy the absolutely beautiful, shimmering emotion that is “Christmas Time (Keep It Together),” but please consider buying some of her other incredible music. Musicians are just like you, they don’t sleep in a bed or eat for free. Please remember that.

Bottom Line: A highlight of my 2019 mix (Xmas), this song is a wonderful introduction to Annie Booth, should you not know her already. I trust you will become as big a fan of her as I am.

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Brooke Annibale “Christmas, Happy You’re Here” (2021)

Brooke Annibale - Christmas, Happy You're Here

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

I assume that Providence, RI singer-songwriter Brooke Annibale has been hanging around my house, peering in the windows these past few years. I mean, baking cookies and playing records is pretty much my holiday jam, and I am extraordinarily unique. In “Christmas, Happy You’re Here,” the vignettes Brooke paints of cookies, records, sipping coffee, and spending time with loved ones is what I want to think about when I think about the holidays. I don’t want to think about all those stressful parts that come along, I want to zero in on that wondeful, often unattainable, ideal. I might as well have a beautiful voice with some warm keyboards to guide me there.

Bottom Line: Lovely sentiment lovingly executed.

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John Mark Nelson, Tancred & Jenny Owen Youngs “Fireside” (2021)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

John Mark Nelson & Jenny Owen Youngs are both no strangers to these pixels I call home. They both write thoughtful, introspective seasonal songs, and this year’s collaboration between the two ropes in Jess Abbott (Tancred) to create a Voltron of emotional, gentle, beautiful strumming and plinking. YOU ARE WARNED! Prepare to look INWARD! The lead single “Fireside” is exactly as Jenny describes,” a crisp homage to indoor rumination in December, and keeping warm with loved ones when daylight is brief and winter nights are long.” Nailed it Jenny. Their voices blend beautifully, most especially during the chorus when the song flares like a flame catching that perfect piece of kindling. They also hit that sweet spot at nearly three minutes in length, this song is that perfect blend of short and sweet, as one does not want a cup of hot chocolate to get cold. Delicious!

Bottom Line: Snuggle up next to this song.

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