Venus and the Moon “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” (2016)

Venus and the Moon - Happy Xmas (War is Over)

Self Released
Buy: Stream

I have to say… this isn’t easy. On so many levels, I don’t feel like entertaining anything that gives me pleasure. Nothing is funny. Laughter can feel like a betrayal. Smiling can feel futile. I mean… shit is dark. So… here’s a dark song. I know I said I didn’t know when I’d be able to post again, but this required very little effort and paid off quite spectacularly.

Venus and the Moon‘s special brand of “galactic country” has taken, what I often think of as an extremely boring and over-played song, and made it not only listenable, but beautiful. The slide guitar is so perfect that it makes me a little angry. I know, stupid reaction right? This is driven from a place where I just discovered this extremely easy and obvious answer that had eluded me for so long, and I feel really stupid that it took me so long – You know, that feeling. Don’t let me stop with the slide guitar, the vocals are also impeccable. The honest quality of the delivery takes a song that (for me) has lost all meaning, and you believe them. A wonderful early Christmas present for us all, at a time when we need it most.

Bottom Line: LA’s Venus and the Moon have helped me find meaning in “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” which is no easy task. Perhaps even more challenging, they prompted me to write when writing is the last thing I want to do.

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Totally Righteous Holiday Special (2015)

Chill Mega Chill / Very Jazzed Records
Buy: Bandcamp

Chill Mega Chill’s comp from last year, Tape Deck the Halls, had some real solid Christmas tunes, and largely originals! This past year was more of the same… WHICH IS AWESOME. This (hopefully) Christmas tradition is turning into one of the most interesting, original comps out there.

Totally Righteous kicks off with an extremely beautiful, somber song by Guess Genes that, had it been sung by Ryan Adams, would have turned Stereogum on fire. The collaged audio layer adds texture to the shimmering guitar and fluttering piano, and the vocals have a sincerity to them that makes you BELIEVE. Simply wonderful.

The Last Astronaut‘s “Street Lights” may not be as timeless as the Guess Genes track, but its modernity makes it a welcome addition to the Christmas cannon. The chorus is what makes this song really swing… but it makes me wish the whole song was like that!

Deep Cuts return for back-to-back Christmas Christmas classics with “Comatose Come Christmas.” This 80’s jam has the biting lyrics and sense of humor that I’ve come to love from Deep Cuts. I’m also partial to a nice drunken Christmas tune… and this song may get you contact drunk.

Grandwolves‘ “‘Zat You, Son Of God” is my first exposure to this great Houston band, and I’m going to need more. A great layering of male/female vocals amongst killer drums and some shrieking guitars provide the basis for some awesome turns of phrase: ‘Zat You, Son of God? / Asleep in the evergreen, / Next to an old tv. / Sharing your branch, with gold garland, / And a Charlie Brown ornament.” Indie rock Christmas at its finest.

Gangplans break out the drum machines and synthesizers to create their own warm cup of Christmas bitters with “Skipping Christmas.” Peppered with samples from It’s a Wonderful Life, this production duo have succeeded in making me feel warm and happy, nestled amongst their warm beats and dark lyrics.

Benjamin Andrew’s “For a Moment” for some reason makes me think of a stripped down Low – the layered vocals, the fingers squeaking on the metal strings. Bleak, beautiful and wrapped in a sweater.

LA’s Seaweed Salad scored a f*ing slam dunk with “You Won’t See Me.” Fuzzed out vocals surrounded by a cacophony of indie pop orchestration. I can barely hear what they are saying, but I don’t care at all; I loved the music too much to give a shit.

There are a few more tracks on the comp that I haven’t covered. Music is such a personal thing – what is one’s treasure is another’s trash. While none of the remaining tracks were trash whatsoever, they did not grab me nearly as much, despite some very intriguing titles.

Bottom Line: Well hot damn. There could be more than one track from this release finding its way onto my mix this year. Two years in a row, this label has just knocked it out of the muthaf**ing park. Please, while it is a free, name-your-price download, all proceeds go to Make-a-Wish. 

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Joseph Bradshaw & Kyle Cox – Merry Christmas from Coast to Coast (2015)

Joseph Bradshaw & Kyle Cox - Merry Christmas from Coast to Coast (2015)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

Nashville’s Kyle Cox has a long history of Christmas tunes, just check out his Bandcamp page! This year, rather than a one-off single, Kyle got together with a fellow musician from Los Angeles, Joseph Bradshaw, and the two put their heads and songs together to create a 4-track Christmas EP,  appropriately titled Merry Christmas from Coast to Coast. Consisting of 2 covers, and 2 originals, I am going to focus on the originals… because they are wonderful.

Joseph Bradshaw’s “Christmas is Always” is an absolutely gorgeous old-time, uptempo country waltz. Joseph’s voice reminds me of Dave Wilson from Chatham County Line, which I would consider a high compliment. The lyrics are truly beautiful: “Christmas is always / it’s ever with you. / When your heart’s full and glad / then you’ll know that it’s true. / So always remember, / whatever you do, / that Christmas is always / it’s ever with you.” In my last post I decried the need some have for pro-Christmas songs… but I’ll tell ya, there has to be a balance, and this song’s pro-Christmas beauty will help sustain a season of dirges.

Kyle Cox’s “Don’t Make My Christmas Blue” begins, and immediately I began thinking – is this an Avett Brothers tune?? I mean that in the best of ways – I know there are some serious Avett detractors out there, but I pretty much adore everything from Emotionalism and earlier. Its simple arrangement, heartfelt vocals, and lovely production blend together beautifully. “I know this time of year can bring you down; / Everyone but you is floating on a cloud. / But it’s hard to feel it, / this Christmas spirit, / when every day you only say how much you really hate it. / I won’t say happy holidays to you / and you don’t have to act like you want me to / No, I won’t say happy holidays to you / if you don’t try to make my Christmas blue.” The Avetts should cover it… and make Kyle a boatload of money!

Bottom Line: The always-wonderful Mad Mackerel first hipped me to this release, and I’m quite glad they did. All four tracks are done quite well, most especially the pair of originals, which are some of the country/folk standouts of the season. Name your own price and send them a few bucks, why don’t you?

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Crying Day Care Choir – Christmas Day Care Choir Vol. 2 (2015)

Christmas Day Care Choir Vol. 2

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

I awoke this morning to a lovely note from Sweden. The Crying Day Care Choir felt the love from around the world for the premiere of the first two tracks off their upcoming Christmas Day Care Choir Vol. 2, and decided to change it from “upcoming” to “released” – and one day early! You can find it on Bandcamp! Tomorrow, I’d imagine you can find it on Amazon, Spotify, etc… (but Bandcamp gives the band a bigger cut FYI). So you Christmas-mixers, your life just got easier, and perhaps you can finally finish your mix and relax. I would like to take a quick moment and share the Christmas message that CDCC has sent out with this release, as it projects the same warmth as their music, and sets the scene for you to imagine the cozy studio where these wonderful songs were born:

In the winter of 2013 we came up with the idea that we would write and record a Christmas EP. That time we were pretty late and recorded it in our living room. However, it should be mentioned that it was a success and that we managed to generate almost 2000 USD that we gave to charity. Two years later, we are now presenting “Christmas Day Care Choir VOLUME 2.” An EP with four newly composed Christmas classics that came about during a week full of mulled wine and gingerbread in our studio in Malmö. The album begins in an Irish Christmas party one would like lasted all year, via a desire to be able to keep Christmas in a small jar, a dream of a very special Holiday free from expectations, to then culminate in a hymn for the season. We have made the EP happy, warm and kind-hearted. Just as we think Christmas should be. With warm wishes, Crying Day Care Choir

I can’t imagine a year that doesn’t have its own challenges, its own war, its own famine or injustice. This world is a complicated and brutal one, and I have certainly felt its weight this season. Leave it to Crying Day Care Choir to find the beauty that we have all been looking for. The sheer joy of community, friendship and family that rise up from every harmony, every melody, every poignant lyric – it can snap you out of your stupor to appreciate what the season means. Volume 2 is a work of pure love, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Of special note, while it does require you to wait a few days to pick up the EP, between Dec. 13-19, CDCC will be donating all Bandcamp proceeds from their 2 Christmas EPs to the national Swedish radio charity for people fleeing climate disasters. However, for those who just cannot wait to grab Volume 2, just circle back and buy 2013’s Volume 1 on December 13th!

Bottom Line: There is no shortage of beauty on this collection of four new Christmas classics, but I encourage you to also revisit Vol. 1, as they are two of the strongest releases of original Christmas music I have had the pleasure of listening to.

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Crying Day Care Choir “Once a Year” (2015)

Christmas Day Care Choir Vol. 2

Self Released?
Buy: Bandcamp | Soundcloud (Free!)

The folk troupe Crying Day Care Choir have previously been featured on this blog, and will continue to be featured until the end of time. They have a second Christmas EP lined up to drop next week, and thankfully they have left a wonderful trail of breadcrumbs for us to gobble up until that time. Just premiering on the Swedish blog Beingblogged, “Once a Year” is the kind of wonderful Christmas song that I just LOVE to put on a mix. Not only is the music wonderful, but the lyrics are amazing. “Do a sleigh ride , next to a hayride, during Gay Pride in July

If I wasn’t feeling so damn poor… I want to buy their (nonseasonal) LPs so bad! RIGHT NOW! Please save me one!!!

Bottom Line: Perfect Swedish indie folk. That is nearly my favorite genre, done as well as any band could ever hope to.  (Its official, killing the rating system to give myself sanity, but damn this is good).

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Junkie Thrown “Fairy Christmas Day” (2014)

Junkie Throw Christmas

Self Released
Buy: Stream

When I’m solicited with a song… it has been my experience that the sender often has no clue what Christmas Underground is about, or what my taste might be. More often than not, it isn’t even a Christmas song… But enough blabbering from my grinch alter-ego. Yesterday I received an e-mail from someone who might actually have an idea of what I’m in to! Junkie Thrown, from my adopted hometown (cuz… I want to hang with Junkie Thrown & Jens Lekman, obviously) of Göteborg, Sweden, has written a beautiful, sorrowful, Christmas song about poverty and its contrast to the materialism of Christmas. In a season where I’m finding it hard to listen to happy Christmas music, and find myself searching for music with some deeper meaning, such as Sondre Lerche’s beautiful and poignant plea for Syrian refugees, Junkie Thrown’s sadness is cathartic.

Edit: Looks like this was originally released in 2014.

Bottom Line: Junkie Thrown’s voice is beautiful, the music equally so, and the subject matter meaningful. This is 2:31 that you, at the very least, will not regret; You may even love it.

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The Ornaments – What A Merry Christmastime It Was 7″ (2014)

The Ornaments - What A Merry Christmastime It Was 7"

Folkmonger Records
Buy: Bandcamp

Hailing from the snowy cheese-fields (right? hehe) of Madison, Wisconsin, The Ornaments intend to be an annual Christmas music project that will “release one 7″ and play one show each December from now until the end of time.” Sounds promising! Comprised of Mike Behrends & Lance Owens, the Ornaments are the kind of Yuletide band I look for – nonreligious! I know, I know… but if you want religious Christmas music, look up… look down… you’re swimming in it already. These guys were just looking for a reason to get together, as I look to my Christmas mix as a means to keep in touch with those in my life. So far, so good. On to the songs.

The songwriting is certainly original. The A-side, “Santa’s Existential Crisis,” captures a conflicted Santa Claus who isn’t quite sure he wants to work anymore. He’s worn-out, he’s sick of all the stuff, and he really just needs to take a break. I dig the music too, perhaps more than the lyrics. Everything rests easily on the bed of Hammond organ and drums, with guitar and bell flourishes nicely sprinkled throughout. A very solid start.

The B-side, “Christmas Dinner,” does not go where you think it is going to go. The song is essentially about a glorious Christmas feast for a mother and her children… and what a bloody mauling it was. Ha! Great stuff – I’ll be on the lookout for 2015’s release, no doubt!

Bottom Line: Unique songwriting, great production and EXTREMELY limited (10 copies!), clear, square, 7″ lathe-cut vinyl. (4.4/5)

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Coal: A Winter Split (2015)

Coal: A Winter Split

Breadking Records
Buy: Bandcamp

Milwaukee’s Breadking Records first release is a 4-track, winter (and Christmas) themed E.P…. released this February! The lead-off track, “On A Quiet Winter Night” by Hello Death is a beautiful weaving of three voices, a cello, guitar and brandy. J.E. Sunde‘s “Rest in the Everlasting Arm” blends layered vocals, sparse notes and waves of electronic instrumentation; truly a break from the norm while remaining in the folk genre. Boom Forest‘s take on “The Holly & the Ivy,” is yet another excellent stab at a recent cover du jour. It’s quite atmospheric, as the instruments ring and seem to hang in the air. Christopher Porterfield bats cleanup on the E.P. with my favorite track on the release. Porterfield may be better-known as frontman of the Milwaukee-based folk band Field Report, but with this solo track, he leaves the genre behind to rock out a bit more. “Christmas Ghost” is a stone-cold lock for my 2015 mix. The driving beat, the shimmering keys, the booze… sign me up.

Look for this release to be released on cassette later on in the year, but for now, you can buy each single track on Bandcamp.

Bottom Line: Solid all the way through… this truly lives up to the label’s intent. 4.8/5 

“When I was growing up, every other Christmas or so, my mom would forget about a really awesome present and randomly find it some months later. It would always be one of the sickest gift and have a lot of thought and love. Please accept this release as a very late present on behalf of all of us at Breadking.”

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HomeMade X​-​Mess : Compilation 2013 (2013)

HomeMade X​-​Mess : Compilation : 2013

HomeMade Records
Buy: Bandcamp

This cassette (and download) release from 2013 somehow snuck by me. Its a small release with largely originals… exactly what I’m normally clawing through the internet to find.

“Wyoming County”, the Scott Rankie song that leads off the release is quite nice – sparse, with a solid, pained vocal. If this was an example of things to come, I would have been very pleased. However, like any Christmas compilation, this release ends up all over the board. The following track, Kevin Marlis’ “Saturday Slay” is a noisy, psych mess (though, in a good way), and I can’t quite hear the Christmas connection whatsoever. Other tracks are lo-fi indiepop (Songs by Thom’s “The Colours of Christmas”), 50’s pop-inspired profanity (“Jeffzilla’s “Christmas Song”), and what appears to be fuzzed-out karaoke (White Widow’s “When Santa Clause Gets Your Letter”), to name a few. It kept my interest, which I don’t say for a lot of Christmas comps… but I can’t say I really loved it.

Bottom Line: I found this comp to be unique, and at times, quite interesting. I have a feeling like some of you might find something else in these songs – that and the name-your-own-price on Bandcamp is encouraging. 3/5

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Murder by Death – 2014 Christmas Cover Songs (2014)

Murder By Death Christmas Covers 2014

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

Murder by Death just released a 2-song covers single to backers of their recent Kickstarter, and lucky for us, they are also offering up for purchase to those who had no clue such a Kickstarter existed! “Oh Holy Night” is done in such a beautiful fashion, with a cello that slips in and, if you are like me, has the ability to give you goosebumps. The other cover is “My Evergreen” by the Squirrel Nut Zippers, and the song is absolutely gorgeous. It’s an extremely faithful cover; they did very little to change the approach of the original, but the sound seems more rich and full. To me, this is now the definitive version of “My Evergreen.”

Bottom Line: Absolutely stellar two-song single. 5/5

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