Olive Grove Records
Scottish! Horns! Politics! Beloved musicians! Randolph’s Leap and the Olive Grove All-Stars have checked off every single required box for me to love them. “Christmas, Burn it All” is a cathartic release of frustration with a big chorus. “It’s Christmas time and all your heroes are dead / So love yourself, your family and friends tonight instead / It’s Christmas time and all your dreams are gone / But Santa’s on his way to bring a new and hopeful dawn.” EPIC! You think this thing is going to be bleak, and only bleak when you hear that first line – but then bam! – there is Love. In two short lines, your perception of what this song is going to be is flipped. I haven’t even gotten to the part that truly hooked me. The verse with Daniel Johnston was just so damn touching, I continue to be destroyed by it. “It’s Christmas time and all your heroes are dead / The ghost of Daniel Johnston came and hovered by my bed / We talked about some random things then finally he said / Merry Christmas and True Love Will Find You In The End.” That verse made this song undeniable. AND THEN CAME THE ENDING. Horns ring out with “Burn it all, throw it all in the fire / It’s Christmas day / a new age is on the way!” To finish with an explosion is pretty much the best way to go.
Bottom Line: This song is the first EPIC Christmas song of 2019, and perhaps the last and greatest one of the decade.
Fisher And Porcupine
The other half of my favorite (title) song off of Chris Farren’s brilliant Like a Gift from God or Whatever,” Jenny Owen Youngs has a Christmas song of her own this year. “Maybe Next Year” is one of those Christmas songs drenched in emotion. There is no rocking around the Christmas tree, this song makes you FEEEEEEELLLL. The best way I can describe it is that I feel the same way listening to Elliott Smith. Some of those early songs are heartbreaking, but because you feel it so deeply, you feel more alive. So, live a little and check out this song.
Bottom Line: Sad songs are the best, and scientifically proven to make you feel better.
Buy: Bandcamp (FREE!)
Hot tip. Just follow a bunch of folks from Oklahoma City, and you’ll find some great Christmas music. The latest, courtesy of Beau Jennings’ (who has his own great xmas record) twitter account, is Chase Kirby’s “Angels in the Snow.” There is so much going for this song: Chase’s voice has an authentic quality (which makes all the difference in folk music), and his songwriting is damn clever. “The little drummer boy is clocking out at six / he’s got to make it in time to pick up his kid / oh the wise men have been stuck in traffic for days / it would be nice if they saw a star on the way.” You are just going to have to listen to it, because I’m busy trying to finish my mix today. Hell, I’m 100% positive that this is going to end up on someone’s mix, because it is most certainly mix-worthy.
Bottom Line: Oklahoma City, with Beau Jennings, Chase Kirby and the Fowler/Blackwatch Christmas comp (FULL REVIEW COMING SOON) is the epicenter of excellent Christmas music. There is no rival this year.
Le Jean Luc Tobine’s Official Fan Club
One of my absolute favorite finds ever was the Christmas EP put out by Jean Luc Tobine’s Official Fan Club, which is SOMEHOW still available. I mean come on. Any self-respecting alternative Christmas fan should own that thing. Well, they have also released two great Christmas singles by the Basse-Normandie band a Drift. The first one was lovingly reviewed on this very blog back in 2015, and the lastest…….. well here it is. I know, what a twist! “Make Christmas Great Again” is an obvious jab at our orange leader, just based on the title alone. However, just to be sure, the song begins with “Once in the biggest tower of the biggest town, / Lived the richest boy who never asked for what he had.” I do believe that fits the biography. However, there may be hope for this young boy. He proceeds to ask for Santa to make a wonderful Christmas for him, his family and friends. While a bit self-centered, not a terrible request from this young boy. However, as Christmas arrives and he is sitting there alone, his true nature is revealed and things take a turn toward the megalomaniacal.
Make Christmas Great Again
Make Christmas Great Again
I want a big big party
I wanna be adored
I want them to scream my name
and ask for more
Make Christmas Great Again
Make Christmas Great Again
Build a wall around the house
so they can’t get out,
and I can play with them
until new year strikes.
One could say that I love a good political Christmas song… and they would be right. A Drift’s deft ability to set the scene, then twist the knife stands in both contrast and compliment to the doo-wop indiepop groove. It is a big smile while flipping the bird, and sometimes those are the best.
Bottom Line: Political indiepop from our sharp-tongued brothers in arms.
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!
Commodore Trotter / Ball of Wax Audio Quarterly
I am not the kind of blogger who seeks out a great voice. So many of my favorite singers couldn’t sing (How I miss David Berman), but even I can still fall for a voice. Ball of Wax Audio Quarterly is a fantastic blog and music-compiler based in Seattle, and their most recent release is Ball of Wax 58: The Ball of Wax Winter Spectacular, featuring this truly beautiful song by Brittain Ashford & Matt Bauer. Honestly, I’m having a tough time describing Brittain’s voice in a better manner than Ball of Wax did:
The teller of this tale is Broadway star and thematic alchemist* Brittain Ashford. With a voice that balances diaphragmatic force with childlike vulnerability, Ashford paints the sort of holiday portrait that those of us who suffer from melancholy particularly this time of year can appreciate and empathize with, and what’s more—what we need most during the dark season—she infuses every line with a tattered but palpable hope.
This song was almost too pretty for me… but those distinctive qualities of Brittain’s vocal delivery were undeniable. The music is also quite lovely, but after learning of composer Matt Bauer‘s folk and banjo background, I am SO intrigued to hear a version with banjo. Damn that could be cool.
Edit: Turns out this song was initially released in 2018 on an EP, Tinsel and Snow & Other Mid-Winter Missives. Go check it out!
Bottom Line: Like Messi’s “Charlamagne,” this song is defined by a beautiful and distinctive voice.
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP) | Bandcamp (Compilation)
Stafford, England’s Don’t Call Me Ishmael are big fans of Christmas. I’m honestly amazed that I had not discovered them until this year, as they have multiple Christmas EPs, with releases every year since 2015. I’ve got a lot to choose from, but the song I’m going to highlight is the beautiful, and powerful, “Mary and Joseph,” off of 2015’s Dark Christmas EP. What immediately caught me was this sensation that I’m hearing an amazing Billy Bragg Christmas song. I’ve got this live Billy Bragg record that has been in my CD changer (yes, I have one) for YEARS… I stress, YEARS, because it always seems to pop on when my soul needs it. “Mary and Joseph” scratches that same itch. No accompaniment, just two voices reminding us to be grateful for what we have at Christmas. I’m most certainly looking forward to their upcoming Christmas release slated for Monday, December 9th. Follow them on Facebook, their label on Bandcamp, etc, to be the first to hear it! And dig into those older tracks too!
Bottom Line: Powerful simplicity in the vein of Billy Bragg… which is high praise.
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.
Buy: Soundcloud (FREE!)
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.
TBA Music / Wydawnictwo Agora
Buy: 7Digital MP3 | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3 | Discogs (CD)
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.