The Ornaments “A Coca-Cola Classic Christmas” (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

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.

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Rusty Spork – Christmas Down Home (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp (NYOP)

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.

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Porlolo “Christmas in Hollis” (2020)

Self Released
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Bandcamp

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.

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Jeff Hulett “Know by Now” (2020)

Small Batch Records
Buy:
Bandcamp (NYOP)

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.

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Chad Thomas Johnston – Let’s Have a Snowball Fight! / And On That Day (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp (NYOP)

I would like to call out Chad Thomas Johnston for not releasing another epic, 30-song Christmas record this year. I mean, throw out a record that size once, and you just expect it again (hehe). Unlike 2018’s epic compilation of Christmas tunes, Stalking Stuffers: Coal for the Stocking in Your Soul, Chad has recorded a sweet two-track single, with the highlight being an indie rock Christmas original on the A-side. “Let’s Have a Snowball Fight!” is a wonderful song about, well, having snowball fights with his sister when he was a kid! I loved the ringing guitars, the reverb on the vocals and the the rolling baseline. The B-side, “And On That Day” is a Phil Keaggy cover, and religious in nature. Readers will know that this blog is pretty devoted to secular Christmas tunes, but even with my particular bias, the song is done very well. I especially took note of when he layered his vocals in the latter half of the track – it was a gorgeous finish. Overall, two super-solid tracks from a gifted purveyor of Christmas songs (now with 32 to his name!).

Bottom Line: Who knows if we’ll get snow this year, but if not, we can live vicariously through Chad Thomas Johnston.

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Meiko “This Year Can Kiss My Ass” (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

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.

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Grace Eden – Fortune (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

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.

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Willie J. Healey “Merry Christmas” (2020)

Willie J Healey - Merry Christmas

Yala! Music
Buy:
Bandcamp? | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

Wow. Just wow. Oxfordshire’s Willie J. Healey has just released an incredible new Christmas song, and proper fanfare is in order. This song has a heavy John Lennon vibe, but not necessarily tied down to a 60s sound – it feels timeless. Willie’s voice that steals the show here; There are these subtle moments where you get a good feel for how truly good his voice is without the showy fanfare that often accompanies that kind of talent. With some fantastic lyrics, a killer chorus, and that beautiful production, this should make this a surefire hit on your 2020 Christmas mix.

Bottom Line: Willie’s song made my morning Soundcloud journey one of absolute bliss. (Perhaps a Bandcamp listing soon? Fingers crossed!)

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Thom Stone – Christmas at the End of the World (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

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.

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Stephen Elliott “Cary Baru” (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

I feel like most things I’m finding this year can be filed under pretty excellent folk music. This isn’t quite the reaction to four years of post-Brexit and Trump rule that I was expecting. Then again, perhaps it makes total sense – we are all trying to calm our nerves after years of uncertainty…

The latest beautiful folk find is Stephen Elliott‘s “Cary Baru,” a song truly untethered to time nor place. This is one of those songs that sound like it could have easily been recorded last week or 40 years ago. Those first few moments of guitar picking and your mind will ping Nick Drake. Then you quickly get hints of Beatles, and back around to some more Nick Drake percussive bits amongst the metallic finger sliding residue of an early Elliott Smith record. The rhythm and pace of the song is a brisk walk, perfectly complimenting the lyrical basis of the song, which Stephen was kind enough to further describe to me earlier today.

Cary Baru is a short meditation on perseverance, on persisting in anticipation of a moment’s clarity, and on moving between these states. I wanted to compose something that embodied that sense of movement.

While the scene is set during the Christmas season, I initially found the lyrics to be ambiguous in the way that so much poetry is, allowing me to walk down multiple avenues, imagining different main characters, and leaving me wondering where the true story lied. After Stephen’s explanation, the song feels far-less personal than I had imagined, and it blossoms into a more universal story that everyone can take a piece from. This is one of those songs that benefits from multiple listens, so grab a jacket and add it to your playlist – we’re heading out (masked, of course).

Bottom Line: Stephen is learning some shiny new gear while under these COVID restrictions, and it sure seems he is getting the hang of it well.

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