Four Eyes "Everything Will Change This Christmas: The Ballad of Hans Gruber"

Four Eyes “Everything Will Change This Christmas: The Ballad of Hans Gruber”

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

2016 quite the year for Die Hard-inspired Christmas tunes, and while the Irish have had their shot, it’s time to see what our stateside talent had up their sleeve. Athens, Georgia’s Four Eyes released the absolutely captivating “Everything Will Change This Christmas: The Ballad of Hans Gruber.” Written from the perspective of Hans Gruber being a man and not only an evil villain, it makes you oddly sympathetic through quiet finger picking and layered vocals that recall those quiet Sufjan Stevens classics of the past. The oddly nostalgic atmosphere that is only broken by the “motherfuckers” that pepper the ending; The dichotomy between the subject and the treatment was just a blast.  Fantastic.

Bottom Line: Four Eyes… you are just too good to be a one-off indie Christmas classic (cause you have more!). I’ll be seeing you again for sure.

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Zefereli "Oh Christmas" (2016)

Zefereli “Oh Christmas” (2016)

Self Released
Buy: Stream

Brisbane, Australia’s Zefereli are a wonderful indiepop duo who… despite my best efforts, alluded me this past Christmas season. “Oh Christmas” is a beautiful, simple folk Christmas song in the vein of early, more acoustic Slow Club. There are no bells and whistles, just beautifully delivered harmonies and warm sentiment. “I won’t be asking for much this Christmas / I’ll just be asking for you.”

Bottom Line: I’m going to take this opportunity to ask Alistar and Clea to record another Christmas song this year because “Oh Christmas” was just too good, and I’m much more demanding than the song’s narrator.

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The Ornaments - Flying Home For Christmas

The Ornaments “Flying Home for Christmas” (2016)

Folkmonger Records
Buy: Bandcamp

Mike and Lance (The Ornaments) are back… and dammmmn. This shit is dark. Funny, and dark. The song is a story about crashing in a plane on Christmas Day. The sweet guitar picking doesn’t lull you to comfort for very long, shit gets dark quick. The cabin fills with smoke, he buys inflight wifi to tell his love goodbye. However, there is a nice balance, as with the gallows humor found in the line: “meanwhile i thumbed through my phone to find a song, a christmas song, a burl ives song / that’s good to die to.” The narrator goes through the entire crash, in a slow motion mix of bemusement and wry observations. I would love to know more about how this song came about…

Bottom Line: The Ornaments’ dark humor is a welcome break from the sugary sweet songs that dominate the holiday.

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Marika Hackman - Wonderland EP

Marika Hackman – Wonderland EP (2016)

Transgressive
Buy: Vinyl | iTunesAmazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

Marika Hackman is no stranger to Christmas tunes – she’s been featured on Daisy Digital’s past two Christmas compilations, covering “O’ Come O’ Come Emmanuel” and Joni Mitchell’s “River.” The Christmas bug must have really caught her, as her new EP does not just gather together her previous efforts (it doesn’t in fact), but it has her recording a bunch of new covers, as well as some originals. The first track that has been teased out is an absolutely incredible original song, the synth sprinkled “Driving Under Stars.” I’m such a fan of this track. The vibe is perfection – just what I needed today. This is a stone-cold mixworthy track… I can’t even bring myself to get beyond it to talk about the other selections. One exception… “O’ Come O’ Come Emmanuel” is a new version, different from the charity comp version previously available, so all-new material! ALSO, vinyl vinyl vinyl! 300 copies are available via Transgressive, coming out on December 1st. So… pony up. In a related note… care to buy me one? 🙂 You can find my address in the Submissions section. Hehe.

Bottom Line: 30 seconds is all I need to fall in love. No joke. Likely you too!

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Christmas for Cowboys

Christmas for Cowboys (2016)

Checkpoint Charlie Audio Productions (CCAP)
Buy: Stream | Amazon.de MP3

How about some country music from Norway? Because that makes total sense right? Everything makes sense right now! Well, actually Norway, Sweden and the like have long had a healthy Americana/Country scene. The folks over at Checkpoint Charlie Audio Productions (CCAP) gathered four Norwegian country bands (The Brigade, Helldorado, Flying Shoes and the Tramps), and each band chose two songs by prominent country and americana bands and songwriters. Songs featured on this release were originally recorded by the Handsome Family, Willie Nelson, John Denver, Jackson Browne, John Prine, The Band, Buck Owens, Chris Hillman and Glen Campbell. Those are some big names indeed, though my favorite is perhaps the smallest name (Handsome Family). That said, I am having a tough time singling out specific tracks to feature, because truly, the quality level is high enough on each of these tracks. The entire release is certainly worth your time. For extra credit, check out The Brigade’s Beyond Christmas Day EP from 2014.

Bottom Line: These Norwegians really love this country music, and it comes through.

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My Bubba "Champagne Drops"

My Bubba “Champagne Drops” (2016)

Cash Only / Tone Tree Music
Buy: iTunes | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

The duo of My Bubba, previously known as the trio My Bubba and Mi, hail from those crazy Nordic states (Sweden and Iceland to be specific), which any reader will know are a particular hotbed of music that Christmas Underground both covers, and loves. To my pleasant surprise, their most recent single… is a one-off Christmas original! “Champagne Drops” is both fresh and new, as well as completely familiar, as it has suggestions of both “Unchained Melody” and “What a Wonderful World” in the cadence and melody that drives the song. This feeling of familiarity helps bring the song into an even more intimate experience. The vocals accentuate this intimacy, hushed but not whispered, as if spoken in a room so that others might not be bothered by their intrusion. “Feels like home when you dance me around / much crackling under the soles of our feet / a Christmas sound.” This cozy song demands a fire… and a bit of champagne.

Bottom Line: Sometimes I don’t go for the extremely pretty stuff… but the intimacy that My Bubba achieve in this song is undeniable.

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This is the Kit - Christmas Time Is Here b​/​w La Peregrinación

This is the Kit – Christmas Time Is Here b​/​w La Peregrinación (2016)

Brassland
Buy: Bandcamp | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3 | Amazon.de MP3

I’ve had my eye on this release ever since Brassland prompted me with a new release on Bandcamp. That was many, many moons ago… like a week or so. Weeks are LONG these days. So… are you familiar with This is the Kit? No? Well, let me introduce you. This is the Kit is Kate Stables, a originally from England, now primarily based in Paris. I credit the gateway drug of The National to my introduction to Kate; Bryce Dessner (of the National) produced her last record, and Brassland also happens to by Bryce & Co’s own label. Thus, when I hear of a National connection, I’m compelled to find out more.

This is the Kit’s earlier work would fall along the lines of some of the earlier “freak folk” bands such as early Sufjan Stevens, Grizzly Bear, and the like, and her sound has expanded beyond that initial entrance point, as with many of her early contemporaries. This last record, Bashed Out finds a fuller sound that fills in the gaps that freak folk often left open.

This new, 2-track digital Christmas finds its home somewhere in the middle of these two approaches. The first track, “Christmas Time is Here” has been previously available on Amazon’s All is Bright playlist, and it is a very lovely version of this Christmas classic. The atmospherics sprinkled throughout create a lovely bed for the simple acoustic guitar and vocals to lay upon. I normally like my covers to dramatically reinterpret the source material, but This is the Kit claim their own unique and beautiful space, without having to reinvent it.

The second track, “La Peregrinación,” is the most intriguing one to me, as it is the only “new” track, and I’m wholly unfamiliar with the original. The original was performed in Spanish by Ariel Ramirez, and Kate found a loose translation to base her version upon. It is quite lovely, almost a Dirty Projectors-do-xmas-bossanova-lite approach. If that isn’t a questionable and crazy description, I don’t know what is. I mean come on, this is a lovely Christmas tune and I just made up that crazy sentence. But does it make you want to find out more? I sure hope so!

Bottom Line: Are you looking for a beautifully crafted Christmas single? This 2-song set will scratch that itch. Oh, you have to wait until Friday 🙂

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

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

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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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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Early Cartographers featuring Kid Conventional “What Will You Open? (An Invitation to Christmas)” (2015)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

I’ve been following Sheffield’s Early Cartographers‘ Christmas single creation on Facebook for a while now, awaiting its debut. From tweets that I’ve seen, I knew it was going to be a bit of tearjerker. Indeed, “What Will You Open? (An Invitation to Christmas),” walks amongst those songs that ponder the meaning of it all… let them explain:

This song is an invitation to Christmas. It was written by a notorious grinch and attempts to take into consideration those who find Christmas a difficult time to stomach, whether that be due to apathy, unhappy memories, poverty, disillusionment or social anxiety.

I know that St. Etienne has recently sparked a discussion amongst my fellow indie Christmas brothers and sisters with their suggestion that Christmas songs must be “pro-Christmas.” I think that is far too simplistic an approach for what can be a very complicated time of year. If any of you have seen the excellent documentary Jingle Bell Rocks!, you’ll see that Mitchell’s love of Christmas music was forged by hearing a song that wasn’t all jingle bells and tinsel, Nat King Cole’s “The Boy the Santa Claus Forgot.” In that song, he discovered that he wasn’t alone with his conflicted feelings toward Christmas, and through that relationship, has embraced the holiday for everything that it truly is, not simply the “joy.”

“What Will You Open” is one of those songs that spark contemplation, and I appreciate this. I don’t want every song to be Christmas-party appropriate; Some songs need to tug and poke at your emotions to bring balance to the season. I think it’s all too appropriate that such a song would also be benefiting HARC (Homeless and Rootless at Christmas). Christmas isn’t Christmas for everyone, but throw a few bucks toward a great Christmas song and a worthy cause, and you’ll be a bit closer to making this Christmas a little brighter.

Bottom Line: Gorgeous instrumentation, thoughtful sentiment and a worthy cause make this Early Cartographers track well worth the wait.