Alex the Astronaut “Christmas In July” (2020)

Nettwerk/Minkowski Records
Buy: 7Digital (FLAC/MP3) | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3 | Google Play | Spotify

I was driving the other day listening to WNRN (one of our local nonprofit radio stations), and this track came on that I really liked. Honestly, I can’t tell you what song it was now… but I recall the DJ coming on saying “That was Alex the Astronaut giving us some really big Courtney Barnett vibes.” I wholly agreed, and found myself making a mental note of the singer so that I might later see if there was a vaguely Christmas song I could mine for my mix (and my blog). WHAT DO YOU KNOW? Not only is there a song, but it is a single as well. I don’t get the same Barnett vibes from “Christmas in July,” and I’m sure she wouldn’t appreciate her folktronic sensibilities to be lumped in with Courtney’s wordy indie guitar rock simply because they are both Australian. Initially, I expected the song to be more about celebrating Christmas in July, as many folks in the southern hemisphere wish to have a pop-culture-approved Christmas celebration during their winter. However, this is quite specifically a love song, and the reference to “Christmas in July” is very much in the “traditional” vein. Alex uses Christmas imagery to express how exuberant and lucky she feels to be with her love – as if she is getting a wonderful and unexpected gift outside of the holiday of Christmas. Alex’s voice brilliantly expresses emotion, fragile and powerful in equal parts. The simple piano lines build anticipation, leading us to drums that burst open the song like a brilliant flower. There is an energy, a physical and emotional motion to this song that I greatly appreciate. And yes, this is not specifically a Christmas song, but I have bent the rules for less. So… enjoy this bit of Christmas in September.

Bottom Line: It is a beautiful, emotional song that gets better with multiple listens, so hit that replay button a few times.

LISTEN

UPCOMING: Mark Lanegan – Dark Mark Does Christmas 2020 (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Rough Trade Exclusive LP

Well well well… this popped up on my radar, either by fate or coincidence…. Mark Lanegan is re-releasing his tour-only Christmas EP, Dark Mark Does Christmas 2012, as a full-length Christmas album – the appropriately titled Dark Mark Does Christmas 2020. Lord knows that 2020 is a year for a dark Christmas record…

From Rough Trade (who have an exclusive version, perhaps THE exclusive version?)

2020 has been a dark year and so to end the year Mark Lanegan returns as Dark Mark and releases a full Christmas album. Five tracks were released as a tour only 12″ in 2012 which is now rare and impossible to find. He has recorded five more tracks recently and turned it into a full length album. Lanegan successfully takes some traditional Christmas songs, some Christmas covers plus some originals and twists them into a dark, melancholic affair. Standouts include Burn The Flames, originally recorded by Roky Erickson and Lanegan makes this sinister song, even more sinister. The Everley Brothers Christmas Eve Can Kill You is stripped back and haunting whilst the Lanegan original A Christmas Song is delicate and heartbreaking. 2020 is going be a dark Christmas.

Rough Trade

LISTEN (to the 2012) version

Michael M “Humans Are Not Worth Saving (Merry Christmas)” (2020)

Michael M - Humans Are Not Worth Saving (Merry Christmas)

Last Night from Glasgow
Buy:
Bandcamp

Glasgow’s Michael M. has written a “quick song about Santa Claus having an existential crisis,” and fuck if it isn’t one of my favorite little ditties of the year. Just bask in these lyrics and smile.

It’s Christmas time and a cold wind appears
The snow isn’t falling down
Because the Earth is misbehaving
Humans are not worth saving

And it breaks my heart in two to know it’s down to you
Humans are not worth saving

And it breaks my heart in two to know it’s down to you
Resurrected annually to highlight wealth inequality
Humans are not worth saving

Merry Christmas, please let me die

The song sounds like it should have been one of those coveted b-sides from Blue Album/Pinkerton-era Weezer, which I consider a high, high compliment. (Side note – It is so unfortunate that you have to designate which Weezer records as to not insult the band you like, because looooorrrrrdddd, they break my heart to this day.) You can’t listen to this thing and not smile – it is infectious (too soon?). Short, sharp perfection.

Bottom Line: The vibe, the lyrics, every damn thing about this song reminds me of why I started this silly blog – to bring weirdo Christmas songs like this to my weirdo friends. Enjoy.

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Zach Malm – The Darkest Time of Year (2017/2020)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

2020 Addition: This COVID/anxiety-riddled/dumpster fire of a year has brought few bright moments. Today is an exception (for the moment), as one of my favorite Christmas records of the past few years is reintroduced to the world on beautiful, red-marbled vinyl. Zach Malm‘s The Darkest time of Year has been released in a limited pressing of 100 copies, and I strongly suggest that one of those copies should be yours. Heck, there is even a bonus song that wasn’t on the original release! This is your chance to have a fantastic private-press Christmas record that future generations of weirdo Christmas music fans will be alllllll about. Let us take a moment to look back upon my 2018 review of this beautiful record that completely floored me.

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December can overwhelm a tired Christmas-music blogger. Often, the casualties of a lack of time and a wealth of music, are the large compilation and the full album. Singles are so much quicker to consume and write about. Seattle’s Zach Malm was a casualty of last year, as he put out a very interesting experimental, electronic pop record that I did not get to, and most certainly deserves our 2018 ears. There are some damn interesting songs on here, many of which are awash in a Novation Bass Station II synth. Zach’s cover of “Walking in the Air” has a fantastic buzzing bassline powered by that synth, as well as these great fluttering melodies interspersed throughout; It is truly beautiful. Zach’s wonderful original “Magical Night,” is much less electro, bringing in guitars while crafting a beautifully sweet song about a child’s anticipation of Christmas. It is simple, poignant and wholly mix-worthy. Zach’s other originals, “Christmastime is Always,” “The Darkest Time of the Year,” and “Half the Fruit” all reflect the album’s title in a way the sweet “Magical Night” did not. They are dark, but with these brilliant moments of light, such as this line in “Half the Fruit:”

If nothing else, we still have Christmas
If nothing else, we still have Jesus
And even though the meaning changes
If nothing else, we still have Christmas

Zach has created a true album – the “Kid Conversation” tracks are great on their own, but not really “songs” – but they work beautifully, stitching together this wonderful collection of largely original, both in content and approach, Christmas tunes. Zach has nailed it with this one, and you should check it out (as well as forgive me for not getting to this fantastic record last year).

Bottom Line: Zach Malm has created a wonderfully cohesive record – a true Christmas album – beautiful to listen to in its entirety.

LISTEN

Night Flowers “Snowfall” (2019)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

London’s Night Flowers are known for dropping excellent Christmas singles every year or so, and last year was no different. Hey, I should have written about it! But that is the problem with running a Christmas music blog – everything comes out all at once. “Snowfall,” Night Flowers’ first original Christmas song since 2016, is an absolute joy of a song. Their jangly guitars light the spark, as the bass and drums feed the flames surrounding these beautiful harmonies, creating a warm feeling of nostalgia that is only heightened by the holiday season. This song is a pure winner, and a total layup had I had the sense to write about it last year.

Bottom Line: Night Flowers return with perhaps their greatest holiday track yet. There truly is something in the indiepop water over there in London… you gotta export that shit.

LISTEN

Christmas Aguilera “Icicle Trickle” (2019)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

I would normally either get their email, flip out, and post the new Christmas Aguilera song within the span of 20 minutes. This year, it came a bit late, when my time is in high demand to go get this out of the attic, to go to the store, to finish up that laundry before everyone gets here. So, while my post comes late, perhaps you’ve found “Icicle Trickle” before I’ve told you about it, and thus you have an extra day to enjoy it during the proper seasonal setting. This seventh release by one of the great Christmas bands working is also their most funky. While the very beginning has the boys channeling Queen, they quickly transition to cheeky Grapes & Friends’ boogie-down territory. The lyrics are a trip:

Be my tinsel
And wrap yourself around my tree
Make me grin so
Let’s keep it going for a week
I love you too much
Your foot’s on my clutch
Though Christmas is beyond my skillset
Stuck in this sweater
It’s scratchy as heck
Jump in that’s better
Gonna stay forever in this pickle
Until the Icicle Trickles

The overt sexual innuendo is nothing new to Christmas Aguilera, as that is part of what made me love them with their first self-titled EP, with the fantastic “I Wanna Give You a Present” setting a great, playful tone. However, then they manage to sneak this beautiful line in amongst the silliness, “Yeah Christmas holidays / Make them every day / And stretch this elastic band of love.” What a line! The production on this latest is a rich as ever, making you wonder how they heck they pull it together at the last minute like this – they only had a CA song meeting a few weeks ago! Be sure to check out their regular gig, Guilt Coins, who also recorded a remarkable cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River” this year.

Bottom Line: Bands like Christmas Aguilera are why I write this blog. A true pleasure every year that they bless us with a song.

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Saintseneca “Winter Breaking” (2019)

ANTI
Buy: Bandcamp

Always a joy to find a new Saintseneca song in my mailbox, whether it is a holiday song or not. This Columbus, Ohio band have put out some of the most sonically and lyrically interesting Christmas songs over the past few years, nearly making this a holiday tradition. Unsurprisingly, “Winter Breaking” fits beautifully inside of their bespoke holiday soundtrack. The song takes place as everyone goes their own way for winter break. There are some beautiful passages here: “The night before you get picked up / I stop by your new place / you got a dog and a sawed-off / say they make you feel safe / some old soul song is changing all the air around the room / you say you hear the sadness in the singer’s voice / maybe I do too.” Man… that is a movie in my head. The music is warm, his voice is genuine, and the lyrics are interesting – a perfect Christmas blend.

Bottom Line: Saintseneca are just a fantastic band. I just assumed the song would be great when I saw it was released, and yup, it is.

If you buy this today on Bandcamp, BE SURE to download it. I have learned the hard way recently. Nothing is forever.

LISTEN

Fowler VW presents A Blackwatch Christmas Vol. IX: Christmas in Color (2019)

Fowler VW/Blackwatch Studios
Buy:
 Bandcamp (NYOP)

What more can you say? Nobody does it like this Fowler VW/Blackwatch Studios crew. For nine years now, they have released the most consistently-wonderful Christmas compilation out there. The quality of their releases makes you marvel at how it is humanly possible to achieve. Well… this year… I asked.

a bunch of records and a record player
The profile pic from their Bandcamp page is basically the indie Christmas vinyl holy grail.

The project began with Fowler Volkswagon owner Jonathan Fowler and his friend/marketing partner Mary Ann Osko. They were kicking around ideas for how to tie the recently-opened Fowler VW  to the arts community in Norman, Oklahoma. A number of ideas were floated until a Christmas record was settled upon, as Jonathan and Mary Ann were into Christmas music, and Jonathan’s wife was a Christmas vinyl collector. It was in this convergence of interests that the first and only yearly, underground Christmas compilation that is pressed on vinyl was born. They initially began working with Chris Harris at Echo Sound, releasing the first compilation, Checking it Twice – The 2010 Nice People Holiday Companion (Seen in the photo on the right! That record is fantastic!). The project moved over to Blackwatch in 2011, as Fowler imagined moving the record around to various studios in the area, but the 2011 edition (and first dual-branded edition), Fowler Volkswagon presents A Blackwatch Christmas, was such a success that it just kinda stuck.


Of note, that first compilation in 2010 features Norman, Oklahoma’s Samantha Crain, who also contributed the spellbinding cover of John Denver’s “Christmas for Cowboys” on this year’s album.

I was definitely curious about the process of putting this thing together. How do they get these bands to contribute? How can they be sure that the songs they get will be any good? Blackwatch producer/engineer/musician Jarod Evans was very helpful in explaining the behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts of the whole project. Fowler and Blackwatch will often start mapping out the record in February, sometimes with a concept in mind (A Blackwatch Christmas Vol III (Holly​-​Tonk & Jingle Beats)), but more often than not, the theme comes together as the tracks and artwork are being finalized. While the compilation has broadened its pool of bands to include many wonderful, in and out-of-state bands, their heart remains in Norman. “The local music community in Norman is filled with lots and lots of old, close friends,” Evans says. “There’s always a deep Rolodex of friends of the studio to call upon.” The approach to what song they’ll record, or how they’ll go about it, is quite fluid. “Sometimes we ask artists to write a song in advance, then bring it in to record,” says Evans. “Other times, we invite artists to just come in with an open mind so we can write and develop something together.” Jarod and his Blackwatch partner, musician/producer/engineer Chad Copelin, will also take the opportunity to write a song, then call someone in to sing or help write lyrics over the track; It turns out there are many ways to skin a cat or write a Christmas song. The loose, varied approach perfectly highlights the important main thread running through this whole endeavor, the taste level that Blackwatch brings to the table. Christmas compilations are notoriously spotty in quality, and there has not been a dud in this bunch. From the planning and production, to the vinyl pressing and the release party, the sheer amount of work and dedication the Folwer and Blackwatch team have to put this record out every year is just astounding. These records are a beautiful distillation of their love of art, music, Christmas, and Norman, Oklahoma. It is truly inspiring.

The 2019 edition, Christmas in Color, is yet another triumph. I am not one to go track-by-track, and I’m not going to start now… too much to live up to with too little time! However, I’m going to pull out a few of my favorites – and please know… the entire record is great, and taste is subjective! You will probably love a song I didn’t write about. So here it goes!

Right out of the gate, Oklahoma City’s LCG & the X unleash the best version of “Last Christmas” that I have heard this year. There are only a few versions of this Wham! classic that I consider listenable, let alone truly love… and they managed to do it with their DETAILS. Created in concert with producer Jarod Evans, the song’s beat becomes funky, with added electro-pop flourishes and what sounds like bongos(?) bouncing around in the background. I am on board for this madness.

After grooving to that amazing “Last Christmas” cover, did I think I would fall in love with a melancholy slow jam? No. However, San Francisco’s Mini Trees, you got me immediately me with those saxophones. The fluttering brass lines have this quality that raises the hair on the back of your neck – a perfect mixture of beauty, unexpectedness, and comfort. There are some great lines in here too, my favorite being, “I know at times it feels foolish / but we all need something to believe.” Capturing a large idea simply is one of the toughest things to do, and Mini Dresses nails it.

Husbands (Yes, THAT Husbands!) are making their Fowler/Blackwatch debut (maybe? They might be in one of the “fake” bands… dunno!) with a truly 100%-pure Husbands’ track, “Santa is a Lie.” Their sonic landscape and wry sense of humor have always made them truly distinctive in the alt-Christmas universe, and this dream-pop dirge is a perfect example of what they do best.

The second appearance of the John Denver “Christmas for Cowboys” is a completely different affair from the synth-driven The Good Tidings version. Samantha Crain‘s version conveys an otherworldly, emotional quality. From the white noise ambiance of an old recording to Samantha’s phrasing of the familiar lyrics, she transforms this song to another time. You’re immersed in how much they love their place on the range; It no longer feels like a song, but a life. Samantha is channeling something here.

There is so much more on this record, from the sexy fun of Colourmusic’s “Christmas Dreams,” to the wordplay of Jake Tittle‘s “Captain Morgan” and the timelessness of Twigg’s “Meltin with You,” this is the best Fowler VW & Blackwatch compilation yet. There is not one skippable track on here… and that is nearly unheard of in the world of Christmas compilations.

Bottom Line: The view from way up on top of the mountain must be pretty great for Fowler VW and Blackwatch, because they’ve been building a beautiful place up there at the top of the indie Christmas world.

LISTEN

 

Dr. Dog “Ebenezer Scrooge” (2019)

We Buy Gold Records
Buy: Bandcamp | Cassette!

Dr. m*f*ing Dog. Years ago, they released one of the best indie rock Christmas releases I’ve heard, Oh My Christmas Tree. I’m a greedy man. I wanted more. I’ve tweeted at them. I’ve wished upon stars. I’ve taken up voodoo and fashioned a small recording studio for the dolls to demo new songs. All that work has obviously paid off, and today we got Oh My Christmas Tree Vol. 2! I’m two listens in, but it is obvious to me what song has my heart – “Ebenezer Scrooge.” The imagery is vivid, the production is loose and warm, and there are just many moments, both lyrically and sonically, that move you. It is a concise and beautifully human retelling of the story – I don’t think I’ve ever been quite in Scrooge’s mind like this. “Ebenezer Scrooge” is just gorgeous.

Bottom Line: “Ebenezer Scrooge” is six minutes that feels like two. This song is that good.

LISTEN

 

 

Lucky Boy “Marie Te Po!” (2019)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

It is rare that a version of “Silent Night” will catch my attention. BUT THIS. This caught my attention. New Zealand indie/lofi artist Lucky Boy began by translating “Silent Night” into Te Reo Maori, which is interesting in itself, but then he goes and makes it SOUND AMAZING. The song builds until all this awesome shit jumps in with a distorted guitar solo bridge. You have to hear this song to believe it… it only gets better as it goes, which for a song I’m generally bored with, is somewhat astounding.

Bottom Line: THIS is how you put your stamp on a classic. Lucky Boy has demolished “Silent Night” and rebuilt it in spectacular fashion.

LISTEN