Toad Venom – The Ingen vidare jul (Christmas is cancelled) EP (2021)

Welfare Sounds & Records
Buy:
Bandcamp

If I had a nickel for every time I said, “You name your band Toad Venom, and I’m going to check you out.” Well, a bunch of psych rock musicians from Vikingstad, Sweden finally took me up on this well-known offer, and have also made some absolutely excellent psych Christmas music! 2021’s The Ingen vidare jul (Christmas is cancelled) EP is two tracks of badass psych, as the leadoff track “God Jul” blasts off, a soaring Swedish Christmas anthem (to which I have no clue what is being said). The flip, “Merry (Christmas) and me,” is in English, and very much suits their style as described on Bandcamp: “A band, experimenting the void between spaghetti western and psychedelic rock.” Those twangy western guitars that introduce the track – so terribly cool. The song builds and builds, at times triggering me to think a bit about Spiritualized for some reason. There are so many cool movements to this song, yet it still comes in at an economical 4:00. Perhaps one of the most badass Christmas tunes I’ve come across in a good while.

Bottom Line: Two extremely good tracks from my new favorite band and best friends (pending).

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Have Yourself a Merry Indie Christmas Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 (2022)

A Benefit for Crisis
Buy:
Bandcamp

I often think about what it would be like to be just now getting into this hobby of underground Christmas music mix-making. When I got in the game (18 years ago!), there wasn’t quite the wealth of indie rock/pop/alt.country/etc Christmas releases to hunt down. Bandcamp, the venue which I primarily exploit to find cool new songs, wasn’t founded until 2007, and it wasn’t until 2010 that I could have even embedded a track on a site like Christmas Underground. It is both exhilarating and terrifying to think about dipping my toes in for the first time in 2022… there is just so much to listen to – years and years of great songs to get through, let alone all the new releases that come out every year. Well, lucky for my imaginary self, as well as that very real person taking their first stab at making a cool Christmas mix, fellow weirdo Christmas music fan Kevin McGrath has created the perfect introduction to this niche of holiday music with the massive, expansive collection of 108 songs, Have Yourself a Merry Indie Christmas Vol. 1 & Vol. 2. This is like one of those The Greatest ________ Album in the World collections I used to bump into in the import sections of the 2000s – packing an absolute ton of the tracks you need to hear to fully get what has been going on. The sheer effort that it took to clear 108 songs is astounding, let alone the challenges of contacting bands that are no longer together, and there are some wonderful ones represented here, to which I’m delighted their musical legacy will persist. Readers of this site will find some familiar faces and names, such as Sweet Tempest, St. Lenox, Charlie’s Hand Movements, The Ornaments, Les Bicyclettes de Belsize, and many, many more.

Just know you are bound to discover a new classic or two that you’ve never bumped into before. Christmas Underground is a one-person shop, and I can’t and won’t be able to know every single cool indie Christmas song out there… as I’m currently sitting here listening to Volume 1, bobbing my head to a song I’ve never heard – and I love it. All this great music also benefits a great cause, Crisis, a UK charity that helps the homeless. So, while the suggested price for each massive collection is a mere £7/$8.50, just know that you don’t necessarily have to give only $8.50. Maybe make yourself a sandwich each day this week for lunch and give a bit more? This is the season of giving, and in a world where billionaires aren’t going to save us, we need to look out for each other.

Bottom Line: These two releases could fashion 3-4 years of indie Christmas mixes for your friends and family. It is an absolutely essential purchase for new and old collectors alike.

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Bad Bad Hats “Sally Sweet Tooth” (2021)

Don Giovanni
Buy:
Bandcamp

I am finally getting through all the stuff I meant to listen to last year. If you are someone who feels as though a shitload of browser tabs is a personal failing, let me introduce you to the largest failure I know… Me. Thankfully, every so often you find something that makes saving that session worth it. Minneapolis’ Bad Bad Hats has been producing a song a month on their Patreon since at least October of 2020, and what do you know… December 2020’s theme was Christmas! Let’s let them tell you a bit more:

“I was listening to all the holiday classics to get inspired and I was struck by how many great characters there are in the Christmas canon: Rudolph, Frosty, a run-over Grandma. So I wanted to add a new character to the mix. She’s a little sweet, she’s a little sassy. She’s Sally Sweet Tooth. And you’d be wise to give her your cookies.”

The song was deemed worthy to bust out of the Patreon $5 tier jail to the wider world last December, in all its early-2000s alternative/power-pop goodness. So rejoice, and remember not to be stingy with your cookies… she’ll get ya.

Bottom Line: An extremely delicious jam to spread all over your Christmas mix.

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Tino Drima “I Wish That it Was Christmas” (2019)

Park the Van Records
Buy:
7Digital (MP3) | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

Going through my drafts is always fun. Here’s a pearl that led off my Christmas mix last year, yet somehow never made an official entry on the site. Get ready for some extremely modest exposure, Tino Drima!

California’s Tino Drima somehow snuck this gold nugget by us all… and I’m honestly amazed that I’m the first website to highlight this fantastic song. The groove is infectious, and Tino’s relaxed vocals give the song a swagger not often found in Christmas music. For those who listened to 2021’s “This is Just a Modern Xmas Song” (and there may be about 300 of you out there in the billions that live on earth), I hope you Shazamed that first song, hunted it down, and have found a home for this song on your mix this year.

Bottom Line: This song deserves to be an indie rock Christmas classic.

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UPCOMING: Los Bitchos – Los Chrismos EP (2022)

City Slang
Buy:
Bandcamp (digital/flexi) | Official Store (flexi) | 7Digital FLAC/MP3 | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

Howdy.

I suppose I’m back… gone much longer than I usually do. I often crash a day or two before Christmas, with a browser overloaded with open tabs that I stare at for a few months until I get the courage to finally sift through them. Well… a few months turned into more than a few months (does that make sense?). I suppose I’ll do my best this year, for what this might be worth, and try to hip you to some Christmas tunes I particularly like.

It does appear to be a bit early in the season, so I hope I can be forgiven for writing about something that “those in the know” already know about. Obviously, it is the new Los Chrismos EP by London’s premier surf/psych/rock quartet Los Bitchos. I don’t know what qualifies for an EP anymore, as with two songs, I might have called this a single! I’d like to dwell on that for a bit more, but even I am bored with me now. The lead track off the EP, “Los Chrismos” rides that seam between groovy and chill, exuding a great time from start to finish. Not that I’m completely scared off by an instrumental, but their giggling and chanting were engaging enough that I rather missed them when they weren’t there. I am quite curious what the b-side is going to sound like – but I’m sure at least this first track, “Los Chrismos,” is going to be on a lot of mixes this year.

For those (like me) who love a physical object, there is a flexi-disc of this single as added-bonus to their early-2022 debut, Let the Festivities Begin. So grab that “Los Chrismos Edition” of the vinyl LP and you’ll be the proud owner of a very limited and super-hip Christmas release that will likely make folks like me a bit jealous.

Bottom Line: Track one was fun, but it still leaves the question as to whether track two will bring on the apocalypse (or also be a fun Christmas song).

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Ho! Ho! Ho! Canada XIII (2021)

The Line of Best Fit
Buy:
Bandcamp (NYOP)

The Line of Best Fit is the home of one of the most reliable, most wonderful Christmas compilations in existance, Ho! Ho! Ho! Canada, which continues this tradition with its thirteenth wonderful collection of Canadian soundscapes, indiepop, folk, indie rock and the like – you know, genres and artists who aren’t churning out records with themselves laughing in sweaters on the cover and a whole bunch of boring covers on the record. This is music for the rest of us (which is what this site is ALL about), and I’m going to do my best to highlight just a few of my favorites from this year. However, as with ANY compilation, please listen to the whole thing – as what I single out may very well not be what you would have! I also get intimidated by reviewing large comps, and cap myself at 4-5 feature songs, no matter the quality of the whole thing… I am one person, with a kid, dinner to make, and a secret, international cock-fighting ring to run. So here we go!

June Thrasher‘s expansive “Sleep Through the Night” opens the record, immediately bending the rules of what a Christmas/holiday compilation should be. The song rings out with these tones and drones that remind me of blowing wind, waving plants in the wind. It certainly feels chilly, and while it doesn’t have jingle bells (ha!), I’ll allow it – because it is quite beautiful.

JF & Lail (JF Robitaille and Lail Arad) provide the lovely “First Christmas,” an incredibly sweet folk song made by a couple splitting time between Montreal and London, while traveling with their newborn during a pandemic. It is funny, touching, and extremely personal, yet completely relatable to anybody who has ever tried to attempt anything challenging with a young child. Planes, museums, quiet dinners, nothing is the same, but you’re in it… and you’re hoping… hoping…

The This‘ “Winter Tires” is short and upbeat, which checks two big boxes for me as I’m putting together a mix. Throw in that the song has a semi-polished, Mountain Goats feel, and I’m pretty much telling you to take my money. Lucky for me, I can do that, as this song also features on the Kingfisher Bluez Christmas Single 2021. SO, grab this and 3 other tracks on beautiful vinyl!

“Xmas Oranges” is the heaviest track on here, as well as a standout from Marlaena Moore‘s excellent 2020 release, Pay Attention, Be Amazed. Marlaena mines some deep emotional content, bathed in somewhat ominous (yet beautiful) cello and horns. While I was most attracted to the incredible instrumentation, Marlaena’s voice is undeniable, as she sings some really amazing lines: “Christmas oranges. / I don’t care for sticky citrus. / You can’t even tell the difference / between love and fatal interest.” Damn.

Kristian Noel Pedersen is the beating heart of Canadian indie Christmas music. Not only does he feature on many of the wonderful Ho! Ho! Ho! Canada compilations, but he also released Songs About Christmas (AKKCXIII), his thirteenth Christmas release. His songs keep getting better and better, and this track might be my favorite yet. “Deck the Halls” seesaws between these beautiful Real Estate-ish guitar lines, and a fuzzed-out power chord chorus, which are like orange and chocolate to me: two great tastes that I hadn’t realized would taste so great together. Delicious!

Bottom Line: Yet another strong compilation to mine for mix-worthy singles, and there are most certainly some gems here!

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Wake Up and Smell the Sun – Ye Miner St. Christmas Hymnal (2021)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp (NYOP)

After releasing one of the highlights of the underground Christmas music genre, 2020’s Electric Snow, Wake Up and Smell the Sun (the musical moniker of John Murray) has returned with many gifts. For the past few weeks, WUaStS has been releasing early versions and unreleased demos which have all been pretty damn great. Dark, most certainly, really cool, interesting songs to tide us over while we wait for the new record. These songs did not prepare me for what was coming – one of the sweetest songs I have heard all season. What a happy, and beautiful song “The Tearful Joy of Joyful Noise” is. I am not exaggerating when I say that I teared up listening to this song… I must not be the only one, as the title suggests! Don’t let the first line fool you: “They say “kindness makes the holidays, and mothers make the rules.” / And yet so many solid ways we make us feel uncool….” because the song turns into an amazing affirmation of love:

“So smile away ‘til Christmas Day.
Nobody makes the rules.
And who the hell were they to say what’s precious or uncool?

Sugar plums and turtle doves. Who cares what boy or girl you love?
So true. So true.
I could care less. I’m with you.
So true. So true.
I could care less. I’m with you.

We always knew. We always knew.
We always loved you. We always do.”

Legit tears. So beautiful. Wake Up and Smell the Sun always has such fantastic wordplay, coming up with these great images and interesting angles… but I never expected this simple, direct approach, nor for it to feel both so original and powerful. I am honestly stunned.

Something, in particular, to listen for on “The Tearful Joy of Joyful Noise” is the drumming of Pat Berkery, a friend of Murray’s who has played on records and in bands including the Bigger Lovers, Wesley Stace, Danielson, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, the War on Drugs, and many others including and most recently touring with Strand of Oaks. Turns out his drumming was epic enough to change the name of the song! Playing keyboards and organs on both songs is Robbie Bennett, also from The War on Drugs, who plays on my favorite record of the year, The War on Drugs’ I Don’t Live Here Anymore. I wholeheartedly agree with Murray, he does add a “special Christmas boogie” to the flip side of this single, the full-on rocking “Kris Kringle and the Midnight Soul.”

“Kris Kringle and the Midnight Soul” exists as a groove as much as it does a song. The lyrics are fun and playful, my favorite line being classic Murray, “I dream in songs and nativity scenes.” The instrumentation and production of this track are absolutely stellar, a testament to Murray’s aforementioned friends as well as the producers Brian and Amy at Miner Street Recordings, who not only produce and play on these records but are deservedly included in the title of this release.

Murray is often cryptic in his writings, as his tweets and the liner notes suggest we might be receiving even more from him this year. You truly never know – he snuck another one out late last year as well. While that would most certainly be wonderful, these two songs have certainly made me full and happy… and yes, with some joyful tears.

Bottom Line: I fully expect a new release by Wake Up and Smell the Sun to be amazing, but I never expected it to be so damn happy and beautiful.

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Shame “Baldur’s Gate” (2021)

Shame "Baldur's Gate"

Dead Oceans
Buy:
Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

London post-punk band Shame has a solid history of excellent Christmas tunes, a legacy that they really jumped right into alongside their debut record. I covered their excellent version of “Feliz Navidad” back in 2018, and would still love to hear the holiday flexi for “Tinsel Gate,” sent with early preorders of their last record, Drunk Tank Pink. This year’s selection, “Baldur’s Gate,” isn’t a celebration of Christmas, but more a snapshot of a holiday past from frontman Charlie Steen… I’ll let him describe:

‘It’s another Christmas classic. It’s about a period of time in which I’d regularly be trekking up to the streets of Edinburgh to see an ex-partner. These are some of the thoughts I’d have when I’d be leaving Waverley station, en route back to London in the winter nights.’

The deeper the song goes, the more I’m into the groove they have created. Certainly not your standard holiday release… which is what this blog is kinda about. Enjoy!

Bottom Line: Shame is a killer band during all twelve months of the year, and “Baldur’s Gate” only reinforces this.

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Kansas Bible Company “Feliz Navidad” (2020)

Kansas Bible Company - Feliz Navidad

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp (NYOP)

A perennial favorite, Kansas Bible Company is one of those bands I always look for around the holiday season. Whatever they touch is going to be a lot of fun, and I can’t believe I didn’t get to writing about this song last year. Wait… I can. The later you put out your Christmas song, the better chance it’ll get drowned out by all the other releases (or I’m completely exhausted). I’m doing my best to make up for missing it… as last year’s cover of “Feliz Navidad” was truly a joyful rendition that deserves to be boogied down to. KBC has a wonderful combination of brass and guitars, and their shared solos in the middle of this song is a perfect example of this musical conversation. Of note – they also properly released “Blue Christmas,” their collaboration with Okey Dokey, which had been previously released under the moniker of The Nashville Country Cowboys in 2016. So add that to your Spotify playlist too… you kids and your streaming….

Bottom Line: KBC can make the telephone book (remember those??) sound fun.

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Have Yourself a Dandy X-Mas (2021)

Have Yourself a Dandy X-Mas

Dandy Boy Records
Buy:
Bandcamp

This excellent Dandy Boy Records compilation of Bay-Area bands has been on my radar longer than any other 2021 release… and while a long wait could lead to unrealistic expectations, I am quite happy to express the opposite. This is one of those rare occasions when a compilation is excellent all the way through. With five originals (some previously released as singles by the bands) and one classic cover, each song has a distinctly different feel, yet nothing feels out of place.

The leadoff track, “Christmas in the Tenderloin” by the 1981, is a rollicking wine-soaked singalong.

On “Lonesome Christmas Blues,” Stevie and the Scrooges sing about drugs with swagger and just enough horns to give me that beautiful brass contact high.

The Wind-Ups add a few syllables here and there on “Where are You this Christmas?,” their fantastic fuzzed-out take on the classic “missing you at Christmas trope,” whose ragged edges feel much more realistic to the usual “Baby, Please Come Home” shimmer.

Coctails sound like an indiepop Replacements on their excellent “‘Tis the Season,” with jangly guitars meeting late 80’s indie rock.

FLTY BRGR GRL‘s dreamy song to an ex, appropriately titled “Ex-Mas,” taps into that emotional vein of lost love at Christmas, and draws deep.

The only cover (I think? I’m not an expert, despite having a website) is “I’ll be Home for Christmas” by Yea-Ming and the Rumours. It is an absolutely lovely rendition – delicate but not too precious, and a perfect way to end the record.

Bottom Line: I tip my hat to you Dandy Boy Records, you are floating in rare air. Snag yourself a copy on cassette if you can, as there are only 100 with proceeds going to the bands & Toys for Tots.