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.

LISTEN

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.

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!)

LISTEN

Wake Up And Smell The Sun – Electric Snow (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp (NYOP)

Philadelphia’s Wake Up and Smell the Sun have expanded on 2019’s excellent 2-track Christmas single, Holiday Hymns for People, and created one of the best Christmas records I have heard in years with Electric Snow. This record, with its thumping drums, woozy guitars and big vocals make you sit back and ponder if Spiritualized or the Verve would be fucking jealous of this record. The instrumentation and production on this record is just so damn good that it can both sound so BIG, like the slowly built epic “Gingerbread,” and small and intimate on “Country Western Holiday Meltdown,” with both feeling like sonic siblings, wonderfully at home on the same record. This cohesive feel truly comes across on this 7-track release even more than their initial 2-track single – you really get a feel for the sound as a whole.

As you might imagine, I would be recommending this record based on the stellar music/production/vibe even if they gave up on lyrics entirely and sang nonsense words… but if you’ve come for the dinner, why not have a glorious fucking show too? Once you get into the music (and you will), you may find that you actually love this record for the lyrics. There were moments that I just began shaking my head and smiling, like during the title track “Electric Snow:” “Beneath the minor keys, the majorettes, and bells,  / Sweet little girls with missing teeth seek inner peace within themselves (WHAT A LINE) / I’d like to share my Christmas Story, come on over / I once was haunted by a ghost, it mostly taught me how to coast / And when I tried to kick the habit, it gently pushed me in to traffic (AGAIN!) / Let it snow, electric snow, electric snow.” WHAT!?! There are so many incredibly interesting and clever lyrics on this record that I’ve been genuinely stressing out about how much I want to feature. I keep discovering new lines, and feel this absurd need to give every single lyric some sort of context. SO, with deep apologies to Wake Up And Smell The Sun for not writing this epic review delving into every single track… I am just too excited to share it with everyone, and I have an itchy publish finger.

If you are not already onboard, just press play. Problem solved.

Bottom Line: Frankly, I can’t wait to put this record on with some good headphones, because those guitars are going to surround me, and I’m going to happily surf the jet stream with this fantastic record.

LISTEN

I am going to post every song individually, as I cannot choose a favorite, and I want the Hype Machine to index every… single… song.

Gianmarco Cilli “Christmas Right Here With You” (2019)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP)

Philadelphia is one of those cities that I do my best to focus on when it comes to Christmas music hunting. The wealth of great bands that have come out of there in the past 10-15 years is damn impressive, with Dr. Dog, the War on Drugs and Kurt Vile being some of the headliners amongst a menagerie of other fantastic bands which I don’t have the time or space to fully account for (there are just too many). Gianmarco Cilli has been in the mix amongst many of these bands, both performing with and having them play on his own recordings since his first record, Homely Joys, came out in 2008. While he released a great new record back in September, The Feel is Now (LISTEN! BUY!), this IS a Christmas music site… so I was extremely pumped to see an e-mail from Bandcamp that Gianmarco has a CHRISTMAS song. “Christmas Right Here with You” has that throwback sound that is certain to make Christmas feel warm and cozy. I love the slide guitar accents that ring throughout the song and combined with perhaps my favorite bridge of the season, has put this song on repeat since it dropped last night. Rarely am I a guitar solo guy, but that was just perfection. I’m thinking you all are going to like this one.

Bottom Line: Gianmarco Cilli reps Philly with a fantastic song destined for your Christmas party playlist.

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Sean Keller “Holy Fucking Shit It’s Christmas!” (2019)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

Well fucking shit. This fucking Christmas song is a great time. I’ve decided that today is devoted to songs that you can’t play around your fucking kids. Sean Keller was kind enough to tweet his song at me overnight, and I’m fucking glad he did. Sean keeps a day job writing for television shows and writing/composing musicals like SLASHED! The Musical. Recently, his free time has involved getting together with friends to shout along to profane Christmas tunes; This man is living his best life. The song is a boozy romp that would nicely serve as the climax to your office-party playlist, provided everyone is drunk enough. Let’s shout-along together: “Holy fucking shit it’s Christmas / God I’m so glad it’s here again I’m sorry I was such a Scrooge / Holy fucking shit it’s Christmas / Everything is so holly jolly just so long as I have you.” I feel like I’ve joined the drunken choir. I’ll have another round, Sean!

Bottom Line: The song is fucking fun as hell.

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Spaceface “Xmas Party (Nice & Naughty)” (2019)

People in a Position to Know (PIAPTK) Recordings
Buy: PIAPTK (vinyl)

Memphis psych-rock taco afficianados Spaceface are quickly building a reputation for their badass Christmas songs. 2018 saw Spaceface release two holiday tracks, their woozy psych rendition of “Christmas Time is Here,” as well as their collaboration with LABRYS (Penny of Broncho), “Single Star,” which was a highlight from Fowler VW presents A Blackwatch Christmas Vol. VIII: The Sounds of the Season. This year (so far), they are releasing a lathe-cut, limited to 68 copies, naughty psych-rock jam called “Xmas Party (Nice & Naughty).” This song is an orgy for the ears, with a groove that recalls the kind of party music that Grapes and Friends throw down, combined with the naughty voiceover styles of Ryan Lindsey (of Broncho). Sandwich this song within a playlist, and who knows what is gonna happen. There does not appear to be a digital download of this… yet.

Bottom Line: This groove should sustain you all for a good while!