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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Randolph’s Leap – Christmas Album (2021 Additions)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

The absolutely WONDERFUL Scottish band Randolph’s Leap has become almost a yearly feature on Christmas Underground, as they have been putting out some of the most wonderful, cleverly-written political Christmas songs that I have ever heard. Sometimes they release songs with a good bit of fanfare, like the amazing “Christmas, Burn it All,” and other times they sneak one in at the last second when I’m not paying attention like the hilarious “Christmas is a Conspiracy.” This year is a bit of both… they’ve quietly added three tracks to their stellar, ever-growing Christmas Album, but did so with plenty of time a few weeks back. Now why it has taken me this long to really sit down with these songs and listen is an indictment of both my intuition and taste level. Why? Because I should have KNOWN these would be great. It is as if I was taking Randolph’s Leap and their incredible ability to churn out amazing Christmas songs for granted, and for this oversight, I apologize. The main track that I initially focused on was the deceptively-titled “New Pair of Socks.” Who would have thought such an innocuous title would house such a timely anti-Tory Christmas song? Let’s dive into this first verse:

I am a simple uncomplicated man.
I take what I get, I give what I can.
Forgive me for saying,
but you’ve got a nerve.

Now there are expenses,
and I’ve got a few.
You’ve got your own,
but I pay them too.
Won’t you give something back
to those who you claim to serve?

Cause all I want for Christmas
is a tree and some decorations,
a nice new pair of socks,
and some cabinet resignations.

So much of my Twitter feed is UK bands and fans who keep me pretty well informed as to the recent corruption scandals in the Tory government, as well as all those incredible photos of officials flouting the COVID guidelines. I find myself oddly invested in the political fate of a country that I do not live in. But we both have a right-wing that is primarily invested in their self-interest, so it is not hard to imagine the song working on both sides of the pond… ah hell, I’m babbling. The song is beautiful, clever and vicious, and only gets more pointed after that first verse. So, if you are like me and like a little anti-asshole politics in your Christmas music, you’ll dig it.

There are some songs that I rarely ever press play for. You know… those ol’ chesnuts that I (unjustly) associate with little-kid Christmas music, rather than the “adult” stuff I’m usually trying to sniff out. I would put “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” solidly in that category… but I may need to reassess this bias after hearing the other two tracks Randolph’s Leap has added to this record. “Jingle Bells (2021 Version)” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” are both extremely listenable, at times bordering on astounding versions that have shaken me. “Rudolph” is a revelation, with a beautiful arrangement that elevates this song to the absolute top of the Rudolph pile. However, what makes this (I can’t believe I’m typing this) song mix-worthy is their phrasing; All the notes that you are anticipating from a song you’ve known your entire life are slightly askew, and it is like a drug for your brain.

“Jingle Bells (2021 Version)” isn’t far behind the “Rudolph” triumph, though it hits slightly closer to expectations, so I’m not going to go quite as far in my praise. The arrangement and production, as well as that guitar madness at the end, certainly push the song into the “Jingle Bells” stratosphere. I am completely astounded and delighted and hope you will be too.

What a band. I’m in awe.

Bottom Line: Randolph’s Leap is on an incredible, Christmas song hot streak. If you haven’t bought this record yet, you need to turn in your alternative Christmas music membership card.

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24 (2021)

Where It’s At Is Where You Are
Buy: Bandcamp

One of the great indiepop labels has spring a wonderful collection of 24 holiday-themed songs on us this year – and for those early preorder folks, the opportunity to a hand-knit wool sleeve. Where It’s At is Where You Are (WIAIWYA) has a wonderful track record of indiepop holiday releases, most notably (for me) Christmastime, Approximately, which features a couple tracks that have featured on my yearly mixes. Let me just say… when more than one track off a comp ends up on a mix… that is a BFD. Compilations are always a roll of the dice, because you’ve got a whole mess of different styles, tastes, etc all coming together – and art is subjective! To have more than one song hit YOU specifically makes that entire record feel even more important by association.

24 features… you guessed it, 24 tracks, which I cannot bring myself to cover fully. I have NEVER come close to a comprehensive review of a record of this size… so please take the time to explore those other tracks that I am not singling out here. Once more, art is subjective, and the Christmas mix I would make does not come close to sounding like the one my friend Ned would… so let’s go exploring! I’ll open the door for you, now it is your job to walk on in and poke around a bit more.

The record starts out setting that beautiful, upbeat indiepop tone, with a wonderful track by Seattle’s Dolour, “Christmas with My Baby.” I love that first verse, which sets the stage well for 2021, but doesn’t get TOO specific as to pigeonhole it to not be listenable year-after-year: “Last year was such a dreaded affair / the year before that I didn’t even care / basically every year before I had no one to share / the holiday cheer with until you were here / but now this year I can hardly wait / so much joy, there’s no room for hate / let it snow, I don’t mind / as long as I’m here with this true love of mine.” This song has that attitude that I think a lot of us (vaxxed) share this year – the optimism that comes with time and understanding. Grab that person you love and don’t let the shit that surrounds you interfere.

Classic Sarah Records’ Scottish indiepop stalwarts The Orchids slow it down with “I Wish I Was,” a beautiful, nostalgic track that may very well be my favorite (at this moment) on the comp. The vignettes they create of a childhood Christmas, accented by their perfect use of brass color, hit you in the head and heart with equal force. Just beautiful.

With my next selection, I invite you to ruin Christmas with Laura and Mike from firestations, aka L&M Kingsize. “We Ruined Christmas” begins by dressing down a Christmas meal, beginning an emotionally complex and fascinating journey. Everything is the same, but you like it that way. You’re miserable, but you’d rather not be at home. We ruined Christmas, can’t wait to see you, same time next year. This song is just kinda fascinating and unexpected.

The BV’s “Krautmas” is more of a groove than a song – those playful guitars over a steady digital beat are as soothing as the first snow flurry. Coming in at track 13, it serves as the perfect intermission between the two halves of the record. Simple and wonderful.

“December Boy” by The Rhynes is the sweetest song on the record. Full of warmth, love, and vocal harmonies, it has some of the best lines on the record as well. I particularly like the first bit here: “You can keep whichever god you’re dreaming of, / but I’ll take all the peace and all the love. / Cause it feels so good to be alive, / We’ve made another December twenty-five. / You make my heart laugh / This December boy’s still got it bad.” If could eat that sentiment for breakfast every day I would.

There are plenty of other great songs on here, the vast majority exclusive to this release. In fact – should you feel so inclined, I’d LOVE to know what YOUR favorite tracks off this record are. Tweet at me (@xmasunderground) or comment here! I may just update this review with your input as well!

Botton Line: As expected from this truly excellent indiepop label, WIAIWYA has delivered yet another underground Christmas classic. Truly enjoyable from front to back, this is one of those rare comps that you can just put on and press play.

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Annie Booth “Christmas Time (Keep It Together)” (2018)

Self Released
Buy:
Soundcloud (FREE!)

Ah, to tell the story of discoveirng this song. Annie Booth posted this song on Soundcloud back in 2018, but only for a brief period, as it was gone when I first looked. I had been running down random threads on Facebook, stumbled upon Annie and evidence of past Christmas singles (she’s also done some covers!), and immediately messaged her. I must say… it is rare that a band will ever respond to me, let alone send me to the song I’m asking about. However, Annie Booth most certainly did, and I absolutely flipped out. I have been wanting to write about this for two years now, always hoping that Annie would release it properly so that I could encourage you all to pay her money for her wonderful efforts… but alas, it is back on Soundcloud and Annie has made it free for you all to download. So, enjoy the absolutely beautiful, shimmering emotion that is “Christmas Time (Keep It Together),” but please consider buying some of her other incredible music. Musicians are just like you, they don’t sleep in a bed or eat for free. Please remember that.

Bottom Line: A highlight of my 2019 mix (Xmas), this song is a wonderful introduction to Annie Booth, should you not know her already. I trust you will become as big a fan of her as I am.

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Lost Map Christmas Card Compilation (2020)

Lost Map Records
Buy:
Bandcamp

Ever since I first discovered Kid Canaveral about five years ago, Lost Map has been a label that I continue to obsess over. I covet their Visitations series, as well as nearly every release they put out – they just have excellent taste in music (and their graphic design is phenomenal too – RESPECT!) and I wish I had all the money in the world to buy everything and then pay the shipping to the States. International shipping is just a killer, and keeps on record blocking me… I shake my fist at you shipping costs! Thankfully their postcards do not cost as much to ship, as I have partaken in a limited-edition Pictish Trail Christmas postcard in the past. That is a deep cut that I relished putting on last year’s Christmas mix. This year was even better, with a full Christmas compilation postcard from our Scottish friends! So, you buy the postcard (or simply, the digital download) and you get nine tracks from Lost Map bands. First off, you may notice the similarity between three tracks, all with the same title, “I Remember Xmas.” This song may even SOUND familiar to longtime readers of the blog, as I covered it back during the song’s first incarnation, as performed by Marble Gods. Marble Gods soon became Happy Spendy, and Happy Spendy’s woodwind wing, Happy Clarinetty, grabbed the song as well. Thus the compilation features THREE versions of the same great song! I’m totally OK with this, as obviously, I’m a fan of the song. The Happy Clarinetty is, as you might imagine, the most sonically distinct of the three, and a welcome addition.

A.R. Pinewood features quite heavily on this release with three songs on the record… and while I would like to give you some background on him as well, I’m just going to defer to the press release:

A.R. Pinewood is the heartbroken cyber-cowboy you’ve been dreaming of. Fully loaded with a baseline encyclopaedia of American musical influences from Abner Jay to Woody Guthrie and Buckweat Zydeco, built with a harmonica for an oesophagus, a pitch-perfect auto-tuned voice, double-denim as standard and a strangely human heart, this machine writes classics, every time.

This cyber-cowboy indeed does write classics, every time, as my favorite track off an already fantastic record is the beautiful “Tis the Season.” The pitch modification on A.R.’s tracks is initially sonically curious, but I quickly settled in to the lyrics: “Tis the season for lovesick fools.” That is one incredible line. A.R.’s cover of “Silent Night” is solid, with his vocal tweaks being the most interesting aspect of the performance until his lonely guitar is joined by a heavenly host of additional voices and instrumental colors. The song most certainly gets better as it progresses, just as a song should – especially one you already know so well. A.R.’s final contribution is the groovy “This Year,” with its’ big, singalong chorus, it is most certainly a crowd-pleaser. Three great tracks, but what more can you expect – he was programmed to do this!

Friends of the Guinness jump in the mix with two tracks, and you might be asking – who the heck are these people? I googled ’em and came up with NOTHING. Well, they are a new supergroup! Martha Ffion and Eimear from Happy Spendy, accompanied by Romeo Taylor, Craig and Beth from Savage Mansion and Ryan from Catholic Action have joined forces for this Google-challenged band, and these two tracks are their first releases. This band really knows their way around a chorus, which is that most addictive of musical drugs. “Ciara” is a snowy tale of lost love with a catchy chorus that almost tricks you into thinking you’re singing a happy song. “Town for Tomorrow” begins with this classic sound, but the keyboard melody snaps the song out of the past. I found the song is best experienced loud, so when those big chords of the chorus hit, they overwhelm. What a fantastic introduction to this new band, and I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Last, but certainly not least, London’s Fell has created this incredible dayglow indiepop Christmas song that is bound to move your ass. This song shimmers, but the music doesn’t overwhelm the lyrics, which include some incredible lines like “You know you’ve only come to get drunk on a memory.” Incredible from top to bottom, start to finish, Fell’s “Fear of Christmas” is indiepop perfection.

Lost Map has nailed it. Pick up 2 postcards and send them to a friend, and even better… subscribe to the Postmap Club!

Bottom Line: Rarely do I tackle an entire compilation, but this one was too good to pass up.

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Randolph’s Leap “Stay Away This Christmas” (2020)

Olive Grove Records
Buy:
Bandcamp

Randolph’s Leap had one of the highlights of last season with the EPIC “Christmas, Burn it All),” and they have returned with yet another addition to their already-stellar Christmas Album. “Stay Away This Christmas” is the #xmas2020 anthem we have all been waiting for – a gently aggressive message to just stay the fuck to ourselves and sit this one out to keep each other safe.

“Stay away this Christmas, I don’t want you coming near
Please maintain your distance cause you aren’t welcome here.
I’m sure we can cope without tradition for one year.
Stay away this Christmas, I don’t want you coming near.”

The song has Randolph’s Leap sounding their most dangerous – driving in the fast lane, passing cars and weaving in and out of traffic with these atypical garage-rock riffs. A great change of pace indeed, while still maintaining the melody and instrumental flourishes (that ending!) that you expect from this excellent Scottish indie pop/rock band. They really just nailed it for the second year in a row.

Of note – the track was simply tagged on to their already-excellent, and quite substantial Christmas album which they’ve been adding to for a number of years. In fact, it was a damn pleasant surprise to already own this song! So… if you don’t already, grab the record, and maybe you’ll also get something in your Randolph’s Leap stocking in the future – who knows?!

Bottom Line: Randolph’s Leap continues to impress with yet another perfectly-timed Christmas song. You all are spoiling us… (I can’t wait for next year! Pretty please!!)

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The Martial Arts – Christmas With The Martial Arts (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

I’m in a mood tonight. I want to just yell and swear (in a good way) about every record I find. You have no idea what I’ve already written and deleted for this review, but let your mind go crazy. Glasgow’s The Martial Arts is a project of Paul Kelly, whose CV is a murderers row of great bands (BMX Bandits / Carla J Easton / The Primary 5 / Ette / Radiophonic / Tuckshop / How to Swim / The Hector Collectors) has put together this just FUCKING FUN AND WONDERFUL Christmas EP, recorded over eight years and finished over lockdown. The first two bouncing, beautiful tracks, “Stockings” and “Snow Flakes,” just take off like a rocket and shoot sparklers out of their ass for four minutes a piece. I devoured every second, with a giant grin on my face. “My Christmas was in June” is a cover of a Ze Malibu (feat. members of Redd Kross and that dog) song, and while the tempo slows to a stroll, the scenery is gorgeous. The final track and the only one actually fully-recorded in 2020, “Blinded by the Night” takes me back to the 80’s, to an emotional moment in a movie with lots of driving in the rain and staring out the window. “Stare into my bright disco eyes,” god I love that line. Go buy this record, but wait a few hours for #Bandcampfriday, why don’t ya?

Bottom Line: This is an indie/power/retro pop mixture that, like the unholy concoction the Long Island iced tea, will fuck you up real good.

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Cecilia Ebba & Emma Miller – Winter EP (2019)

Emma Miller and Cecilia Ebba - Winter EP

Self Released
Buy: 7Digital MP3 | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Spotify

If you did a quick survey of what I’ve been writing about lately, a lot of the music has been a bit critical, sad, profane and perhaps a bit silly at times. Yeah, I do like that stuff, no doubt about it. Just hook me up and feed it to my veins directly.

But… as I do… I am also a sucker for music that feels wonderfully genuine. 2019’s Winter EP is exactly this – beautiful and genuine. Cecilia Ebba and Emma Miller are two extremely talented writers and vocalists, and they sound so good together that you could easily be mistaken to believe that they do this all the time! But no, London-based Swede Cecilia Ebba and Scotland-based Emma Miller have only collaborated on this one-off Christmas EP! The songs are thoughtful, loving, nostalgic, and fucking beautiful. The leadoff track, “Snowy Roads,” is simple in premise, and brilliant in execution. The vocal lines make turns that you wouldn’t expect, but love, and then the chorus begins and in come these beautiful strings. While I was already taken with the vocals in “Snowy Roads,” we haven’t even seen what these two voices can do together until the second track, “Apple Tree.” This lullaby to an apple tree is a fantastic premise to create a beautiful visual of a calm, snowy winter night, made only more spectacular by their interwoven voices. “December” sounds like a sister to “Snowy Roads,” with its spare piano bed and scaled-back harmonies (in comparison to “Apple Tree”). This one might get you, with its lyrics of lost love, but the holidays are gonna do that to you anyways, and it might as well sound this good. The finale (to me) is actually the next-to-last track, “Winter.” I don’t think there is an instrument on this track, it is all their beautiful layered vocals. This song has some of their best lines as well: “The aches and pains of yesterday unravel in the warmth. / So lay me down in winter snow / and watch it all melt away.” That is some truly gorgeous stuff.

So yeah, they also have a very nice version of “Silent Night” as well. Technically that is the closer… but I’m here for the originals.

If there is justice in the world, this record will be released by a fantastic label on a beautiful 10″ record. I’ve added it to my vision board, now it is up to you, universe.

Bottom Line: Front to back, this record is undeniably good. To have an EP with four original songs that are this strong… this record deserves both your attention and your money because you are going to want to listen to this for years to come.

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I am adding Soundcloud embeds so that they can be indexed by sites like the Hype Machine, but you really need to look up the entire EP on your preferred streaming/buying service. Remember, buying means WAY more than streaming, so go buy.

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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Randolph’s Leap “Christmas, Burn it All” (Featuring the Olive Grove All-Stars) (2019)

Olive Grove Records
Buy: Bandcamp

Scottish! Horns! Politics! Beloved musicians! Randolph’s Leap and the Olive Grove All-Stars have checked off every single required box for me to love them. “Christmas, Burn it All” is a cathartic release of frustration with a big chorus. “It’s Christmas time and all your heroes are dead / So love yourself, your family and friends tonight instead / It’s Christmas time and all your dreams are gone / But Santa’s on his way to bring a new and hopeful dawn.” EPIC! You think this thing is going to be bleak, and only bleak when you hear that first line – but then bam! – there is Love. In two short lines, your perception of what this song is going to be is flipped. I haven’t even gotten to the part that truly hooked me. The verse with Daniel Johnston was just so damn touching, I continue to be destroyed by it. “It’s Christmas time and all your heroes are dead / The ghost of Daniel Johnston came and hovered by my bed / We talked about some random things then finally he said / Merry Christmas and True Love Will Find You In The End.” That verse made this song undeniable. AND THEN CAME THE ENDING. Horns ring out with “Burn it all, throw it all in the fire / It’s Christmas day / a new age is on the way!” To finish with an explosion is pretty much the best way to go.

Bottom Line: This song is the first EPIC Christmas song of 2019, and perhaps the last and greatest one of the decade.

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