Maple Glider “Mama It’s Christmas” (2021)

Partisan Records
Buy: Bandcamp | 7Digital MP3/FLAC | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

Let’s kick up the season… with something beautiful and sad! What else can you expect from this blog?? Melbourne’s Maple Glider, aka Tori Zietsch, has penned this absolutely heartbreaking, fragile finger-picked beauty to close her debut album, To Enjoy is the Only Thing. Zietsch’s background is incredibly interesting, being brought up in a religious sect that she only refers to as “The Religion” (referred to in this song), which kept her from much interaction with the outside world until she and her mother left at 15. She formed a band, fell in love, broke up and moved to Brighton, England after Googling “places to live.” There she began writing what became Only Thing. Zietsch’s creative reemergence came shortly after moving back to Melbourne in 2019, when she played a few songs for friends, including the new song “Mama It’s Christmas.” This deeply personal song sung to her brother has emotional tentacles that may very well leave you tearing up with empathy. In these tumultuous times, many find themselves either struggling themselves, or caring for those for which the pain persists… mental, physical, spiritual pain. It is in the air, and Maple Glider has captured this perfectly.

You called me that night
Said babe don’t you worry now
All I could manage was I love you

But I should have reached through the phone
Slapped you hard on the cheek
So that you could know pain like I do when you leave

Edit: In perhaps one of the craziest coincidences I’ve had recently, this afternoon I found a note from July from a reader (Hi Christian!) recommending this exact song to me. So, Christian, thanks for the tip – it was most obviously a good one. Also – I promise to be better checking my various forms of communications now that I’m making an earnest attempt to get back on the site for the season. BUT, hot tip… Twitter is your best bet. This is NOT the first time that I’ve missed a message on Facebook recommending something that I then write about…

Bottom Line: Fragile beauty from down under.

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The Ornaments “A Coca-Cola Classic Christmas” (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

This Christmas band began as a reason for its two members, Mike Behrends and Lance Owens, to spend some time together. Their hang sessions have resulted in some of the most dark, poignant and interesting Christmas music I’ve ever encountered. Mike tipped me off that The Ornaments were indeed on track to release a song in 2020, which had me spinning with possibilities. In a normal year they’ve written about plane crashes… so what will an extremely fucked up waste of a year bring? Like all of the Ornaments songs, “A Coca​-​Cola Classic Christmas” paints a simple, yet vivid portrait from the fringes of the holiday. The song is a holiday card, written to someone the narrator would like to see, but hasn’t in a good number of years. Personally, this feels like an estranged parent, with lines like, “filled it with ornaments from your childhood Happy Meals,” hinting at the more-than-Facebook relationship they once had. That final entreaty is so simple and heartbreaking, “If this sounds nice, I’ll be in room 104 just left of the coke machine.” This short vignette of a holiday apart conveys so much awkward love in so few words, that I find it tough to decide whether the song is terribly sad, or oddly sweet. The Ornaments always leave me with questions… so I keep coming back.

The Ornaments have big plans for 2021, as we all do, and have plans for a 2-song 7-inch, so be sure to follow them on Bandcamp if you want a shot at that . I believe that first 7-inch only had about 8 copies or so pressed…

Bottom Line: The Ornaments are a rare treat, though perhaps an acquired taste. However, once you got it… you’re in it for the long haul.

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Joseph Bradshaw – Xmas (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

That name. I I know that name. I had lost track of Joseph Bradshaw for a few years, but I won’t do that again. Joseph Bradshaw’s “Christmas is Always” off his 2015 release with Kyle Cox remains one of my favorite folk-Christmas tunes, and it appears he has not lost a step. Recorded last week at the kitchen table “while the family slept and studied,” these songs exude the warmth of that kitchen. The writing is exquisite on the two originals on the EP, “Santa Claus Can Keep His Bag” (written with Sandra McCracken) and “Mercy for All.” (I can give-or-take a “Silver and Gold” cover, so please pardon me for spending time on the rest of the EP.) Each song tells a story, with lines of beauty and humor that leave you searching for your favorite. However, I found myself uncharacteristically more impressed by Joseph’s voice than anything else on the record, as I’m normally a sucker for lyrics. The moments at the edges of his voice where he maintains a quiet control, convey an emotion and warmth that brought me even deeper in. Joseph doesn’t have a big voice, but it has great character and he knows how to use it beautifully. I’m so on board should he ever consider a full Christmas record. (Sending that into the world!)

Bottom Line: They might only be a few songs, but these songs born at a dinner table, have left me full and happy.

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Grace Eden – Fortune (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

Continuing this season of phenomenal Christmas folk music, London’s Grace Eden has released three songs of exquisite beauty, each one with its own unique approach. There is an original, a poem backed by music, and a cover of her favorite Christmas carol. Her original Christmas song, “Hold You,” introduces us to her beautiful voice, often singing perfectly in harmony with itself. There is a warmth to this song – fuck, it is cozy as hell, and I am feeling it. “Oh, Let’s raid the fridge / Let’s pretend we’re still kids.” YES! I might normally skip over a poetic interlude, but after that first song, I was on board. “Fortune” is quite nice in its own right, adorned by a sparse guitar track, Grace has an unsurprisingly lovely speaking voice which I’m happy to listen to. The final track, “In the Bleak Midwinter” is a simple and lovely cover of a song that I am happy to listen to when done well, and this is most certainly performed and produced beautifully. With a portion going to Mind, a mental health charity, this EP is an easy buy.

Bottom Line: A perfect trio of holiday songs that can each stand on their own, but taste even more wonderfully together.

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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!)

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Thom Stone – Christmas at the End of the World (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

Thom Stone has been featured here on Christmas Underground many times before under his previous nom de plume, Young War, who were fucking fantastic (you can still buy their records! Buy them!). This time around, Thom is recording under his own name, and has more than doubled his previous holiday catalog in one shot. Having always wanted to write a Christmas record, Thom took the second lockdown in November and decided to make something positive out of it. So he gathered one microphone, one guitar and some sleigh bells stolen from his two-year old’s music set, and created Christmas at the End of the World. The album features eight songs, all of which blend the uncertainty and creeping optimism that so many of us are feeling right now. On “Merry Christmas (What a Hell of a Year),” Thom looks at our world running at 1/4 speed, and instead of focusing on the obvious crisis, finds reasons to be sincerely thankful and embraces the spirit of Christmas and a hope for change. I want to take this sentiment and bottle it:

Our time, we’re so terrified of wasting our time
But I’m thankful for the chance to waste mine
It’s a gift
Nothing else there, on my list

So hold on, something’s got to change
And I hear, something kind of strange
Sleigh bells, in the air
Magic, everywhere

And I apologize for getting sentimental
I’m only trying to be sincere
I guess there’s nothing much left to say
Merry Christmas what a hell of a year
Merry Christmas what a hell of a year

The lyrics on this record continue to impress, even when the song only lives for 50 seconds, as in “A Manger Incident:”

What if nobody ever found Jesus?
What if there was no star in the sky?
What if Mary told Joseph her secret?
And Joseph went out of his mind?

What if Gabriel just couldn’t make it?
And God couldn’t handle the guilt?
What if the three wise men were three wise women?
Imagine what we could’ve built

I could write about every single song on this record – the gorgeous sentiment of “Could It Be Christmastime,” the apocalyptic beauty of “Christmas at the End of the World,” the mantra of “Noel, noel, go ring the bell / I see the snow on the leaves” in “Snow on the Leaves,” as each song is deserving of appreciation. But alas, you all need to experience them for yourself as well, without the power of suggestion that a reviewer might add. So listen, then buy it. All proceeds from this record go to the Manchester Cares charity, a community network bringing younger and older neighbors together to tackle isolation and loneliness. If that isn’t something we all can relate to after this year…

Bottom Line: Thom Stone has tapped into something special with Christmas at the End of the World, the most poignant lockdown Christmas record of the season.

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Andrea von Kampen “A Midwest Christmas” (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

I stalk some of my readers whose tastes often match mine (hi @tuttijackson), and this totally-hip reference archivist recently bought a Christmas single on Bandcamp… so I was obviously intrigued had to check it out. The song was fantastic. The midwest has been vying to unseat Sweden as my focal point of excellent underground Christmas tunes, and Lincoln, Nebraska’s Andrea von Kampen has helped to further build this case with “A Midwest Christmas.” The song is written from a refreshingly honest point-of-view, which Andrea breaks down on her Bandcamp page:

When I sat down to write my first ever original Christmas tune, I felt at a loss for what to even write about. This year has been tough and disappointing in so many ways for everyone. I wanted to lift the spirits of people but I didn’t feel like sleigh bells, ice skating, or any of the other quintessential Christmas topics were relatable right now. And then I started to think about what really makes me happy and feel at peace during the holidays. It hasn’t ever been shopping or the big light displays, but the simple moments that show human kindness. That’s what “A Midwest Christmas” is really all about. 

Andrea’s description got me thinking about the moments that I appreciate, and none of them revolve around Christmas parties or presents. Popping in to see friends, those shrimp that I never eat, and you all who read this blog and are in the same search for something that moves you at Christmas. Writing this song moved Andrea, and it most certainly comes through in the performance. Certainly a mix-worthy tune, especially with its brief 2:35 run time… brevity is always an asset.

Bottom Line: I feel like my blog is largely hyping up fantastic female singer-songwriters lately… and as long as great songs like this keep coming my way, so be it!

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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.

Jenny Owen Youngs “Maybe Next Year” (2019)

Fisher And Porcupine
Buy: Bandcamp

The other half of my favorite (title) song off of Chris Farren’s brilliant Like a Gift from God or Whatever,” Jenny Owen Youngs has a Christmas song of her own this year. “Maybe Next Year” is one of those Christmas songs drenched in emotion. There is no rocking around the Christmas tree, this song makes you FEEEEEEELLLL. The best way I can describe it is that I feel the same way listening to Elliott Smith. Some of those early songs are heartbreaking, but because you feel it so deeply, you feel more alive. So, live a little and check out this song.

Bottom Line: Sad songs are the best, and scientifically proven to make you feel better.

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Chase Kerby “Angels in the Snow” (2019)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp (FREE!)

Hot tip. Just follow a bunch of folks from Oklahoma City, and you’ll find some great Christmas music. The latest, courtesy of Beau Jennings’ (who has his own great xmas record) twitter account, is Chase Kirby’s “Angels in the Snow.” There is so much going for this song: Chase’s voice has an authentic quality (which makes all the difference in folk music), and his songwriting is damn clever. “The little drummer boy is clocking out at six / he’s got to make it in time to pick up his kid / oh the wise men have been stuck in traffic for days / it would be nice if they saw a star on the way.” You are just going to have to listen to it, because I’m busy trying to finish my mix today. Hell, I’m 100% positive that this is going to end up on someone’s mix, because it is most certainly mix-worthy.

Bottom Line: Oklahoma City, with Beau Jennings, Chase Kirby and the Fowler/Blackwatch Christmas comp (FULL REVIEW COMING SOON) is the epicenter of excellent Christmas music. There is no rival this year.

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