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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Young War “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” (2019)

Self Released
Buy: Free!

Manchester’s Young War is three-for-three so far, yet to miss. Tweeting out this morning with the kind of cover that I can seriously get behind, one that sounds nearly nothing like the original. In fact, it sounds so much like a Young War song, that I swear the intros to 2014’s brilliant “I Won’t Come Back for Christmas (I’m Serious),” (GO BUY THAT SONG NOW) and this Ramones cover are damn-near cousins. I’ve heard slowed down versions of this song, ones that attempt to chill-out one of Christmas’ rock classics, and they sometimes go way too dark. Not only has Young War not gone dark, but dammit if this isn’t the sweetest version of this song I’ve heard – from production to delivery, this song feels turned on its head, which is exactly where a Christmas cover should be.

Bottom Line: Make Christmas your own, like Young War does with this fantastic version of The Ramones “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight).”

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Beau Jennings – The Christmas Light (2019)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

Norman, Oklahoma has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to underground Christmas music. Of course, the Fowler Volkswagen/Blackwatch Studios compilations are based in Norman, and so are a bunch of fantastic musicians. One such musician is singer/songwriter Beau Jennings. Having earlier contributed the dark, yet excellent “Christmas Bus” to 2013’s Fowler VW/Blackwatch compilation (Volume 3), Beau returns with a full Christmas record, The Christmas Light. The album is a collection of originals, with a few excellent covers sprinkled in. There is some real beauty in this sparsely-orchestrated affair, most notably in some of the lyrics in the title track, “The Christmas Light.”

“Woke up that morning to ta wonderland
The TV said that school was closed
Mom made hot chocolate in the microwave
We put on our winter clothes
The snow just fell as the day went on
We smelled the neighbor’s fireplace
Inola Oklahoma 1985
Oh if Christmas had a face.”

The imagery is simple, but damn if you can’t feel it. The warmth and love that emanates from that track is undeniable and can be found in the tone and pacing of the instrumentals as well. Beau’s motivation for creating this beautiful record is one of love, but also of loss.

In many ways, I made this record for my mother. She died earlier this year and it’s the first Christmas my family will spend without her. Because I recorded it late October and into November of this year, I suppose it was a way to keep her spirit present as the holidays approached. But it also turned into a larger reflection of how memories of holidays past can sometimes define or refine a holiday’s meaning in the present. I’ve always felt ‘the Christmas spirit’ most acutely when it’s late at night and I’m the only one awake, and so I wanted to capture that feeling as best I could.

Similar to Lachlan Denton’s “This Christmas,” Beau is using his music to keep his mother’s memory alive, and dammit if I’m not getting a little emotional thinking about it. You can’t quite imagine how it is going to feel… or how you are going to move on. Beau shares his journey with us, and it is beautiful.

Bottom Line: Warm, simple and full of love. That sounds like a great Christmas to me.

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Brittain Ashford & Matt Bauer “Tinsel and Snow” (2018)

Commodore Trotter / Ball of Wax Audio Quarterly
Buy: Bandcamp

I am not the kind of blogger who seeks out a great voice. So many of my favorite singers couldn’t sing (How I miss David Berman), but even I can still fall for a voice. Ball of Wax Audio Quarterly is a fantastic blog and music-compiler based in Seattle, and their most recent release is Ball of Wax 58: The Ball of Wax Winter Spectacular, featuring this truly beautiful song by Brittain Ashford & Matt Bauer. Honestly, I’m having a tough time describing Brittain’s voice in a better manner than Ball of Wax did:

The teller of this tale is Broadway star and thematic alchemist* Brittain Ashford. With a voice that balances diaphragmatic force with childlike vulnerability, Ashford paints the sort of holiday portrait that those of us who suffer from melancholy particularly this time of year can appreciate and empathize with, and what’s more—what we need most during the dark season—she infuses every line with a tattered but palpable hope.

This song was almost too pretty for me… but those distinctive qualities of Brittain’s vocal delivery were undeniable. The music is also quite lovely, but after learning of composer Matt Bauer‘s folk and banjo background, I am SO intrigued to hear a version with banjo. Damn that could be cool.

Edit: Turns out this song was initially released in 2018 on an EP, Tinsel and Snow & Other Mid-Winter Missives. Go check it out!

Bottom Line: Like Messi’s “Charlamagne,” this song is defined by a beautiful and distinctive voice.

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