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.
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.
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).”
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.
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.
Continuing from earlier in the month… when we all enjoyed an extremely short song about the end of Halloween… I bring you a beautiful and somewhat disturbing song that takes place around Christmas. Messi is a singer/songwriter from Gent, Belgium, with a beautiful, beautiful folk voice. I say folk voice, because she does not sing songs that stretch her capabilities, as you might find in pop music, but it does contain that one quality that is most necessary: personality. Messi’s voice has a warmth that soothes, even when she’s singing about eyes and dead flies. “Charlemagne” is a fun little folk tale about (IMO) an ex who is going to extreme lengths to get attention. Why did I add that IMO? Because I asked Messi, and she says that the song just wrote itself and was very open to my interpretation. So, don’t assume my opinion is the “right” one – take your own stab at finding meaning in this song. Thus is the subjective beauty of art.
Bottom Line: Messi’s voice draws me in on this one. The song’s imagery is quite odd for something that might end up on a Christmas mix, but isn’t that kind of awesome? Can’t you just picture your friends pausing for a second, wondering if what they heard was correct, then just losing themselves in the chorus anyway? Yeah… I sure can.
There is no perfect release schedule when it comes to Christmas music. SO MUCH comes out in such a SMALL AMOUNT OF TIME, that no artist can be sure that their song will have the time to break through the flurry of competing songs. Last year’s fantastic track by Johnathan Rice and Courtney Marie Andrews is a prime example of this problem. Here we have two notable artists collaborating on a fantastic song, and I didn’t hear a peep about it until stumbling upon it a few months ago. The song tells the story of immigrants trying to make a better life, but instead, get caught up in Trump’s child jails. You know, the kind of track to put next to “Santa Baby” on your mix.
Johnathan gave some context to the writing of this song on his Facebook page last December. You would think that after a year passed, things would be looking better… but alas, this story could have been written yesterday:
This song is a story I wrote with Jason Boesel and Courtney Marie Andrews. It’s about a child and his mother trying to make it to the other side of the border. Reasons beyond their control intervene, and they don’t make it. This song is my way of calling attention to the current humanitarian crisis taking place at our border with Mexico. Like many of you, I was devastated by the images in the press of mothers being gassed, of little children in cages sleeping on foil blankets. Believe me – as bad as those images are – the worst is yet to come if we do not act immediately.
A few months ago I traveled down to the U.S.-Mexico border with a group of like-minded people to learn more about the situation, and hear about how to help. I started writing this song on the bus ride home. It was recorded in LA a few weeks ago.
Johnathan finished his post with a pitch to donate to Al Otro Lado, whose border rights program “hosts know-your-rights training and legal orientation workshops in migrant shelters in Tijuana, Mexico, and provides direct legal representation to detained asylum seekers in Southern California.” So, if you are so inclined, you can donate here.
Bottom Line: The story is moving and Johnathan and Courtney’s voices blend beautifully. Should you want to add a little bit of humanity to a normally sugary-sweet holiday mix, look no further than this song.
Well here we go! This one will make all the media rounds no doubt, as Josh Rouse has a large back catalog and fans that span 20+ years. I remember getting that Dressed up Like Nebraska cassette promo single was back when I was but a boy. That first record was great. Josh’s second, Home, is a modern classic record (for me). 1972 was a risk that paid off beautifully. Find a copy of Bedroom Classics Vol. 1 and you will be treated to “Michigan,” which is an incredible, incredible song. I don’t want to go into this with the level of expectation that I might… as I haven’t been quite on the Josh Rouse train for a number of records. But here I am… likely to buy the double-vinyl edition. The first pressing of the CD/Vinyl comes with an extra disc featuring 3 bonus tracks, and 3 demo versions of songs found on the record. So… if you are considering this record, the first pressing is by far the way to go.
Bottom Line: Click and buy. It’ll be better than most Christmas records, and could possibly be great.
For those bands out there who want to write a Christmas song, but don’t know where to begin – let me pose two options for you. The first would be found in Bossy Love’s reinterpretation of the Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping,” where they updated the song to be more of-the-moment. The second approach would be to write a response song. A good example of this approach can be found in Stephen Solo‘s “War is Never Over (Even if you want it).” Back in 2015, the British had begun participating in airstrikes in Syria, and from Stephen’s perspective back in Glasgow… beginning a new chapter of an unending war. So, he took his phone (as he does) and recorded this brutal condemnation of the action, hung on the frame of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over).”
“Let the Big Ben bells ring out for bombs this Christmas / the only peace we’ll get this year is pieces of skulls and baby bones. / War is never over even if you want it.”
Stark indeed. Extremely well-produced, yet tough to listen to, as you are forced to reflect on what violence means to you when it happens so far away.
Bottom Line: Stephen Solo’s “Christmas” song will likely feel quite contemporary, renewed by humanity’s skillful violence, for many years to come.
“Christmas Eve / When everything is magical and desperate.” That might be my favorite line of the year. Wollongong, Australia’s Kay Proudlove has written a cracker of a song in “Giftcard.” This one really comes down to the lyrics for me. Not only is that brilliant line featured prominently in this song, but I am loving the sentiment in this verse as well:
We do the same thing every year
And I won’t be caught out this time, I’ll be more prepared
I’ll make something they’ll actually want, they’ll actually use
But I know it’s just a ruse
Cause everybody’s getting giftcards again
Surprise, it’s a giftcard
Just what you wanted
We have all been caught out before, and Kay just has the guts to sing about it.
Bottom Line: A brilliant approach, with equally excellent execution. Kay’s got some serious songwriting chops.