Big Society – Big (Christmas) (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

The last few days leading up to Christmas are really nuts. Nearly everybody releases their Christmas song or HUGE Christmas compilation, and my inbox explodes. My family has a bit less tolerance for late nights of searching and writing – because the mix is done! So… you might see my posts slow. All that said, I am saving a TON of links in the hopes that I’ll be able to get to them later. The lucky few… I’ll get to right now.

Manchester’s Big Society has dropped a very nice 4-track EP of really, really solid Christmas tunes. With touches of Cheap Trick and Queen, a dash of banjo and bossa nova, and a healthy heaping of indie rock, every single one of these songs is pretty great. I’m not quite sure which song is my favorite yet, as I am kinda tempted to grab a set of headphones and go for a walk with record. So… maybe I’ll get back to you, but feel free to let me know if one grabs you.

Bottom Line: Well dammit! These Christmas originals are quite worthy of your money (and mine). All proceeds go to The Booth Centre, community centre run with and for people affected by homelessness.

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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 Happy Somethings “It’s Christmas Time (We’re as Miserable as Sin)” (Blizzard Version) (2018/2019/2020)

Golden Believers Records
Buy: Bandcamp

My favorite track off of last year’s A Very Cherry Christmas 13 (still available!) has been re-released with a new “Bah Humbug Blizzard” version! The Happy Somethings‘ ode to being miserable on Christmas an odd delight. I absolutely love the groove in this song. Putting together your mix? Need a dance break with bleak lyrics? Let me sell you this song!

(How do you like my update job mess?)

Bottom Line: Indiepop misery at its finest! And it is free! And it is for charity!

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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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Christmas Aguilera “Why Can’t I Go To Sleep” (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp | Bandcamp (Full Album)

There are a few bands who this blog is pretty much wholly devoted to, and Christmas Aguilera is one. I have yet to miss a post on a release, and as long as they continue to record them, I’ll continue to write about them. They can hit you with something that makes you smile, something that make you cry, or fucking both! This year they’ve got a few things up their sleeves, but we’ll concentrate on the new song first. “Why Can’t I Go To Sleep” is actually a song that they wrote around the time of their first EP, the self-titled Christmas Aguilera. Played live but never recorded, the band rediscovered it amongst some bedroom recordings, and decided to give it a go. COVID being what it is, the extra time afforded some more collaboration – a guest drummer, a bass player and a choir of friends joined the effort. The recordings were passed around and each person added their part, until we have this beautiful, choral mantra to open the song, “Go to sleep / Why Can’t I / Go to sleep / Sheep counting / Go to sleep / Why Can’t I / Go to sleep.” Then, the tension of the mantra breaks and the song bursts open. You can feel the joy and love in this song, as the voices raise and the shouts go up. You get the feeling that the collaborative production of the track was a pressure release valve. To participate in this song was to press play on a world that has been perpetually paused… a light at the end of the tunnel. The excitement of Christmas, and of the future, comes through beautifully, and is just what I needed.

Christmas Aguilera have something else up their sleeve this year – they are finally going to be on all those fancy streaming services. I know most of you are on Spotify, and so am I, but I gotta say – I’m seriously considering Tidal because it pays artists more. I’m pretty invested in Spotify, but maybe we’re a two-streaming service family for a bit? I could get the family on board… give Tidal a run… and help all those people whose music I love buy dinner, pay for a kid’s college, etc. You know I don’t post many streaming links here – it takes 1500 streams to equal one song (Billboard) – but the convenience is unavoidable. I encourage you to buy the song. I want you to buy records (I bought 3 today), buy t-shirts and buy livestream tickets. Think about how great it feels to be told you did a good job! That is what buying someone’s record feels like to them – it is validation for their hard work and worth as an artist! SHOW YOU LOVE THEM, don’t just tell them. Oh yeah, I started this paragraph by saying that the entire Christmas Aguilera catalog is going to be on streaming. This is wonderful, and please help spread their music – AFTER you purchase it on Bandcamp and help support Shelter, a UK charity that aids the homeless, because that is who Christmas Aguilera continues to support with all their proceeds. This is a year like no other to think of the less fortunate… so let’s not just think, let’s do.

Bottom Line: Christmas Aguilera pull a treasure out of the closet and wow us once more.

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Don’t Call Me Ishmael “I Won’t Hesitate (This Christmas)” (2020)

DROMA Records
Buy:
Bandcamp

Five years in, and Stafford, England’s Don’t Call Me Ishmael are settling in as one of those bands that you can rely on for excellent new Christmas music. You don’t need me to tell you that 2020 is a particularly fraught year, and we’ve seen a whole lot of different directions that folks have gone. Some songs are specifically addressing COVID (see Christmas A Go Go’s ongoing posts chronicling that phenomenon), while others are looking for hope and grasping on to those tiny lights, flickering in the dark. “I Won’t Hesitate (This Christmas)” falls squarely in that hope category, as Don’t Call Me Ishmael are grasping for that human touch. While the song could certainly be mistaken for suggesting that you just kiss under the mistletoe without regard for safety, it is much more aspirational rather than prescriptive. In fact, I confirmed this fact with the songwriter, Jack Tasker, over email:

I would say it initially came out of the desire to hug and kiss the people you love after a year of separation (my wife and I had our first child this year and it’s been so hard not to fully share that with my family and friends), but then drifted into that aspirational world of ‘what would a perfect christmas look like after a year of distance’. Gary added the “Feed the World” reference as a bit of light relief. When I started writing it the vibe was very Mountain Goats – really fast palm muted acoustic chords, but it mellowed out as the rest of the band joined in.

Don’t Call me Ishmael will take your worst jumper, your driest turkey, your cheesiest song – they just want to connect. That is a feeling that we all can plug into, no doubt about it. The production is fantastic, despite the challenges of socially-distant recording, and that chorus is catchy as hell. Be on the lookout for their “12 Days of Ishmas,” twelve days of videos which they’ll be posting on their Facebook beginning December 12, because this band fucking loves Christmas.

Bottom Line: Don’t Call Me Ishmael keep the spirit alive once more with their most epic song to date. Also… I kinda want to hear that Mountain Goats-esque demo 🙂

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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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Stephen Elliott “Cary Baru” (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

I feel like most things I’m finding this year can be filed under pretty excellent folk music. This isn’t quite the reaction to four years of post-Brexit and Trump rule that I was expecting. Then again, perhaps it makes total sense – we are all trying to calm our nerves after years of uncertainty…

The latest beautiful folk find is Stephen Elliott‘s “Cary Baru,” a song truly untethered to time nor place. This is one of those songs that sound like it could have easily been recorded last week or 40 years ago. Those first few moments of guitar picking and your mind will ping Nick Drake. Then you quickly get hints of Beatles, and back around to some more Nick Drake percussive bits amongst the metallic finger sliding residue of an early Elliott Smith record. The rhythm and pace of the song is a brisk walk, perfectly complimenting the lyrical basis of the song, which Stephen was kind enough to further describe to me earlier today.

Cary Baru is a short meditation on perseverance, on persisting in anticipation of a moment’s clarity, and on moving between these states. I wanted to compose something that embodied that sense of movement.

While the scene is set during the Christmas season, I initially found the lyrics to be ambiguous in the way that so much poetry is, allowing me to walk down multiple avenues, imagining different main characters, and leaving me wondering where the true story lied. After Stephen’s explanation, the song feels far-less personal than I had imagined, and it blossoms into a more universal story that everyone can take a piece from. This is one of those songs that benefits from multiple listens, so grab a jacket and add it to your playlist – we’re heading out (masked, of course).

Bottom Line: Stephen is learning some shiny new gear while under these COVID restrictions, and it sure seems he is getting the hang of it well.

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They Is They Is They Is ” Your Kind of White Christmas Sucks” (2016)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

I really, really wish I had found this little gem, “Your Kind of White Christmas Sucks,” by They Is They Is They Is (gonna call them TITITI to make things easier) back in 2016. I love a Christmas song that has a message beyond the usual “Boy I can’t wait to come home for Christmas and/or I wish you were with me for Christmas” that so many Christmas songs sink into, and these lyrics are a perfect time capsule of the anxiety swirling through a world flying out of control:

“Grubby little opportunists are stirring a rage
They come bearing hate in the post-factual age
But Jesus was a dark-skinned, socialist Jew
Who died in the name of peace, love and truth
So if ever there’s a Christmas to think of the meek
It’s 2016 with the havoc we’ve wreaked.”

Just thinking about that time, immediately post-Brexit vote and post-Trump election… I recall driving to work in a detached haze, not knowing what the future was going to look like in a way that I had never experienced before. To be faced with that, and to still find hope, as TITITI does in the chorus, is both surprising and encouraging:

“I’ll be hopeful this Christmas
Won’t give into fear
I’ll be wishing this Christmas
For a kinder new year

We’ve got to cohere
I’m really sincere
Now pass me a beer”

This song highlights those seeds of resistance, those seeds of kindness that were planted back in 2016. I would like to believe these sentiments have been slowly growing over the past four years, and may have begun to block out some of those weeds. Not that everything is fixed, and it is unlikely to ever truly be perfect, but we still have kindness and hope. They haven’t taken that away.

Had I begun writing this review a week ago… I think it would have had a significantly different tone. Still… a great song, with a beautiful sentiment.

EDIT: A lovely reader of Christmas Underground actually recommended this to me – but not quite understanding the new “Business Suite” (like this is a business) app, I hadn’t seen it! Thank you Konstadina – you have my taste pegged. I only wish I had seen it back in October!

Bottom Line: They Is They Is They Is crafted a thoughtful (yet oddly funny), beautiful (but not in the traditional sense) song that signaled the beginning of the Christmas music resistance.

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