The radio stations play Christmas music indiscriminately as if it were a genre, holding arias against Elvis, segueing neatly from crooners to choirs, cramming the droll alongside the dreck. The Amazon charts are cluttered with cloying new Christmas releases from Kelly Clarkson, Susan Boyle, and that family from Duck Dynasty. And the biggest buzz in the folkworld at the holidays this year revolves around Just One Angel v2.0, a newly-curated two-disc set of silly-to-sublime holiday originals from a cohort of contemporary singer-songwriters which – while generally strong in its own right – is hardly fodder for a coverfolk blog.
But the season brings gifts evermore, and this year is no exception. Below, a taste of new Christmas albums full of covers and carols for the folkset, from tradfolk to indiefolk to contemporary singer-songwriter fare – something for everyone, under the tree.
British tradfolk duo Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker have hit these pages several times before – most recently in July, in celebration of sophomore effort Fire & Fortune, which we praised for “Clarke’s mature, deceptively simple interpretation of timeless traditional laments and original ballads, Walker’s stunningly subtle fretwork, and inspired settings of low winds, gentle piano chords, and soaring strings combine marvelously, making a fragile atmosphere that welcomes even as it warns.”
But although the settings here are generally sparser, the simply-titled Midwinter – a December-only Bandcamp release that will give 50% of its profits to UNICEF’s Children of Syria Appeal – is only unassuming on the surface. Clarke’s poised, pure vocals soar; Walker’s classical-folk guitar treatment rings; though its most revenant cuts would not seem out of place in church, it warms our home marvelously with its timeless arrangements, from the hearty a capella duet of Shepherds Arise to the rich, woodwind-driven triplets of We Three Kings. An unapologetic Christmas album so perfect in its treatment, so pure in its performance, so potent in its intimacy, we cannot help but preemptively lament the short-lived season.
Constant companion Elizabeth Mitchell, whose kidfolk settings and recreations of popular song for the younger set have long topped our playlists, has expanded her repertoire in the past few years, most recently with Little Seed: Songs for Children by Woody Guthrie, a full album of Woody Guthrie kidfolk classics, released by Smithsonian Folkways in honor of Guthrie’s 100th birthday, which we celebrated upon its release in the Summer of 2012. But although we have continued to suggest that many of Mitchell’s songs are not just for children, the songs lovingly presented on The Sounding Joy, a delightful collection of sparsely set carols selected from Ruth Crawford Seeger’s 1953 songbook American Folk Songs for Christmas, represent the first full collection from this teacher-turned-artist that are truly as universally accessible as they are enjoyable.
As with many recent works by Mitchell, the majority of tracks on The Sounding Joy are sweet, reverent, gently gleeful folk treatments of the classics, led by Mitchell’s simple vocals, harmonies from John Sebastian, Aoife O’Donovan, Natalie Merchant, Amy Helm, Dan Zanes, husband Daniel Littleton, and more, and a light collection of Appalachian strings, winds, and brushes that echo their source. But some tracks are gentler than others; in this case, the soft piano duet that comes of Joseph and Mary, Seeger’s setting of The Cherry Tree Carol, is a heart-stopping lament, pulsing sorrow and joy enough to make the whole pursuit worthwhile.
Gently plucked strings and a heavenly folk tenor reminiscent of Mark Erelli or an early Paul Simon make In The Bleak Winter one of many crowning jewels of Andrew Greer‘s newest release Angel Band: The Christmas Sessions, but it’s hard to pick a favorite. Greer, a versatile Nashville singer-songwriter, has had a meteoric rise since the release of his 2009 debut Open Book, fueled in no small part by a strong fan base in the Christian music community, but don’t let the affiliation scare you off: the last album from this accomplished interpreter of Americana, an instrumental set of hymns, charted quite high on the folk charts, as did Angel Band: The Hymn Sessions, a collection of vintage hymns translated into stringforms alongside special guests like Ron Block of Alison Krauss & Union Station, Sandra McCracken, Julie Lee and The McCrary Sisters.
Snag The Hymn Sessions and a bonus EP-sized set of acoustic holiday carols for a suggested donation over at Noisetrade, and then head over to Greer’s website to order and savor Angel Band: The Christmas Sessions in all its holy glory for just five bucks.
We’ll be visiting a small but stellar collection of seasonal EPs later this week in a very special holiday edition of our New Artists, Old Songs feature series. But although with two originals and three covers in the set, it is technically not a cover collection, our list today would nonetheless be incomplete without mention of Snowed In, the newest release from singer-songwriter Mindy Smith. Snowed In keeps coming up tagged Countrypop on my playlists, which is a shame: there’s nothing to differentiate this from gentle contemporary folk in the vein of Kris Delmhorst or Lori McKenna, and everything to love in this tiny, wistful collection of winter songs both new and old.
Every Christmas since their inception in 1999, Sleeping At Last – once the name of a teenage garage band that won favor and label-distribution after notice from Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins fame; now the nom de plume used by suburban Chicago singer-songwriter and band-founder Ryan O’Neal in solo guise – has recorded and released a new holiday song as a gift for family and friends. Last year, for the first time, their Christmas Collection was offered as a full album available freely on Noisetrade, and this year’s soaring, uke-and-choir rendition of John Lennon’s classic Happy Xmas (War Is Over) makes for a fine addition to the canon. O’Neal gets major bonus points, too, for reimagining Men Without Hats 80′s classic The Safety Dance as a hushed, melancholic indiefolk lament for last week’s episode of The Carrie Diaries – making of both song and singer a gift, indeed.
Finally, A Rarebird In A Pear Tree, Vol. 3, the third holiday compilation from the indie label, is a typically eclectic mixed-bag of indie credibility, with dreampop, chamberfolk, and the occasional beat-driven indierock on the record, and a tip-if-you-like Noisetrade release. But the music flows, it’s all good, and the quiet, solo guitar-and-vox coverage we most crave this time of year is plentiful and pleasing. The end of the collection is especially dear: Jordan Fox’ ringing, hoarse O Little Town Of Bethlehem is a tiny gem; Shelly Gordon’s Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas is melancholy and deceptively bare.
Download our Christmas Cover Collections 2013 mix in handy zipped format. Subscribe to our Facebook page for bonus tracks, tidbits, and more throughout the week. Buy music locally, and direct from artists’ preferred sources, always. And be sure to stay tuned for more holiday fare from the folkworld as the days continue to darken!