Christmas Coverfolk, 2012: New Holiday Compilations

All across town and up and down the mountain, the houses begin to take on their holiday cheer. From sprawling displays that smother the lawn to simple candlelit windows, each one adds their own special spice to the bouquet that is the impending season as each yard becomes a diorama of Santas, trees, angels, strings of lights, and more. And we are glad, and merry, as we pass by in the cold.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and it’s beginning to sound a bit like it, too, what with bloggers and radio stations already jingling bells and decking halls. And the mailbox, bulging with sweets for the season, a month’s worth of folk, roots, and acoustic delights ripe for the tree, cries out for attention. And like children on Christmas morning, we can wait no more.

And so today, we check in with the first of several Christmassy features, the better to share our joy and gay apparel with the world. Because the world of lights and holly deserves its own special soundtrack. Because it’s the night before December, and it’s time.

Now in their third year, the holiday collections put forward by UK-based folkblog For Folk’s Sake just keep getting better – and this year’s is so good, I just had to put it atop our list of multi-artist collections. For Folk’s Sake It’s Christmas 2012 includes 15 new and generally sparse indie-and-nufolk holiday recordings from plenty of rising stars, with a surprisingly large number of originals among them, but classic carols by Gibson Bull and Carmen, whose beat-steady countryfolk Holly and the Ivy is an instant favorite, a twangy neo-traditional arrangement of We Three Kings from The Willows, a dark electrofolk In The Deep Midwinter from Feldspar, a delicate track from Friends of All The World that starts with a pensive neoclassical touch and swings into the familiar Greensleeves melody of The Old Year Now Is Fled, and a sweet tinkly fireside O Little Town Of Bethlehem from Stylusboy offer familiar well-scattered delights among the mix.

The fact that the vast number of artists represented here are duos and small groups is a strong indicator of the shifting sands of modern folk, and makes for a rich sound in the mix. All proceeds go to the Evelina Children’s Hospital, making purchasing a generous act, as well as an aurally pleasing one. And the accompanying interview with Gibson Bull, who we’ve been touting to the rooftops since we discovered him a few months ago, is both a reminder that For Folk’s Sake belongs at the top of any folkwatcher’s must-read list throughout the year, and a bonus well worth your time. Need I say more?

Already aching for the perfect antithesis to shiny radiopop after flipping through the radio dial? Then look no further that A Baton Rouge Acoustic Christmas. I’ve been pushing this one on other bloggers since it first came to my attention as artists I trust in the Boston folk community started dropping it on their own twitter feeds and Facebook pages a few weeks ago, and for good reason: home-recorded live last Christmas in loose, live-sounding sessions as a gift to friends and family, this quiet, consistent record is a true delight, with simple instrumentation and a small rotating group of artists who manage to combine joyful Cajun rhythms and instrumentation, gentle country-and-tradfolk voices and harmonies, and the joyous, rich sounds of traditional French and English caroling so smoothly, it practically begs us to consider the whole thing a new and fully cohesive subgenre.

From the other side of the tree comes this year’s inevitable indie samplers, with their mixed genre bag of goodies, and this year’s pile is precious, indeed. Of these, Holidays Rule – an indie sampler from Starbucks in-house label Hear Music – was one of the first out of the gate, and although it’s been on the playlist since an October 30 release, the fact that folks are still talking about it is neither accident nor mere indicator of how often Starbucks hits the mark with their increasingly solid albeit eclectic catalog.

The album offers the usual mix of indie rock, indie pop, country, and indiefolk, with solid tracks from The Shins, fun., Irma Thomas with the Preservation Jazz Hall Band, Y La Bamba, the ubiquitous Rufus Wainwright, and Holly Golightly, plus Paul McCartney, of all people, holding down the fort for those who love the heavier, weirder, kitchier, and poppier stuff. But their winsome ways, plus some surprisingly strong folk tracks, make this one worthwhile as a whole, including great tracks from The Civil Wars, The Punch Brothers, Calexico, Andrew Bird’s lively, grassy Auld Lang Syne, and a swinging, almost Disney-esque Black Prairie ft. Sallie Ford romp through Kay Starr’s 50′s pop hit (Everybody’s Waitin’ For) The Man With The Bag.

Most imperfect holiday sampler of the year award may well go to Isn’t This World Enough: A Nettwerk Christmas: predominantly comprised of originals, only half of which are newly recorded for this year, and taken in order from top to bottom, the poorly-titled album overall features an unusually bumpy ride, with a song actually called OMG It’s Christmas, Sixpence None The Richer up against Great Lake Swimmers, and the hardest players clustered oddly. There are a few redeeming qualities here: Admiral Fallow, whose dreamy, dreary original (Torrent Rain) stood out on the For Folk’s Sake collection, makes another appearance, and Jay Brannan’s Dear Santa, while not new, is worth a listen. Still, that Cover Lay Down fave Joshua Hyslop has not one but two tracks on the album – an original, and the beautiful track below – is less a case for the album itself, and more a sad argument for both single-artist blogging, and track-by-track downloading models.

The XO for the Holidays samplers of year’s past have presented a similarly mixed bag, and several of the tracks on this year’s 9-track sampler will only appear to those who love a good bit of earnest, anthemic grungerock by the tree. But the wonderful gypsyfolk original I Don’t Want Anything For Christmas from Caravan Of Thieves is easily worth the free download, as is Piney Gir’s fun pop culture exploration of the season. And on the softer side, Sophie Barker’s Winter Wonderland offers a quiet echo of tinkly childhood delights, while Robert Burnham’s post-folk White Christmas, a softly mellow, scratchy coda that slowly buries itself in an obscuring, howling wind of irony, offers nearly perfect closure for our set.

Finally, although we’re only posting songs from 2012 this weekend, those interested in multi-artist holiday collections should take note: the Rarebird Records holiday samplers A Rarebird In A Pear Tree (2010) and A Rarebird In A Pear Tree Vol. 2 (2011) are still available over at Noisetrade, as is Fireplace Songs, a solid pop-to-folk multi-genre sampler from film licensing company The Music Bed; all of these contain great acoustic and folk gems, and run heavily towards coverage and traditionals; all are free, and come highly recommended. And, after several years of Soul, Country, and mixed-bag Christmas mixes, this year’s Holiday Sampler from blogger Any Major Dude with Half A Heart comes with an acoustic theme, bringing 22 well-selected tracks from Tift Merritt, The Weepies, Rosie Thomas, Pierce Pettis, Denison Witmer, Mindy Smith, and more – head over, and download the mix onto a single CD, with his compliments.

PS: Looking for more seasonal delights to tickle your frozen ears? Stay tuned for our upcoming feature on this year’s best single-artist holiday albums and EPs, plus the usual multitude of new holiday singles from our favorite folk and acoustic sources!

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