Taking On The New Christmas Canon
New holiday songs, covered in folk

The Christmas canon falls easily into several clusters of songtype: the wassail and traditional Euro-melody, the hymn and the poetic setting, the early 20th century crooner, the TV special soundtrack. Each, in its way, is a marker of a historical era; string them together, and you’ve got a cultural timeline of sorts, representing the common threads of the tree and the snow, family and friends, Jesus and Santa, exposing – along the way – the ways in which our perspective has changed over time.

But genre and soungsource have blurred and expanded over the last half-century, thanks to the advent and spread of reliable recording technology and the resulting crossbreed of musical styles. And so a new type has emerged, as artists from throughout the popular genre map take on the spirit of the season, resulting in more than a few modern retellings of the many faceted Christmas holiday, with more emerging each year.

From prototypical songs such as Joni Mitchell’s River and John Lennon’s anti-war celebration, to The Weepies’ All That I Want and The Pretenders’ 2000 Miles, such popular songs reset the twinned themes of darkness and light in our own commercial culture, offering Christmas as context for the joys and sorrows, the potential and pain, of that universal condition we call being human. And though many of these new songs fade fast into Christmas past, a growing canon of modern Christmas music emerges, with its own tropes, its own motifs, its own universality, grounded in the trappings of the real lives we live.

The dates on these songs range broadly: reach back far enough, and you’ll find these in the mall, I suppose. But somehow, the old familiar carols play more frequently; the new canon is young and far between, and smothered by the more common trend of classic reinvention ad infinitum which so carries modern coverage of this particular season. Our inevitable look at the season’s crop of holiday music trends towards albums of mostly older, unsourced material; we call ‘em covers, but there’s a difference between the cover and the traditional take that we often ignore here; most significantly, there’s no original to test the versions against, only other versions, and that difference shades subtly how we listen and appreciate.

And so we turn to true holiday covers – not the same-old histo- and popculture, but the tender exploration of a new song in tribute to a strong, recent original which so drives our mandate the rest of the year here at Cover Lay Down. Irreverence has its place in this set, of course – for evidence, one need only check out Robert Earl Keen’s fond look at a redneck holiday celebration on Merry Christmas To The Family or the Spinal Tap or Sufjan covers below, or at collablog Star Maker Machine, which this week has been featuring a set of offbeat holiday music, to find originals which fit this theme. But covers cement the relevance of all songs, and successful folk reproduction trends towards the sensitive, the real, and the raw as much as it does the wry and the weathered.

So set your tree up to the oldies and the goodies, and then come back to this collection – a set of very late 20th and early 21st century holiday songs, all versions of songs originally released in the last quarter century or so, and just waiting for the moment when you’re ready to live in the Christmas present.

Download a zip file of our entire New Holiday Canon!

Previously on Cover Lay Down:

Category: Holiday Coverfolk 2 comments »

2 Responses to “Taking On The New Christmas Canon
New holiday songs, covered in folk

  1. Renee Hopkins

    Very nice!

  2. Electric Landlady

    Great list! Although I have to point out that Fairytale of New York would not be the classic it is without Kirsty MacColl’s contribution.

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