Christmas Coverfolk, 2012:
New Tracks from Old Friends

It’s been a hectic season, broken up by shock and awe and rumors of an apocalypse that never came. But the last day of school has finally passed, and now, suddenly, it’s Christmas in earnest: time for the tree, and the warmth of family and friends; for church carols and pageantry; for hot cocoa by the fire, the kitten in our lap and the old dog at our feet, and the laughter of children. And we are grateful, and glad, in our bittersweet joy.

Previously this year, we came to you with a cross-comparison of new Christmas Kidfolk, Reid Jamieson’s wonderfully lighthearted, mostly-acoustic, mostly-covers Winter-themed album, a set of seasonals about drinking at the holidays, and the best of a mixed bag of new seasonal compilations. Now, as a final installment of our holiday joy, here’s this year’s greatest Christmas singles, to complete the soundtrack for your season – in long form below, or in zip form, for easy listening while you read.

First out of the gate comes Hey, It’s Christmas! Vol. 3, a compilation we overlooked in our previous feature. The free-if-you-want-it-to-be album is quite eclectic, featuring a set of everything from dear folk and jazz tracks to punky grungerock and poppy electronic numbers – but it’s hard not to admire the underdog premise of showcasing relatively unknown artists, the set makes for solid background music all the way through, and I’ve grown quite fond of Danny Leggett’s ironically folk take on Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree, which comes complete with rocking chair creaks to set the mood. Download all three volumes at the website to expand your holiday cheer, too.

This one popped up just today, but it’s been on repeat all afternoon, thanks to sparse and gently ringing guitar picking under a warm familiar melody sung in delicious octaves from favorite singer-songwriter Rose Cousins and fellow Canadian Don Brownrigg. It’s clearly Shawn Colvin’s arrangement, but the subtle, tiny harmonies and piano moments, and the simple ooohs added between verses of this old carol sing of firesides and the stillness of winter so exquisitely, it’s hard to imagine a more centering folksong for the season. Rose’s award-winning We Have Made A Spark, which we featured way back at the beginning of the year, remains one of our favorite releases of 2012, hands down: listen, and you can hear why.

Chameleonesque indie god Bonnie “Prince” Billy continues to blow us away with his collaborative efforts: most recently, we featured his take on Fleetwood Mac’s Storms alongside Matt Sweeney; here, he partners with “songteller” Dawn McCarthy, aka Faun Fables, and the effect is grand indeed. I’m by no means the first to post this new single-shot track, which was originally released via YouTube way back in October, but it bears repeating – both for the contrapuntal harmony voices of male gravel and female soar as above, and for the general indiefolk beauty of this sad, resurrected Everly Brothers tune.

We’re huge fans of fiddling Prairie Home Companion tradfolk favorites Jay Ungar and Molly Mason here at Cover Lay Down – and of Mike and Ruthy, his daughter and son-in-law, who will be performing at our house concert series in April. So to find the four of them releasing a holiday album this year was a true delight, and I’m happy to report that A Fiddler’s Holiday is exactly what one would have hoped: lighthearted, airy, warm, and bright, with a solid mix of originals, carols, and traditional appalachian folk tunes for the holidays, and a live setting and a full orchestra bringing forth love so thick on the ground, you can hear it through the speakers. Their Silent Night rivals the best I’ve heard, and that’s saying something, indeed.

Several of our most beloved tracks from Christmasses past are joined this year by new releases from artists who make a ritual out of their holiday releases, and we couldn’t be happier to find such familiarity in the mix. North Carolinans Beta Radio return with The Songs The Season Brings, Vol. II, a free 3-track release to rival last year’s, with a favorite carol or two done delicately in the mix. Long-time seasonal favorites Jim Hanft and Samantha Yonack are back with their 4th annual YouTube holiday single, a sweet Winter Wonderland that hangs like snowflakes in the air, and we’re pleased to be releasing it in mp3 form. Versatile homegrown artist Sam Billen releases Merry Christmas, a family-and-friend recorded set of 7 chillingly slow old instrumentals this year – an interesting change, though no less moving than his previous holiday works. And Boston-based singer-songwriter Catie Curtis, whose eleventh-hour EP release of songs played and rehearsed for what is now fast becoming an annual visit to the White House was a potent last-minute addition to our seasonal feature set last year, expands her holiday recording to a full-length album this year, making us twice as grateful.

Juliana Richer Daily popped onto our radar just this year, while we were looking for covers for October’s 50-track Radiohead covers megafeature; her cover of Fake Plastic Trees, which we clipped from a YouTube video, bears the mark of an amateur with soul and a need for slightly better recording equipment, but her warm voice and delicacy still stood on their own against other covers of the same from Lori McKenna, KT Tunstall, and Duncan Sheik. Champagne Year, her streamable Christmas EP, is delightfully imperfect, with a fine mix of modern classics and old chestnuts; it’s hard not to like her takes on new winter canon additions from Laura Marling and Fleet Foxes, but it’s her Blue Christmas which truly shows an artist on the cusp of transcendence, soaring even as she finds her wings.

Regular readers of the Cover Lay Down Facebook page will have noted this unusual mash-up already. But sweet harmony duo The Sea The Sea, who honored us as guests for our house concert series this Autumn, are always worth reposting – and their combination of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and What A Wonderful World, originally released via YouTube, is shivery, with surprisingly complex interplay between two songs that don’t quite fit making for a song of great depth and beauty. Keep an eye open for a full album debut from Mira Stanley and Chuck E Costa sometime this Spring.

I’m sneaking this one in on a technicality: Folk Angel have released three previous bandcamp Christmas albums, and though I’d heard of their work, I’ve never posted them here, mostly because – despite their name – increasingly, the band trends towards a quite raucous yet indie-friendly Christian Gospel poprock. But while their earlier Christmas releases sport tracks that both better fit our oeuvre and bear repeating, their Joy To The World, from this year’s fully EP-sized Glad Tidings: Christmas Songs Vol. 4, is a total delight: happy, bouncy guilty pleasure with more than a hint of radiopop, handclaps, and a totally indierock beat that totally transforms the song, making us all want to sing along. And their equally transformative take on What Child Is This is its equal: a gleeful epitome of what modern indie folk rock can truly be. Call it a guilty pleasure, but listen regardless – and then compare it to the 2009 bonus track to see just how folk these guys used to be.

Finally, if I had to recommend further listening, it would be Heather’s mostly-indiefolk and stunning-as-always Fuel/Friends 2012 Holiday Mixtape. Heather’s mixes are always a joy, but this year’s is especially precious: though a few of the tracks are originals, and several are from previous years, the majority are new, amazing covers, soaring and dark and gentle in turns, and with universally heartbreaking takes from Denison Witmer, The Gundersen Family, Oh Starling, Ben Kyle, Eef Barzelay, The Wood Brothers, and more, the whole collection comes together as the best damn CD-like-thing I’ve heard for the season – so much so that it was quite tempting to just skip my own playlist and repost the whole thing here.

As always, Heather provides plenty of threads to pull, too: I found Branches’ O Holy Night, for example, and followed it to Songs For Christmas, an equally stunning new EP, which is worth every moment you can devote to it. Recorded two-by-two over the last three years, the collection of traditional tracks is a tiny tour de force, a microcosm of the state of indiefolk itself, full of ragged glory and hollow bells. Thanks to Heather, Branches, and all the bloggers and artists who bring us light and love throughout the year for setting the bar high, and continuing to raise it. And God bless us, every one.

Coming soon: Cover Lay Down presents our selections for the best coverfolk of 2012!

Category: Holiday Coverfolk 4 comments »

4 Responses to “Christmas Coverfolk, 2012:
New Tracks from Old Friends

  1. Birgit

    Thanks for all the great songs and for providing the sources, esp. the fuelfriends link.
    Happy Holidays!

  2. Cuidado

    Best of the season to you and thank you for your thought provoking and well written blog.Peace of the season

  3. Kadjagoogoo

    Many thanks for these +/- obscures xmas songs ! <3

  4. Matt

    I actually downloaded all of these the other day. I burned them on a CD and gave it as a Christmas present. Excellent collection!

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