“Blue Christmas” has never been a favorite of mine, so the source material is already (and unfortunately) placing this track on a slightly lower branch on my Christmas tree. However, there are some qualities to Quilt’s take on this ol’ chestnut that I’d like to chat about. Their casual country-psych rock approach does not reinvent the song, but the small touches they add, such as the woodsy, chirping noises, contrasted by the a buzzing synth melody that appears late in the track, keep things interesting. Brevity is also their friend, keeping the track just barely over two minutes – especially important with such a (IMHO) boring and overplayed song. Simply stated, this is a perfectly fine version of “Blue Christmas,” one that might fit the bill for those folks out there who don’t have such issues with the original.
Bottom Line: Quilt’s subtle choices are solid – imagine what they could do with a better song!
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP)
I know I have been strolling down the dark alleys of Christmas music of late, but I happened to stumble upon a brief ray of sunlight (despite the news’ best efforts). Will Ejzak released a short Christmas EP back on December 30, 2016, which through unfortunate timing, got lost in the shuffle. But then again… this release wasn’t really for us; Will wrote and recorded these songs as a Christmas gift for a very lucky Lauren. Three tracks of tender guitar, each accented sparsely with violin, provide a lovely bed for Will’s layered vocal harmonies. I can’t help to think that this is how Anohni’s Christmas demos might sound… which is high praise in my book. Bravo.
Bottom Line: These songs are simply adorned, yet perfectly dressed for the occasion.
Brooklyn Basement Records
Buy:Stream on Spotify (Release Date Sat. Dec. 23)
Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson’s “Winter Song” is slowly becoming a modern classic, as more and more high-profile artists have begun to cover it in recent years. The song has a signature emotional quality that has landed frequent appearance in television and movies as well, further entrenching it in our consciousness. NYC’s The Heart Of is the latest to tackle the song, as he found kinship with the emotional core of the song:
“For lots of people, the winter can be a difficult time to face alone, calling into question whether love is waiting for them at all, hiding in the cold. I identified with those sentiments and felt moved by their manifestations in my own life. Not everyone is rocking around the Christmas tree, and I thought it was nice that there’s a song for those people who aren’t. Of course, the arrangement and performance in the original is really beautiful, so I just tried to do it justice.”
The Heart Of certainly does the song justice, and IMHO, improves upon it. The subtle changes in instrumentation, the addition of banjo as a featured instrument, as well as further developing the percussive possibilities of the song wonderfully fleshes out what is a generally sparse, piano-centric original. These choices highlight the excellent taste level of The Heart Of, and their ability to create a modern, interesting approach to a burgeoning classic bodes well for spring 2018, when we’ll get to check out their debut EP.
Bottom Line: The Heart Of find a subtle, new approach that breathes new possibilities into an increasingly high-profile modern classic.
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP)
New York-based multi-instrumentalist Anni Rossi returned to recording in March 2017, after a 6 year recording hiatus, with a new single and the following mixtape, HER. The mixtape was expansive, spanning 18 tracks and signaling that she was back to stay. Come December, Anni Rossi has now released a second mixtape, the wonderfully eclectic YULETIDE X ROSSI. The album contains some sparse covers (“The Christmas Song”, “Mele Kalikimaka”), some fascinating interpretations (“Silent Night”), and wonderful originals (“Even on Christmas Day”). The only track that I believe may have been previously released is Rossi’s fantastic cover of “Last Christmas,” which she released a version of on Soundcloud back in 2014. Believe me, the slow jam treatment of “Last Christmas” is absolutely worth your time and attention; Rossi’s version is unique and refreshing. Simply said, there are some wonderful songs on here, and even where a track might not be your cup of tea, Rossi still keeps it interesting. Hat tip to fellow underground Christmas aficionado No Love for Ned for the heads up!
Bottom Line: Anni Rossi’s return yields wonderful results, with an eclectic Christmas record that happily keeps you guessing.
Sam & Julia are a folk/americana duo from Amsterdam, whose love of old June and Johnny duets can be felt in this wonderful country-Christmas song. “Catching up with Christmas” starts off with a music box melody, but quickly transitions to slide guitar, upright bass and that easy country rhythm. The song was almost too pretty for me to get into, and on first listen, didn’t know how I felt. However, the ending of the song veers slightly towards some psych-rock inspired vocals, and it completely works! Subsequent listens have endeared me even more to this song – so if it sounds a bit too pretty for you at first, give it another shot and you may be surprised. Of note, they also made a great Wham! inspired video, so check that out too!
Bottom Line: Sam and Julia have crafted a beautiful country-Christmas duet that certainly grows on you.
Silber Records / VeniVersus
Did you wake up, as I did, wanting a super chill version of Low’s “Just Like Christmas,” sung in Italian? You did? Well, that works out well for all of us, as Vittorio Veneto’s Lullabier has realized our dream with the leadoff track on his wonderful new EP, 2512. The novelty of hearing this classic song in Italian is not the only draw to the song – the laid-back indiepop orchestration is absolutely beautiful. However, it is the small, but significant, addition of the cabasa (at least that’s what I think they are using – the hand percussion), that evokes a crackling fire and draws out a warmth in this song that I don’t think I have heard before. The other tracks are also excellent – I enjoy the layered spoken word of “Natale A Serravalle (Silent Night),” and the English-language “White Dizziness” is understated and gorgeous. Lullabier has made some wonderful choices, and is very much on my radar now, and I hope yours as well.
Bottom Line: Italy is on the board with this stellar cover by Lullabier, whose warm, beautiful orchestration and production has extracted new qualities from an already beloved song.
Steven Fiore (aka Young Mister) has spent the past few years songwriting for the Universal Music Publishing Group and as a guest vocalist in Jeff Goldblum’s jazz band (yes!). He has struck out on his own, recording under the name Young Mister, and releasing his self-titled debut album back in January 2016. This year, he’s released two singles… the latest being a lovely Christmas single, “Christmas, Come Early This Year.” It’s a simple song, from a father to a son, one that in my third listen has me a little shook. It progresses from hanging lights with his young son holding the ladder, to having him all grown up, and clutching to the feeling of those early Christmases. The song is just beautiful, and conveys powerful emotions without resorting to schmaltz.
Bottom Line: Simple and beautiful, Young Mister has written a song that deftly highlights those feelings that parents hold at Christmas.
Last year’s track from the seasonal folk band The Ornaments, featured a passenger searching for Christmas music to listen to as his plane was going down. This year’s track, despite reassurances that both Mike and Lance (the Ornaments) are totally in the spirit this season, is even darker! The track is simply arranged, just guitar and Mike’s thoughtful vocals. The song follows a father and daughter as they watch some Christmas classics, each of which sparks either impossible, or uncomfortable questions.
What am I gonna tell my little one
when she says she wants a White Christmas?
“Not tonight. Go to sleep.”
What am I supposed to say when she asks my way,
“Why’d his parents leave him Home Alone? Do they not love him?”
“You’re good. You’re fine. I’ll never leave you behind.”
What’s a man to do as her tears roll down
as Frosty’s face melts into the ground?
“Why don’t we turn off the TV?”
What am I gonna tell my baby girl when she asks,
“Is Mom coming back?”
“How about we watch a Christmas movie.”
“Christmas Movie Marathon” is a brutal, evocative poem put to music, one which spares no expense when it comes to tearing at your heartstrings.
Bottom Line: The Ornaments continue to mine the darker side of Christmas with yet another fascinating approach to seasonal music.
I don’t have much time, as I have to work this Saturday, and I’ve just got a few minutes to get this down. Forest Creatures are a Vancouver band of folkies who have put together two (yes, TWO) whole records of RIYL Sufjan Stevens Christmas folk music. When I say “RIYL Sufjan Stevens,” it is both a compliment to the taste level, as well as a hint that this record is going to have a dash of Jesus for sure, but not heavy-handedly so. The production is outstanding, warm and layered. They mix it up with covers (“I Heard the Bells”) and excellent originals (“Christmas Like I’ve Never Felt”), each one done beautifully. This is a cohesive, beautiful record that you could put on and enjoy all the way through, which can be VERY hard for a Christmas album to achieve.
Bottom Line: Forest Creatures have come in from the cold, Canadian winter to warm our hearts with lush, indie folk.
Well hot damn. This was too good to keep me from writing. Bray, Ireland’s Wyvern Lingo, a trio of singer/instrumentalists has just dropped an indie R&B jam “Snow II,” that is totally worth your attention. Their voices are beautiful, as are the minimal electronic beats and flourishes of color that support them. However, if that groove is not your bag, how about an acoustic version, with no percussion, mainly guitars and keyboards to provide the bassline? (Stubby found this one back in the day, of course) Then their 2014 version, “Snow” is your jam. Either way you slice it, this is a pretty beautiful song, and I think you might dig it too.
Bottom Line: Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t. Both taste great!