Ariane Zita “Christmas Can’t Be Far Away” (2018)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP)

Someday I’ll finish my mix… but in the meantime, maybe I’ll help you finish yours. Ariane Zita, an indie folk singer/songwriter from Montreal, has a Christmas advent calendar that is turning out to be quite lovely, Un Noël à Botch. The first track, “Christmas Can’t be Far Away,” is an Eddy Arnold cover, and TBH, not a song I was familiar with. Ariane’s voice is is beautiful, and her arrangement makes the song feel particularly intimate. The calendar continues in a similar fashion, each song building a soundtrack to that first snow.

Bottom Line: This is truly the season of beautiful songs, and Ariane Zita could very well put out more than everyone else combined…

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Annika Norlin “CORRESPONDENCE: Silent Night” (2018)

Razzia Records
Buy: 7Digital (FLAC/MP3) | iTunes | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

Jens Lekman and Annika Norlin (Hello Saferide) set off on their Correspondence project at the beginning of this year, writing each other letters though song in an alternating fashion. I don’t recall specifically hoping that there would be a Christmas song, but that hope is my default position. My default hope has been fulfilled, and I am ecstatic that one has emerged in this, the final month of the project. It is Annika Norlin’s turn for a song, and boy does she deliver a finale. “CORRESPONDENCE: Silent Night” has Annika musing on the the two composers of the original “Silent Night,” and how they must have felt to create it, then for those around them to experience it for that first time. What a brilliant approach for a song – I’m already in and I might not have heard a note yet. Annika’s simple guitar melody propels her delicate voice through a series of vignettes, from the birth of the song, to its first performance, finally culminating in the famous Christmas truce of 1914. And while there are powerful moments such as that truce, there are also some moments of levity, as she wonders if that first crowd might have thought: “Well I like the older stuff better 
/ They should do more upbeat tunes.” So terribly clever and moving in both approach and execution, this song has it all. Thanks to Jeremi for the tip!

Bottom Line: What a stunner.

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Forest Creatures – Noble Fir (2018)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

Oh those seasonal bands. Those spectacular seasonal bands. There are a few, a few bands who come together for explicitly Christmas music, the obvious ones (for my readers being Christmas Aguilera and Sunturns), and now Forest Creatures are making their claim for elite status. Not only do they only release Christmas music, and not only have they released something for the past three years in a row, but they have released FULL ALBUMS three years in a row. There are some bands that have matched this feat… but Forest Creatures are really taking this to another level. A healthy mix of originals and covers, all performed beautifully – so beautifully that you find yourself wondering where they find the time? This year’s entry is Noble Fir, which follows in last year’s beautiful Was That Christmas? in brilliant fashion. The title track is a standout for sure. Their interesting arrangement for “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was pretty damn great and unexpected. The calming bliss of the other two originals, “Silent Morn” and “Christmas at the Cabin,” combined with this coffee I’m drinking has put me in a serene, blissful mood that this bitter, overworked Christmas blogger kinda, really, truly, definitely needs. This record is fantastic, for those who like that sort of thing…

EDIT: Woah. Mind. Blown. All three originals have EXACTLY the same running time… 2:37. That is crazy.

Bottom Line: Forest Creatures have maintained an incredible track record of fantastic, FULL-LENGTH Christmas records – a nearly unmatched feat.

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The Staves “Home Alone, Too” (2018)

Nonesuch Records
Buy: Nonesuch FLAC/MP3 |iTunes | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3

Well shit. I lied. Here I am again. I worked so much last night, I’m taking a few more minutes for myself… and I suppose, for you. This track by London’s The Staves is phenomenal. Like NUTS good. I’ll add to this post later. (I now see I am quite late to this game – of course Stereogum had it yesterday.)

Bottom Line: Stone-cold mixworthy. And yes, I just bought Home Alone on Blu-Ray on Black Friday…

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Denison Witmer “For the Beauty of the Earth” (2018)

Asthmatic Kitty Records
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP)

Denison Witmer is a great songwriter. This I know is a fact. I remember being in college, watching a friend of a friend open for Denison, and this guy had a pretty big crowd. Filled with fraternity brothers and such, they were there for their boy. Passable strumming ensued, and when he was done, those guys pretty much all left. A smaller, but much more dedicated crew was left, and we all realized that THAT is how you write a good song. The difference was truly astounding; I was shook. Well, it is now over 15 years later, and my man Denison is releasing a Christmas EP under his own name. He has popped up on others’ works, Sufjan and Rosie Thomas, but I don’t believe he has ever done his own. Now all we have to do is have him write some originals… The EP sports a traditional instrumental, a song who-shall-not-be-named, as well as an old hymn, “For the Beauty of the Earth.” It is a touching song, simple in its arrangement, but full of fragile emotion; the imperfections in Denison’s voice emote more than any singer from The Voice could ever muster. This is certainly more on the religious side that I would normally write about, but the fact that it was Denison (a good guy), since it was so damn pretty, and that it is only available until Jan. 1 has put me over the top. If you want this, get it now. Hat tip to Christian for making me aware of this!

Bottom Line: This is also a charity release, with all proceeds going to a friend and fan who is battling Leukemia. So… count your blessings and spread the love.

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Oh hey – Denison has this other Christmas track from his The 80’s EP.

And Rosie, Sufjan and Denison…

Chad Thomas Johnston – Stalking Stuffers: Coal for the Stocking in Your Soul (2018)

Self-Released
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP)

I will see how this week goes, but it is gearing up to be a challenging holiday season, time-wise. Thus, you may find my reviews becoming much more short & sweet; I am going to have a much shorter missive from me to you about this excellent record by artist/writer/singer Chad Thomas Johnston (CTJ as I will now call him). CTJ resides in Lawrence, Kansas, where he day-jobs as a writer, having pieces in many publications you might know such as Spin and In Touch Magazine. Come to find out, he also releases some damn fine Christmas records! Back in 2004, CTJ released a 10-track holiday album, All is Calm, All is Bright, and added tracks to the digital version again in 2005 and 2007. For 2018, CTJ has compiled all of his holiday tracks (all 30 of them) into this beautiful collection, wonderfully titled Stalking Stuffers: Coal for the Stocking in Your Soul. I prefer the secular stuff, as usual, but even the religious material is treated well. It is CTJ’s subtle orchestration choices (the heartbeat in “Joy to the World”) which really made we sit up straight and say “dammmn, that’s good.” The lo-fi crackling of “Oh Christmas Tree” was the track that initially got me – it established CTJ as having a certain taste-level that I knew I was going to get into. The record also includes CTJ’s entry into Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas song contest back in 2007, “Bethlehem (The 51st State).” It is no surprise that CTJ entered this contest, as I feel he and Sufjan would pair well as a Christmas-music double feature. That said, what makes this song fun is that he actually brings Sufjan directly into the song, which is a fantastically fun and interesting approach. In summary, CTJ has promised you coal, but he’s giving you much, much more with Stalking Stuffers.

Bottom Line: RIYL Sufjan Stevens, or if you ARE Sufjan Stevens. This expansive collection of beautifully-orchestrated Christmas songs is wholly worth your time.

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Lola Kirke “Cross You Off My List” (2018)

lola Kirke

Downtown Records
Buy: 7Digital | iTunes | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

Lola Kirke, best known as an actress in projects such as Mozart in the Jungle and Gone Girl, is also a talented musician in her own right. Having released her first LP, Heart Head West, earlier this year, she has quickly followed it up with two seasonal tracks which debuted today. The first, “Little Drummer Girl,” flips the gender within the traditional song… but any reader will know how I feel about that song – so we will move on. “Cross You Off My List” is her first original Christmas song, and what a start! Originally written following the 2016 election, she tells PAPER Magazine, “It was a much more somber sounding song that set out to question how to celebrate Christmas in such a fraught environment. While we’re still conflicted about how to invoke the “spirit of Christmas” in today’s political climate, we decided to revise the song—set it to a more a upbeat chord progression and dash it with a bit more hope.”

There are some just killer lyrics too:

“There must be another day / to spend this holy holiday. / Maybe I should run away / or find a better way to stay.

All I want for Christmas / is to dance. / Forget romance, / I’ve made new plans / Maybe cause it’s Christmas, / I should take a stand, / and give my hand / to a better land.

All I want for Christmas / is to be less complicit / and love all those who need it. / You can take your kisses / and cross them off of my list.”

The song was co-written and beautifully produced by her partner Wyndham Boylan-Garnett, and together they have made one of the strongest songs of the season. I can’t wait to find out where you can pick it up – because right now, I got nothing!

Bottom Line: Great production with absolutely killer lyrics, this song deserves your ears.

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Sufjan Stevens “Lonely Man of Winter” (2007/2018)

Asthmatic Kitty
Buy: Bandcamp | Vinyl 7″ (Limited to 1000) (Looks to be sold out at the label – in retailers Nov. 9)

WHAT?!?! HERE IT IS!

From Asthmatic Kitty:

In 2007, Sufjan Stevens wrote and recorded “Lonely Man of Winter” and, as part of a holiday marketing contest to promote Stevens’ Songs for Christmas boxset, traded ownership of the song to the winner, Alec Duffy. In turn Duffy gifted his song, “Every Day is Christmas,” to Stevens.

But instead of widely releasing “Lonely Man of Winter,” Duffy held listening sessions in his home and around the world, sometimes pairing the private listenings with cookies and hot chocolate.

In an end to that years-long project, Duffy – now founder/Artistic Director of the non-profit Brooklyn performance venue JACK – has decided to release the song “Lonely Man of Winter” on Asthmatic Kitty Records, digitally and on limited edition 7 inch, with funds going to support JACK’s mission of fueling experiments in art and activism.

So. I have heard it now. And yes, it is a Sufjan Stevens Christmas song, so it will obviously be much, much better than 97% of other Christmas songs. I particularly like the new mix – the electronic percussive touches especially. Had I only heard the first, original version, I might have come out and said that this could be a “filler track” on one of his Christmas EPs; It just didn’t hit me. This is the blessing and the curse of Sufjan, as he has raised expectations of his work by creating a vast, incredible back catalog with such amazing songs like “Christmas in the Room” and “Sister Winter.” Criticism in comparison to his previous work is frankly unfair; I certainly compare most songs against their Christmas music genre, rather than the artist’s past work. Don’t get me wrong, despite my waffling, I’m still damn pleased, and I am so happy to hear that mystery track from long ago. You know what would be an incredible finish to Sufjan’s holiday season though? How about a cover of Alec Duffy’s track, “Everyday is Christmas.” I kinda feel like Sufjan could knock that out of the park…

Bottom Line: Sufjan’s 2018 recording of this mysterious track from 2007 is indeed a worthy improvement.

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Quilt “Blue Christmas” (2014)

Self Released
Buy: Stream

“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!

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wejzak – Merry Christmas! (2016)

Self Released
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.

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