A flurry of Christ­mas al­bums

Cana­dian artists find unique ways to mark the hol­i­day sea­son

The Welland Tribune - - Arts & Life - DAVID FRIEND

TORONTO — Folk-rock­ers White­horse spent years fend­ing off pres­sure to write a Christ­mas song.

And yet ev­ery hol­i­day sea­son, the hus­band-and-wife duo would be cir­cled by the head of their record la­bel who wanted to rope them into mak­ing a hol­i­day ditty. Ra­dio would love it, they were told.

But for the long­est time Luke Doucet and Melissa McClel­land weren’t con­vinced. They didn’t see the point of throw­ing an­other track onto the pile of dis­pos­able fes­tive an­thems.

“There are a lot of beau­ti­ful Christ­mas songs,” McClel­land ac­knowl­edges be­fore adding that she rarely plays any of them at home. “You hear enough of it out in the world.”

Doucet winces as he re­flects on one ex­am­ple that deeply scarred him — Paul McCart­ney’s 1979 track “Won­der­ful Christ­mas­time,” which he says rings through the halls of depart­ment stores so in­ter­minably that he feels pushed to the edge.

So, it’s not sur­pris­ing that “A White­horse Win­ter Clas­sic” feels less en­thused about Christ­mas than a typ­i­cal hol­i­day al­bum. The sober­ing nine-track col­lec­tion of­fers a mix­ture of re­flec­tion, lone­li­ness and bit­ter­sweet sen­ti­ment.

The al­bum stands out this year amongst a con­sid­er­able se­lec­tion of Cana­dian artists who are tap­ping into lis­ten­ers’ in­sa­tiable ap­petite for the hol­i­day sea­son.

No fewer than six home­grown acts have re­leased full-length Christ­mas al­bums in 2018. That in­cludes a jazzy ef­fort from Ser­ena Ryder, a coun­try-fused re­lease by Jess Moskaluke and car­ols and hymns by con­tem­po­rary Chris­tian mu­si­cian Matt Ma­her.

There’s also Walk Off the Earth’s new­est Christ­mas re­lease and Wil­liam Shat­ner’s quirky record “Shat­ner Claus,” where the “Star Trek” alum riffs on clas­sics of the genre.

White­horse is eas­ily the dark­est spin on the yule­tide sea­son.

“It is an emo­tion­ally rich time,” McClel­land said. “A time of nos­tal­gia. And that can be a very com­pli­cated feel­ing of highs and lows, the good and bad.”

The band’s cover of the Pre­tenders’ down­beat “2000 Miles” marks one of the most fa­mil­iar high­lights, while the bouncy orig­i­nal “Ho Ho Ho” throws some pep into the story of a loved one who’s stuck at the air­port, pre­sum­ably on Christ­mas Eve.

“Merry Xmas, Baby (I Hope You Get What You De­serve),” car­ries a glar­ingly spite­ful twist. Doucet de­scribes the song as the Pix­ies meet The La’s with a sprin­kle of in­spi­ra­tion from the “Kids in the Hall” theme song.

“If (the songs) are not about Christ­mas specif­i­cally, they will be evoca­tive of some of the ways peo­ple feel,” Doucet says.

Mak­ing a Christ­mas al­bum used to be one of the nec­es­sary steps in nearly ev­ery ma­jor artist’s record­ing con­tract — some­where be­tween their de­but al­bum and a great­est hits col­lec­tion. The point was to goose sales over the hol­i­days as shop­pers tossed a CD into their carts while buy­ing gifts.

Prac­ti­cally all of the big­gest stars have done it at some point, in­clud­ing Cana­dian artists Ce­line Dion, Michael Bublé, Justin Bieber and Sarah McLach­lan, who’s re­leased two hol­i­day al­bums. But with CD sales flag­ging for years, Christ­mas songs have taken on a dif­fer­ent value through stream­ing mu­sic plat­forms.

For a few weeks each year, per­form­ers in var­i­ous mu­sic gen­res are lumped into of­fi­cial playlists across Spo­tify, Ap­ple Mu­sic and other ser­vices, each one of­fer­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of ex­pos­ing them to an ar­ray of new lis­ten­ers — and po­ten­tially life­long fans.

Over­all, the quan­tity of Christ­mas mu­sic be­ing streamed by Cana­di­ans is grow­ing at a steady pace each year, ac­cord­ing to Nielsen Mu­sic Canada. Last year, hol­i­day mu­sic plays were up 30 per cent from 2016, which it­self had grown 80 per cent from the year prior.

This year, hol­i­day streams are up 42 per cent as more lis­ten­ers put away old CDs and dive into col­lec­tions like Spo­tify’s Christ­mas in Canada and Ap­ple’s A Very Cana­dian Christ­mas.

Wes Marskell, drum­mer for in­die rock pair The Dar­cys, knows a few things about the res­o­nance of a Christ­mas tune. Two years ago, his band re­leased a cover of Mariah Carey favourite “All I Want for Christ­mas Is

You,” spiced with elec­tronic beats, and it be­came a cult hit on stream­ing plat­forms.

Last Christ­mas, The Dar­cys re­turned to the hol­i­days with the orig­i­nal “An­other Log on the Fire,” and watched as lis­ten­ers added it to their playlist ro­ta­tions en masse.

“Peo­ple lit­er­ally put a Christ­mas playlist on re­peat all day, start­ing Novem­ber 1st,” Marskell says. “This is a time when peo­ple are just thirsty for Christ­mas.”

Walk Off the Earth’s Sarah Black­wood says chas­ing those lis­ten­ers is one of the rea­sons her band re­leased the six-track EP “Sub­scribe to the Hol­i­days.” It’s their third hol­i­day al­bum, and part of a tra­di­tion she says helps achieve the “ul­ti­mate goal” of scor­ing valu­able real es­tate on playlists.

“The higher you get on a playlist ... the more peo­ple are lis­ten­ing to your mu­sic,” Black­wood says.

“I just ren­o­vated a stu­dio and the whole time I would just say: ‘Hey Siri,’ or, ‘Hey Alexa, play an acous­tic cov­ers playlist on Spo­tify.’ And there it is. It goes on and on, and you’re dis­cov­er­ing artists.”

Like Walk Off the Earth’s famed YouTube videos — which launched them into the vi­ral strato­sphere with a cover of Go­tye’s “Some­body That I Used to Know” — the band’s up­beat Christ­mas al­bum in­cludes a num­ber of songs that are per­fect for so­cial me­dia.

The reg­gae-fused “Happy Hanukkah” fea­tures ra­dio favourite Scott Hel­man, while “Have Your­self a Merry Lit­tle Christ­mas” show­cases Black­wood’s fiveyear-old son on the vo­cals.

The band will take their Christ­mas spirit to a num­ber of pub­lic plat­forms in the com­ing weeks, in­clud­ing Good Morn­ing Amer­ica and a se­ries of en­ter­tain­ment talk show ap­pear­ances.

Play­ing Christ­mas gigs is an­other one of the perks of a hol­i­day al­bum, says Ser­ena Ryder. The singer dove whole­heart­edly into the sea­son with an ap­pear­ance at Toronto’s Santa Claus Pa­rade last year be­fore step­ping into the stu­dio to record “Christ­mas Kisses.”

The pro­ject of­fered an av­enue for Ryder to dabble in her dreams of pro­duc­ing a jazz al­bum, a sound that takes shape on ren­di­tions of “Let It Snow” and “I’ll Be Home for Christ­mas.” She’ll bring those songs to a num­ber of con­certs on the East Coast this month.

“I hope that do­ing this al­bum means I get to do Christ­mas shows ev­ery year,” Ryder says.

“They’re such a joy­ful ex­pe­ri­ence. Par­ents. Kids. All those things.”

White­horse is tak­ing a com­pa­ra­bly muted ap­proach with their own “A White­horse Win­ter Clas­sic.”

They aren’t plan­ning tour dates for the hol­i­days, al­though they will ap­pear in guest spots at other artists’ shows. That leaves their al­bum to ei­ther or­gan­i­cally land among the favourites of the sea­son or dis­ap­pear into the cat­a­logue of Christ­mases past.

“If we’re wildly suc­cess­ful,” Doucet says, “then peo­ple will put it on ev­ery year. It’ll have a resur­gence.”


Walk Off The Earth’s Sarah Black­wood, cen­tre, says the band has re­leased its third hol­i­day al­bum.


Luke Doucet and Melissa McClel­land of the band "White­horse" of­fered up a dark spin on the sea­son with “A White­horse Win­ter Clas­sic.”

White­horse’s “Win­ter Clas­sic” of­fers a mix of sen­ti­ments.

“Sub­scribe to the Hol­i­days” by Walk Off the Earth

Ser­ena Ryder brings a jazzy sound to “Christ­mas Kisses.”

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