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Auld Lang Syne 2009

Another year over, and a new one about to begin.  A new decade, in fact.  I find it hard to believe how fast time has been passing.  It certainly doesn't feel like it was ten years ago that I was sitting home with my parents watching a "top 1000 videos of the millennium" countdown on CMT (yes, the top 1000 videos of the previous 1000 years, even though television itself had only been around for a very tiny fraction of that time - I guess everyone had to get in on the millennium hype!).  My life has changed immeasurably in that time (for the better, by far), and I'm really looking forward to what the next ten years (and beyond) will bring.
One thing that definitely hasn't changed, though, is my love of music.  That is what keeps me blogging about music, and I'm always glad to hear from people who appreciate the music I post about.  Thank you for reading this blog for yet another year, and I'll see you again sometime next November (of course, you are more than welcome to check out Totally Free Music for some excellent non-Christmas music throughout the year; as always, I have no idea which direction that blog will take, but it is sure to be an exciting one).
Before signing off for the year, though, I'd like to point you to the new versions of "Auld Lang Syne" I came across this year, just as I have done for the previous two years.  Most of these versions were just included on Christmas albums that I downloaded, but I also took a quick look around for a few other versions this year, which is something I never did before.
First up is J.E.L.L.i.'s  "Happy New Year" from A Jolly J.E.L.L.i. Christmas (which I already covered in my Christmas Day post).  After a countdown, complete with party sounds, and a brief acoustic prelude, the song kicks into high gear with a truly rocking arrangement.  It's barely more than a minute long, but anyone who loves instrumental guitar rock should definitely check it out.
Another version that I already covered this year comes from Corbin Watkins' Incarnation album.  It is the second half of the medley "Do You See?/Auld Lang Syne", and it is one of the quietest, most minimal versions of this song I have ever heard.  Very nice for quietly contemplating the end of the year.
The last version that I came across during my normal Christmas music search this year is on the Lawrence compilation The More the Merrier Christmas.  Sam Billen, who organized the compilation, closes the album with a very laid back version of "Auld Lang Syne", which features some beautiful vocal harmonies.
A quick Twitter search turned up a few more versions, including a punk version from MxPx, a fun dance mix from DJ Josh Fernandez, a beautiful mellow version from electro-pop duo Measure, and a great country version from Vandaveer that starts as a duet but builds up into a full singalong in the second half.  As I've mentioned before, this is the first time I've ever gone looking specifically for this song (a sure sign that it's really becoming a favourite of mine), and I'm glad I did, as there are some excellent versions to be found there.  
And that's it.  Whatever you decide to do tonight, I hope you have a safe and happy end to 2009, and that 2010 will bring you everything you want and need.  I just can't wait to start saying "twenty ten" - I'm tired of pronouncing years starting with "two thousand". ;)  In all seriousness, though, this has been a really trying year for my family and me, and I'm hoping that the symbolic turning of the calendar will end up being a real turning point for us.  Happy New Year!


A handful of links for Christmas Day

Well, it looks like I have run out of time to write about free Christmas music for another year.  As always, though, I still have a ton of excellent music that I just haven't had a chance to do a proper write-up about  Much like I did with last year's "Stocking Stuffer" post, I'd like to post some links and brief comments on some of the other music that I've been enjoying this Christmas season.  There's no real rhyme or reason to this - I'm pretty much just flipping through my Christmas playlist and looking back at notes that I've made about various albums and songs.  

Hullabaloo's Holiday Hullabaloo is a short but sweet collection of fun Christmas songs (as well as a couple of Hanukkah songs) aimed at both the young and the young at heart.  Consisting of nothing but acoustic guitar and vocals, the arrangements are short and simple, and the words can all be clearly heard.  I've really enjoyed listening to it while playing with my 2 year old this year.
Canadian indie pop band Ohbijou have released a very nice version of Wham!'s "Last Christmas".  The female vocals and violin give it a pleasant sound that really helps it to stand out.
"Last Christmas" is also the first track on Sikora's The Sound of Christmas.  This EP has a slick pop feel to it, which is not a type of music that I listen to regularly, but I've still been really enjoying it - Christmas music just has that kind of effect on me.  "O Holy Night" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" really showcase Sikora's voice very well, and he also does a nice version of John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" (here titled "So This Is Christmas (War Is Over)").
Jason Silver's ChristmaSongs features beautiful piano- (and occasionally acoustic guitar-) based arrangements of traditional Christmas carols.  "In the Bleak Midwinter" is very nicely done, as is "Joy to the World", which starts off as a slow ballad but soon changes to a more upbeat, swinging arrangement.
A Jolly J.E.L.L.i. Christmas by J.E.L.L.i. is one of the most fun albums I have come across this year.  It opens with a version of "Linus and Lucy" (from A Charlie Brown Christmas) that just rocks - it pretty much floored me when I first heard it.  "Happy New Year" does a similar thing to "Auld Lang Syne".  The album closes with "The 12 Days of Christmas", a song which I normally find pretty dull, but this one goes through a few style changes, including a funk breakdown and a big melodic rock outro, to actually make it fun and interesting.

And that is all for now.  I wanted to write even a few brief words about a bunch of other music, but I was even more pressed for time the past few days than usual.  I may do something unconventional and make another post before the end of the year, as I personally don't put the Christmas music away until around New Year's Day (otherwise I wouldn't get a chance to listen to any newly-acquired Christmas music until the following year, which just seems wrong).  Other than that, I'll be back sometime next week with this year's "Auld Lang Syne" post (yes, I managed to find a few more versions without actually searching for them).  Merry Christmas!


Free Christmas music from classical.com

Earlier this year, I wrote a post about classical.com's selection of free music on my other music blog.  I have continued to come back to that site each and every week since then, and I've downloaded quite a bit of excellent music from it.  This week's free album is a collection of Christmas music performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vaughan Meakins, and featuring a mix of singers and choirs.  There is a nice variety of music on the album, with some of my favourite songs like "Away in a Manger", "The First Noel", and "Good King Wenceslas", as well as some I've never heard before like "Shepherds Pipe Carol" and "Donkey Carol".

If you've never been to classical.com before, you will need to register for an account with the site before you can download anything; registration is free, and, among other things, it enables you to download free music from the site every week, so it is well worth doing.  The free downloads are typically kept on the site for two weeks before they get replaced by something else (although I have noticed exceptions, such as Beethoven's 9th symphony, which is still available after more than two months), so it's best to grab it as soon as possible.  Happy listening!


Artist Spotlight: Ballard C. Boyd

It's hard to imagine a ukelele-based Christmas album being anything but fun.  Ballard C. Boyd seems to be hell-bent on proving that theory, as he has been releasing a ukelele-based Christmas album every year since 2005.  I only discovered his music within the last week or so, after his latest album, Yule Kulele, was released; fortunately, the other 4 albums are also still available, so if this sounds like something you'd be even remotely interested in, you can head over to his website and download all 5 albums right now.
There are many obscure Christmas songs covered on these albums that I had never heard before, as well as more familiar songs like "Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow", "The Christmas Song", and "Holly Jolly Christmas" (always a favourite of mine because of its inclusion in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, my favourite Christmas movie).  There are also a few original songs on most of the albums (all except the first), and Boyd even puts his own spin on some old favourites such as "The 12 Days of Christmas", which is updated as "The 25 Days of Christmas".  There are even a few "hidden tracks", including a cover of Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls" and a mashup of Steve Miller's "The Joker" with Weezer's "Undone - The Sweater Song".  One of my favourite songs turned out to be a cover of Robert Earl Keen's "Merry Christmas from the Family", which I had never heard before - the line "Little sister brought her new boyfriend, he was a Mexican. We didn't know what to think of him until he sang 'Feliz Navidad'" had me cracking up laughing as I listened to it.
Ballard C. Boyd's ukelele Christmas albums are definitely not the most traditional Christmas albums you will ever hear, but they will almost certainly be among the most fun.  You can download the MP3 files separately or grab a zip file for each album right here.  Happy listening!


Any requests before Christmas?

I think I've covered a diverse mix of music so far this year, and I really hope that people have been enjoying it.  However, there are only about five days left for me to write about Christmas music this year, but I still have a ridiculous amount of music left that I haven't written about.  I have actually been wondering if there is a particular type of music that anyone is interested in hearing, and if I have any of it, I'll write about it. 
It could be anything at all: a certain genre, like classical or metal; a certain artist; a certain song (perhaps rounding up different versions of one, like I did with "Last Christmas"); a certain instrument; traditional or original songs; funny or serious songs; Christmas music for kids - anything at all that you can think of, just post a comment here or send me an email about it.
I can't guarantee that I will be able to come up with a post for every suggestion, but at the very least I think it might help me to filter through the hours upon hours of Christmas music that I have once again accumulated.  Thanks!

Album Spotlight: Melissa Pierre-Louis - Touch Someone

While I certainly love traditional Christmas music, I also have a big soft spot for newly-written, original Christmas songs.  After all, there was once a time when songs like "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and even "Silent Night" were new and original; at the time, who could have known that these songs would endure for decades or centuries?  
A lot of artists write their own original Christmas songs, often as part of an album of more traditional songs; I've covered quite a few such songs here.  More rarely, an artist will write several new Christmas songs.  Melissa Pierre-Louis has gone a step beyond that and penned three of her own Christmas songs in three different languages as part of Operation Touch.  The languages are English, French, and Kreyol, with the latter two being a tribute to the artist's Haitian background.  "Touch Someone" (also known as "Lonje Men" and "Une Main" in the other languages) sounds the most like a "traditional" Christmas song, with the same kind of warm feeling that songs like "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" have.  "Sing We Noel" ("Fetebon Nwel" in Kreyol; this is the only song that doesn't have a French version) is much more exotic sounding, while "Thank You Immanuel" ("Mesi Emanyel" and "Merci Emmanuel") is somewhere in between the two sounds.
There's a lot of stuff on the Operation Touch site, but if you just want the music you can download it in either MP3 or WAV format (the latter is what you should get if you want to burn your own CD copy of the album).  Artwork and lyrics are also available if you poke around the menus a bit.  Happy listening!


Song Spotlight: Celestial - "Saving Up Her Wishes (For Another Christmas)"

I've been trying to avoid posting about single songs this year.  I haven't actually downloaded too many single songs as there are simply far too many of them for me to keep up with; I find albums, or at least bundles of songs, much easier to keep track of, listen to, and write about.  However, earlier this morning a song popped into my head from out of nowhere and simply would not go away, so I really have no choice but to write about it.  What makes it even weirder is that it is a song I haven't heard since last year - according to my last.fm library, December 12, 2008 was the last time I listened to it before today.
Celestial's "Saving Up Her Wishes (for Another Christmas)" is the song, and I actually downloaded it back in 2007, but for the last two Christmases I really had no idea what to do with it as far as this blog is concerned.  It's a fairly upbeat song with a nice jangly guitar sound and lyrics that I can't quite make out in their entirety; actually, I think it is precisely that combination of catchy music and unintelligible lyrics that kept me coming back to the song again and again but never writing about it.  However, I can make out plenty of references to Christmas, snow, and "angels in the snow", so it's definitely an appropriate song for this time of year.
The song is listed as "saving up her wishes" on the Music Is My Girlfriend Downloads page.  If you decide to check it out, please leave a comment here and let me know what you think of it.  Happy listening!


Album Spotlight: The Violet Burning - Violet Christmas Volume 1

One of my favourite Christmas albums from last year was The Violet Burning's Divine.  This year, they have made another Christmas album available for free download.  From what I understand, Violet Christmas Volume 1 is a re-released version of an older album, but I hadn't heard it before, and it's very nice to have it available alongside Divine.
An original song called "Room in my Heart" both opens and closes the album; the closing version is (called the "full length" version) is greatly extended.  It's a very mellow and beautiful song; I really like the lyrics in the chorus:  "Baby Jesus, there isn't any room in the inn but there's room in my heart."  The remaining songs can also be found on Divine, but the versions on this album are either live ones or different arrangements (or both).  I find the sound on this album to be much mellower than the rock-based sound of Divine; the one (big) exception is "The Little Drummer Boy", which starts off rather quiet but explodes about halfway through, with the vocals being almost snarled by the end.
If you enjoyed Divine, Violet Christmas Volume 1 is an album that you must download; if you haven't heard it yet, this is a great opportunity to check both albums out.  Happy listening!



Album Spotlight: Phil Vassar - An Acoustic Christmas

I tend to write about a lot of rather unusual Christmas music, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy more traditional and straightforward renditions of Christmas songs as well.  I guess I just think it's easier to find that sort of music - at this time of year, it's as simple as turning on the radio or walking into a store.  However, I'm sure that not everyone feels the same way, so I think it's time to write about some more familiar-sounding Christmas music.
Phil Vassar's An Acoustic Christmas fits that bill nicely, I think.  There are no surprises in the arrangements of its five songs, but I really love the way that Vassar's voice and piano playing complement each other (to be honest, though, I was surprised at just how strong his voice is - especially during the high note in "O Holy Night".  I know a few of his older songs, but I never really would have thought that his voice is this good).  His young daughter Haley joins him on "Away in a Manger", which is a really nice touch, but other than that, it's just Phil and his piano.  If you like being able to hear all the words clearly in your Christmas music, An Acoustic Christmas would make a very nice addition to your collection.
You need to give your name, zip code, and email address to get the album, but the site assures us that nothing naughty will be done with that information, as they "don't want coal and sticks in [their] stockings!!!"  The download link will be sent to the email address you provide.  Happy listening!

Album Spotlight: Frozen Silence - Christmas Carols

Back in October, I was searching Jamendo for more albums by a band called Silence is Sexy, as I was planning to write a blog posr about them for Totally Free Music (I still haven't gotten around to that post, though - perhaps early next year, though).  On the first page of the search results was an album called Christmas Carols by Frozen Silence.  I can't resist Christmas music, so I downloaded the album and gave it a listen, even though it wasn't even Thanksgiving at the time (and by that I mean Canadian Thanksgiving, which occurs on the second Monday in October).  
Christmas Carols has 10 songs clocking in at only 15 and a half minutes, but what it lacks in length it makes up for in its beautiful presentation.  Some of the songs, like "First Noel" and "Silent Night", are very familiar; others, like "Vom Himmel hoch", are less so, but they all sound great.  There is also an original song called "Frozen Christmas" that is very beautiful and actually fits with these older songs very well.  All of the songs are instrumental, and most of them are done on piano, but three songs are also repeated on acoustic guitar at the end of the album.
I think Christmas Carols would make a great soundtrack for any relaxing moments you may be able to find at this time of year.  I've actually had it in my lullabye playlist for my 2 year old since I downloaded it.  However you choose to listen to it, I hope you enjoy it.  Happy listening!


Album Spotlight: Corbin Watkins - Incarnation

At this time of year, I often feel like Marco at the end of Dr. Seuss's And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street: "There was so much to tell, I JUST COULDN'T BEGIN!"  Sometime around the beginning of December, a floodgate opens and I find myself downloading multiple Christmas albums and songs every single day; this goes on right up until Christmas Day.  I have so much excellent music to tell you about, but finding time to write about it proves to be difficult.  So even though updates haven't been coming as frequently as I would like them to be, there's a lot of good stuff in the pipeline, and I will get to it when I can.

Corbin Watkins' Incarnation was actually released last year, but I only discovered it this year after Tara from In Mansions (who is a friend of Watkins') told me about it in an email.  The album comes in two parts (like a record), both of which can be downloaded from Watkins' website.  My favourite songs on this album are some of the duets that Watkins does with Sarah Hovde.  She sings with him on most of the songs, including a great cover of "Mr. Grinch", and the interplay between their vocals gives songs like "Baby It's Cold Outside", "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", and Watkins' own "Christmas Plans" a delightful, lighthearted, and just plain fun feel.

Other songs take on a more serious tone.  "Doxology" and "My Jesus, I Love Thee" (which also feature Hovde on vocals) have a very beautiful, atmospheric feel to them.  The final song on the album is a medley of "Do You Hear What I Hear" (called "Do You See?" here) and a minimalist, almost a cappella "Auld Lang Syne"; in between the two songs is a very moving spoken word passage featuring some excerpts from John 1.  Overall, I find the balance between the serious songs and the fun songs to be very well done, making this a great album for a variety of moods.

I hope you enjoy this one.  I'll try to get a couple of posts up over the weekend, but in the meantime, happy listening!



Album Spotlight: James Edwards - Christmas Bells

James Edwards' recently released Christmas Bells album is a collection of ten traditional Christmas songs arranged for solo classical guitar.  The end result is stunning in its simplicity.  For the most part, the arrangements are very faithful to the source material, but they are played with a great flair that makes them well worth listening to, no matter how many times you may have heard some of these songs before.

Even though it is not reflected in the titles, a lot of these songs are actually medleys of two or three songs.  For example, "Silent Night" begins with "The First Noel", and "A Merry Christmas" has elements of "Good King Wenceslas" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas".  I love medleys, and although these are short, they are still fun to listen to.

Christmas Bells is the type of album that can work in a variety of situations.  It makes great background music, but the songs are so well performed that you can hear new things in them each time you listen to them.  Personally, I have found that it makes wonderful lullaby music for putting my 2 year old to sleep.  However you choose to listen to it, I hope it helps to make your Christmas a little more special.  Happy listening!



Album Spotlight: A Garritan Community Christmas Volume 6

One of my favourite musical Christmas traditions has been continued for another year.  The 6th volume of A Garritan Community Christmas was released sometime in the last few days.  If you haven't heard anything from the previous 5 volumes, they are all still available on the same page, so you can check out anything you need to while you're there; also, you can read my reviews of the first 4 volumes and volume 5.
I'm always rather impressed at just how good these albums sound, considering that they are created entirely on computers.  This volume is no different - things like the organ sound in "A Child So Special", and the entirety of "JS Bach Christmas Oratorio", have a very authentic sound to them.  "O Come All Ye Faithful" features a choir at the end, and "I Saw Three Ships" is also sung; this is a particularly beautiful version of that song.  One of the more creative arrangements comes on "Carol of the Jingle Bells", which mixes elements of "Carol of the Bells" into "Jingle Bells"; the track is only 2:45 in length, but it goes through several different moods and is quite fun to listen to (I really like the waltz that begins at about 1:28).
If you've enjoyed the previous Christmas albums from the Garritan community, you will very likely enjoy this one.  If you've never heard one before, this is a great time to start.  Happy listening!


A few unavailable albums made available again

Early in the fall, I spent some time going through all of my old posts and making sure that the links still lead to what they should, i.e. free Christmas music.  Wherever that was no longer the case, I added the unavailable tag, as well as a little note at the top of the post, in order to prevent people from wasting their time if all they want is the music. Within the last few days, though, I've noticed that a few of the albums I marked as unavailable have actually become available again.  The original posts have already been updated with the new links, but here's a brief rundown of what's been updated and where you can find it now.
  • Fisher's December, which I wrote about here, can now be downloaded from here.
  • Joel Rakes' festive.mood.inducing.music series, which I wrote about here, can now be found here.  The first volume no longer seems to be available, but the fourth volume has been started and will see a new song released" every Monday during December leading up until Christmas Eve," for a total of 5 songs.
  • The first two volumes of A Familyre Christmas, which I wrote about here, can once again be downloaded.  Here's Vol. 1, and here's Vol. 2.
I try my best to keep all the links on this blog current and useful.  However, if you ever run across any links that are broken or otherwise don't lead to where I say they do, please leave a comment somewhere or send me an email.  I'll be back soon with some brand new music.  Until then, happy listening!


Album Spotlight: In Mansions - Peace on Earth

Every year, I end up downloading much more Christmas music than I have time to write about.  Sometimes I don't even get a chance to listen to it before Christmas.  I always hang on to it, though, and usually it ends up being some of the first music I put into my Christmas playlist the following year.  In Mansions' Peace On Earth was initially released on Christmas Day, 2008, so I never got a chance to listen to it last year.  I finally heard it for the first time last week, absolutely loved it, and began writing a blog post about it almost immediately.  I had a moment of panic when I realized that the EP was no longer available; however, I sent an email to the author of the site where it was posted (who also happens to be one of the artists on the EP), and a new link went live just a couple of days ago.
In Mansions is a duo consisting of Tara Ward and Graham Travis, and their arrangements and performances on Peace On Earth are smart, creative and very beautiful.  My favourite song is the medley, "Bring A Torch Jeanette Isabella / O Come All Ye Faithful".  "Bring A Torch Jeanette Isabella" is a song that I was not familiar with, but their version is absolutely gorgeous.  Every year I seem to discover at least one Christmas song that I had not heard before and then spend some time exploring different versions of it.  This will probably be one of those songs this year - the only problem is that I can't imagine any other versions being able to top this one, as it really is that beautiful!  The way it transitions into "O Come All Ye Faithful" is very nicely done.
Another highlight is an upbeat version of "Joy to the World" that is driven by acoustic guitar.  I also really love the version of "For Unto Us a Child is Born", which comes fom Handel's Messiah; they give it a very delicate arrangement, and I find Tara's vocals to be a little reminiscent of Sarah McLachlan.  The entire EP is well worth hearing - so far, I think I have listened to it more than anything else this Christmas season, and I only came across it about a week ago (it was in some files that I had backed up while trying to save my computer from a malware infection).  Please go check it out, and let me know what you think of it.  Happy listening!


Song Spotlight: Sofia Talvik - "Snowy White River"

An early Christmas gift arrived today in the form of Sofia Talvik's annual free Christmas single.  Longtime readers of this blog will likely recognize the name, as I posted about her last two Christmas singles on Christmas Day last year.  I enjoyed those songs enough to check out more of her music early in the year, and I've continued to keep up with her by following her on Twitter and on her website.  This Christmas single is something I have been looking forward to for a long time now, and it does not disappoint.
"Snowy White River" is a pretty little song, with the minimal instrumental backing allowing Sofia's multi-layered vocals to really shine.  I'm not entirely sure what the song is meant to be about, but I get a bittersweet feeling from listening to it; to me, it seems to speak about how a lack of faith can cause us to lose our way.  One of the things I really like about Sofia's music is that it is often very deep and can be interpreted in many ways, and I think this one is no different.  Indeed, this is not the kind of lighthearted fare that one normally associates with Christmas music; I'm sure I will still be thinking about this one long after it finishes playing.  IF it ever finishes playing, that is - I am finding it to be stunningly beautiful and have had it on repeat for quite some time now.  I think Sofia has really tapped into something incredible here.
If you're interested, you can also download free sheet music for the song in PDF format.  Please share your thoughts about the song in the comments - I always love to read comments about my posts, but I would especially welcome anyone's interpretation of this song.  Happy listening!