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Album Spotlight: M Iafrate - happy xmas, x is here

Yesterday I promised you another folk-based Christmas album, and here it is: M Iafrate's happy xmas, x is here. There are 10 songs on this album, and they run the gamut from traditional Christmas carols, to the more modern "White Christmas" and "Happy Xmas (War is Over)", to an original composition called "The Prince of Peace".

The hymn "Each Winter as the Year Grows Older" starts the album off in a stark and somber mood, but by the time the harmonica kicks in on the second song, "O Holy Night", one gets the feeling that this is anything but a standard Christmas album; the use of a kazoo in "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is an indication that this is a totally unique Christmas album. The Iafrate-penned "The Prince of Peace" is one of the album's highpoints; with instrumentation of "vocals, acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo, slide guitar, kazoos, tambourine, [and] hand claps", all performed by Iafrate himself (as is the majority of the entire album), and lyrics like "pave the way for the prince of peace. he hangs around with fishermen but doesn’t eat meat. he tellin’ us all to turn the other cheek. pave the way for the prince of peace," it is a fun and definitely unique look at the life of Jesus Christ. Another highlight is "Away in a Manger", which features Iafrate's brother Andrew on mandolin and vocals; and those vocals are harmonized beautifully with Iafrate's to create a very stirring version of this traditional Christmas carol.

Overall, happy xmas, x is here is a very fun album to listen to. The unique instrumentation, beautiful arrangements, and inspired performances make it a worthy addition to any music lover's collection.


Artist Spotlight: Dolores Dagenais

[Update: The music linked to in this post is no longer available.]

For me, one of the biggest benefits of this whole Free Christmas Music project has been the opportunity to discover artists that I probably never would have discovered otherwise. Many of those artists come from genres that I don't normally listen to; thanks to the ability of Christmas music to transcend all notions of genre, it is easy to find myself in previously unexplored musical territory. One such genre is folk music, and I am happy to say that I have found a couple of really great folk artists who have been generous enough to make their Christmas albums freely available for people to enjoy. I'll be doing this post in two parts, featuring one artist today and the other whenever I get the second part written, hopefully tomorrow.

Today I want to feature Dolores Dagenais, a singer/songwriter from Pictou, Nova Scotia, Canada. Dolores has made her Words of Warmth album available for free download from her website. The album features eight songs, seven of which are traditional Christmas carols; the final song, "Empty Pocket", is an original song that was written in 2000 after she "witnessed the body of a homeless man being picked up off the sidewalk one cold January day." This song is absolutely beautiful and features some very moving lyrics. Another highlight of the album is "Away in a Manger", which is done completely a capella and features some stunning vocal harmonies. In fact, many of the songs on Words of Warmth feature very distinctive vocal harmonies which are an absolute joy to listen to.

Words of Warmth will only be available on the website until January 2008, at which time it will be taken down to make room for more new music, so you should head on over there now if you want to check it out.

Dolores has also added another original Christmas song to her website. "Fragile Light" takes a look at the true meaning of Christmas, and, like "Empty Pocket", is a very moving song. "Fragile Light" has been given its own page on the website, complete with artwork and lyrics.

Part two of my exploration of folk Christmas music will be up soon. In the meantime, though, please head on over to Dolores Dagenais's website so you can hear her beautiful music for yourself.


Site News: New sites in the search engine

It's been a while since I last posted anything here, so I wanted to give a brief update as to what's been going on with the whole Free Christmas Music project. The main news is that I've added close to a dozen sites to the custom search engine, and many of those sites contain complete albums available for download. I haven't yet added those sites to the complete list of sites on the website, mainly because I haven't had time to download and listen to all the new music yet. That should hopefully happen soon, though, and I am hoping to have another album spotlight posted here within the week.

I hope you regular readers have been finding this blog useful, and I thank you very much for continuing to read it. If there's anything else you think I could be doing with the blog and/or website, please take the time to post a comment below. Please also let me know if you know of any more free Christmas music that could be featured here. With just a month left before Christmas, the best should still be yet to come.


Album Spotlight: Hairy Larry - The Gift

It has been said that the mark of a truly great song is that it still sounds good when played on nothing but a single acoustic guitar. Just think back to the last time you gathered around a campfire with friends or family and someone brought along an acoustic guitar - all those old songs like "House of the Rising Sun", "Mrs. Robinson", and "Hotel California" still sounded great, and they were also a lot of fun to sing along with.

Some of the most timeless songs around are traditional Christmas carols - songs like "Silent Night", and "O Come All Ye Faithful". May of these songs are hundreds of years old, yet they continue to be heard around the world each year at Christmastime.

So what would happen if someone were to take some of these carols and arrange them for a solo acoustic guitar? For the answer, look no further than Hairy Larry's The Gift, which takes nine of the most popular Christmas carols of all time and presents them as arranged for a single acoustic guitar. These arrangements give us the most basic essence of each song, and the result is a stunning, truly beautiful work of art that will instantly appeal to any lover of Christmas music - or music, period, for that matter.

Please head on over to the Internet Archive's page for the album and download these amazing songs for yourself. After you've listened to them, why not leave a little review either in the comments below or on the album's page? You can also find out more about Hairy Larry at his own website.



Artist Spotlight: Jonathan Coulton

[Update: the link to "Christmas is Interesting" no longer works, but I found a live version that can be downloaded here.]

According to his website, Jonathan Coulton is "a musician, a singer-songwriter and an internet superstar". I first became aware of him last year when I came across a list of Creative Commons Christmas songs, which features a few of his songs: "Podsafe Christmas Song", "Christmas is Interesting", and "Chiron Beta Prime".
  • "Podsafe Christmas Song": Uh-oh, it seems that there are no podsafe Christmas songs for anyone to play! Will Jonathan and his friends be able to save Christmas by delivering a song that's safe to play?  You'll have to listen to this delightfully quirky little song to find out.
  • "Christmas is Interesting": Christmas is interesting / Like a stick in your eye / It's so freaking interesting / That it might make you cry says the chorus of this song, which looks at Christmas through the eyes of characters from stories like It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, and even Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Bittersweet and beautiful, this one has to be heard to be believed.
  • "Chiron Beta Prime": a Christmas greeting from the Anderson family, who have unfortunately been banished to an asteroid by the Robot Council.  More quirky humour along the lines of "Podsafe Christmas Song".
Definitely not your traditional Christmas carols.  If you're looking for some Christmas music that's a little (or maybe a lot) different, these songs from Jonathan Coulton would be a great place to start.  My favourite of the bunch is "Christmas is Interesting", with "Podsafe Christmas song" not too far behind.  What's your favourite?  Post a comment and let us know!


Album Spotlight: Allison Crowe - Tidings

[Note: as of October 2009, Tidings is no longer available for free from Allison Crowe's site.  This issue is currently being looked into.  In the meantime, the traditional half of the album can still be downloaded for free from Jamendo.]

Oh, have I got a treat for you tonight. As you may or may not have noticed in the comments for my last post, Allison Crowe's manager, Adrian, mentioned that there is more free Christmas music to be found on Allison's Tidings page. I checked that site out before heading to work today and was amazed to find that the entire album is available for download. I downloaded the songs onto my flash drive so that I could listen to them at work today, and I was simply amazed by what I heard.

The first thing that struck me, even before I had heard a single note, was the song selection. There are the traditional Christmas carols that one almost expects to hear on a Christmas album; songs like "Silent Night", "O Holy Night", "The First Noel". Joni Mitchell's "River" also makes an appearance; as this has become one of my favourite Christmas songs (even though it's not really "about" Christmas per se - but more on that in a later post), I was happy to have another version of it. Then there are some songs that have even less to do with Christmas, but more about "spirituality and redemption" (as the album's Wikipedia article states); among these songs are Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", Sarah McLachlan's "Angel", and a pair of Beatles songs, "Let It Be" and "In My Life". An intriguing lineup of songs, to say the very least - it looks like this is an album that can be enjoyed at any time of year.

After listening to the album, I am practically speechless. Just hearing this music has made me feel like I received an early Christmas present. I don't think my words could possibly do it justice, but I'll try to describe it as best I can; after all, if you've read this far it likely means that you want a little more information before heading over to her site and listening for yourself. Allison is clearly a very gifted performer. Her voice is so powerful that it sometimes seems to overpower the recording equipment; I can only imagine that seeing her perform live would be an unforgettable experience. She also accompanies her vocals with her own accomplished piano playing; most of the songs actually consist only of vocals and piano. It's nice to hear such refreshing arrangements of many of these songs. I think the real standout of the album is "Hallelujah", which she performs with a passion and intensity that is rarely heard in a cover version; she really manages to make the song her own. Some other highlights include "Angel", which features another powerhouse of a vocal performance; "O Holy Night", which is given an upbeat, jazzy treatment unlike any I've ever heard; and the a capella album opener, "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear".

Now, please go and check the album out for yourself. I'd love to know what my readers think about it, so please leave a comment here if you listen to it. Enjoy!


New Content: last.fm Christmas tag free downloads

[Update: as of September 2009, free Christmas downloads on last.fm can be found right here.  It's a more direct route than the way I described in this post.]
Last.fm is a social music website that allows users to add tags to artists, albums, and tracks. These tags can be based on any criteria a user desires; unfortunately, the tags are not moderated, making it possible for users to tag an artist like The Wiggles with things like "death metal" and "viking metal". In general, though, the tagging system works quite well, as the more users there are that use a particular tag on a particular item, the more prominent that tag will appear on the item's page.

The tag I'm interested in at the moment is, not surprisingly, the "christmas" tag. Open up that page, and somewhere near the top you should see a link that looks like this:

FREE Track Playlist (see all tracks)

Click on that link and it will open up a list of all tracks tagged with "christmas" that can currently be listened to, in their entirety, for free. Mostly this just means that they can be streamed on demand; however, there are almost always at least a few tracks that can be downloaded for free, as specified by the artist or record label (in other words, these downloads are completely legal). Currently, there are free "christmas" downloads available from Lisa Loeb, Allison Crowe, Irish, Marshmallow Coast, and John Conklin.

Note that, as I mentioned above, the tags are not moderated, so some of these "christmas" tracks may not in fact be Christmas songs at all. It looks like most of them definitely are, though, so go ahead and check out the last.fm "christmas" tag to add a few more Christmas songs to your collection.


Site News: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

The Free Christmas Music website has just had its first major layout update since it was first created last year. Among the changes:

  • There is now more than one page on the site

  • The custom search box has been relocated to the header of each page

  • The majority of the front page (i.e. the list of websites that are linked to from the site) has been relocated to a Browse page

  • A Search page contains more resources for searching

  • Links to this blog and my About Me page have been added to help tie everything together

All of these changes have been done with the goal of making the site easier to use. If you find that it is not easier to use, please let me know.

The next site update will likely be in the form of new content - i.e. new websites that have free, legally downloadable Christmas music. Yes, I have begun finding more such sites this year; I am currently checking them to make sure they are not just duplicates of material that is already on the site.