Covering Christmas songs is hard. Whether it’s a traditional carol or a modern standard, the song is often incredibly familiar to millions, so any changes will be noticed. With carols in particular, many people have been listening to them and singing them since they were kids. The listeners know these songs inside and out.
If there was ever a year to go ahead and start the Christmas music early, this might be it. Christmas music means it’s almost Christmas means 2020 is almost, finally, over. And what better way to get started than with everyone’s favorite Christmas song “Little Drummer Boy”!
In Pick Five, great artists pick five cover songs that matter to them.
Vermont singer-songwriter Henry Jamison addresses a difficult subject on his new album Gloria Duplex: toxic masculinity. “When I was in college 10 years ago, we were just horrible,” he told the New York Times on the subject. “People in their 20s are examining these issues in a way that feels very natural.”
Jamison’s gift with melody makes these weighty topics levitate. Nick Drake meets The National on these twelve songs, with Jamison working with major-league collaborators including St. Vincent’s right-hand man Thomas Bartlett on production and Bon Iver collaborator Rob Moose of yMusic arranging the strings. Hear a taste on single “Boys”:
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his talents, Jamison knows his musical history. It’s a rare musician at this point who doesn’t choose a single song anyone else has, but Jamison digs deep. No “Hallelujah” or “Hurt” here. He also continued confronting toxic masculinity at its worst, having to banish an R. Kelly cover we once also adored (not to worry, Henry’s substitute pick is great too). Let Henry introduce you to some new favorites below.
The Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight” has always stood apart from the standard Christmas songs playing on the radio and in stores around this time of year. The song feels very loose and raw, a sharp contrast to the typical seasonal fare. It’s also completely free of sleigh bells or gimmicks, instead driven by all the same musical elements found in most of The Band’s best songs. Claiming “Christmas Must Be Tonight” as your favorite Christmas song is like claiming Die Hard as your favorite Christmas movie: yes, it’s technically Christmas-related, but really it’s just a great standalone product.
Irish singer Ciaran Lavery wears his influences on his sleeves. His last album had a track called “Okkervil River” about hearing that band on the radio, and his new live set features a gorgeous cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia.” His emotive lilt might remind you of his countryman Glen Hansard (himself no stranger to great Bruce covers) and he more than does Springsteen’s tribute to AIDS victims justice.
Despite “Streets of Philadelphia” being arguably one of Springsteen’s best-known songs – certainly from the last few decades at least – the Boss himself doesn’t play it live too much. We’re grateful Lavery and his string quartet stepped in to fill the void with this beautiful version. Listen to it below, along with equally lovely covers of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from the same album.
We’ve already posted a couple bigger-name covers from this past weekend’s Northside Festival: Kacey Musgraves and Conor Oberst covering “Hey Good Lookin'” and Frankie Cosmos and Ava Luna covering Liz Phair and Serge Gainsbourg, respectively. But, like SXSW and CMJ, this Brooklyn festival is all about discovering the up-and-comers, the next generation of Kaceys or Conors. So we picked the five best bands we saw who we’ve never posted about, with a killer cover from each. Hear great takes on Billy Idol, the Beatles, a Christmas classic, and more below.