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Three albums for Christmas, featuring the sleeve covers of Wesselbobs by Bryony Griffith and Alice Jones, Glad Christmas Comes by Eliza Carthy and Jon Boden, and Solstice Wyrd by Yulatraktors (Lunatraktors)

3 Christmas Folk Albums

Gavin McNamara delves into three Christmas albums, each one entirely unique. From festive fireside favourites to the chill wind of a psychfolk winter.

There is, by all accounts, a thing called the “Three Gift Rule”, the idea being that you should only ever give a maximum of three gifts to anyone. Presumably, if it was good enough for a trio of wise men, it’s probably good enough for most people.

It seems as though, this year, the Folk Gods have decreed some sort of Three Gift Rule, too. There have been three brilliant Christmas folk albums released this yuletide, each one worthy of a place under your Christmas tree, each one satisfyingly different to the last. If you were to wrap them according to their contents then one would be opulent, glittering and gold, one would be wrapped in gorgeous hand-printed paper and one would be festooned with barbed wire made from fairy lights.

Eliza Carthy & Jon Boden, Glad Christmas Comes

The glittery, golden one is Eliza Cathy and Jon Boden’s Glad Christmas Comes. Tapping into the wassailing tradition, this is an album where the oldest spirits of Christmas are well and truly alive. Good cheer is spread and light is poured into the very darkest of days. It will come as absolutely no surprise, of course, that the tradition is expertly handled by these two. Not only are they two of the greatest modern interpreters of folk song, they’ve also known each other since way back in the days of the Ratcatchers. 

Glad Christmas Comes is not an album of forced jollity and aimless twinkly tat. It is bestowed with a more wintery air than that, something more thoughtful and reflective; less gaudy wrapping paper, more the reflections of a roaring fire on holly leaves. It starts with ‘Ashen Bowl‘, a song of drinking and wassailing dating back to around the 1700s. Carthy is in commanding form, her voice takes the lead with Boden providing the harmony. It is a slow, gentle start to the album that allows Carthy room to exercise her impressive vocal chords.  It is, perhaps, this aspect that is the most striking aspect of this album.

There’s a raggedness around Carthy’s voice, almost as though there’s some sort of elemental force that is battling to be let free. She has soul power.

Carthy’s vocal on ‘Beautiful Star’ edges close to a Folk Gospel, the choir ably bolstered by both Emily Portman and Tim Van Eyken. The power that she brings is quite extraordinary, there’s a raggedness around her voice, almost as though there’s some sort of elemental force that is battling to be let free. She has soul power. On ‘In the Bleak Midwinter‘, she pitches her voice at precisely the right level, cresting the brass band that opens it before sweeping all before her, like some sort of imperious snow queen. What might be a hackneyed Christmas selection becomes a vital piece of winter celebration. Equally, the arrangement for ‘Shepherds Arise‘ creates a beautiful juxtaposition between the religious aspects of a carol and Carthy’s earthy, honest exhortations. She is the one that reminds you that the Yule traditions go way back, before Christians co-opted so many customs.  There is a depth to everything she does.

Boden, of course, is no slouch either. He takes lead vocals on his own song, 2012’s ‘The Good Doctor’, and sings of princes and dragons, of plays and players. It is a carnival of mummery, buoyed by Yorkshire’s Backstage Brass ensemble. This is Christmas through the lens of a magical afternoon out at the theatre – wildly joyous and just a tiny bit shabby around the edges (in the best possible way). ‘I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas’ is also full of theatricality. A novelty record from the 1950s, it is a musical hall confection that hints at something altogether more serious. The preposterous notion of wanting an enormous water-dwelling mammal for Christmas is, of course, an attack on commercialism. Probably. Whatever it is, it ends with a marvellously drunken, New Orleans-inspired brass procession, the tuba a lumbering hippo while every other instrument blows a salacious raspberry to the whole notion of greed and want. 

Amongst all of the old songs, the new songs and the obscurities, Glad Christmas Comes has, at its heart, some of the loveliest renditions of seasonal favourites that you’re likely to hear this year. ‘The Holly and the Ivy‘ is icily magnificent, the fiddles pulling against one another as the voices entwine until it edges towards a Christmas mania at the end. ‘I Saw Three Ships‘ brings considerable joy as Boden and Carthy harmonise and join the brass in a tremendous sing-along, the fiddle, finally, breaking loose for a proper dance. ‘Jingle Bells‘ is taken at a slower pace than you might expect with an avian fiddle to start; a lone bird looking out across a wintery sky. It is only when the fiddle takes on an almost Grappelli-like feel that the song finds its traditional voice.  

Christmas would barely be Christmas without ‘Fairytale of New York’ and, this year, it seems even more poignant than ever. Boden and Carthy recognise that there is no point in replicating the MacGowan/MacColl original, so they slow things right down. Meditative fiddle and concertina match Boden’s tremulous voice while Carthy spits the lyrics with venom until some redemptive brass swells at the end to take us safely into the new year. 

Bryony Griffith & Alice Jones, Wesselbobs

A small step away from the golden depths of Jon Boden and Eliza Carthy, Bryony Griffith and Alice Jones have created something that is far more homespun, far more comfortable.  Wesselbobs is a brand new collection of wintery songs from their beloved Yorkshire. Bursting with traditional gems and local versions of old favourites, it is a mouth-watering homemade mince pie filled to the brim with treats.

Early Pearly‘ was originally released in 2022 as a charity single and, here, it is the start of a wonderfully northern Christmas. A traditional song that was sung door to door, it acted as a means of securing a little bit of Christmas cheer. It does much the same here. Griffith’s fiddle is upbeat and sprightly while Jones’ rhythmic harmonium would make even the greatest curmudgeon throw open his door and share some common comforts. The two voices harmonise beautifully, as if they were built for one another.  

If there is any truth in the rumour that Hogmanay is a Yorkshire thing then this, surely, is the atmospheric antidote to mindless excess

Nowhere is this more obvious than on the unaccompanied ‘Hagman-Heigh’. An absolutely gorgeous highlight of a lovely album, it is pieced together from various sources. Partly from Yorkshire but with a tune that originates from Scotland, the celebration of food is palpable.  Bacon, eggs, butter and ale pile up all around, creating a vast throne upon which these two sit and regale us with tales of a deliciously old-fashioned, slightly spooky, folkie wintertime.  If there is any truth in the rumour that Hogmanay is a Yorkshire thing then this, surely, is the atmospheric antidote to mindless excess.

‘I Traced Her Little Footprints in the Snow’ is, possibly, best known as a bluegrass tune popularised by Bill Monroe. This version of Harry Wright’s 1876 song owes a debt to Walter Pardon, Frank Hinchcliffe and George Belton. There is, however, something oddly disquieting, strangely snowbound about it. While the guitar and fiddle give it a jaunty edge there’s no denying the faintly stalker-ish quality of the words. If this is romance then it’s a suffocating one, one that all of the beautiful fiddle playing in the world won’t make right.  

As with all of the best festive celebrations there is, of course, some jollity to leven the awkwardness. ‘Change for a Guinea (The Christmas Goose)’ is the tale of a merry huntsman who gets his comeuppance after some Chrtistmas exuberance. His is a dish served by the serving maid that he took advantage of the previous year. It is light-hearted and has “not a thought of wickedness”, just some fabulous fiddle playing and wondrous harmonies. The song ends with ‘The Christmas Tale’, a tune taken from the collection of 19th-century fiddle player Joshua Jackson. It fairly jigs away, spinning off into the corners of the room. ‘The Tailor’s Britches’ is another “song of the North country”, and another one that is more than a little bit cheeky. A tune for dancing to set with words that have more than a hint of the fairytale about them. There’s such a feeling of unpolished, natural honesty here that it’s hard not to fall utterly in love with Wesselbobs.

Much like Boden and Carthy, Griffith and Jones take traditional Christmas songs and give them their own, particular, decorations. ‘The ‘Ollins and the Ivin’ is a familiar song made new with the Yorkshire dialect and a waltz time tune, collected in Huddersfield in the 1940s. The harmonies are, once again, exquisite, and the simple guitar and fiddle arrangement beautiful. Likewise, ‘Hark, How all the Welkin Rings’ makes you listen with entirely new ears. The tune is John Wesley’s original setting of ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’, and all gods and sinners are well and truly reconciled. Griffith’s fiddle is particularly lovely, although the vocal harmonies continue to be remarkable.

The final track on the album is ‘King Christmas’, a song from Keighley in the late 1800s which has, probably, never been recorded before. It is such a song that makes Wesselbobs a treat, as Griffith and Jones have dug into the traditions around Yorkshire to unearth such glittering gems. The harmonium and a plucked violin create a slow, snowy, magical wonderland; it is lush and filled with music box twinkles. You are immediately swept back to Christmases of your youth, full of wonder, and a cold, crisp, technicolour night. “Let’s try to live in harmony”, they sing, and if there’s one thing that Christmas should be, then it’s harmonious.

Of the three Christmas albums here, these first two are redolent of firesides and friendship, of harmony and happiness. The final one is not quite like that.

Yulatraktors, Solstce Wyrd

Yulatraktors (the festive alter-egos of broken-folk band Lunatraktors) describe Solstice Wyrd as, “like Mike Oldfield on Ketamine” and, quite frankly, it’s pretty difficult to argue.  They urge us to “stop shutting out the shadows” and, on this 13-track continuous mixtape, they have pried open the box and allowed all of the shadows to go screaming into the night. It is an album best listened to in the dark with your headphones cranked up nice and loud.

‘Brightly Shone the Moon’ is all twinkles, gongs, bells and tambourines. It is the start of a ritual, the entry point into the depths of something very dark indeed. It is the slippery steps into the subterranean sacrificial hall, Clair Le Coutour intoning, offering up chants and incantations. From here, there’s only one way that this quite extraordinary piece of music goes. It is huge, sprawling and wreathed in darkness, casting spells across vast tracts of desolate wasteland, listening to the messages from far-off galaxies. It is epic, ghostly and, occasionally, very strange indeed.

Just as the Coventry Carol heralds the Massacre of the Innocents, this is the other Christmas story, the one that leads to horror, away from hope.

‘Lully Lullay’ starts with two-voice droning, bereft and mournful. Entirely fitting, of course. Just as the Coventry Carol heralds the Massacre of the Innocents, this is the other Christmas story, the one that leads to horror, away from hope. ‘Field & Fountain, Moor & Mountain’ continues the journey into darkness with nothing but the bleep of a faraway satellite for company. ‘We Three Kings’ occasionally spins back through the drums and the whistles, like snatches of a fever dream as reality distorts horribly around you. Discordance. Disturbance.  

‘Horns & Hooves in the Dark’ threatens to “take you on a magical journey”, but it’s probably a journey that you’ll embark on with some trepidation. It is thrilling and addictive – music that you never want to escape from, music that you want to surround you, music that you hope will take you off to whichever world it inhabits. ‘The Wolves Are Running’ (inspired by childhood BBC favourite, A Box of Delights) is a stuck music box, broken and creepy, messy and deranged; it is a one-legged tin soldier marching in circles, a pulse of manic twinkles. It seems to laugh at you as ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ can be heard from a passing car. 

By now you are lost in this alternative, wintery world. ‘The Time of the Year’ is forced jollity reaching woozily through a grimy window. ‘The Howling’ is the thrum of snowmelt on a roof; a pre-Covid audience howls somewhere just out of earshot as something terrible and huge comes baying at the door. There are no gaps – no chance to breathe – all you can do is go with it. Let Yulatraktors bundle you into the back of their sleigh and whisk you ever onwards.

Finally, the distortion and dissonance lessen. ‘Let Your Heart be Light’ is almost jazzy, ‘Have Yourselves a Merry Little Christmas’ seems to be played through a malfunctioning Stylophone – a piano holds the tune together while it, and you, fall apart. And then, towards the end of ‘Once Again as in the Olden Days’, peace settles. There’s the trickle of water, the crunch of snow, tinkling bells. Is this, you begin to wonder, where we came in?  

If the Three Gift Rule is something that you intend to pursue this year then this collection of Christmas folk albums is almost everything that you need – each one different but each beautifully summing up an aspect of the festive season. Only you know which one will still be with you as January rolls around.

Click the links to order yourself these three Christmas folk albums: ‘Glad Christmas Comes‘, by Eliza Carthy & Jon Boden, ‘Wesselbobs‘ by Bryony Griffith and Alice Jones, or ‘Solstice Wyrd‘ by Yulatraktors.