The Christmas album market is a crowded one. Some people no doubt think there hasn’t been a good Christmas album since Frank Sinatra poured his last whiskey; others will be stuck on Mariah Carey’s contributions to the genre. Thirty years ago there was a great compilation called A Very Special Christmas that featured, amongst several marquee-name artists, Madonna singing ‘Santa Baby’. Quite a few American country music artists have their own Christmas albums, and Adam Brand and Lee Kernaghan have held up the Australian end of it.
It’s safe to say that none of these artists, or any compilations, have attempted to capture the zeitgeist of the year that preceded that particular Christmas, let alone captured it. Yet this is what has been achieved on the newly released A Merry Alt. Soul, which is an achingly wonderful and memorable collection of songs that would be a joy to listen to at any time of year but which provide the just-right mood for the end of this year.
A Merry Alt. Soul is the creation of Golden Guitar-nominated singer-songwriter Melody Moko and her husband, producer and musician Michael Muchow, and the compilation is, says Moko, ‘A celebration of Christmas cheer and woe, in a year polarised by both’. On the album several members of Australia’s alt-country community have contributed songs so that all proceeds can go to Support Act.
It is absolutely right and correct that this compilation features an acoustic version of ‘These Days’ by Fanny Lumsden. This is the song Lumsden wrote about the time between Christmas and New Year, an alt-Christmas carol in its own right. She released it towards the end of 2019, just in time for her ‘these days’ – then had to spend those very days being evacuated from her rural home in the Upper Murray region of New South Wales as a massive bushfire, one of so many over the end of 2019 and into 2020, closed in. If any one of the artists on this album embodies the contradictions of this year it is Lumsden, as she finishes 2020 with seven Golden Guitar nominations for Fallow, the album on which ‘These Days’ appears and which was released on ‘COVID Friday’, 13 March.
Apart from Lumsden, there is an absolute buffet of talented artists to choose from. Melburnian Lachlan Bryan – who has spent his two lockdown periods entertaining fans online with his Drunken Piano Bar – contributes a deceptively laidback ‘Boxing Day Blues’; Melody Moko performs a rich, compelling version of Dolly Parton’s ‘Hard Candy Christmas’; there is heartache in Hayley Marsten‘s cover of Paul Kelly’s ‘How to Make Gravy’, and Jen Mize absolutely honours Joni Mitchell with a captivating rendition of ‘River’. Catherine Britt contributes the original song ‘Blue, Blue Christmas’ and another Novocastrian, Natalie Henry, sets the mood with opening track ‘Please Daddy Don’t Get Drunk this Christmas’. Victorian Clint Wilson turns ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ into the country song it never knew it could be; Megan Cooper and her lovely voice appear on ‘To You, From Me’, and there are cracking tunes from Paddy McHugh (‘Old Men of the Railway Hotel’ and Kelly Cork (‘I Will’).
You may wish to buy this album from bandcamp – and it’s pay-what-you-wish starting at $1 – because that purchase will support a good cause. But it’s a case of ‘come for the good cause and stay for the excellent music’. This is such a great album. The artists involved have created something that is complex and cheering and heartbreaking and, ultimately, beautiful. It is not just an alternative Christmas album – in more than one way – but evidence of the richness of the Australian country music industry. That is worth celebrating, endorsing and supporting.