TORONTO — Folk-rockers Whitehorse spent years fending off pressure to write a Christmas song.
And yet every holiday season, the husband-and-wife duo would be circled by the head of their record label who wanted to rope them into making a holiday ditty. Radio would love it, they were told.
But for the longest time Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland weren’t convinced. They didn’t see the point of throwing another track onto the pile of disposable festive anthems.
“There are a lot of beautiful Christmas songs,” McClelland acknowledges before adding that she rarely plays any of them at home.
“You hear enough of it out in the world.”
Doucet winces as he reflects on one example that deeply scarred him — Paul McCartney’s 1979 track “Wonderful Christmastime,” which he says rings through the halls of department stores so interminably that he feels pushed to the edge.
So it’s not surprising that “A Whitehorse Winter Classic” feels less enthused about Christmas than a typical holiday album. The sobering nine-track collection offers a mixture of reflection, loneliness and bittersweet sentiment.
The album stands out this year amongst a considerable selection of Canadian artists who are tapping into listeners’ insatiable appetite for the holiday season.
No fewer than six homegrown acts have released full-length Christmas albums in 2018. That includes a jazzy effort from Serena Ryder, a country-fused release by Jess Moskaluke and carols and hymns by contemporary Christian musician Matt Maher.
There’s also Walk Off the Earth’s newest Christmas release and William Shatner’s quirky record “Shatner Claus,” where the “Star Trek” alum riffs on classics of the genre.
Whitehorse is easily the darkest spin on the yuletide season.
“It is an emotionally rich time,” McClelland said. “A time of nostalgia. And that can be a very complicated feeling of highs and lows, the good and bad.”
The band’s cover of the Pretenders’ downbeat “2000 Miles” marks one of the most familiar highlights, while the bouncy original “Ho Ho Ho” throws some pep into the story of a loved one who’s stuck at the airport, presumably on Christmas Eve.
“Merry Xmas, Baby (I Hope You Get What You Deserve),” carries a glaringly spiteful twist. Doucet describes the song as the Pixies meet The La’s with a sprinkle of inspiration from the “Kids in the Hall” theme song.
“If (the songs) are not about Christmas specifically, they will be evocative of some of the ways people feel,” Doucet says.
Making a Christmas album used to be one of the necessary steps in nearly every major artist’s recording contract — somewhere between their debut album and a greatest hits collection. The point was to goose sales over the holidays as shoppers tossed a CD into their carts while buying gifts.
Practically all of the biggest stars have done it at some point, including Canadian artists Celine Dion, Michael Buble, Justin Bieber and Sarah McLachlan, who’s released two holiday albums. But with CD sales flagging for years, Christmas songs have taken on a different value through streaming music platforms.
For a few weeks each year, performers in various music genres are lumped into official playlists across Spotify, Apple Music and other services, each one offering the possibility of exposing them to an array of new listeners — and potentially lifelong fans.
Overall, the quantity of Christmas music being streamed by Canadians is growing at a steady pace each year, according to Nielsen Music Canada. Last year, holiday music plays were up 30 per cent from 2016, which itself had grown 80 per cent from the year prior.
This year, holiday streams are up 42 per cent as more listeners put away old CDs and dive into collections like Spotify’s Christmas in Canada and Apple’s A Very Canadian Christmas.
Wes Marskell, drummer for indie rock pair The Darcys, knows a few things about the resonance of a Christmas tune. Two years ago, his band released a cover of Mariah Carey favourite “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” spiced with electronic beats, and it became a cult hit on streaming platforms.
Last Christmas, The Darcys returned to the holidays with the original ”Another Log on the Fire,” and watched as listeners added it to their playlist rotations en masse.
“People literally put a Christmas playlist on repeat all day, starting November 1st,” Marskell says.
“This is a time when people are just thirsty for Christmas.”
Walk Off the Earth’s Sarah Blackwood says chasing those listeners is one of the reasons her band released the six-track EP ”Subscribe to the Holidays.” It’s their third holiday album, and part of a tradition she says helps achieve the “ultimate goal” of scoring valuable real estate on playlists.
“The higher you get on a playlist… the more people are listening to your music,” Blackwood says.
“I just renovated a studio and the whole time I would just say: ‘Hey Siri,’ or, ‘Hey Alexa, play an acoustic covers playlist on Spotify.’ And there it is. It goes on and on, and you’re discovering artists.”
Like Walk Off the Earth’s famed YouTube videos — which launched them into the viral stratosphere with a cover of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” — the band’s upbeat Christmas album includes a number of songs that perfect for social media.
The reggae-fused “Happy Hanukkah” features radio favourite Scott Helman, while ”Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” showcases Blackwood’s five-year-old son on the vocals.
The band will take their Christmas spirit to a number of public platforms in the coming weeks, including Good Morning America and a series of entertainment talk show appearances.
Playing Christmas gigs is another one of the perks of a holiday album, says Serena Ryder. The singer dove wholeheartedly into the season with an appearance at Toronto’s Santa Claus Parade last year before stepping into the studio to record “Christmas Kisses.”
The project offered an avenue for Ryder to dabble in her dreams of producing a jazz album, a sound which takes shape on renditions of “Let It Snow” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” She’ll bring those songs to a number of concerts on the East Coast this month.
“I hope that doing this album means I get to do Christmas shows every year,” Ryder says.
“They’re such a joyful experience. Parents. Kids. All those things.”
Whitehorse is taking a comparably muted approach with their own ”A Whitehorse Winter Classic.”
They aren’t planning tour dates for the holidays, although they will appear in guest spots at other artists’ shows. That leaves their album to either organically land among the favourites of the season or disappear into the catalogue of Christmases past.
“If we’re wildly successful,” Doucet says, “then people will put it on every year. It’ll have a resurgence.”