Musical Genre of the Month: Freak Folk

It seems like some rock critic coins a new genre every other week -- and indeed, a quick spin through my iTunes playlist, sorting for genre, reveals all manner of genres I've never heard of, much less realized I liked, but which are nevertheless well-represented in my music collection, like acid punk (MC Paul Barman), art-funk (Les Savvy Fav), Americana-folk (Bonnie "Prince" Billy), dream pop (Ambulance LTD) and emo-core (Pedro the Lion). So usually when I hear terms like these, I ignore them -- until I heard about five bands I really like all referred to by the same unusual moniker: "freak folk."

What's freak folk? Well, it's mainly acoustic, draws from traditional folk but adds eclectic vocals and all manner of instrumental experimentation (hurdy-gurdies and toy xylophones show up a lot). It borrows a little from the 1960s summer of love aesthetic, but not so much that you'd get an old-school hippie and a freak folker confused (musically or otherwise). I think the best way to get a handle on a genre is to hear it, so without further ado, here are some of my favorite freak folk musicians.

Devendra Banhart is considered by many to be one of the movement's godfathers, and besides being early on the bandwagon, one look at this video will show you why.

Harp-playing, pixie-ish Joanna Newsom, in her flowing dresses and with her eclectic voice, is another poster child for freak folk. It's hard not to be charmed by songs like this:

Unlike our first two acts, Mumford & Sons is an English band, and perhaps a bit less eccentric, but they got heart, kid.

Sufjan Stevens is an old favorite of mine, and has sort of been grandfathered into the genre because of his cool voice, unique song structures and reliance on mostly-acoustic (and sometimes exotic) instruments. It's hard not to feel strongly, one way or another, about this song.

Animal Collective isn't particularly acoustic, but they're definitely psychedelic.

Akron/Family, another unusual Brooklyn band.

Bowerbirds seem to channel a kind of gypsy carnival / Tom Waits vibe.

In reference to this video, a commenter on YouTube wrote "Holy *&^%, when did heaven start a band?!" I concur.

Have you discovered any new genres lately?

Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album

Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.


More from mental floss studios