As a singer/songwriter or popular band, taking on holiday music can be a tricky venture. You’re pandering to a very defined theme and period of time that pretty much guarantees your efforts will go unnoticed 11 months out of the year. Plus, it presents two significant challenges: writing a decent holiday tune (not easy) or doing a decent cover of one (also not easy). Most efforts tend to fall short.
Take heart, for there are exceptions. Here are four albums that I suggest are worth your ear time this holiday season. The primary caveat: no compilation albums. They can be good, but I admire an artist or band that takes the challenge on in full and comes out on the other end smelling like a Christmas tree.
Sufjan Stevens, “Songs for Christmas”
The pitfall of nearly all forays into seasonal music is a canned, repetitive approach – simply playing the song straight through as it’s always been. Sufjan Stevens is a master at deconstructing a song and putting it back together in a way that adds a fresh new touch. A massive 42-track project, “Songs for Christmas” interweaves sacred and secular in a seemingly nonsensical manner that somehow works. Original tunes such as “Get Behind Me, Santa!” “Did I Make You Cry On Christmas? (Well, You Deserved It!)” and “Come On, Let’s Boogey To The Elf Dance!” will certainly get your attention and prove entertaining. The real gems of this album, though, are the covers. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” with duo pan flute and banjo, “Away In A Manger” and “O Holy Night” are worth a listen. But my absolute favorite is not even a true Christmas tune. Listen to “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” with earbuds if at all possible, and you’ll be treated to one of the finest pieces of recorded music you’ll ever hear.
Barenaked Ladies, “Barenaked for the Holidays”
It really doesn’t get any better than this. A beautiful mash-up of silly and serious, playful and meaningful. “Green Christmas” is the honest voice that cuts through the overly-hyped Christmas ho-ho-ho. “Hanukkah Blessings” brings a much-needed Jewish flavor to the season with a fun bassa nova feel. “Elf’s Lament” offers the cynical perspective of two of Santa’s helpers that will leave you chuckling long after the track has ended. And “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” could very well be the album’s pinnacle – a wonderful rendition that adds a little swing to a rhythmically monotonous tune. Sarah McLachlan’s beautiful vocals lend the perfect touch. As far as Christmas covers go, this has to be one of the best.
Michael W. Smith, “Christmas”
I took a trip back in time for this one. While I rarely engage my MWS catalog much anymore, this one surfaces every December. The production quality screams late 80s, but you honestly won’t find better arrangements of some holiday classics (“Silent Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” for example). The originals are also worth a listen. “No Eye Had Seen” teams MWS up with old buddy Amy Grant for a lovely tune where soaring strings provide the only accompaniment to their stellar vocals. And if you can listen to “All Is Well” from start to finish without getting goosebumps, you need to have your pulse checked. The album’s only real miss is “Gloria,” an overdone, Mannheim Steamrollerish version of “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Still, this album is a prime example of MWS’s musical prowess – in particular, the orchestral arrangements throughout. It’s dated, but worth a revisit.
Jennifer Knapp & Margaret Becker, “The Hymns of Christmas”
This was new to me, suggested by (not surprisingly) some Presbyterian pastor pals. An album of acoustic Christmas covers, Knapp and Becker do a tremendous job of playing the songs within their original construct… with just enough of a switch-up to keep things interesting. There are obvious Indigo Girls overtones from a vocal perspective, but let’s be honest – there are worse comparisons that can be made, right? “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” the lead track, sets the stage beautifully with its strong drop-D acoustic presence. “Angels We Have Heard On High” throws in a few extra chord progressions that keep things fresh alongside the beautiful chorus vocals. And “O Come All Ye Faithful” is sung with an air of urgency – which, if you think about it, is the way that song should be sung.
Honorable mentions (or, the Christmas gifts you didn’t ask for but got anyway)
Vince Guaraldi Trio, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” – This one is kind of a given in the same way Christians rarely mention the Bible as one of their top 10 books. Do yourself a favor and get the expanded edition of the album.
She & Him, “A Very She & Him Christmas” – I love Deschanel’s voice and have utmost respect for M. Ward’s musicality, but for some reason this album didn’t grab me like their other ones did.
Harry Connick Jr., “When My Heart Finds Christmas” – A little schmaltzy? Yeah. But some good tunes nonetheless. And the guy can flat-out sing and write songs.
So, these are some Christmas albums to serve as your soundtrack this year. Enjoy the journey!
When STEVE LINDSLEY is not being a pastor, or sermonizing, or songwriting/giggling, or keynoting/leading music for various retreats and conferences, or teaching Old and New Testament at his local community college, or blogging, or running and swimming and practicing yoga, or playing pick-up basketball with his two sons and letting them win, or watching music competition reality TV shows with his love wife, it probably means he’s sleeping. Follow him on Twitter at @slindsley. Visit his blog.