I’m a big fan of good Christmas music, and I’m of the opinion that there’s a plethora of recordings that fall into this category. There’s a far bigger plethora that doesn’t, of course, so you have to be pretty choosy about what tinselly tunes you choose to listen to.
I buy at least one new Christmas album every year, and I’m constantly tinkering with my iTunes Christmas playlists to keep things fresh and interesting. As an amateur Christian musician and a self-described music connoisseur and musicologist, I thought I’d offer some pointers to folks who want to get more out of their Yuletide listening experiences.
- Don’t be afraid to buy local. Two of my all-time favourite Christmas records came from independent Calgary artists: Tim Tamashiro’s Love at Christmas, and the Holy Trinity Band’s Christmas Presence. (By the way, I am currently the co-leader of this band, but I wasn’t even a member at the time this disc was recorded. It truly is a fantastic record, and I would urge you to buy it even if every purchase of it didn’t put money into my church’s collection plate. Check it out on iTunes at: http://itunes.apple.com/ca/album/christmas-presence/id381010080?ign-mpt=uo%3D4)
- Avoid Shine FM. For reasons that defy explanation, Calgary’s Christian rock station puts its Christian-only music format on hiatus each December, and plays absolutely anything that pertains to winter – seemingly with no regard to the songs’ overall quality. (You’re as likely to hear Bruce Springsteen butcher Santa Claus is Coming to Town or Crash Test Dummies mutilate The First Noel on this station as anywhere else during The Holidays. And while Amy Grant is a genuine Christian artist, her rendition of Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree won’t get you closer to either Santa or Jesus.) This is particularly maddening when one considers the enormous volume of high-quality, Christ-centred Christmas albums that have been produced over the years by actual Christian artists (See No. 4).
- Avoid Bing Crosby, Elvis and Burl Ives. Just because you grew up listening to Rosemary Clooney, Nat King Cole and Gene Autry doesn’t mean you need to feel obligated to spend one more second on them. Today’s artists have stood on the shoulders of these giants and outdone them. If these fogies truly float your boat, more fruitcake to you! But they represent the beginning of modern Christmas music, not the end of it, so feel free to leave them off your playlists.
- Embrace Christian rock. Many mainstream artists churn out Christmas albums in order to make a fast buck by riding on Santa’s coat-tails and paying lip service to the Saviour of Mankind. But paying homage to the King is the year-round bread and butter of Christian rockers like Michael W. Smith, Downhere, Barlow Girl, Big Daddy Weave and Chris Tomlin. Therefore, their yuletide discs are much more likely to be from the heart, and of high quality.
- Secular artists are sometimes good, too. For the reasons stated above, you have to be extremely careful with secular artists who make Christmas albums. For the most part, I enjoy non-Christmas music by Crash Test Dummies and Brian Setzer, but their talents don’t entirely translate to the Yuletide season. However, there are enough Colin Jameses and Sarah McLachlans to make this an area worth exploring. But tread carefully!
- If you like a song from a movie, buy the song – not the whole album. Trust me on this: less is more when it comes to Christmas music from Ray Charles, Chuck Berry and Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters. This is why God (through Steve Jobs) gave us iTunes.
- Don’t be afraid to retire albums you’re tired of. This is a tough lesson to learn, but it’s important. I’ve recently removed albums by B.B. King and Diana Krall from my Christmas playlist, and I’m toying with the idea of putting Tim Tamashiro out to pasture, too. The Christmas season is too short to spend it listening to songs you’re tired of.
In case you’re looking for specific suggestions on albums and/or songs that are worth buying, I thought I’d assemble a list of material – in no particular order – that are sure to put some eggs in your nog:
– Holy Trinity Band: Christmas Presence (Standout tracks: Angels We Have Heard On High, O Come All Ye Faithful, The Huron Carole, O Holy Night, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, O Come O Come Emmanuel)
– Downhere: How Many Kings (Standout tracks: How Many Kings, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Angels From the Realms of Glory, What Child is This. These songs may be the only ones worth buying from this album, but they’re now the definitive versions of these songs, in my opinion.)
– Big Daddy Weave: Christ is Come (Standout tracks: ALL. Particularly Joy to the World, Go Tell it On the Mountain, O Come O Come Emmanuel – the latter of which is completely refreshed in three-four time. Listen for an approximation of this tune at Holy Trinity this Sunday.)
– Chris Tomlin: Glory in the Highest (Standout tracks: Joy to the World, O Come All Ye Faithful, Angels We Have Heard On High, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Come Thou Long Expected Jesus)
– Barlow Girl: Home for Christmas (Standout tracks: Carol of the Bells, Hallelujah [Light Has Come], O Little Town of Bethlehem, What Child Is This, Angelic Proclamation, O Holy Night [this song is actually from WOW Christmas: Green, but it seems sensible to mention it here])
– Carolyn Arends: Christmas: An Irrational Season (Standout tracks: Do Not Be Afraid, Is Bethlehem Too Far Away, Now In Flesh Appearing, The Lord’s Servant, Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus, Come and See). This album deserves particular attention, because most of its best songs are originals, rather than traditional Christmas songs – a phenomenon nearly unheard of in Christmas music, in my experience.
– Colin James and the Little Big Band: Christmas (Standout tracks: ALL. But especially, Christmas Island, Baby It’s Cold Outside, Go Where I Send Thee)
– B.B. King: A Christmas Celebration of Hope (Standout tracks: ALL, or NONE. This album is a testament to consistency. It’s exactly everything you’d expect from a B.B. King Christmas album, which means after a half-decade or so, you might well grow tired of it. But what a half decade!)
– Sarah McLachlan: Wintersong (Standout tracks: ALL. This is, hands-down, my favourite Sarah McLachlan album. Her interpretations of What Child Is This, O Little Town of Bethlehem and The First Noel are paradigm-shifting. Great non-traditional tunes like River, Wintersong and Song for a Winter’s Night are also awesome, and Sarah’s version of the Charlie Brown tune Christmas Time Is Here (featuring Diana Krall) almost makes Krall’s entire Yuletide record unnecessary.)
– Tim Tamashiro: Love At Christmas (Standout tracks: The First Noel, You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch, Do You Hear What I Hear, What Child Is This)
– Barenaked Ladies: Barenaked for the Holidays (Standout tracks: Hanukkah Blessings, Do They Know It’s Christmas, Footprints, Deck the Stills, Christmastime (Oh Yeah), God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings [Featuring Sarah McLachlan], Elf’s Lament. An uneven disc with more than its share of phoned-in phoneys, but enough sugarplums to make it worth your while)
– Various Artists: O Santa, Where Art Thou (A Bluegrass Christmas Collection) (Standout tracks: ALL. They even do Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.)
– Barking Classics: The Classics (Yes, this is that album with dogs barking out the melodies of various Christmas and classical tunes. No Christmas playlist could ever aspire to be complete without these timeless versions of Jingle Bells, Deck the Halls, Hark the Herald, O Christmas Tree and 12 Days of Christmas. Seriously, the tracks are mercifully short, and if your iPod is on Shuffle, they’re a fun way to break up the Yuletide monotony.)
There you have it, folks. A nearly comprehensive look at all of the Christmas music I think is worth listening to right now. ‘But wait a minute, Baldy,’ you say. ‘Where’s the Bony M Christmas album?!?’
Peace be with you.