This year I'm updating my list of Christmas music suggestions, adding a few new ones. Christmastime poses some difficulty for me musically, in that I find so few Christmas albums that I like. Most records are uninspiring rehashes of the same carols, hymns, and other Christmas songs. Some artists have managed to take the familiar carols and add a depressing note to them, and I'm not in favor of that. I may find one or two songs I like, but on the whole albums tend to be inconsistent affairs. Instrumental albums fare about the same. If I hear one more Windham Hill Celtic Christmas record. . . well, I've had enough of those for a while. Really, what I cherish is music that is Christocentric, authentic, and original (meaning fresh and timeless arrangement of familiar songs or new songs).
I've tried to consider what my ten favorite Christmas albums are, the criteria being whether I listen to them every year. In fact, one mark of a good Christmas album is that you want to listen to it all year, not just at Christmas. Here's my ten:
- The Animals Christmas -- Art Garfunkel, Amy Grant, and Jimmy Webb -- The voices of Amy Grant and Art Garfunkel, the writing, arranging, and production of Jimmy Webb, and the background vocals of the Kings College Choir bring alive a beautiful legend focused on the animal's perspective surrounding the birth of Christ. This is out of print, but new and used copies can be found on ebay or amazon. It's consistently good, and not like anything else I have ever heard.
- One Wintry Night -- Jerry and Lisa Smith -- Instrumental versions of classic Christmas carols and three original compositions inspired by Ruth Bell Graham's Christmas story of the same name. Jerry plays hammered dulcimer, Lisa flute. It was produced by Jeff Johnson, who also adds keyboards and various Celtic instruments. The title cut is one of those songs that I never get tired of.
- Winterfall -- Lee Spears and Donna Michaels -- Once again, instrumental, hammered dulcimer and piano, but this is, like One Wintry Night, not standard fare for such records.
- Come Rejoice -- Judy Collins -- Mostly traditional songs sung in a traditional way, but she pulls it off with a great voice. The addition of "Song for Sarajevo," though it adds a blue note, is a plus. It's a beautiful song.
- Songs for Christmas -- Sufjan Stevens -- This is a new favorite released last year, and one that grows on me in its lo-fi authenticity and campfire like singalong style. It's moving. And it's Christ-centered. And I think I'll listen to it every year.
- Christmas -- Bruce Cockburn -- Canadian singer-songwriter Cockburn brings some original arrangements to Christmas carols, some little sung jewels, and one original. My favorite: "Mary Had a Baby."
- December -- The Moody Blues -- Call them prog-rock or orchestral rock, but these guys have been around. They bring classic vocals and harmonies to classic songs, and a couple originals. It's playable beyond Christmas.
- Sara Groves -- O Holy Night -- New this year, Grove's gives original carols some new twists and pens a number of great original Christmas songs. She's a refreshing alternative to the usual CCM fare.
- Mary Chapin Carpenter -- Christmas -- This country-folk staple sings mostly original songs, so if you're looking for recognizable Christmas favorites, this is not it. But I like the new songs and tire of the same carols at times.
- Alathea -- Christmas -- Folks that I know rave about the new CD from this female duo, with its Appalachian-infused melodies. I'm a big fan, so as soon as I set hands on it, I know I will like it too.
Well, I'm not saying these are the best, but they are what I'm finding myself listening to. . . this Christmas, and for many of the past Christmases. My kids like Trans-Siberian Orchestra. All I can think of when I hear them is big guitars and big hair. It's over the top, with no subtlety. I'll stick to the quieter things for the season and save the big guitars for the New Year. Happy listening!