To be quite honest, there is not a lot of Christmas music that I enjoy. I enjoy singing the traditional hymns and carols in church, but I easily tire of what you hear on the radio or of most attempts to contemporize traditional melodies. It's difficult to recommend many albums as a whole, while some single songs may stand out. Nevertheless, I will endeavor to make some recommendations. . . tomorrow.
Today, however, I commend to your listening Sufjan Stevens' new box set, entitled Songs for Christmas. Sufjan, a Christian, has become a favorite of the college crowd with his DIY (do-it-yourself) records, low-fi style, and mix of several styles, from banjo-plucking folk, to alt-rock, to some Arabic sounding flute music. And that's just for starters. Classically-trained, Sufjan plays most of the instruments and often records at home. His label, Asthmatic Kitty (named after Sara, what else but an asthmatic feline?), is home-grown, run by his uncle out of Lander, Wyoming, about as far from the music business as you can get. So, he's absolutely outside the mainstream, and yet he's enjoying some serious success.
While the banjo-plucking songs begins to grate after a while, this home-spun set of tunes really warms to you and evolves, as each EP represents a different year. (Sufjan did each as a Christmas present each year to family and friends.) He mixes traditional hymns and carols with a number of peppy originals with names like "Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance!" and "Get Behind Me Santa!" and a few instrumentals -- for a total of 42 tracks. He manages to take traditional songs like you might hear in the shopping mall and may have grown weary of and sing them his own unique way, giving them a freshness that appeals. All in all, this record has the feel of a family gathering and singalong. In fact, it's prominently billed as a "Singalong" and the 40-page Songbook that is included has all the words and chords included. Hey, you can have your own singalong!
But that brings me to the best part -- the packaging. First, this is actually a full-color box with five individual EPs, each in their own sleeve, with each disc bearing a different color label and looking like a 45 rpm record (if you're old enough to remember them). There's also a sheet of Christmas stickers, a Christmas story by Rick Moody, original and funny artwork, an animated video, and a full-color comic strip like story by Tom Eaton. Funny too. A bit of fun poked at Sufjan. It's an amazing package that all you downloaders are really missing.
Two things bother me. First, a little too much banjo-plucking and off-key singing, and yet this yields to a broader and more pop instrumentation later in the records. Second, a little too much incompleteness --- I sometimes have a sense with some songs that things are not done, that a thought needs finishing. Sufjan can write a good song. Rather than inserting some pieces of songs here and there, why not fill a record with the best? Nevertheless, I quibble. This is by far the best new Christmas record out there this season. In fact, it may make my Top 10 Christmas records of all time, but it may need some time before I am prepared to place it there.
Give it a listen. Singalong. Have a DIY Christmas, will you?