Christmas time 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 this 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."
- Noel -- Various Artists -- This 1995 Via Records release (now long out of print, and Via long gone) was a Steve Hindalong and Derri Daugherty project. In addition to them, the cool current or former CCM artists on this record include Buddy and Julie Miller, Riki Michele, Kevin Smith, Brent Bourgeois, and Carolyn Arends. One original, 10 classics. Beautiful.
- 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.
- The Best of Amy Grant: The Christmas Collection -- Amy Grant takes the prize for the most Christmas albums by a CCM musician, a total of three. I like the first, Tennessee Christmas, the best, but it's hard to find. This album collects the best.
- Light of the Stable: Emmylou Harris -- 1975? This one's getting some age, but if you don't mind the country-twang, this album is enjoyable. I like it because country songs remind me of home, of growing up, and that's a big part of Christmas.
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.