On the Outside Looking In
Wide Angle Radio (Episode Nine): God With Us

For Christmas Listening

Moody Whenever Christmas comes around each year, I dust off the old CDs with a mixture of resignation and anticipation.  I really want to like Christmas music, but the fact is that many of the albums I have bought for Christmas go unplayed.  Very few albums hold up to the test of time.  Rather, I find myself making my own playlist, selecting songs from here and there.  Time allowing, I'll post my own playlist of favorite Christmas songs, but for now, I'll simply provide a list of CDs that I most listen to around the Christmas season.

This list is actually the same one I posted last year. I have listened to many of the new Christmas albums released this year, and yet not a single one will make this list.  So this list is actually the same one posted last year, with my occasional 2009 comments in italics.  I hope you enjoy some of these.  Click on the titles for most and you'll be taken to a site (usually Amazon) where you can listen to samples.  Enjoy!

  • 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 back in print after being out of print for some time, the rights purchased by Art Garfunkel.  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 ever ever get tired of.  If you are ever in Black Mountain, NC, visit Jerry's music shop, Song of the Wood.
  • 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.  Both Spears and Michaels live in NC and, while they had one release of original music after this record, nothing matches the originality of this recording.
  • 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. The focus of that song on Kosovo dates it a bit!
  • Songs for Christmas -- Sufjan Stevens -- This is a huge favorite released in 2007 by this popular indie songwriter, 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. And I have.  It has an enduring simplicity.  Just when you think no one can bring a fresh take to a carol or hymn, along comes this record.  I find "Holy, Holy, Holy," moving and worshipful, and I don't know why his version of it is so arresting. For this one, buy the box, as the packaging is half the fun. 
  • 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, so it generally extends throughout the winter. 
  • O Holy Night -- Sara Groves -- New last year, Groves 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. Just a plug --- her just released record, "Fireflies and Songs," is excellent.
  • Come Darkness, Come Light: Twelve Songs of Christmas --  Mary Chapin Carpenter -- 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.
  • Christmas -- Alathea -- This female duo, with its Appalachian-infused melodies, have become local favorites around here.  This record, released last year, has some great takes on carols and some original tunes as well.  Think of the pop side of Allison Krauss.  Add humor. 

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. 

Oh, I should mention that one of my favorite artists, Sandra McCracken, has a new Christmas song out for free, a rough mix of a cut of her new (and very eagerly anticipated) hymns project.  You can get it below.