Even though we are technically in the season of Advent, Christmas music is often the go-to genre for our personal listening. So we thought we’d give you the rundown of the significant releases this year. As a bonus we made a pick of the song we think would work well in a service of worship. Oh and we also added a couple of releases from Christmases past—just some music that deserves a second look this year.
Sticking to his practice of making music that is as much narrative as it is melody, Gray’s Christmas Stories is what it purports itself to be. Attentive listeners see through the eyes of Noel’s major and minor characters including the innkeeper, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men, even the incarnate Savior himself (as daring as that sounds, the “love song” of Christ to his bride is a very touching moment and a beautiful Christmas truth to behold). All of this is produced with an acoustic approach and a piano-heavy tone. Christmas Stories is quite a lovely—oftentimes spine tingling—offering that will refresh a season often infused with kitsch and cliché.
Top Song for Worship: “I Will Find a Way”
Christmas: God With Us
Electric guitars boogie with jingle bells while Camp’s signature growl graces some of our favorite Yuletide tunes in Christmas: God With Us. And though he kicks the release off with a fine near-Presley impersonation on “Jingle Bell Rock,” most of the songs are completely worship-oriented. Solid beats, a pop/rock production that keeps Camp’s pipes front and center, and a song list that takes no chances make this an easy pickup for fans or anyone looking for a new collection of favorites (and one added original).
Top Song for Worship: “God With Us”
We Have a Savior
This is the full fruition of the EP Hillsong released last Christmas season, and it is a welcome realization of what felt a little incomplete before. Fresh, expansive, and original-mixed-with-touches-of-tradition, this Christmas worship release is a shining example of the kind of Christ-centered creativity we have come to cherish from the Hillsong team. With a folky musical drive infused with beautiful melodic moments, this offering is both fun and reverent. Who says the two are mutually exclusive?
Top Song for Worship: “Born Is the King (It’s Christmas)”
Beautiful acoustic guitar and a haunting and hollow piano tone are the first musical touches you hear on Noel, Josh Wilson’s first foray into Christmas town. Last year Wilson released the single “Jesus Is Alive,” one of the best Christmas singles of 2011, and Noel is basically its permanent home, in quality and uniformity of sound. A true solo artist in the fact that the instruments on his records are played by him, Wilson is as talented as he is warm and welcoming—a sonic mug of mulled cider.
Top Song for Worship: “Christmas Changes Everything”
Mandisa gets the “Most Impressive Pipes” award this year. It’s something to hear her vocal power unleashing the songs of the season. Of course, with songs that are safe and a few that are more Christmas inspirational than they are worship-oriented, she seems to still have one foot wanting to swim in the mainstream while also dipping a toe in the Christian pond.
Top Song for Worship: “What Child Is This”
Steven Curtis Chapman
No less than seven original Christmas tunes, penned by Chapman, fill the 13-track list of Joy, Chapman’s third Christmas CD. Since acoustic roots-rock is the norm in 2012, Chapman leads the pack this year—he’s just pulling off what he’s always done, and he’s doing it well (sure, with a little more sheen than the average indie artist, but that suits Chapman). On Joy, Even the well-known songs are given fresh arrangements and sometimes, new lyrics. His “Joy to the World” is easily the best gift from any artist this season.
Top Song for Worship: “Joy to the World”
In Francesca Battistelli’s Christmas, things start off jazzy. Then we immediately step toward the Christmas-anthem sound, then we sidestep to a bit of lyrical fun set to a big band swing sound. You get the point; Battistelli traverses the seasonal genre’s typical landscape throughout her Christmas release—and she pulls it off without a hitch. Christmas classics are buoyed by new tunes that completely hold their ground, both in reverence and in merrymaking. You don’t have to be a Francesca follower to get enjoyment and enrichment out of Christmas, this is one of those rare releases that lives in its own holiday holy land—accessible to all with ears to hear.
Top Song for Worship: “You’re here” (for special music)
Christmas Music, Vol. 1
Wondering where to find a wide range of classic Christmas songs, fresh incarnation-oriented worship songs, and all of it surrounded by an indie/pop vibe? Christmas Music, Vol. 1 may be the place for you. Evan Wickham brings to the stage quirky (but not too) approaches to our cherished favorites. An extended “Gloria” gets a sweet melodic makeover in “Angels We Have Heard on High.” The classic hymn “The Maker of the Sun and Moon” gets a complete makeover consisting of subtle noise-rock, a beautiful piano drive, and a new name: “End of Exile.” And on “The Friendly Beasts,” we are treated to some small Wickhams adding their child-like voices to the stable song (their voices are child-like because they are … children). Wassailers with an alt-indie sensibility are wise to check out the Wickham offering this season.
Top Song for Worship: “What Kind of Child” (for liturgical dance or a dramatic presentation)
Joy to the World: A Christmas Collection
Guitars are first and foremost on Joy to the World: A Christmas Collection. And since it’s a Lincoln Brewster release we are talking about … they better be. But lest you believe this is a just a release of Christmas decorated guitar solos, rest assured: church bells, crackling fires, and rapper KJ52 are all present and accounted for. To listeners of pop-punk, 80s and 90s throwback arena-sound, and polished prog-rock, Joy to the World is for you.
Top Song for Worship: “Shout for Joy”
Christmas music reviews from years past:
Christmas music is rare in the fact that it has a much longer shelf life. Take a look at these releases from the past couple of years that we still think are worthwhile pickups this season.
Best known for their 19th century classic hymnwriting style and blended with the cadences and tones of Irish folk, the Gettys’ Joy is Getty-styled. Filled with Christmas hymns from the Church’s history and a few new ones co-written with Stuart Townend, Joy is a top pick for both personal and congregational worship.
More: While there is nothing new about Celtic Christmases and seasonal hymns, the Gettys blend the two for the purpose of worship with a beautiful result.
Less: Joy could have ventured even further into the realms of Irish folk with greater variety in instruments.
Sticking to the folk-country-rock style, Hill’s earthy vocals burrow through the depths of our cherished hymns (and four new ones) to reveal the heart of the season. Christmas Back to You is rich, nuanced Christmas music with backbone and heart.
More: Hill is able to set playful moments next to ones with spiritual and emotional weight and have everything feel authentic.
Less: At 27 minutes, it’s too short.
Evoking a mixture of such nonpareil artists as Andrew Bird and Rufus Wainwright, Wickham’s vocal style was created for Christmas. His voice is the instrument here that makes the rest of them insignificant. Yet we still get guitars, keys, angelic-sounding choirs, even a banjo sprinkled in for good measure.
More: Vocal originality that seems to drip with passion brought to the songs of Christmas, Wickham catches your emotions with every quiet turn of phrase convincing listeners that he truly believes what he sings.
Less: Only one Wickham original song here.
A hodgepodge of SoCal artists throw their considerable talents into the mix and produce a unified, Yuletide folk-rock hidden gem. Though it won’t garner the most hype this year, A Christmas Together II is the gift you owe yourself.
More: A community of artists/worship leaders offering holiday hymns with a relaxed guitar drive and enough production diversity to keep listeners engaged.
Less: Just because we have to write something here, the “We Are the World” feeling on the opening collaborative track that opens ACT II feels a little silly. But it also makes the whole thing a little more endearing, so we’ll call it a wash.
ADVENT CHRISTMAS, VOL. 2
Future of Forestry
If you are looking for an indie shoegazy sound sans jingling bells and jolly vocalists, ADVENT CHRISTMAS, VOL. 2 would be your cup of cider. Filled with wintry passion and beautiful keyboard soundscapes, the FoF team creates a Coldplay-esque Christmas symphony out of our favorite holiday hymns. There is also an obvious Sigur Rós infused slow-broil to the tracks which works beautifully in many places. The only place where the overall approach gets a bit tedious is when you are singing what could be our most celebratory hymns … in a minor key and a slowed tempo. Still, the beauty of the release surpasses the flaw, and it’s worth the pick-up if you are looking for Christmas carols with less kitsch and a more alternative artful rendering.
SONGS FROM JACOB’S WELL, VOLUME III, “SONGS FOR THE ADVENT CONSPIRACY”
Mike Crawford and His Secret Siblings
One part free-verse folk ramble, a tiny part jazz-funk, one part criticism of the consumeristic Christmas that we are all pretty much guilty of joining, Volume III, “Songs for the Advent Conspiracy” is the left-of-the-dial must buy this year. If you like the discordant yet tuneful nature of Modest Mouse, the unique vocal approach of The Decemberists, the truth-revealing poem rambles of Conor Oberst, and the group-sing disregard for pop-music laws of Arcade Fire, this one is for you. If you never heard of said artists, then Mike Crawford and His Secret Siblings will likely be a bit of a mystery. Still, with a dream-like wandering nature, 90 percent new and original material, a theological tie to the redemption of the world, and a reiteration of the cry of the Israelites, “Oh come, oh come Emmanuel,” this is a Christmas CD that needed to be made. Make sure to give a listen to the “The Woman at Jacob’s Well.” With a not too subtle nuance of God’s Amos 9 criticism of empty worship, this song encourages us to simply drink deep of Jesus during this season that usually has us off shopping, party planning, or writing emails. Simply drink deeply of Jesus. Isn’t that the reason for all the seasons?
A Brooklyn Tabernacle Christmas
The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir & Guests
Brooklyn Tabernacle brings an album that encompasses all the sentimental, homespun warmth of a traditional Christmas, with the gospel truth of the incarnation and a strong declaration of faith. Some might be a little uncomfortable with “Baby Jesus came to earth from his home in heaven,” because in heaven he wasn’t a baby—but artistic license abounds at Christmas. We’ve got sleigh bells, lullabies, presents, Christmas trees, angels, and Emmanuel. It all fits with the musical style, which is more pop than gospel and a bit more solo artist accompanied by choir, than choir featuring a soloist. There are lush strings and orchestral flourishes, sometimes recalling soundtracks from vintage Christmas films, perfect for close listening or as a celebration backdrop. A medley that combines elements of all your favorite Christmas songs called “Christmas Joy” is a tour de force that would bring any congregation to its feet with Taranda Green, Brad Hudson, and Alicia Olatuja featured.
Love Came For Me
Discovery House Records
Shannon Wexelberg’s Christmas CD, Love Came For Me, rolls the clock back to a musical and production style reminiscent of the 1990s; the heyday of artists like Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, and Steven Curtis Chapman. And this is one of it’s greatest strengths—harmonically complex songs and full arrangements driven from the piano bench are a fresh contrast to the overdriven chimey guitars and straightforward modern rock arrangements that have been the status quo for Christian music the past few years. The glue holding the whole collection together is the warm, inviting voice of Shannon Wexelberg, who delivers the songs in a way that refreshes even the most familiar carols.