Christmas Albums 2011

It has been too long since I posted anything on this blog, and I do have a few posts brewing, but I will break my silence with a quick roundup of Christmas albums. I last did some reviews of Christmas albums back in November 2009, and to be honest not much new has come out. Here’s a few of my favourites though:

SojournA Child is Born
The latest Christmas album from Sojourn music, whose albums I always enjoy. I’ve not had a chance to listen to this one too much yet as it only came out today, but you can try before you buy at their bandcamp page. My only disappointment is that they felt the need to make this the ten millionth Christmas album to include yet another cover of O Come O Come Emmanuel. But I am pleased to see a few of their own compositions included, alongside their own quirky style giving the traditional carols a fresh flavour. A Voice is Sounding is a nice adaption of a fourth century hymn, and I did enjoy their blues version of Go Tell it on the Mountain.
Rating: ★★★★☆
SojournAdvent Songs
I know I mentioned this one last time, but it is worth repeating, as this remains one of my favourite Christmas albums of all time, also from Sojourn. It does feature a couple of traditional carols, but I like the fact that most are their own compositions. My favourite track is Amen, Amen, and they have produced a stirring transformation of What Child is This. Click the album cover for an Amazon link, or you can listen to the whole thing online at bandcamp. Yes, it too includes O Come O Come Immanuel, although their arrangement is one of my favourites so I will let them off.
Rating: ★★★★½
Bifrost ArtsSalvation is Created
The album starts off with a moody orchestral version of, you guessed it, O Come O Come Emmanuel. Nevertheless this is no ordinary Christmas album, with some really nice arrangements in a gentle folk style reminiscent in places of Sufjan Stevens, whilst others are more orchestral. Worth checking out for something different from the standard Christmas album fare.
Rating: ★★★★½
Vince Guaraldi TrioA Charlie Brown Christmas
Not a Christian themed album, and not a new release, but this goes down in my book as a real classic, featuring the delightful jazz piano of Vince Guaraldi. My favourite tracks are O Tannenbaum and Greensleeves. My Drum is cute when you first hear it, but becomes a little annoying after a few listens.
Rating: ★★★★☆
David Crowder BandOh For Joy
After really enjoying their Illuminate album, I haven’t found the David Crowder Band’s later material to be too appealing. But I was interested to how what the unique David Crowder style would work with Carols. The results are mixed, and to be honest I was disappointed that there seem to be no new songs. A bluegrass version of Angels we have heard on high doesn’t quite do it for me. And guess what, it features O Come O Come Emmanuel and O Holy Night.
Rating: ★★☆☆☆
Phil WickhamSongs For Christmas
Phil Wickham is one of my favourite Christian artists, so a Christmas album from him is always welcome. This one is available for a bargain £3.99 on, and mostly features covers of traditional carols, but played in his style. This works particularly well for The First Noel. And yes, like everyone else, he has covers of O Come, O Come Emmanuel and O Holy Night. I could have done without Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas but overall this is a nice Christmas offering from Phil Wickham.
Rating: ★★★½☆

One I would steer clear of is Best Christmas Carols Album in the World … Ever. With a title like that you can be sure that it isn’t. Do let me know in the comments any good Christmas albums I have missed.

Spotify Albums of the Month – Nov 2009

It’s time for a bumper Christmas special. The good news is that there so much Christmas music on Spotify that you could play carols non-stop through the 12 days of Christmas without having to hear the same album twice. The bad news is that most of it’s not worth listening to. Most albums seem to include at least a few of the following:

  • Tired, overwrought regurgitations of the same old carols, barely indistinguishable from every other album also featuring O Holy Night and O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
  • Intolerably twee songs about Santa, snow and stockings
  • Woeful attempts at modernising carols by performing them in heavy metal, polka, bluegrass, hip hop, and every other genre utterly unsuited to Christmas music.

But after wading through sackfuls of seasonal offerings, here’s my guide to the mountains of Christmas music on Spotify…

Chris Tomlin – Glory in the Highest (2009) (Listen on Spotify)

This recent release features a mix of traditional and modern songs, with a live worship feel. Angels We Have Heard on High works really well. He offers a new take on the magnificat with My Soul Magnifies the Lord. He sometimes breathes new life into carols with an alternative chorus or verse melody. After an upbeat start, Glory in the Highest marks the start of some more reflective songs, including a few guest appearances from other worship leaders. The closing track, Born That We May Have Life sounds like belongs in a Christmas musical production. Christianity Today complained that they didn’t like the live worship style, but I thought it made a nice change from most other Christmas albums.

Rating: ★★★★½

Casting Crowns – Peace on Earth (2008) (Listen on Spotify)

Mostly traditional carols, nicely performed of course, but that isn’t enough to make this one stand out from the crowd, despite getting off to a good start with I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. While You Were Sleeping is the most interesting on offer, starting off as a reworking of O Little Town of Bethlehem, before bringing in a prophetic edge (spoiled by dispensational left-behind overtones). The album closes with a instrumental piano & strings rendition of the beautifully mournful O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Jars of Clay – Christmas Songs (2007) (Listen on Spotify)

Having enjoyed several of their other albums, I was a little disappointed to see that they succumb to seasonal sentimentality with tracks like Wonderful Christmastime. Musically though, they keep things a bit more interesting than most, with the traditional carols they choose getting major overhauls. My favourite is Love Came Down At Christmas.

Rating: ★★★½☆
Sara Groves – O Holy Night (2008) (Listen on Spotify)

Another one that lets a bit of sentimental mush sneak in, including a small child reading the Christmas story in a cute voice. Groves offers some new tunes to It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and O Holy Night. Apart from the irritating Toy Packaging, this was a pleasant listen.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Michael W. Smith – The Ultimate Christmas Collection (2009) (Listen on Spotify)

This three disk special provides plenty of material to provide a soothing backing track to a leisurely Christmas dinner. It sounds like a Christmas movie soundtrack, with piano and plenty of full-on orchestral crescendos. We are spared no cliché, including choirs of children and plenty of jingling bells. These are rounded off with a generous helping of musical interludes and orchestral renditions. If Disney were to make a “Magic of Christmas” album, this is what it would sound like.

Rating: ★★★☆☆
Sufjan Stevens – Songs for Christmas (Listen on Spotify)

A collection of five short albums, featuring mostly traditional songs, but played in Stevens’ distinctively folksy style. We are treated to several short instrumental extracts, as well as full length songs. There is a good number of classic carols and even hymns (such as Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing), in addition to a selection of more light-hearted Christmas tunes such as Get Behind Me Santa. This collection would benefit from being pruned down a little, especially as a number of songs feature twice across the five disks.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Graham Kendrick – The Gift (1988) (Listen on Spotify)

Overlooking for a moment how dated this sounds, it is apparent that this is a landmark production from one of the UK’s most respected song-smiths. Rather than fobbing us off with an album full of traditional carols, Kendrick has crafted almost 20 fresh Christmas songs. OK, some of them (actually, come to think of it, most of them), are really cheesy in a “Christmasy” kind of way. But what this album offers is an escape from the overly familiar lyrics of the traditional carols, allowing for some genuinely fresh light to be shed on the wonder of the incarnation.

Some highlights include a brief extract from his superb hymn The Servant King (a song which sadly seems to have fallen into disuse). Good News while being a little on the jolly side for modern tastes, deserved to have been sung by more churches. God With Us, is my favourite track, with great lyrics exploring the way Christ identified with the human race through his incarnation.

Spotify’s version of the album is bundled with another of Kendrick’s Christmas albums, “Rumours of Angels” from 1994. It would be great to see some other CCM artists attempt similar projects, rather than churning out yet more covers of carols. Maybe Stuart Townend will oblige?

Rating: ★★★☆☆
Amy Grant – A Christmas Album (1983) (Listen on Spotify)

To my mind, Amy Grant is the queen of Christmas albums, having produced a series of successful seasonal releases over her illustrious career. Somehow, where others fail, she manages to pull off the Santa, sleighbells and snow lyrics without ending up in the kitsch category (or maybe I’m biased because it brings back happy memories of listening to this album as a 7 year old at Christmas). There are several Christmas albums from her on Spotify, but I have picked out her earliest, mainly because it features my favourites  Emmanuel, and Love Has Come.

Rating: ★★★½☆

And if all that isn’t enough for you, I must also point you in the direction of my favourite Christmas album, sadly not available on Spotify, but can be obtained for free from Noise Trade. It is Sojourn Music’s Advent Songs, and is well worth checking out.