One of the nice Thanksgiving traditions in my household (followed more, I think for Zan’s benefit than mine) is that it is officially the first day it’s OK to play Christmas music around the house/in the car. As such, I spend a little bit of time browsing through my Christmas music, checking out the set lists I’ll be accompanying at church in the next month, and creating some play-lists for the car.
I also got to wondering what everyone else listens to in the way of music for this season in which we celebrate Christ’s birth (even though his actual birth date was more likely in September). In that spirit, I’m sharing some of my favorite songs/albums in the hopes you’ll share yours with me (including links to check them out, if available).
- Andrew Peterson: Behold the Lamb of God: By far, this is my favorite Christmas album, and it’s the only one that is exempt from the “Only between Thanksgiving and Dec. 25″ rule (above). BtLoG, itself, aside from a couple of instrumental pieces, is not traditional Christmas music, but is all set around the story of the coming of Jesus – from the birth of Moses, through the kings of Israel and the writings of Isaiah, and into the events told in the Gospels. In many ways, the music is one continuous 45-minute work that builds and tells a story, building on the emotion and yearning of the people involved. Andrew (and a number of Nashville musicians) travel each December, performing this piece, along with some of their own music. If they’re stopping near you, I’d highly recommend them! [If you're interested, you can also listen to the entire thing - legally - here.]
- The Chieftains: The Bells of Dublin: This is still a sentimental favorite of mine, as it was probably my first real foray into Irish music. Again, this is an album that flows almost as a single, integrated work. It has a number of traditional carols (both in English and Gaelic), along with a few new songs. As is often the case with the Chieftains, they have a number of guest singers/performers. My two favorites on the album are Burgess Meredith (yes, you read that correctly) narrating Don Oiche Ud I Mbeithil, and The Rebel Jesus with Van Morrison. Probably the only out-of-place song on the album is The St. Stephen’s Day Murders (with guest composer/vocalist Elvis Costello) – about unpleasant family gatherings – but it makes me laugh every time I hear it, so all is forgiven!
- George Winston: December: Even if you don’t know who George Winston is, chances are you’ve heard multiple songs from this album on TV, in movies or in stores during Christmas-time. This was probably one of the first Christmas CD’s I ever owned. It is all piano (no vocals), and it incredibly intricate (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve failed trying to pick out some of these songs on the piano). While December (the month) always seems to be hectic at work and at home, when I play December, everything slows down – which is just perfect. (PS: This is probably not ODM approved, as it kicked off Windham Hill records, which is the major publisher of “New Age” music – before “New Age” meant something bad. In reality, it is just simple folk music with a pastoral feel to it.)
- Michael W. Smith: Christmas and Amy Grant: A Christmas Album: While I realize that MWS and Amy Grant have a gazillion Christmas albums, it seems, their first ones are still my favorites (though they probably date me). Of all my Christmas albums, these two are so intertwined with where I was in life during the late eighties, that it’s hard to separate the music from the memories. As a student at Milligan College in East Tennessee, Grant’s Tennessee Christmas, in particular, still takes me back to one of my favorite places on earth at my favorite time of year. What’s more to like than that?
- Amy Grant, Art Garfunkel, Jimmy Webb: The Animals’ Christmas: Another one of my first Christmas CD purchases, The Animals’ Christmas (which is now out of print and only available for MP3 purchase) has a number of big name musicians providing a single-themed suite of music, all centered around animals experiencing the first Christmas. I like this as a Christmas Eve album, both for the themes and the varied styles – particularly the children’s choir. [One note - I am a Garfunkel fan, and Zan is not. If you're in Zan's camp, you probably won't like the album.]
Songs (not in the above albums):
- U2: Christmas (Baby Please Come Home): A song from the Very Special Christmas album (the only really good album in the series, produced to support the Special Olympics), this is U2 like you’ve probably not heard them before, covering the 1960’s tune by Darlene Love (who – interesting side-note – played Danny Glover’s wife in the Lethal Weapon series). This song is a “first week of December” song – loud, boisterous and soulful. Listening to The Edge, Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton as back-up “ronettes” just makes it all the more fun… (see above)
- Bebo Norman: The Rebel Jesus: Bebo covers the Jackson Browne classic (IMO) better than Van’s original (which is on my #2 album, above) as Christmas music. This is a song I’ve discussed in a full-length article, last year. This one is on my favorite list precisely because both the message and the music are so stellar (and spot on). As for Bebo vs. Browne? Bebo’s version has a bit of a smooth edge to it (and is slightly more enunciated) – which fits more with Christmas music – and Browne’s is more edgy (which fits the other 11 months of the year).
- Casting Crowns: While You Were Sleeping: Another song I posted here last year, this song by Casting Crowns sets up a wonderful parallelism of the cluelessness of Bethlehem in 4 AD and the cluenessness of western civilization 2009 AD. While I have a slight issue with the pre-mil view possibly portrayed in the final verse, it isn’t overburdening (and the political sentiments – in a Christmas song – are spot-on). Great music, great lyrics – great song. (listen)
- Eden’s Bridge: Christmas is With Us Again: This song by the Irish Christian group, Eden’s Bridge, is a hauntingly beautiful song that intertwines the meaning of Christmas, the family, along with a blatant streak of anti-materialism. While EB sounds a bit too much like Enya at times, Christmas is With Us Again lays on varied (and broader) instrumentation, and the message is key, so the vocals are not as interlaced as the more famous Irish singer.
- Rich Mullins: You Gotta Get Up (Christmas Song): I can’t have a “best” list w/o including Rich somewhere in the mix. In this particular case, You Gotta Get Up makes me laugh for multiple reasons. One of the times Rich was staying with us, right after he’d sold Praise to the Lord to Amy Grant, he talked about how he’d been asked to write a song for her Christmas album. It was a song called Save Me (which did end up on his first album), that had pretty much nothing to do with Christmas – except that he had bells playing in the background. Naturally, it was rejected by the producers (since they were looking for explicitly Christmas music), and I somwhere in there, Rich was ticked about it (more, I think that they were dictating the theme of a song for him to write, than their rejection of the song he’d written). Years later, when he put You Gotta Get Up on Liturgy, Legacy and a Ragamuffin Band, I asked him if this was his mea culpa for Save Me. He just laughed, and I’m still not sure if that was confirmation or denial – or purposely both. Even so – this song makes me laugh – and cry, just a little bit – especially at the thought that someone would put the line “Save me from Soviet propagandists, Lord, save me from Washington, please save me” in a song intended for Christmas… (listen ‘gotta get up’) (listen ’save me’)
There you go, as far as mine are concerned. What are your favorites, and why (as my HS English teacher always told me, the “whys” are always more interesting than the “whats”…)