Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Time for Christmas Music

Christmas is a big deal to me. Probably my favorite time of year. And Christmas music is a big part of that. Every year I buy a Christmas album or two, and quite often those albums go a long way in defining that particular Christmas.

Sometimes I'm disappointed. I've purchased my share of Christmas albums that haven't made it into my extended playlist. Picked up some that just didn't cut it. There are those that, try as I might, I just couldn't bring myself to like. Carolyn Arends' Christmas: An Irrational Season comes to mind (made all the more disappointing because I love the album title so much). As does Kathy Mattea's Joy for Christmas Day. Last year's great disappointment was Selah's Rose of Bethlehem, although to their credit, I think I kept three songs from this CD in my music collection before donating it to the church library.

But more often than not, I've found myself delighted, especially at the unexpected finds. Last year's gems were Michael W. Smith's It's a Wonderful Christmas, and Mindy Smith's My Holiday. Over the last couple years I've also picked up Diana Krall's Christmas Songs, John Doan's Wrapped in White, and the John Rutter Christmas Album. And a lot more. But we'll probably get to that later, with some kind of top-ten list in another week or two.

The point here is that I found this year's Christmas album last week. I hadn't even gone shopping for it; I just happened to be in Borders, and it just happened to catch my eye. I actually bought it more for Karina than me, since she's a fan, but I've already grown to love it.

It's Songs for Christmas, by Sufjan Stevens.

Songs for Christmas is a veritable wonderland of Christmas music. Not just one CD, but five make up this box set of Sufjan's take on Christmas. Plus a lot of bonus materials: a singalong book complete with chord charts, a poster of Sufjan, a few Christmas stories and even a Christmas cartoon are all included. It's like getting a box from grandma with a whole bunch of presents inside. You certainly feel you got your money's worth.

As to the music itself: The set is the culmination of five years' worth of recordings. Every year from 2001 to 2006 Sufjan recorded a Christmas EP for his family and friends. This set pulls those five recordings together into one package, made available for the general public.

If you know Sufjan's work, then you generally know what to expect from this collection. Deep, rich, complex music set against fun, explosive, chaotic renderings. Some people might simply chalk it all up as "random," and they'd be right. Except that Sufjan has a solid core that guides and forms all he does, giving the music a soul and a center, even if it feels like it's been thrown into a blender and pureed for five minutes.

You get the classics here: "Silent Night," "Lo! How a Rose E'er Blooming," "I Saw Three Ships," "O Holy Night," and "Joy to the World." You also get some non-Christmas tunes, such as "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" and "Holy, Holy, Holy," - both of them sensitive, fresh, yet powerful arrangements. But then you also get some soon-to-be classics as only Sufjan could deliver, such as "That Was the Worst Christmas Ever," "Come on! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance!" and "Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved it!)."

Backing up those songs is an eclectic mix of instrumentation, including plentiful banjo and glockenspiel. He gets his electronic mix in there, but allows the "real" instruments to carry most of the weight. As to the vocals - this is everything that afor-mentioned Selah album wasn't. It's simple, it's out-of-tune, it's prone to come in too early or hold on too long. In other words, it's not studio singers perfected by electronics; instead it's a bunch of friends sitting in a living room having a sing-along, inviting the rest of us in. At times it sounds like a frat party that's carried on just a tad too long, and now the egg-nog filled guys are stumbling out into the snow to carol the sorority sisters next door. And that's a good thing. It's fun, it's human, it's got a soul to it so much lacking in the rest of the studio-driven CDs sitting on the store shelves.

And yet. . .and this is the key to a Christmas album for me. It's the album I'd love to have playing in the background on Christmas Eve, once the candlelight service is over and the kids are in bed, and Karina and I are sharing a cup while sitting on the couch dreaming of snowfall outside. It's restful, it's soul-ful, it carries you away to simple places and glorious times, reminding you that, since the Light has come into the world, we can smile and rejoice and make merry and be glad. Maybe that's it; ultimately, it's a very happy album. It's a hopeful album. It's a good album.

One caveat: If you really, really loved that afor-mentioned Selah album, you probably wouldn't appreciate the subtlety of Sufjan. I get that. He's certainly not for everybody. I know a lot of people who would scratch their heads at this album. I understand that. It will probably never sell as many copies as, say, Mariah Carey's Christmas Album (which I wouldn't listen to, even if you paid me. . .). I accept that. (Of course, if you think Mariah Carey's Christmas album is actually good Christmas music, then we have nothing further to discuss)

I'm just saying that I really like Songs for Christmas. And that it's going to help define Christmas 2008 for us, and probably years beyond. So go support your independent musicians, take a risk, leave behind music the studios want you to buy, and add some truly great music to your collection. That would be a good thing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thank you.