I can’t stand most holiday music. It’s too gimicky or cheesy or just unimaginative. Do we really need 86 more covers of Joy to the World and Silent Night? I think not. All such renditions manage to do is dull the actual message and make the sacred of one piece with the secular: Santa Claus is Coming to Town alongside O Come All Ye Faithful? Why not? It becomes background noise, elevator music to fill up the blank space because it gives you that special holiday glow (or maybe that’s just the chunks of ice that the Northern Minnesota wind is blowing against my cheeks).
I hate sentimentality. Keep it in the stores where you’re trying to get rid of a few more dollars (I don’t like the music there either, but at least it fits the materialistic mood). I have my own nostalgia for Christmases past, but it really has nothing to do with the Nativity of our Lord. If nostalgia is the only reason for the candlelight on Christmas Eve, you can keep it; I’ll have the Eucharist instead.
Nevertheless, there is good Christmas music out there; you just have to look hard, or have it fall without warning into your lap (let it fall, let it fall, let it fall). The following albums manage to make songs and hymns sound as if you hadn’t heard them 8,000 times, and, at their best, they preserve some of the terror of the Incarnation (think: “Good Christian, fear; for sinners here/The silent Word is pleading” (Lutheran Service Book 370:2). In no particular order:
- Over the Rhine, The Darkest Night of the Year
- Bill Mallonee, Yonder Shines the Infant Light (here or here)
- Sufjan Stevens, Songs for Christmas and NEW Silver and Gold
- Dustin Kensrue, This Good Night is Still Everywhere (looks like a new edition with two more songs–including a mewithoutYou cover! “Fairytale of New York” and “This is War” are my favorites)
- Bifrost Arts, Salvation is Created (The title track will send chills down your spine; turn it up loud)
- Jason Harrod, Christmas Hymns (new! It also has the same version of “O Come…” as The Gift, maybe my favorite version ever)
- Bruce Cockburn, Christmas
- Sara Groves, O Holy Night
- listener, Just in Time for Christmas
- Brown Feather Sparrow and Friends, How to Throw A Christmas Party
- Hymns from Nineveh, Endurance in Christmas Time
- And, if you can find it in a pawn shop or used music store, get The Gift, put out by WeatherVane Music in 1998. Not all the songs are excellent, but it’s got great stuff from Harrod and Funck and Vigilantes of Love.
- And there’s always The Messiah
I also recommend Over the Rhine’s Snow Angels (get it with Darkest Night here), but not everything on there is as good as everything else (“Here it is” and “We’re Gonna Pull Through” are worth the price alone).
Down with muzak!