Christmastime is here again, which means the return of Christmas music. If you’re like me, you have a love/hate relationship with this genre created to be listened to for about five weeks a year. Strangely, it’s also one of the most oversaturated genres. Hundreds of pop musicians have released Christmas albums, and pretty much all of them contain the same thirty or so songs. It can get nauseating to hear the fourth or fifth different “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
In my quest to avoid becoming a musical Grinch, I’ve spent the past few years looking for solutions to the Christmas music predicament. Here are a few great albums that I’ve discovered:
If On A Winter’s Night by Sting. This has been one of my favorite Christmas/winter albums since its release in 2009. Sting, who was already known for exploring historical forms in his Songs from the Labyrinth, turns to the folk and holiday traditions of the British isles in this album, with renditions of lesser known Christmas tunes like the haunting “Gabriel’s Message,” “Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming,” and “The Cherry Tree Carol.” The great thing about this album is that it is, as I said, a Christmas/winter work, evoking not just the holiday season, but the whole brooding atmosphere of darkest time of year. The lovely folk and Celtic instrumentation certainly creates a large part of this mood on the album. Personal standouts: “Gabriel’s Message,” “Christmas At Sea,” “The Snow It Melts The Soonest,” “You Only Cross My Mind in Winter.”
To Drive The Cold Winter Away by Loreena McKennitt. Keeping in line with the whole moody traditional British Christmas music theme is Loreena McKennitt’s first Christmas album. This album has a decidedly more medieval feel than Sting’s album, with McKennitt playing in the echoing spaces of monasteries and cathedrals with the spare instrumentation of harp, strings, and accordion most of the time. As such, it evokes the Yule season of the medieval era, where kings and their vassals would gather in their castle to pass the dark days of winter in feasting and fellowship. Most of the songs on this album will be unfamiliar to modern audiences, except maybe “The Wexford Carol,” which is somewhat known. Of course, this is a good thing if you’re trying to find some really fresh Christmas music.
A Midwinter Night’s Dream by Loreena McKennitt. McKennitt followed up her first Christmas album with a more traditional work about twenty years later. This album contains recognizable tunes such as “The Holly and The Ivy,” “Good King Wenceslas,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Still, she finds a way to bend the sound of these songs, with her unique blend of Celtic and Middle Eastern sounds, in a way that defies the traditional Christmas-song rendition. Add to that some more unusual songs like the French carol “Noel Nouvelet,” “The Seven Rejoices of Mary” and the “Gloucestershire Wassail,” and you’ve got a somewhat more traditionally accessible and yet highly unique Christmas album.
Celtic Christmas by Eden’s Bridge. Can you tell I like Celtic-influenced Christmas music yet? This is an album I’ve had for many years. Case in point: I listened to this on cassette tape until it got all warbly, then bought it on CD. This album is a balanced mix of neo-Celtic styled traditional songs like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Coventry Carol” and splendid originals like “Christmas Is With Us Again,” “Unto Us” and “Crying for the World.” Although the mood of the record is very ethereal, these original songs make the Christmas story feel very contemporary as they dig into the tangled thoughts of the characters.
The Promise by Michael Card. Card’s Christmas album is already a bit of a modern classic in certain circles, but it is still not as well known as it should be. The cool thing about it is that all of the ten songs are original—nary a traditional Christmas tune among the lot. And they range from the epic scope of prophecy in “Unto Us A Son Is Given” and “Vincit Agnus Noster” to the small tender moments of the Christmas story in “What Her Heart Remembered” and “Joseph’s Song.” Card has always been a bit of a theological songwriter, which provides a rich depth to this album, yet is never inaccessible.
Behold the Lamb of God by Andrew Peterson. Last but not least is another modern classic, although it’s only been around for less than a decade. The interesting part about the album is that most of the songs don’t seem to really talk about Christmas at all, at least not in the way we think—only three songs actually reference the events spoken of in the Gospel accounts. Rather, what Peterson and company do is tell the story of redemption leading up to and including the Incarnation. It’s kind of like Handel’s Messiah for banjos and guitars. Granted, there are several traditional tunes in there, including “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “The Holly and The Ivy” and “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks,” but they are either amazing instrumentals or so artfully rearranged as to sound non-traditional.
So if you’re looking for a fresh batch of Christmas music, something that won’t make you want to stab the singer with a stake of holly, consider seeking out some of these albums.