Sunday, December 13, 2015

Six Favorite Christmas Albums

I have played around in my mind about writing this for some weeks now.  Like writing anything, I like the idea but find every reason not to write it.  I think it's mostly that I'm afraid - afraid it won't be good, afraid no one will read it, afraid I could be doing other things with my time.  But writing often brings special joy when it fights against its maker's fears and fingers to the page. 

In this case, the fears are completely unfounded.  I love Christmas!  I love music!  I love Christmas music!  I need little excuse to listen to it or contemplate it.  So if there is a writing exercise that should produce some sense of delight, it would be this.  I have picked my current six favorite Christmas albums.  The one criteria I used in picking these albums is that they have to be albums I enjoy listening to from beginning to end.  No doubt anyone who reads this will disagree on some of these.  But since it is my blog, I get to write about what I like! 

A Charlie Brown Christmas
Vince Guaraldi Trio

Ok, part of the reason for this is my affection for Peanuts and this Christmas movie in particular.  But the music couldn't be more fitting.  The northern California jazz makes we want to settle in with a cup of hot chocolate and chill.  The arrangements are both incredibly simple and incredibly complex.  Simple in that it takes just a simple trio to make these songs come alive.  Complex in that one a really skilled one like this group could make it come alive, to make the Peanuts feel alive.  Throw in some children singing along, even imperfectly, and well...good grief, it's good!  Personal favorites: Christmas Time Is Here, Linus & Lucy, Skating, and Christmas Is Coming.

O Holy Night
Sara Groves

The trouble with making Christmas albums is that every artist is expected to do so at some point.  A lot feel like they are thrown together - just sing some favorites with maybe a new tune or two.  Sara Groves's is bold.  She takes those favorites and writes her own melodies with her own sensibilities.  It is Sara Groves' Christmas album, meaning that no one else could make this album but her.  It is thought provoking the entire way through.  I love Toy Packaging, a song of frustration, and To Be With You, a gorgeous song that reminds me that I will be gathering with my family for memories and worship really soon.  It is a beautiful album.

The Living Room Sessions: Christmas
Chris Rice

Christmas on the piano - no elaborate production, no complexity, not even any lyrics.  This is just a simple man with a penchant for playing his own arrangements of Christmas songs on a piano.  What makes it even better is that it was recorded on his grand piano in his living room.  In other words, it is very intimate without even saying it.  I can listen to it awake, and no album is better for falling to sleep to on a Christmas Eve.  Personal favorite - It Came Upon A Midnight Clear.  Gorgeous.

Songs for Christmas
Phil Wickham

This album is  It's so good!  From the opening interlude into the acoustic folkiness of The First Noel, Phil Wickham hits it right.  This is a produced album, but not over produced.  Each instrument is subtle and the layers add up well.  And of all the vocalists I have listed in this set, he is by far the best.  I want to gather round a fire right now and listen to this Christmas music par excellence!  In addition to the two above, I like Silent Night, Christmas Time, O Come O Come Emmanuel, and Little Drummer Boy.

Christmas Stories: Repeat the Sounding Joy
Jason Gray

Most Christmas albums are collections of Christmas songs.  But Jason Gray's album is, in my opinion, a Christmas concept album.  Nearly every song is diving into the the narrative of the Christmas story, into the characters.  It refuses to simply tell the story but experience the story along with those who did.  "Rest" potently embraces the harried innkeeper. "Avé Maria" with Jason's own lyrics merges her innocence with her struggle.  "Forgiveness Is A Miracle" feels Joseph's broken heart.  As some of these characters are my heroes, I enjoy hearing their heroism.  "I Will Find A Way" is Walt Wangerin's short "An Advent Monologue" translated into song and is quite possibly my favorite modern Christmas song.  This is an album that can't be listened to in its individual songs.  It should be listened to in its entirety as it does indeed repeat the sounding joy of the Christmas story.

Behold the Lamb of God: The True Tall Tale of the Coming of Christ
Andrew Peterson

This album simply outshines every other Christmas album I have ever heard in several respects.  First, it transcends Christmas.  Each song is written to tell the story of Scripture, telling the need of the coming of a Savior, finishing with a call to behold the Lamb who was born to die and rise again.  Second, I have had the joy of hearing this album performed live for 9 years now.  What artist releases a Christmas album then faithfully tours it for 15 years?  It captures the beauty of Christ's coming and His victory over my sin in amazing ways.  It is not simply my favorite Christmas record.  It is one of my favorite albums period.

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