I don’t know about you, but Christmas music is a tradition in my house.
It’s like egg nog, though. There are only a few weeks a year in which it’s OK to listen to holiday tunes – from the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas Day, with special dispensation given until New Year’s Eve. Before that, you’re cheating, and after that, you’re annoying. I’ve always found, though, that the fact that I can’t listen to Christmas music the other 48 weeks of the year makes me appreciate it even more.
Thankfully, we’re right in those candy-cane-flavored weeks right now. I love Christmas music – it’s almost a genre unto itself, with a deep, rich, storied catalog of classics (and not-so-classics). This is my favorite time of year, and nothing puts me in the spirit like good Christmas music. I buy a few each year, although there are perennial favorites around my house, including Quiet Company’s awesome Winter is Coming, Vince Guaraldi’s score to the Peanuts Christmas special, Timbre’s Silent Night, and both volumes of Sufjan Stevens’ incredible Christmas box sets.
But we’re not here to talk about those. We’re here to discuss the new stuff, the Christmas music of 2014. I bought four of them this year, and to varying degrees enjoyed them all. We’ll start with the most traditional, because I always like to buy at least one record that my mother will like when I go home for the holidays. This year, that record is The Spirit of Christmas, by Michael W. Smith and Friends.
I will admit a soft spot for Smith, dating back to my more Jesus-y youth. He’s a cheesy adult-contemporary kind of guy, but he does have chops, and his songs are often more interesting than you’d expect. This is Smith’s fourth (!) Christmas album, and his most cheeseball, as you could probably tell by the “and Friends” on the cover. The lineup of those friends doesn’t inspire much confidence: Vince Gill, Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, Martina McBride, Amy Grant, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Nettles, Michael McDonald and a spoken word piece by Bono. That just sounds awful, doesn’t it?
And for a while, the record lives down to expectations. Goopy strings, overemotive vocals, a precious performance by Smith’s daughter, and on and on. The first half is predictable and mostly blah, which is a shame – Smith’s first couple Christmas albums were surprisingly complex affairs. But about halfway through, I started enjoying this more. McBride’s turn on “What Child is This” complements the tender arrangement nicely, and the original song “Almost There” is a winner. Bono’s spoken piece (“The Darkest Midnight”) leads into the lovely “Peace,” a Michael McDonald original from his own Christmas record, which ends this one on a nice note. While only half of this is worthwhile, that half is surprisingly effective.
My mother will probably also like Mark Kozelek Sings Christmas Carols, perhaps more than I do. Kozelek has had a hell of a year, releasing a critically acclaimed album (Benji) and then wiping away all that goodwill in a one-sided feud with The War on Drugs, one that outed him as a heartless troll. It’s hard to separate that Mark Kozelek from this one, but it’s absolutely necessary if you’re gonna enjoy this. (Or anything he does from now on, for that matter.)
Sings Christmas Carols is exactly what it sounds like – Mark, his acoustic guitar and his hangdog voice, playing 14 classic Christmas songs in his slow, spectral style. It’s almost inhumanly pretty, like most of the man’s work, although he sometimes chooses joyous songs like “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and vacuums all the verve out of them. This album begins with “Christmas Time is Here,” from Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts score, and perhaps this is what he was going for, but I have even less trouble picturing Michael Cera walking away dejectedly to this take. (Kozelek retains the spoken dialogue here: “Of all the Mark Kozeleks in the world, you’re the Mark Kozelek-iest.” I laughed.)
If you want something with a bit more life to it, and perhaps a bit more goofiness, you could do worse than A Collection of Recycled Gifts, the new compilation from Marillion. Each year since 1999, the venerable British band has created a Christmas EP for fan club subscribers, including at least one newly recorded song. Recycled Gifts brings those songs together, and as you might expect, it’s a mixed bag. This disc runs the gamut from the beautiful to the ridiculous, from great ideas to lousy ones, but overall, it gives a strong picture of what Christmas sounds like on Planet Marillion.
My favorite track comes early – Steve Hogarth, owner of one of my very favorite voices, singing “Gabriel’s Message.” It’s a song I have loved since Sting’s ethereal version from the ‘80s, and this take is incredibly beautiful, Hogarth’s high, strong tenor floating above waves of keyboards. While much of this collection is similarly serious and gorgeous, from a straight read of “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” to a stunning “I Saw Three Ships” to the biggest, proggiest version of “Carol of the Bells” you’ve ever heard, much of it is also clearly the product of drunken jam sessions.
Just listen to the a cappella take on “That’s What Friends Are For,” or “The Erin Marbles,” which casts their Marbles quartet in a Christmas-y context. Or the version of “Little Saint Nick,” which transposes the Beach Boys’ lyrics onto the band’s own “Thunder Fly” music. (Strangely enough, it works.) The biggest shambles is “Lonely This Christmas,” a jam that finds Hogarth pulling out his Elvis impression. The tone shifts on this record are enough to give you whiplash, and it’s clear that these songs were originally intended as little presents for the faithful. But it’s fun, and it’s never boring, and you get Hogarth singing “Gabriel’s Message,” which is worth the price of the record on its own. (Go here.)
But the big winner this year is Over the Rhine. Their third Christmas-themed collection is called Blood Oranges in the Snow, and they actually finished it last year, but not quite in time to get it out before the holidays. Over the Rhine’s Christmas records are never typical – they’re always collections of original songs that have just as much depth to them as their non-holiday releases. That’s what you get here: nine songs that can stand with the best of their output, featuring Linford Detwiler’s graceful piano playing and Karin Bergquist’s undeniable, unbelievable voice.
This album was recorded at roughly the same time as last year’s double album Meet Me at the Edge of the World, and the sound is similar. The same band is here, including drummer Jay Bellerose and pedal steel player Eric Heywood, and the rustic, down-home feel is preserved. The songs are simply lovely, as always. “Another Christmas” is a beautiful classic, “My Father’s Body” thoroughly haunting, and the title track a superb piece of country-folk. Detwiler stepped up as a singer on Meet Me, and he continues that here, taking a couple leads and intertwining with Bergquist. This new style suits them perfectly.
Jack Henderson joins the duo on his “Bethlehem,” a stunning reworking of the traditional carol, and the band also covers Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December,” further proof that this isn’t your usual Christmas record. My favorite thing here is “Let It Fall,” a piano-led meditation on letting go of things you’ve lost. Bergquist and Detwiler dance their voices around one another while Heywood adds perfect accents. This is already one of my favorite Over the Rhine songs. The record ends with the hopeful “New Year’s Song,” and it makes me think of everything I love about this season.
I might call for an exception to my rule about only listening to Christmas music during these few weeks, if only so I can hear Blood Oranges in the Snow all year round. Then again, its absence from my life will make our reunion even sweeter next November. It’s always great to have something to look forward to. And man, do I look forward to this season, every single year.
Next week, some stragglers at the end of 2014, before we wrap this puppy up with a bow. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.