Forgive me for being a downer, but it doesn’t feel like Christmas at all this year.
It’s not just the spring-like weather, either. Every year around this time I pack up my presents head east to Massachusetts for an extended break with family and friends. I treasure that time, and thanks to the wretched pandemic, I won’t be making that trip this year. I’ll be here, using Zoom to connect with loved ones and pretending that it’s enough. But it isn’t.
I know, this is a sad way to open what will be my last Christmas music column, but I can’t help it. I have negative cheer this year. I’m doing my best to get into the spirit. I’m watching Christmas movies. I’m stopping to look at lights displays. And in a complete abandonment of my usual rules, I have been listening to Christmas music since October. The old favorites, from Sufjan Stevens to Harry Connick to Josh Garrels, are getting play around my house, and it’s helping.
It wasn’t the best year for new Christmas music, but I’m certainly playing the jingle bells out of some of 2020’s offerings. The best of this year’s Christmas offerings satisfy the three sides of my fandom. (Yes, you can be a fan of Christmas music. It’s a thing.) Let me explain.
First, and probably most prominently, I want to hear the Christmas canon. I love Christmas songs, and I can only think of a couple (“Domenic the Donkey,” for example) that I would turn away. The familiar sing-along Christmas tunes will always find room at my inn. And this year, like every year, there is no shortage of interpretations of that canon.
Perhaps the most traditional of these is A Ben Rector Christmas, the first holiday album from the nerdy-clever singer-songwriter. Rector’s own music is often as warm and cozy as an evening by the fireplace, and his Christmas album follows suit. It begins with an anomaly, Rector’s own “The Thanksgiving Song,” which is about a different holiday all together. But it’s typical Rector, a piano-led tune about home and family that is more than a little bittersweet this year.
The rest of A Ben Rector Christmas is cozy and comfortable, full of low-key renditions of songs I will never grow tired of. “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire).” Rector’s voice is nothing special, but he sings these songs well, and he even pulls off a moderately swinging take on “This Christmas,” a song that John Legend, to name one, knocked out of the park last year. A Ben Rector Christmas is simple and heartfelt. It doesn’t aim for more than that, but it doesn’t need to.
Also in the traditional mode is one of the most delightful surprises of this holiday season: If the Fates Allow, which is nothing less than a Hadestown Christmas album. Hadestown, if you don’t know, began life as an album by the brilliant Anais Mitchell and went on to become a celebrated Broadway show. It’s an adaptation of the Orpheus and Eurydice story from Greek mythology, and it features a trio of singers as the Fates, introducing and commenting on the action.
And now the three singers who played the Fates in the original Broadway show – Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzales-Nacer and Kay Trinidad – have reunited to sing a whole album of Christmas tunes. (If the Fates Allow, get it?) That this thing exists is sort of incredible. It’s wonderful, but that shouldn’t shock you. Blackman, Gonzales-Nacer and Trinidad are great singers, their voices intertwining beautifully, and the arrangements are superb. This take on “Sleigh Ride,” for example, made my inner harmony geek sit up and take notice more than once.
The traditional songs are wonderful – I am not sure I’ve ever heard a more shimmering version of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” – but for me, the highlight here is a song I didn’t know. “Winter Song” is a Sara Bareilles tune, and my feeling on her work should be clear by now. “Winter Song” is absolutely stunning, and this rendition makes me cry each time. Seriously, I am listening and crying right now. It would be embarrassing if there were anyone around.
If the Fates Allow is a fine mix of songs you’ll know and songs you’ll discover, and the three main voices turn even the songs you’ll know into spellbinding experiences. It’s just a great piece of work, and of the traditional Christmas albums I heard this year, it’s easily my favorite.
One thing I love about Sufjan Stevens’s two Christmas box sets, though, is that while he shows reverence to the existing canon, he does his very best to add to it. Stevens is the most prolific contributor of new Christmas songs, but every year there’s at least one artist who tries their hand at penning an album of originals and nudging it out into the holiday marketplace. It’s a brave thing to do, I think, given that the last song to truly enter the canon was Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” back in 1994. And yet someone always tries it.
This year it’s Jamie Cullum, the prodigiously talented English jazz-popper. He’s titled his record The Pianoman at Christmas, and it features ten new songs with a Christmas flavor. And I have to tell you, it’s pretty great. Cullum’s voice is unimpeachable, of course, but these songs are so delightful, and they sport full big band and orchestral arrangements that serve them well.
“Hang Your Lights” is just joyous, like a forgotten Rat Pack tune, winking at you the whole time: “Put yourself at the top of my tree and you can hang your lights on me.” “Turn On the Lights” is a big pop song with urgent strings, while “So Many Santas” is a Cab Calloway-inspired jazz shimmy. The sentimental “How Do You Fly” is lovely, and Cullum’s light touch helps it soar. All told, while none of these ten songs sound poised to replace the likes of “White Christmas,” they’re all excellent, and I’ll certainly be spinning this one for years to come.
The third side is one I don’t mention too often here, but it’s the side that is constantly looking for new expressions of faith. In the Christian tradition, Christmas is preceded by advent, four weeks of longing and waiting and hoping, and this year I think that the meditative nature of advent is more than fitting. There are a lot of Christmas albums, and many of them give my faith-filled side plenty to chew on. But there aren’t a lot of advent albums, not a lot that try to express that particular aching.
Caroline Cobb’s A Seed, A Sunrise is an advent album. It’s one of two she offered through Kickstarter earlier this year, and it’s exactly what I hoped it would be. It’s the kind of album with bible verses referenced for each song, but in the best Sara Groves tradition, Cobb tells these stories with artistry and humanity. “We Wait For You” (and is there a more advent song title than that?) starts things on the perfect note, Cobb tying the start of Jesus’s life with its end, and capturing the longing of those who believe.
Every one of these seven songs does the same. “Comfort, Oh Comfort” is melancholy and gorgeous, with a warm cello and gentle guitar picking, while “Joy (As Far As the Curse is Found)” moves forward on a skipping rhythm, telling the Christmas story in a familiar yet somehow new way. Closer “There Will Be a Day” is probably my favorite, its gentle piano underpinning a song of faith and trust.
I definitely understand that advent music is not for everyone, and that my own complicated relationship with Christianity makes an album like this more appealing for me. But if you are also in the market for something like this, I highly recommend Cobb’s work. You can hear and buy at her website.
So that’s what has been playing here during this non-Christmas-y Christmas. Music, of course, is the thing that gets me through the dark times. I hope that wherever you are and however you are spending this extraordinary holiday season, that you have something that gets you through it. Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.
Next week, the honorable mentions of 2020.
See you in line Tuesday morning.