Christmas Presence
The Yuletide Comes In

Christmas music gets a bad rap.

Is there anything more reviled than the stop-gap Christmas album? It’s the province of pop products-slash-stars like Mariah Carey, a tradition that goes all the way back to Elvis and the Supremes. It just smacks of behind-the-scenes handling, like some guys in marketing pointing to bar graphs that chart sales and release windows and particularly popular carols.

So when genuine artists decide to release Christmas records, it’s kind of mystifying. Are they out of ideas? Are they just cashing in? Last year, for example, I refused to buy Brian Wilson’s follow-up to SMiLE, the wretchedly titled What I Really Want for Christmas. I’m sure it was great, and I’ll probably pick it up eventually, but I couldn’t stomach the idea of following one of the greatest pop albums of all time with a middling holiday confection.

But I’m not sure why it’s such a big deal. Wilson, for example, has a long history with Christmas music – the Beach Boys recorded a lot of it, including Wilson’s own “Little Saint Nick.” (Currently appearing in the latest of those Coke commercials with the polar bears. They added penguins this year, another decision that reeks of the guys with the bar graphs.) And in fact, Christmas is the only holiday I can think of with its own centuries-old songbook, a rich history ripe for the plucking.

You can also trace the battle between the religious meanings of Christmas and the Hallmark card-style rewriting of the holiday into a romantic American myth through the music. The same event inspired both the reverent Christianity of “O Holy Night” and the effervescent frivolity of “Frosty the Snowman.” (Oh, and the decidedly irreverent frat-boy profanity of Ben Folds’ “Bizarre Christmas Incident.”) You can have yourself a merry little Christmas, or a blue Christmas, or a silent night, and there’s a song for it, no doubt recorded hundreds of times by hundreds of artists.

Still, there’s a stigma attached, especially when the artist in question is someone like Sarah McLachlan. She’s always straddled the line between pop star and serious songwriter, and even at this late date in her career, your opinion of her could go either way. Plus, she’s almost impossibly slow, given how little her records have changed through the years – Fumbling Towards Ecstasy came out in 1993, Surfacing in 1997, and Afterglow in 2003. In between, she’s dropped live documents, remix collections and other patches to fill the holes.

So perhaps it was inevitable that she’d produce something like Wintersong, as close to a standard pop Christmas album as you’re likely to hear. It’s what you’d expect – gauzy, low-key, piano-led, and centered on her admittedly terrific voice. McLachlan and her longtime producer Pierre Marchand include a mix of traditional religious carols like “Silent Night” and popular songs like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and they only stretch out, musically speaking, once: on a medley of “The First Noel” and “Mary Mary.”

There are a couple of neat surprises – Joni Mitchell’s “River” is here, a song that should be a Christmas standard, as is John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” a song that, in a perfect world, would have faded with the end of the Vietnam War. Alas, its direct sentiments are unfortunately still relevant. McLachlan ends her collection with Vince Guaraldi’s gorgeous “Christmas is Here,” forever linked to the Peanuts Christmas special in the minds of millions. It’s a nice choice, and McLachlan’s own original entry into the canon, the album’s title track, is sweet as well.

But this is pretty standard stuff, all in all, and the net effect feels as hastily thrown together as the cover image. (Surely there was a better photograph they could have used, no?) It’s pleasant, if you like Christmas records, but never rises above the level of the Very Special Christmas series. Given her career thus far, Wintersong is, both in its existence and in its quality, pretty much as expected.

Harder to explain, yet much more enjoyable, is Aimee Mann’s Christmas record. Mann has been a prickly iconoclast since Til Tuesday broke up, railing against the record companies and their practices, so it’s difficult to understand at first why she’d engage in one. But the record itself is pure Aimee Mann – delightful and sad. It even has a classic Mann title. I mean, who else would call their holiday album One More Drifter in the Snow?

Mann’s quirky pop sound survives the transition to Christmas music intact. This album is full of the chiming guitars and strange keyboards and nifty arrangements as her regular albums, with a few string sections here and there to smooth it out. She sets the tone early, opening with Jimmy Webb’s heartwarmingly depressing “Whatever Happened to Christmas,” and she largely stays away from the churchier carols, sticking to the likes of “Winter Wonderland” and “White Christmas.” (She does do “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and hearing Mann sing “Christ our savior” is an interesting experience.)

The two new songs are hits as well. Her own closing song, “Calling on Mary,” is pure Mann, detailing loneliness and separation with a Christmas backdrop. (“I heard the sidewalk Santa say, salvation’s coming cheap today, I searched the skyline for a star, and wondered where you are…”) Her husband, Michael Penn, contributes “Christmastime,” a more joyous affair with a knockout melody.

But the hidden highlight is her read of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” It’s just as goofy as any good version of this song, and she enlists Grant Lee Phillips, owner of one of the best voices in rock, to play the narrator. While most of One More Drifter is as bleak as you’d expect from Mann, this track is a true gem, a rare moment of uninhibited fun from one of our more serious artists. Mann pulls off the very un-merry Christmas album well, much to my surprise, even though she doesn’t stretch too far out of her comfort zone to do so.

Over the Rhine took a different tack with Snow Angels, their second Christmas album – they eschewed familiar songs all together, composing almost a whole record of originals. This is obviously an album for fans of the band, since the average Christmas shopper isn’t likely to pick up a CD featuring exactly no songs they’ve heard before. But such a tactic reveals an intimate connection to the holiday, and a personal commitment to these songs that rarely comes through on Christmas records.

The duo (singer Karin Bergquist and pianist Linford Detwiler) keep things hushed, like their last album, the amazing Drunkard’s Prayer, making Snow Angels essentially a collection of Christmas love songs, a fine soundtrack to the first snowfall. It opens much like Mann’s does, with a song called “All I Ever Get for Christmas is Blue” that’s exactly what you think it is. Given their tangential history with the Christian music industry, it’s no surprise that they rewrite “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and make it their own, nor that they write their own tunes with religious overtones, like “White Horse” and “New Redemption Song.”

Detwiler includes an instrumental reading of Guaraldi’s music from the Peanuts special, which he titles “Goodbye Charles” in memory of the strip’s creator, Charles Schulz. Things get kind of wonderful from there, with the longing of “Snowed In With You” and the bluesy highlight “North Pole Man,” perhaps the sexiest song about Mr. Claus since “Santa Baby.” The title track is an Over the Rhine classic – traditional-sounding melody, lovely lyrics, and Bergquist’s amazing voice.

Snow Angels concludes with “We’re Gonna Pull Through,” a New Year’s song if I’ve ever heard one, and it caps this lovers’ conversation about Christmas well. Most holiday albums are content with timidly nudging one original song into the storied history of Christmas music, so it takes guts to write 10 of them, and while it would be a stretch to say that they’ve come up with any songs here that will take their place alongside the carols you know by heart, Snow Angels is a sweet collection that’s worth hearing this season.

Here’s the thing, though. A lot of artists have explored Christmas music, dipping their toes into the vast pool of it that stretches back centuries, but few have worked to understand it and envelop themselves in it like Sufjan Stevens has. He’s famously obsessive about things – here’s a guy who plans to write a full album for each of the 50 states, after all. So once a year since 2001 (skipping 2004) he’s put together a Christmas EP for friends and family, part of an ongoing project to really sink his teeth into the traditional canon, and find out what makes a good Christmas song.

All five of his EPs are now available in a box set called Songs for Christmas. They come individually packaged in their own sleeves, and accompanied by a book of drawings and essays, a sheet of Christmas stickers, and a comic strip. It’s a fantastic package, and the music contained therein may just be the best, most comprehensive Christmas album ever made. Stevens takes the traditional carols as his base, working through multiple arrangements in subsequent years (there are three completely different, yet stunningly beautiful, renditions of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” on here),and putting together his own songs to stand alongside them.

The set is fascinating for Sufjan fans, as it allows you to trace the evolution of his sound. The first EP, Noel, is bare and acoustic, but by 2006’s Peace, he’s added his customary horns, strings and choirs, and it sounds a lot like Illinois. Stevens somehow retains his ability to connect emotionally through all of his intricate arrangements – he did it on Illinois, and he does it here. The earlier CDs in this set are tentative, as if Stevens hasn’t quite committed to this project, and some of the songs sound thrown together. But by the later discs, he’s lavishing as much time and energy on these little EPs as he does on his main albums.

While Noel’s “Emmanuel” is gorgeous, and 2002’s Hark! contains the nifty original “Put the Lights on the Tree,” things really get going with 2003’s Ding! Dong! Recorded the same year he released Michigan, the first of his states albums, this EP’s originals truly shine. While “Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!” is just as silly as it sounds, “All the King’s Horns” is an amazing piece of music, one that would have fit well on Michigan. And “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” reads like it would be funny, but in reality it’s heartbreaking.

By 2005’s Joy, Stevens is really cooking. His own “Hey Guys! It’s Christmas Time!” is a grungy highlight, but he also works wonders with “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Away in a Manger,” two songs that have rarely been treated as reverently as this. But the best thing here is “Did I Make You Cry on Christmas? (Well, You Deserved It!),” a hushed yet simmering piece that describes a scene playing out in living rooms across the country. Despite the title, the recriminations here are surprisingly gentle, and the song leads nicely into “The Incarnation,” an instrumental of uncommon majesty.

But it’s the latest, 2006’s Peace, that takes the prize, and proves that Stevens just keeps getting better. How can you resist a song called “Get Behind Me, Santa!” There’s no way, especially once you hear the fantastic horn arrangement and organ lines. Here are “Jingle Bells” and “Emmanuel” and “Holy, Holy, Holy,” all performed with grace, but here as well are Stevens’ best Christmas originals, including the tricky “Christmas in July” and the absolutely gorgeous “Sister Winter.”

The highlight of the EP, and perhaps of the set, is the seven-minute “Star of Wonder,” which most effectively marries his Illinois sound with the religious sentiments of the season. Stevens is not shy about exploring his Christian beliefs in song, and a Christmas collection gives him ample opportunity, but he retains his artful, exploratory nature, and his gift for poetry. The EP, and the set, concludes with “Holy,” and a chiming instrumental called “The Winter Solstice” that provides just the right exit music.

It’s not often that a Christmas album is infused with this much artistry and personality, or is able to take you on a journey comparable to any artist’s regular releases. Songs for Christmas is an amazing set of music, one that bursts with love for these songs and this holiday, but also with intelligence and depth. If you’re looking for something light to put on behind the Christmas party, you may want to look elsewhere.

But if you want a Christmas album that truly tries to understand what it means to be a Christmas album, one that wraps you up and takes you someplace, then buy this. Or, you know, put it on your wish list and drop subtle hints to loved ones. However this finds its way into your collection, you’ll treasure it for many Christmases to come.

Next week, the top 10 list.

See you in line Tuesday morning.