In the Bleak Mid-Winter
Comfort and Joy from Christmas Music

Christmas is my favorite time of year, and I expect that to be doubly true this year.

I don’t know about you, but I could use some good tidings of comfort and joy. It’s been a hard year, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get easier anytime soon. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to heading east and being with family and friends, eating home-cooked meals, giving gifts, even just sitting alone in rooms full of Christmas lights. And then I’m looking forward to bidding this year adieu, because I’ve kind of had it with it. (We lost Florence Henderson on Thanksgiving and then Ron Glass, the immortal Shepherd Book, a few days later, just to add to the ever-growing list of death I wrote about last week.)

If you know me, you know I love Christmas music most of all. You also know that ordinarily I have a rule: no Christmas music until after Thanksgiving, and then only until Christmas day itself. This has traditionally been my protest against the “Christmas creep” in stores and everywhere one looks, and also a way of making myself appreciate the music more. But this year I broke that rule, and I did so for a couple of reasons. One, my girlfriend loves Christmas more than I do, and started blasting the carols weeks ago. Two, I’m in the band at our church, and we’re practicing Christmas songs already. But three, and probably most importantly, I needed it, like I need a warm blanket on a cold night.

So I’ve been indulging in the Bing Crosby and the Frank Sinatra and the Sufjan Stevens Christmas box sets and that glorious Noel album my friends in the Choir put out in the ‘90s. I’ve been listening to more recent favorites, like Timbre’s extraordinary Silent Night and Aimee Mann’s Christmas record. I even pulled out Made in Aurora Vol. II, a local holiday compilation that I contributed to, and was struck again by how terrific it is. Basically, it’s all Christmas all the time in my house right now, and it’s helping.

As usual, I picked up a few new Christmas albums this year, and I’ve been alternating between them and old favorites. I usually don’t expect too much from new Christmas albums, but this year’s batch is a tasty one. Let’s start with the weakest of them, although it’s still pretty good: Christmas Party, by She & Him.

I’m not sure even M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel expected their novelty collaboration to still be going eight years and six albums later, but here they are with their second Christmas collection, five years after their first. The sound remains the same as always – Ward’s guitar-based old-time arrangements supporting Deschanel’s pleasant yet limited voice. There’s a hint of karaoke to what they do, but I expect that they’re aware of it, and they’re just having a good time. And Christmas Party, barring a couple sad-sack tunes, is a good time.

I read a piece last year about the Christmas canon, and how it is no longer expanding. The last Christmas song that truly entered that canon, this author suggested, was Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” released back in 1994. As if to prove that theory right, Ward and Deschanel start their album with a low-key version of it, and it sounds like a classic. Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth is on drums, Jenny Lewis sings backing vocals, it is as hipster as hipster can be, and yet it never sounds ironic to me. It’s just a good song performed well, like most of this album.

Other highlights include their renditions of “Winter Wonderland,” the Hawaiian-themed “Mele Kalikimaka” and the delightful “Marshmallow World,” popularized by Bing Crosby in 1950. The album ends with a shuffling take on “Christmas Don’t Be Late,” otherwise known as “The Chipmunk Song,” and as played and sung straight here, it’s quite a nice tune. The benefit of making your second Christmas album is that it forces you to go deeper, to mine songs that many may not know. She & Him certainly do that here, and they offer a wistful and sweet Christmas music diversion. Looking forward to hearing what they uncover for their third such effort.

Also on her second Christmas album is Sarah McLachlan, whose voice was made for this sort of thing. Wonderland is exactly what you might expect, particularly if what you’re expecting is something that is often heart-stoppingly pretty. For Wonderland, McLachlan worked with her usual team of Pierre Marchand and ex-husband Ashwin Sood, but brought in a group of superb Canadian jazz performers. You can hear them in full glory on opener “The Christmas Song,” that old Mel Torme chestnut. This rendition features gorgeous piano playing by Jerome Beaulieu and fleet-fingered upright bass work by Philippe Leduc. McLachlan rarely gets to sing over something so nimble, and she makes the most of it.

The rest of the record follows suit, and is often just the prettiest thing you can imagine. “White Christmas” is here, performed just on guitar and trumpet, McLachlan filling in the spaces with her voice. She’s accompanied by an orchestra for takes on “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Silver Bells,” as well as on a song that was unfamiliar to me, the lovely “Huron Carol.” Emmylou Harris and Martha Wainwright turn up to sing, and Harris especially sounds marvelous on “Away in a Manger” and “Go Tell It On the Mountain.” Canadian rock band Half Moon Run provides instrumentation here too.

The album closes with my favorite carol, and one of my favorite all-time melodies, “O Holy Night.” McLachlan has actually improved as a singer since her ‘90s heyday, and she does the song sweet justice. There’s nothing about Wonderland I don’t like. It’s like curling up under the covers on a snowy night.

For a more uncomfortable experience, there’s Dark Sacred Night, the first Christmas album by David Bazan. Just the existence of this thing is a surprise, given Bazan’s feelings on Christianity in general, and it’s that tension that illuminates his versions of songs like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Silent Night.” This album was recorded at home, sparsely and in pieces, for sporadic single releases for more than a decade. That doesn’t make it any less compelling – Bazan is often at his best when he’s at his most naked, as he is here.

The album opens with an original, “All I Want for Christmas,” which turns out to be “peace on Earth.” Bazan sings that phrase on repeat over a mournful piano, and drives his point home with a strummy take on John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” He’s alone with his guitar on “Away in a Manger” and a faraway, sad take on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Bazan writes his own third verse, which finds him “sipping Christmas whiskey and wondering if I still believe,” turning this carol into the lament of a grieving doubter. It’s powerful stuff.

Similarly, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day becomes, in Bazan’s hands, a dark exhortation to be the change we want to see. “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep, we’re only what we sow and reap, if we ever are to get along then we ourselves must right the wrongs,” he sings, and these are actually the original lyrics – Bazan only added his own world-weariness to them. Bazan’s “Silent Night” is vicious and unflinching, taking aim at violence done in the baby Jesus’ name. When he does “O Little Town of Bethlehem” straight, it’s almost a surprise. He performs it with as much reverence as he does Low’s magnificent “Long Way Around the Sea,” from their Christmas album.

Dark Sacred Night ends with another Bazan original, and this one is the most difficult to listen to. It’s called “Wish My Kids Were Here,” and it spins the tale of a man separated from his children on Christmas (“They live with their mom in Alabama and I live with my girlfriend in Nashville, Tennessee”), and his struggle to make it through the day. “So I go awhile and fake a smile and drink and drink and drink,” Bazan sings, and it hurts. If you’re looking for a warm and nostalgic Christmas record, this would not be it. But if you want something that challenges the idea of what a Christmas record should be, Dark Sacred Night is strong and arresting, like all of Bazan’s work.

My taste in Christmas music runs more toward the joyous, so it’s no surprise to me that my favorite of a good lot this year is from Josh Garrels. An imposing figure with a powerful voice, Garrels writes lovely songs that explore faith and beauty. The Light Came Down is his first Christmas album, a mix of new takes on traditional songs and originals that depict the birth of Christ in poetic language. The opening title track is one of those, as Garrels sings “the light came down, cast the darkness away” over stirring strings and martial drums. The song so encapsulates everything I would expect from a Josh Garrels Christmas number – there’s a falsetto section, and a choir, and everything – that you may wonder where he goes for the next 14 songs.

Thankfully, the answer is “pretty much the same place.” Garrels sings “What Child is This” and “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and “O Holy Night” like the hymns they are, set in absolutely gorgeous foundations of guitar and strings. His elastic voice takes old classic “The Virgin Mary Had One Son” dancing, and simply electrifies “Gloria,” another swell original. Like his masterpiece Love and War and the Sea In Between, Garrels ends The Light Came Down with a suite of songs that lay out his vision of the meaning of Christmas, which includes “Silent Night” but also a stunning version of the Brilliance’s “May You Find a Light.” It’s such a beautiful song, and I’m glad someone of Garrels’ caliber noticed it and ran with it.

The album concludes with a pair of hymns. Garrels simply shines on “O Day of Peace,” a song that wraps up all that has come before in a lovely bow, and his own “Come to Him” is a perfect coda. The Light Came Down is everything I thought it would be, and is the most hopeful thing I have heard in a long time.

And really, that is what I need from my Christmas music – a sense of hope, of love, of peace, particularly now, particularly this year. I’m not sure that my days will be merry and bright, but listening to this and other Christmas records this week has made them considerably merrier and brighter. I hope that for all of you as well.

Next week, the last reviews of the year. Can’t believe we’re here already. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.