Tis the Season
New Holiday Songs for the End of the Year

It’s beginning to look a lot like… well, autumn, to be honest.

But we’re only two weeks away from Christmas, which means this year is racing to a close. As you may know, I have a personal philosophy about Christmas music – that it should only be played between the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Thanksgiving was 12 days ago, and it’s been non-stop holiday joy around Casa de Salles. I have a lot of perennial favorites, and I’ve been joyously cycling through them.

I also had the thrill of seeing Over the Rhine’s Christmas show this year in an intimate venue in Chicago, and that was wonderful. The set was made up of songs from the band’s three holiday records, and some of the best tunes from their new record, Love and Revelation. Linford Detwiler joked during the show that they’d invented a new genre: the reality Christmas song. And it’s true. After a difficult and painful year, fake cheer would not have gone down quite as well as these hard-won tales of hope peeking through the darkness. It was exactly the mood I needed.

That’s not to say that the holly jolly tunes aren’t working for me this year. But I’ve had to rely on my old standbys, because 2019 just didn’t come through with the new Christmas albums. That’s not to say there haven’t been any – we wouldn’t be here discussing it if there were none – but they are few. In fact, for new Christmas records that I added to my collection this year, there are only two. (No, I didn’t buy John Legend’s record again just to get the newly updated “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”)

But the two I bought are great, so let’s talk about them. First is Sara Groves, one of my favorite singer/songwriters. I rarely think of her when listing my favorites, but I’ve never heard anything from her that I haven’t loved. That includes her previous Christmas album, the glorious O Holy Night, from 2008. That album has been such a part of my Christmases for so many years that I almost didn’t want a follow-up, for fear of disappointment.

I shouldn’t have worried. Groves is just delightful, and her second Christmas album, Joy of Every Longing Heart, is gorgeous. Its seven carols and two originals are all impeccably arranged, and Groves’ warm voice still feels like an old friend. She rewrites the melody of “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” a bold move in any case, but doubly so with one of my favorite carols. Except she nails it, giving this most lovely of laments a new spin that actually works. She sticks close to the originals otherwise, mixing the traditional (“Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”) with the whimsical (“Winter Wonderland”).

And there at track five, she gives us a Sara Groves classic in the form of “We Wait,” a superb cry out into the darkness with a clever piano figure and a sweet chorus. Her other original, “Just Like They Said,” is similarly lovely, a first-person account of the birth of Jesus from a forgotten bystander. That’s one thing Groves does very well: she finds a person who hasn’t been heard and gives that person a voice. Joy of Every Longing Heart is missing a novelty tune as great as “Toy Packaging,” but otherwise is a terrific second Christmas record from a tremendous talent.

Eric Owyoung also has a history of Christmas music. His one-man project, Future of Forestry, issued three EPs in a series called Advent between 2010 and 2013, and they’re terrific. Owyoung plays epic pop music and sings it with an expansive voice. His work is heavily orchestrated, soaring, room-filling stuff, and his fourth Christmas record, Light Has Come, is no exception.

This is basically a fourth volume in the Advent series in all but name. It contains four originals and three carols, all of which are performed in classic Future of Forestry style. There’s a fragile beauty to these songs, no matter how big the arrangements get. Owyoung’s own songs here are sweet and poppy – “We Are Home” is a particularly pretty one, though the title track is likely my favorite.

The carols are where my heart lies, though. Owyoung also does “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” and it’s great, but “I Wonder as I Wander” surpasses it. I’ve always loved this song, and Owyoung’s version of it gives me goosebumps. Future of Forestry is independent and obscure, and Owyoung deserves a wider audience. Check him out at www.futureofforestry.com.

And that’s it. Well, not quite. I did buy one other holiday record, but it celebrates a different holiday. I don’t know where I first heard about Hanukkah+, but I’m glad I did. This is a collection of Jewish artists singing mostly original songs about Hanukkah, and it’s a total delight. Much of this is delivered with a wry sense of humor, as evidenced by the first two tracks: Jack Black bellowing out the traditional “Oh Hanukkah” and Adam Green (of the Moldy Peaches) smirking his way through “Dreidels of Fire,” a song that offers up the central miracle of Hanukkah with a chuckle: “How the hell do you explain that shizz?”

That’s not to say this record is not a serious reflection. Haim does a swell job with Leonard Cohen’s immortal “If It Be Your Will,” for instance, and Craig Wedren, formally of Shudder to Think, closes things out beautifully with his own “Sanctuary.” Others split the difference: the Flaming Lips and Loudon Wainwright III give us songs that are right in line with their catalogs, and the Watkins Family Hour (here just Sean and Sara Watkins) zip through a fun instrumental called “Hanukkah Dance.”

Hanukkah+ is a lot of fun, and even though I am sure there are jokes I don’t get, I’m drawn in by the humor and the genuine affection these artists have for their tradition. I’m more than happy to add this collection to my holiday listening. It’s helped me enjoy the end of what has been a downer of a year. May your holidays be bright, whatever your tradition, and may the music of the season help you find light in the darkness.

Next week, the honorables and also-rans from the year.

See you in line Tuesday morning.