There for awhile it was beginning to look a lot like a dull year for Christmas music. The predictable slew of releases mainly amounted to singers carrying well-known tunes in buckets while session men provided pro forma backup. Missing was the spark, a sense of mystery, a reason to be going through the motions again besides ticking a box on a professional to-do list.
Most of the albums, however, had at least one song that stood out, and in the age of purchasing single tracks from the internet, the potential to assemble a Christmas compilation that would sound OK in the background at office gift-exchange parties wasn’t all that bleak. There were even enough competing renditions of perennial favorites to make comparing them somewhat fun.
Whose “Angels We Have Heard on High,” for instance, was the most pleasant to imagine echoing in reply from the mountains—Jewel’s from A Very Special Christmas: 25 Years (Big Machine), Mandisa’s from It’s Christmas (Sparrow), or Hillsong’s from We Have a Savior (Hillsong)?
Answer: Jewel’s. Hushed, reverent, and sung atop quiet strings, it wouldn’t actually echo unless blasted from a stadium-sized PA. But her masterly enunciation of excelsis alone would make such an experiment worthwhile.
Or whose “What Child Is This?” came closest to capturing the trinitarian wonder of gold, frankincense, and myrrh—Francesca Battistelli’s on Christmas (Fervent), Celtic Woman’s on Home for Christmas (Manhattan), Steven Curtis Chapman’s on Joy (Provident), or Rod Stewart’s on the “deluxe” edition of Merry Christmas, Baby (Verve)?
Answer: Rod Stewart’s.
It would be easy to dismiss Stewart’s Christmas project as his having discovered that it would allow him, at 67, to mine the Great American Songbook—a source that has enabled him to sell nearly eight million albums—one more time.
A cynical ploy it may be. But, although Merry Christmas, Baby’s secular chestnuts outnumber their sacred counterparts, Stewart sings each one as if deep down he senses the significance of the Incarnation. He certainly puts as much loving care into “This, this is Christ the King” as he once did “People get ready for the train to Jordan.”
Christina Perri’s six-song A Very Merry Perri Christmas (Atlantic) is even better. It boasts not only the touchingly introspective original “Something About December” but also a glowing version of the Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas Darling.” And if her pop chops aren’t quite up to Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas,” her non-operatic “Ave Maria” honors Jesus’ mother with a refreshingly humble simplicity.
But best of all are Tracey Thorn’s Tinsel and Lights (Merge) and the Polyphonic Spree’s Holidaydream: Sounds of the Holidays Vol. One (Kirtland).
In one sense, the two albums couldn’t be more dissimilar. Thorn’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is her album’s only standard, “Holidaydream” and “A Working Elf’s Theme” the Polyphonic Spree’s only originals.
But both albums strip Christmas music of its over-familiarity. Thorn, a veteran British pop songstress, does so from an entirely secular perspective, as if she can’t remember what’s holy about the holiday but knows that something is and won’t rest until it has saturated her to the core.
The Polyphonic Spree, on the other hand—while, like Stewart, favoring the secular—is at its most awe-inspiring when embracing the sacred. By lovingly subjecting “Silent Night,” “Do You Hear What I Hear,” and “Little Drummer Boy” to odd key signatures and melodies, Tim DeLaughter and his vast ensemble actually make it possible to hear them as if for the first time.
And their “Silver Bells” and “Let It Snow” are haunting enough for Scrooge.