How is it that a German pop trio has recorded one of the most joyous, diverse, and American-sounding Christmas albums of the year? Seriously, there are performances herein to which Elvis Presley would’ve gladly laid claim, and the opening strings of “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow!” could’ve been sampled from It’s a Wonderful Life. There is a dark side: The album is not available on iTunes or being released in the United States. So those who’d love it best have to pay import prices.
Residents of Aiken, S.C., can catch this quartet every Thursday night at the Red Pepper Café in the Centre South Shopping Center. And while such a homey gig suggests the combo might comprise not-ready-for-prime-time players, there’s nothing parochial about the way Mike Frost (bass), Lauren Meccia (saxophone, vocals), Mike West (drums), and David Brown (keyboards) accentuate everything that’s positive about the intersection of sentiment, devotion, and playfulness without which Christmas in America would just be one more reason not to receive one’s mail.
This album has been re-issued before—a 40th-anniversary edition in 2007, a “deluxe” edition with DVD in 2010. But if any Christmas collection deserves to be exploited, it’s this one. Besides being musically excellent, it evokes memories of the days when diversity (Franklin), feminism (Lucy), and even Beethoven (Schroeder) took a back seat to the Gospel According to St. Luke (Linus). As for the tracks that make this 45th-anniversary edition “expanded” (“Great Pumpkin Waltz,” “Thanksgiving Theme”), they’ve been available on Charlie Brown’s Holiday Hits since 1998.
One of 21st-century America’s less heralded holiday traditions is the annual compilation of Christmas recordings by clients of the indie-music PR firm XO, each offered free of charge to anyone able to locate the download links via web search. Like the others, Vol. V is not without gravitas. Magnuson’s grungy “What Child” comes off un-ironically anthemic, Robert Burnham’s acoustic “White Christmas” sweetly heartfelt. It’s an original, however—the Caravan of Thieves’ gypsy-jazzy, anti-materialistic “I Don’t Want Anything for Christmas”—that steals the show.
In 2006 Sufjan Stevens released Songs for Christmas, a collection of four Christmas EPs and one disc that at 36 minutes was an LP by any reasonable standard. He has now followed it up with Silver & Gold (Asthmatic Kitty), a similarly configured, 58-track collection of standards and originals (some touchingly devout, others experimentally bizarre, all of it fascinating) that captures much of what makes him one of indie-music’s most beloved and most exasperating characters.
And a character is what Stevens is. When he sings “Oh, I’m getting old” on “Justice Delivers Its Death,” he’s clearly projecting beyond his 37 years. Often, though, he’s many characters simultaneously—and never more so than on Silver & Gold’s culminating opus, the 12-minute, 28-second “Christmas Unicorn.” “I make no full apology for the category I reside [sic],” he sings. “I’m a mythical mess, with a treasury chest. I’m a construct of your mind.” He’s a lot like Santa Claus that way.