Ten Christmastime Albums for the Ambivalent

I love Christmas music.

More specifically, I love about five percent of Christmas music. The vast majority of holiday recordings remind me of crowded parking lots, rude temporary retail employees, delayed flights, and other cortisol-infused rituals of hyper-ambitious gifting, cooking, and travel. And without an authentic Christian faith or any nostalgia for Santa Claus, my tolerance for core Christmas themes is very low.

But somehow, I adore the season anyway, despite its mostly grating soundtracks. I remember my formative holidays in snowy upstate New York (and later Ohio) as cozy and magical. Even though we lived in small apartments on modest means, far away from grandparents and cousins, Christmas in my family was still a time for special decorations, treats, music, games, and fun with people who loved me. We sang carols and lit candles. The small presents in my stocking were my favorites. My parents might recall things differently, but for me it was just like they sing about in the songs.

As I’ve become more aware of the bitter aspects of the holiday season (and life in general) as an adult, the concept of “heavenly peace” particularly resonates with me, in a weirdly secular way. I love being surrounded by reminders that peace is as worthy an ambition as any other – whether at the level of nations, of households, or within our own minds. That elusive focus on peace is, for me, what makes comfort and joy possible. And even if I didn’t inherit my parents’ faith, I still find it fundamentally peaceful to contemplate the heavens – that is, the vast mystery of the universe, to which my sentient life is one tiny clue. Call it the “tiny blue dot” take on Christmas. About five percent of holiday music puts me in this frame of mind, and I look forward to it every year.

So I’m sharing my list of the best albums out there for holiday revelers like myself whose Christmas cheer is narrow but enthusiastic. It turns out that most of my favorites are from the 21st century, but to make my ranking I listened to more than 40 different collections spanning several generations, from classics like Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole to new releases from Eric Clapton, Jessie J, and John Legend. I learned three things: (1) The holiday season has left no popular music genre untouched. Whatever your preference, it almost certainly includes selections for Christmas. (2) Instrumentation is more important than vocals. That’s where artists can reframe a classic song that’s already been interpreted by hundreds of other musicians. (3) Pop arrangements of Christmas hymns – i.e. the religious songs – generally fall flat. In that category, there aren’t many substitutes for a live choral rendition.

With that, light some candles, make yourself a hot toddy, and enjoy these songs of the season!

Top 10 Christmastime albums

10. Sleeping At Last, Christmas Collection, Vol. 1 (2017). Sleeping at Last is the long-time project of Illinois musician Ryan O’Neal, and I discovered it while looking for a proper rendition of my favorite Christmas carol, “O Holy Night.” FYI: Celine Dion’s version is the best, and I listened to 30 other takes on the song just to make sure. She brings the soaring vocals that the melody deserves without turning the diva dial to 11.

O’Neal’s emo-style tone is a far cry from diva. But he sings with a quiet earnestness that casts classics from “The Christmas Waltz” to “O Holy Night” in a new light. The arrangements, often built on a foundation of acoustic guitar or simple strings, are fairly minimalist but ethereal – my ideal holiday mood. (Sleeping at Last’s non-holiday catalog includes the planet-themed album Atlas: Space.) O’Neal’s sensibilities for the dynamic ebbs and flows of the songs we all know is right on point. Christmas Collection also includes his older original, “Snow,” about the interplay between the holiday spirit and the inherent imperfections of life and relationships.

9. Amy Grant, Home for Christmas (1992). This album opens the soundtrack to my childhood Christmases, the first album my dad would play when it was time to decorate the tree. Grant’s style evolved through the ’80s from overtly Christian to wholesome-but-relatable pop, peaking just before my musical tastes branched off from what my parents liked. But her three Christmas albums are timeless, and the triple-platinum Home for Christmas is the best. Consistent with Grant’s broader success as a crossover artist, the album has a diverse track list tied together by orchestral and choral components that nod to standards like The Carpenters’ Christmas Collection but make the older productions sound dated. Grant’s team created a unified style that encompasses both a symphonic rendition of “Joy to the World” and a pop cover of Carly Simon’s “Night Before Christmas.”

Highlights: “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song),” a reminder that Christmas Eve for Jesus’s mother was a time of fear and confusion; “O Come All Ye Faithful,” pared down with an intimate guitar accompaniment; “Grown-Up Christmas List,” whose chorus still makes me tear up; and “Emmanuel God With Us,” an original track expressing deep relief and gratitude for the possibility of salvation from the human condition.

8. The Hotel Cafe presents Winter Songs (2008). This obscure record featuring women singer-songwriters could hardly have arrived at a more appropriate time in my life. In 2009, I was a new mom trying to build a new life in a college town that somehow lacked a decent indie radio station? With Spotify still unknown to me, my babies and I listened to lots of Pandora, which quickly learned my affinity for artists like Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Sara Bareilles, and Kate Nash. I’m pretty sure that’s how I first heard “Winter Song” by Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson. The song was an epiphany for me in that first year when I realized it was up to me to create Christmas memories for my own kids. I hadn’t known there was any Christmas music made just for people like me. I also hadn’t known any artist could possibly make me enjoy “Frosty the Snowman.” It turns out Fiona Apple can.

Not every song on the album hits the mark for me (though I will always appreciate the sentiment), but it also introduced me to some of my favorite Christmas recordings of all time. I’d happily listen to “Winter Song” every single day between Thanksgiving and Christmas for the rest of my life, and my daughter is old enough now to sing it with me (she’s Ingrid). Priscilla Ahn does the most beautiful a cappella “Silent Night” in existence. And Bareilles and Michaelson jump back in on the last track for a perfect group chorus of “Auld Lang Syne,” the New Year’s drinking song that I adore but that few recordings get quite right.

7. Leslie Odom Jr., Simply Christmas (Deluxe) (2016/17). One of the many reasons to love the musical Hamilton is the voice of Leslie Odom Jr., whose star turn as Aaron Burr won a Tony and can still be heard on the original cast album. In 2016, Odom released an under-promoted eight-track holiday album in the wake of Hamilton; he put out an expanded “Deluxe” collection the following year. Odom’s measured vocals are the focus, usually backed up by quiet piano jazz riffs. The track list includes some unexpected selections, like covers of “Winter Song” by Bareilles & Michaelson and “Christmas” by The Who, as well as a duet with Odom’s wife, Nicolette Robinson, on “Edelweiss.”

Highlights: Perfect renditions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and “The Christmas Song.”

6. Lauren Daigle, Behold (Deluxe) (2016/18). Ever since I heard Lauren Daigle’s Christmas album for the first time this year, I keep thinking about my last two Christmases that could have been graced with her sultry vocals if only I had known about her. Daigle, a Louisianan Christian artist whose latest album was just nominated for two Grammys, sounds like Adele, but – at least on this album – better. (Yup, I said it.) Like Leslie Odom, she sings with a Guaraldi-esque jazz ensemble that’s a perfect match for her vocal style.

As an aside, Daigle’s been fielding negativity from her evangelical fanbase about her views on homosexuality, after she willingly appeared on Ellen Degeneres’s show and later said she couldn’t say one way or the other if being gay is a sin. She responded: “I think the second we start drawing lines around which people are able to be approached and which aren’t, we’ve already completely missed the heart of God.” I hope she always sees her way to sharing her wonderful talent with all of us.

Highlights: Speakeasy-style takes on “What Child Is This?,” “Christmastime Is Here,” “White Christmas,” and “O Holy Night.”

5. The Oh Hellos’ Family Christmas Album (2014). With only four tracks clocking in at 24 minutes total, this album is a little bit of a ranking cheat; other collections get penalized for including material I skip. But each “movement” here is an inventive, folky medley that splices or layers together bits of the songs we think we know. Movement I grows out of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” as you’d imagine it sung around a campfire, morphs briefly into a metallic “Coventry Carol,” and ends on “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” in the oooooooh’s popularized by the Charlie Brown kids. The other movements build their own themes, then return at last to “O Come O Come.” It’s different, joyful, and beautiful.

Check out their 2016 holiday visit to NPR’s Tiny Desk!

4. Sarah McLachlan, Wintersong (2006). It’s just a fact that Sarah McLachlan’s voice and the Christmas spirit are a match made in heaven. They go together like cookies and milk. Her first Christmastime album is exactly what you expect it to be: Peaceful and comforting, like a cozy sweater. Drums don’t have much of a role in the arrangements, which are somehow much more interesting than the instrumentation on McLachlan’s more recent Wonderland album. I also love the song selection, including McLachlan’s original title track about missing a loved one who’s gone, maybe for good. The whole thing is a 45-minute reminder to slow down.

Highlights: “What Child Is This?” with a tweaked melody, the wistful “Wintersong,” McLachlan’s 1994 cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song for a Winter’s Night,” and a billowy rendition of “Christmastime Is Here.”

3. Yo-Yo Ma & Friends, Songs of Joy & Peace (2008). Part of what has made cellist Yo-Yo Ma a living legend is his curiosity about a wide variety of musical genres and traditions, leading to an incredible diversity of collaborations over his career. Songs of Joy & Peace makes the most of that rolodex, with guest performances by James Taylor, Dave Brubeck, Diana Krall, Allison Krauss, and many others. The result is a mishmash of styles that’s both sophisticated and fun, tied together by five variations on Dona Nobis Pacem interspersed through the track list. The selections mostly stay away from the lyric-driven carols played ad nauseam throughout the season, with even Taylor, Krall, and Krauss lending their voices to off-beat tunes (Taylor covers The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun”).

Highlights: Brubeck’s “Joy to the World” and “Concordia,” fiddler Natalie McMaster on “A Christmas Jig,” “Invitacion al Danzon” featuring saxophonist/clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, and trumpeter Chris Botti on “My Favorite Things.”

2. Sufjan Stevens, Songs for Christmas (2006). Sufjan Stevens’s five-EP box set is another pick that might seem like kind of a cheat: With over 40 tracks, some of them have to be good, right? But the bottom line is that the quiet weirdness of Stevens’s style speaks to me at any time of year, and during the holiday season it often feels like a welcome respite even from other Christmas music I enjoy. He imparts a beautiful oddball quality to many well-known hymns, wisely dispensing entirely with vocals for some of them (“Hark!” and “Angels We Have Heard On High”), and he isn’t afraid to offer a somber counterpoint to the deluge of contrived holiday merriment that can seem at odds with our actual lives. There are also plenty of originals (“We’re Goin’ to the Country,” “Put the Lights on the Tree,” “Only at Christmas Time,” “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!”) that evoke the profound ups and downs of family.

Highlights: Building harmonies on “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” and “Amazing Grace”; earnest renditions of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and “Joy to the World”; poetic originals “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” and “Star of Wonder.”

1. Vince Guaraldi Trio, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). Masterful jazz meets iconic holiday themes. The timing on Guaraldi’s piano improvisations never, never gets old. I don’t think any more explanation is needed here.

Highlights: “O Tannenbaum,” “Christmastime Is Here (instrumental),” “Skating,” and “The Christmas Song.”

Did I miss your favorite holiday album? Make your case by email at eveningdocket@gmail.com or leave a comment on Twitter or Facebook.

Categories: Music

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