It’s remarkable how holiday traditions and creative artistry over the years have yielded so many different musical expressions for the Christmas season, and 2006 is no exception. There’s acoustic pop from Third Day, R&B gospel from Mary Mary, varied pop from NewSong, Irish hymns from Moya Brennan, alternative folk from Sufjan Stevens, a cappella from Go Fish, soulful eclecticism from Israel & New Breed … and that’s only half of the 14 projects represented in this year’s Christmas Music Wrap-Up. Check out the diversity with which we can celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.Todd Agnew & Friends | Moya Brennan | Go FishHillsong Australia | Israel & New Breed | Mary MaryKevin Max | NewSong | Sufjan Stevens | Third Day | Matthew WardThe Christmas to Remember | The Nativity Story: Sacred SongsSon of the Most High: Songs from the Voice, Volume 2
Do You See What I See? (Ardent/INO)
Adult contemporary pop/rock
Anyone familiar with Todd Agnew‘s gruff, blues-rock style probably wouldn’t figure him to craft a musical. But with a project not too dissimilar from Andrew Peterson‘s Behold the Lamb of God, this is a sort of Christmas pageant devotional, exploring Jesus’ birth from the personal perspectives of the various characters, revealing them as ordinary people who extraordinarily encounter God. With guest vocalists that include Christy Nockels (Watermark), Michael O’Brien, and Mike Weaver (Big Daddy Weave), Agnew explores not only the loving sacrifice of Joseph and the grateful surrender of Mary, but also the stress of the innkeeper, the excitement of the angels, the insight of Simeon, and even the omniscience of the infant Jesus. Book-ended with covers of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and Glad’s “In the First Light,” Agnew’s original songs would have benefited from an experienced co-producer to keep them from sounding overly hokey. Nevertheless, he’s put a lot of thought into the subject, giving an interesting new angle from which to reflect upon the Christmas story.
An Irish Christmas (Sparrow/EMI)
Best known by many as the voice of Irish band Clannad, as well as the sister of superstar Enya, Moya Brennan generally delivers the Christmas album you’d expect—her breathy vocals and gentle harp washing over the Celtic instrumentation. What’s most striking is how attuned she is to her sound, adhering closely to carols with roots in UK folk like “Deck the Halls,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and “What Child Is This,” then adapting “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “In Dulci Jubilo,” and “Do You Hear What I Hear?” as if they came from the same tradition—”Silent Night” sung in Gaelic is about as soothing as it gets. Brennan also taps her heritage with “In the Bleak Midwinter,” the gorgeous “Wexford Carol,” and “Gabriel’s Message” (the Basque carol that Sting made famous on 1990’s A Very Special Christmas). Aside from so-so renditions of “Carol of the Bells” and “Joy to the World,” Brennan’s peaceful style is most befitting of the Christmas season.
Snow (GFK Records)
A cappella pop
Together for ten years, this a cappella trio refocused their music in 2003 to emphasize kids ministry, and it’s served them and their target audience well. Their second Christmas release (after 1999’s More Than a Story) is to some extent nothing new—the same a cappella pop style that The Nylons, Glad, and Rockapella helped pioneer 20 years ago. But there’s no denying that Go Fish does it as well as any, delivering their harmonies over a drum machine like a more vocal intensive Backstreet Boys (or a more caffeinated 4Him). Credit them also for making an effort to be different with their songs, offering playful arrangements of standards (including a rocking “Little Drummer Boy” and a cute “White Christmas”) as well as thoughtful originals (“Christmas with a Captial ‘C'” borrows from comedian Brad Stine to address political correctness for holiday). Though rather preachy at times, Snow is nonetheless infectious and fun for all ages.
Celebrating Christmas (Hillsong/Integrity)
Hillsong‘s studio albums aren’t typically as exciting as their live recordings, but Celebrating Christmas comes close, and is far better than 2001’s Jesus Christmas Worship Down Under. Here Darlene Zschech and her worship team are at their best, offering contemporary arrangements of the usual hymns, practical enough for the average worship team to adapt with printable lead sheets included on the enhanced CD. “Joy to the World” is revitalized by a jazzy funk shuffle, and an upbeat “Angels We Have Heard on High” is matched with Reuben Morgan‘s “Gloria”—the beloved refrain does still make an appearance. Also noteworthy are a terrific big band version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and a Phil Keaggy-styled instrumental acoustic guitar arrangement of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The album’s five original tracks—all pop or R&B ballads—are generally less memorable and interesting, “Saviour Christ the King” being the strongest, but stylistic variation and accessibility still make this album a winner for contemporary congregations worldwide.
A Timeless Christmas (Integrity Gospel)
Soul, fusion jazzp
Simple rule of thumb: if Israel Houghton‘s name is attached to the album, expect greatness. The acclaimed worship leader and his exceptionally talented band have become synonymous with instrumental proficiency, and they certainly don’t disappoint for this delightfully eclectic 72-minute Christmas special. Part Stevie Wonder, part Earth Wind & Fire, with a little bit of Trans-Siberian Orchestra bombast (“Nutcracker Overture”) and a slew of guests, Israel and company know how to get your Christmas boogie on one minute (soulful “Everybody Knows”) only to soothe you with holiday reflection the next (jazzy “Silent Nocturne”). Excellent and intricate interpretations of classic hymns (“O Come,” “Hark”) build on the familiar while also transforming them into something almost entirely new. “Least of These” bridges cultural styles under a purposeful message, and Houghton’s gift for arrangements has never been stronger than his 10-minute “Christmas Worship Medley”—simply stunning. Some of the keyboards can sound cheesy at times, and the sentimental closing tracks fizzle in comparison to the ones before them, but this Timeless Christmas nevertheless impresses with its variety and scope.
A Mary Mary Christmas (Sony/Integrity Gospel)
Taking the title literally, this is the first Christmas release from popular sister duo Erica and Tina Campbell. But taken at pun value, well, Mary Mary‘s album just isn’t “merry” enough. Among the few familiar covers, the R&B vocalizing of “Carol of the Bells” suffices, but the African-styled arrangement of “O Come All Ye Faithful” seems forced and unconvincing, while “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” feels over-sung. The originals similarly lack zing—a predictable ballad here, some conventional R&B beats there. “Still the Lamb” aims high by interspersing spoken word sermonizing with soulful singing, but never reaches its show-stopping gospel aspirations, unlike “Call Him Jesus,” which has a fiery straight-outta-church gospel feel that lacks enough of a seasonal touch. Considering the strength of Mary Mary’s vocals and their three previous albums, this is a disappointing effort that never comfortably settles into the holiday spirit as well as Nicole C. Mullen’s Christmas in Black & White and this year’s The Christmas to Remember.
Holy Night (Northern Records)
A late addition to 2005’s crop of Christmas releases, Holy Night to some extent feels hastily thrown together. As produced by Andrew Prickett (Prayer Chain), it’s generally Kevin Max crooning along to ethereal keyboard arrangements—lots of piano, the occasional vibraphone, and plenty of synth strings. Unfortunately, this makes some of the orchestrations sound cheap, but it’s less noticeable when the arrangements are interesting and progressive, particularly the Russian folk feel of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and pleasant piano underscoring both jazzy (“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”) and saloon (“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”) in style. Aside from a darker alt-pop take on “Joy to the World” and a Beatle-esque styled “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” the dc Talk alum appreciably refrains from overly contemporizing the classic carols, though he never quite achieves the seemingly intended ambience of Coldplay or Sigur Ros either. More effort would have made this project stronger, but it still makes a warm and ambient holiday release—provided that you’re warm to Max’s vocal ambience.
The Christmas Hope (Integrity)
In 2001, “The Christmas Shoes” single-handedly rekindled NewSong‘s career. Five years after their previous holiday album, the group hopes to touch listeners again, this time offering the trilogyofstories from NY Times best-selling author Donna VanLiere: their mega-hit, “The Christmas Blessing” (featuring Rachael Lampa), and the title track. Such concentrated schmaltz won’t appeal to everyone, but NewSong more than makes up for it with the album’s remainder. Ballads “The Song of Christmas” and “Bethlehem Calls” are among this year’s stronger original songs, and even “Southbound Flight” sounds like it’s a fifty-year-old jazz standard by Louie Armstrong or Dr. John. Producer Bernie Herms (Natalie Grant) helps NewSong have fun with an array of styles. Wild rockabilly in “Jingle Bell Rock” recalls the Brian Setzer Orchestra, a wonderfully buoyant version of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” feels like Chicago, and they even convincingly pull off gospel with Anointed in “Jesus What a Wonderful Child.” It would seem NewSong is at their best when inspired by the music of Christmas.
Songs for Christmas (Asthmatic Kitty)
Anyone harboring doubts about Sufjan Steven‘s Christian beliefs should check out the track listing to Songs for Christmas, a collection of EPs he’s recorded annually over the last five years—42 tracks in all, approximately 2 hours. Not only does he favor the sacred over the secular with the usual favorites (“Away in a Manger,” “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “The First Noel”), but he also digs deeper into hymnody than most, covering oft overlooked classics like “Once in Royal David’s City,” “Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming,” and even perpetual Sunday school favorite “The Friendly Beasts.” Most of the originals also remain focused on the reason for the season, whether the title is reverent (“The Incarnation”) or ridiculous (“Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!”) Stevens’ stripped-down alt-folk style remains an acquired taste—banjo and acoustic guitar augmented by piano, xylophone, and woodwinds, topped off by some breathy, off-key group singing that sounds influenced by lots of eggnog. Yet Stevens’ simplicity and earnestness manages to bridge this timeless music to the traditions of Christmases past.
Christmas Offerings (Essential Records)
In the spirit of their best-selling Offerings worship albums, Third Day now presents a similar mixture of studio recordings and live tracks, this time inspired by the Christmas season. If you’ve been long hoping to hear the band play through the standard Christmas catalog, this is the album for you, playing out exactly as you’d imagine it. Unfortunately, the covers of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night,” and six others are all strictly by-the-numbers, adapting them to a vanilla roots pop sound that offers nothing in the way of an interesting hook or exciting stylistic transformation. The four unimaginative originals similarly fall short of the band’s potential—I can’t help thinking “Born in Bethlehem” owes its melody to “Frère Jacques.” Whether you’re an enthusiastic or disenchanted fan of Third Day, Christmas Offerings delivers exactly what you would expect, and nothing more.
Christmas with Matthew Ward (www.matthewward.com)
The first Christmas album from 2nd Chapter of Acts’ esteemed male vocalist, and he’s still in fine voice 25 years later as a solo artist. But this independent release’s production values are second-rate at best, using keyboards in substitution of orchestra, pipe organ, and more. Matthew Ward and co-producer Gary Leach compensate with their classical sensibilities for traditional church-styled renditions of “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Other more inventive arrangements include a quietly jazzy “Silent Night” and an eastern European-flavored “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” reminiscent of Sting. Most of the album plays out very predictably, the only original being “Glory to the King,” which bears a passing resemblance to 2nd Chapter’s “Easter Song.” Not a distinctive holiday effort, but not badly performed or without its seasonal charm. A portion of the proceeds benefit Children’s HopeChest, an international ministry for orphan care.
The Christmas to Remember (EMI Gospel)
There’s a pleasantly warm, often mellow quality to this compilation from EMI Gospel, beginning with a slickly subdued funk version of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” by LaShun Pace and a smooth R&B riff on “Little Drummer Boy” from Darwin Hobbs. Kierra Kiki Sheard and Marcus Cole (sounding like a younger Andrae Crouch) give a delightful rendition of “This Christmas” that uses traditional horns to carry the familiar hook. The album balances covers with originals, Myron Butler & Levi delivering progressive gospel (“Give Love on Christmas”) while Antonio Neal soulfully finishes things off on the right note with “Steppin’ (In the New Year).” Donald Lawrence’s worshipful “Presence of the King” and Smokie Norful‘s spectacular performance of “O Holy Night” are the only previously released tracks. V3’s lackluster R&B version of “O Come All Ye Faithful” is the weakest track on an album that is otherwise worthwhile and memorable, good for turning the lights down low and admiring the reflective Christmas atmosphere.
The Nativity Story: Sacred Songs (Word/New Line Records)
Considering that most all of these songs are previously released tracks dating as far back as 1991, it’s inaccurate to say they were inspired by New Line’s The Nativity Story, a movie (coming to theaters Dec. 1) that recounts the events that led Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. Still, a case could be made that the collection was inspired by the film, featuring songs recorded by Christian and country artists that were inspired by the Nativity story. Excellent originals like “Mary Sweet Mary” (Plumb with Selah) and “Labor of Love” (Jill Phillips with Andrew Peterson) are story specific, stacking up to the similarly reflective classic “Breath of Heaven” (Amy Grant). But straightforward covers of “Silent Night” (Jo Dee Messina), “The First Noel” (Mark Schultz), and “Mary, Did You Know?” (an out-of-date rendition by Kenny Rogers & Wynonna) are no more Nativity focused than, say, WoW Christmas. Two new recordings—an orchestrated version of “For the Beauty of the Earth” (BarlowGirl) and the all-star recording “The Virgin’s Lullaby”—help make this satisfactory collection worthwhile, but there’s no shaking the feeling that it exists more as a marketing tie-in than a thoughtful holiday release.
Son of the Most High: Songs from the Voice, Volume 2 (Nelson Bibles)
Acoustic pop and alt-folk
Thomas Nelson Publishing and Ecclesia Bible Society have partnered together for The Voice, a multi-faceted project intended to spark interest in Scripture for a new generation through creative arts. Following an album inspired by the Psalms, Son of the Most High offers original songs based on the same Scripture that inspired Handel’s Messiah, drawing primarily from Old Testament prophecy (Isaiah 9, 40, and 60), and concluding with the Christmas story in Matthew and Luke. Don Chaffer (Waterdeep) produced again and co-wrote most of the songs, along with wife Lori whose resemblance to Sara Groves on “Perfectly Fitted” is uncanny. The contributing artists are among the brightest and best in Christian music’s underground alt-folk scene, including Andrew Peterson, Kendall Payne, Andrew Osenga, Matt Wertz, Tyler Burkum (Audio Adrenaline), not to mention the sorely missed Jill Paquette and Steven Delopoulos (for the extremely Greek flavored “Seventh Trumpet”). Classic rocker “Radiant” establishes Tara Leigh Cobble again as the next Jennifer Knapp. With intelligent song craft and superb musicianship through and through, this Voice is sounding stronger with every album.