After the slew of Christmas projects that were released last year, this year’s crop looks rather skimpy. Don’t let that trouble you though, for these nine make up for the small quantity with strong quality. A few of these projects are among the best I’ve ever heard in Christmas music, and as always, there’s wide array of musical styles. In case you’re curious, we’ve included a “New-to-Traditional %” with each album; it’s there to let you know how much of the album is comprised of brand-new material, and how much of it is made up of traditional favorites. Whichever you’re looking for, you’re certain to find some impressive music to celebrate the season with among this year’s releases.
(A little disclaimer: like last year, I cannot claim full credit for these oh-so-creative review titles. You have been warned … )
Selah | WoW Christmas | City on a Hill: It’s Christmas TimePlus One | toby Mac | John Tesh | Nicole C. MullenVineyard | Jump5
“Selah la la la … “
Rose of BethlehemSelah (Curb / Warner)
New–to–Traditional %: 30/70
A really good Christmas album will feature strong original songs that celebrate the season, stellar arrangements of beloved Christmas carols, or both. Inspirational vocal group Selah always has excelled at blending fine pop originals with thoughtful arrangements of old hymns, as well as seeking out quality songs you’ve probably never heard of, so they’re perfect for an album such as Rose of Bethlehem, produced by Jason Kyle. As you might expect, the beautiful three-part harmonies of Todd and Nicol Smith with Allan Hall practically make the timeless classics their own, but don’t let the group’s strong arranging skills go unnoticed. “Silent Night” builds from gentle lullaby to powerhouse vocalizing, and Allan underscores it with a hint of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” on the piano. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” calls attention to the hymn’s inspiration and heritage by blending the Jewish national anthem on violin with a Gregorian chant-like drone at the beginning. “O Holy Night” and “What Child Is This?” are similarly stunning, traditional in sound and yet altered enough to captivate the listener’s ear. Equally strong are the album’s original compositions. Todd’s rich voice carries the dark and dramatic beauty of “Mystery,” written by he and his wife Angela, which compares the traditional image of the Christmas tree with the tree on which Jesus gave his life. While this certainly isn’t an original idea, it’s always an effective one. Nicol’s solo comes with the poignant title track, a warm and pretty Christmas ballad by Lowell Alexander that closes the album. Allan carries most of the lead vocals on “Once Upon a Christmas,” a sweeping orchestral summary of the Christmas story that was written by Dolly Parton in the early ’80s. She joins Allan for a duet midway through the song, and both are backed by lush strings and terrific backing vocals from Todd and Nicol. “Light of the Stable” is an outstanding Christmas song that’s perfect for worship teams to integrate into their Christmas services because of its Steven Curtis Chapman-styled catchiness and simplicity. Really the only track that doesn’t work as well is “Joy” (penned by Todd, Nicol, and Angela), which was written to provide more musical diversity, but ends up sounding bland and too much like Avalon‘s song of the same title. The rest of the album is pure gold, delightful in its blend of traditional with contemporary, and destined to be a favorite for many years to come.
A Song for Each Day in December
Various Artists (Warner)
New–to–Traditional %: 04/96
This two-disc collection has been in development for a few years now. Despite what it says on the packaging, the project actually features 31 holiday favorites performed by your favorite Christian artists. Unlike WoW Hits and WoW Worship, there’s no measurable way to determine the “best Christmas songs.” Instead, this is simply a subjective collection of the best Christmas performances over the last ten years, the oldest probably being Kathy Mattea’s rendition of “Mary, Did You Know?” The producers smartly included such requisite classics as Amy Grant‘s “Breath of Heaven” and 4Him‘s “A Strange Way to Save the World.” The other previously released tracks are a grab bag of goodies by artists you expect to be on this project (i.e. anyone who’s ever released a Christmas album) – you just don’t know which songs will be chosen. For example, I half expected to see Michael W. Smith‘s “Gloria” included, but the producers instead chose his rendition of “Emmanuel” from Christmastime, which admittedly has had a larger impact. They also chose such gems as Point of Grace‘s wonderfully gentle “O Holy Night,” Kirk Franklin’s pretty “The Night that Christ Was Born,” Avalon‘s jazzy “Winter Wonderland,” and Rebecca St. James‘ excellent modern cover of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.” I’m impressed with the inclusion of Jennifer Knapp‘s “Sing Mary Sing” from her The Way I Am project. If this diverse collection of old favorites isn’t enough to entice you, the inclusion of several rarities and new tracks specially recorded for this project will for sure. You’ll find new tracks from current holiday releases by Plus One, Nicole C. Mullen, and Toby Mac. Additionally, there’s a stirring duet between Mark Schultz and Nichole Nordeman on “Silent Night,” a slick pop/rock version of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” by Third Day, a warm and simple cover of “What Child Is This?” by Mercy Me, a rocking rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” by Audio Adrenaline, and a beautiful jazz club rendition of Charlie Brown’s “Christmas Time Is Here” by Sixpence None the Richer, just to name a few. It’s doubtful you’ll like every one of the 31 tracks presented on WoW Christmas, but you’re certain to enjoy a number of them. This collection is so good, they easily could release a second installment next year with several exclusions from this project (Chris Rice and Relient K for example), as well as different arrangements of the same songs presented here … and it’d probably be just as enjoyable.
The Annual Christmas Pageant
City on a Hill: It’s Christmas Time
Various Artists (Essential)
New–to–Traditional %: 38/62
After forging two of the greatest worship albums of all time, producer Steve Hindalong (The Choir) carries his City on a Hill series into the Christmas season. Fellow Choir boy Derri Daugherty replaces co-producer Marc Byrd for It’s Christmas Time, though he’s always been present in the City on a Hill series to varying capacities. This particular City on a Hill boasts a larger roster of artists than either of its predecessors and features most of the artists who have appeared on the previous projects. The artists generally perform in a style true to their sound, and Steve keeps it all consistent with the modern acoustic style of the series. The album opens with church bells ringing the hymn “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Terry Scott Taylor gives a modern folk performance reminiscent of his time with Lost Dogs on “Holy Emmanuel,” Sixpence None the Richer sounds typically heavenly with their straightforward cover of “Silent Night,” and Caedmon’s Call performs “Babe in the Straw” almost as well as Leigh Nash did on the One Silent Night album. Sara Groves takes the role of Mary singing to her newborn baby in “Child of Love,” which contrasts the frailty of the infant Jesus with his destiny as Savior of mankind. Jars of Clay handles a similar theme with much poetry and thoughtfulness in their self-penned “Bethlehem Town.” Third Day‘s Mac Powell suggested the band record Julie Miller’s hymn-like “Manger Throne,” written ten years ago; she and Derri join Third Day in performing the song, which segues into a horn accompanied arrangement of “Away in a Manger.” The album is rounded out by a semi-acoustic R&B rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” by Out of Eden, a stirring performance of “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Paul Colman, and a fine duet by Michael Tait and Leigh Nash of “O Holy Night.” There are small signs City on a Hill is becoming a little formulaic, which makes the album’s pace and sound a little predictable – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. With its abstract telling of the Christmas story according to Luke chapter 2, this is certainly the most intriguing of the year’s new Christmas music offerings.
World’s Most Popular Carolers
ChristmasPlus One (Atlantic)
New–to–Traditional %: 30/70
At first glance, Plus One‘s Christmas looks deceptively simple for a holiday album. Produced by such acclaimed producers as David Foster, Tedd T., Bernie Herns, and Matthew Gerrard, it appears to be a collection of old favorites interspersed with a few new songs, performed in Plus One’s popular teen pop style. Actually, that’s mostly correct … except for the teen pop part. Those involved obviously recognized the fact that Christmas albums are an opportunity to present a variety of musical styles without offending your fan base, which means Christmas is more fun and mature than you’d initially expect. If you’re looking for obvious teen pop arrangements of Christmas favorites, you best check out Jump5‘s new Christmas offering listed below. Yes, there are slick dance pop arrangements of “What Child Is This?” and “O Holy Night,” and “Our Christmas Prayer” is the type of big power ballad you’d expect from Backstreet Boys or these guys. “I Won’t Forget Christmas,” written by the group’s Nathan Walters with Jess Cates and producer Matt Gerrard, is equally adult contemporary sounding in its challenge to remember the reason for the season. But then there’s “This Is Christmas,” co-written by Plus One’s Nate Cole and producer Tedd T., a surprisingly rocking pop anthem designed to lift the spirits of those troubled by the tragedies and trials of this world. The guys do an excellent a cappella rendition of “Silent Night” and an irresistibly fun boogie-woogie big band cover of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” There’s a fine medley of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and “O Come Let Us Adore Him,” that’s seamless in its transitions, building nicely over the course of the track. “A Prayer for Every Year” is a slightly reworded, less secularized version of Amy Grant‘s “Grown-Up Christmas List,” which was co-written by producer David Foster. Overall, it’s a satisfying Christmas album – a little predictable, but not nearly as much as you’d think, and appealing to a broader audience than teenage girls.
A Sample of Holiday Hip-Hop
toby Mac (Forefront)
New–to–Traditional %: 63/37
This two-song CD single hardly seems worth mentioning, but hey, it’s toby Mac (dc Talk)! The project is being released in cross-promotion with toby’s new Momentum DVD, which features three music videos with commentaries, behind-the-scenes footage, and an alternate ending to the “Extreme Days” video — not bad for $6. As for the CD single, with its funny re-working of the cover art from the Momentum album, you hardly can go wrong for a scant $2. On the other hand, unless you’re a committed fan of toby’s, there’s no strong reason to pick it up either. “This Christmas” is an R&B-flavored hip-hop original that serves as a public service announcement to remember the orphans at Christmas Time (i.e. be charitable at Christmas, ’tis better to give than to receive). Featuring new Gotee artist Nirva Dorsaint and incorporating a snippet of “Joy to the World,” you’ll also find this song on the WoW Christmas double album, which offers a lot more bang for your buck despite the bigger price tag. That leaves Toby’s rendition of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” which drops the familiar melody of the Christmas carol in favor of a Latin/R&B sound. Though it features a different vocal style for Toby, the track ultimately is forgettable. Certainly not essential to your music collection, This Christmas makes a nice stocking stuffer for the rabid toby Mac fan in your life.
Reflecting on the Season
John Tesh (Faith MD)
New–to–Traditional %: 25/75
Christmas Worship is the long-awaited seasonal follow-up to Romantic Christmas from more than ten years ago. Produced by John Tesh with Tom Laune (Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith), the album is not too unlike what you’d expect from Michael W. Smith; he and Tesh share a similar love for orchestral pop and sentimentality. Add a little bit of Mannheim Steamroller whimsy and you have the general style of Christmas Worship, which offers a similar programmed pop sound on straightforward covers of “Joy to the World,” “Carol of the Bells,” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Other tracks, such as “The Christmas Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” sound more like the warm standards these classics have become over time. The instrumental “Posita no Sunrise” probably was inspired by the Italian locale which serves as the setting for this album’s upcoming television special. The beautiful “Coventry Carol” and “Silent Night” also are given the gentle, instrumental treatment, highlighted by John’s accomplished piano skills and beautiful violin solos. John debuted his singing voice on this year’s popular A Deeper Faith worship album, and as you’d expect from the radio host and former broadcast journalist, he has a melodious Donnie Osmond-like baritone. He uses it particularly well on the comforting holiday anthem “This Is Your Gift” and on the sweet “It Wouldn’t Be Christmas (Without You),” written for his wife, Connie Selleca. If only John kept his focus for this album, which is just as much a sequel to his Deeper Faith album as it is to Romantic Christmas. I never would suggest that Christmas music and worship can’t be intertwined, but Rich Mullins’ “Awesome God” and “Hungry (Falling on My Knees)” feel out of place amid the seasonal favorites. The same is true of “God in the Stairwell,” a spoken-word piece featuring a well-known anonymous poem written from God’s perspective about the events of 9/11. At least Chris Tomlin‘s worshipful “We Fall Down” works lyrically because it follows an instrumental arrangement of “We Three Kings.” This is still a fine album that proves pop artists really can shine on seasonal recordings. Even if you don’t usually like John Tesh’s music, it works very well in a Christmas setting, which he surely will prove on tour this season with Nicole C. Mullen
The Title Says It All
Christmas in Black & WhiteNicole C. Mullen (Warner)
New–to–Traditional %: 66/34
It’s hardly surprising that an artist as popular as Nicole C. Mullen is taking a crack at a holiday album, or that the music is so musically diverse. No, what blows me away about Christmas in Black & White is the quality of the music and the creativity of the songwriting; I actually think it surpasses her last two highly acclaimed recordings. This project is a labor of love, produced by Nicole with her husband David, who also co-wrote many of the album’s plentiful new songs with her. The brief opening title track evokes comparisons to Lauryn Hill, a spoken word piece that features a reading of the annunciation to Mary over a dark hip-hop groove. Don’t let the unfamiliar song titles scare you off – you’ll find lots of traditional Christmas references sprinkled throughout. “Lamb of God” is a sophisticated R&B pop ballad that applies the message of “Little Drummer Boy” to our lives — “I have no gold to lay at your feet / So Lamb of God, I offer me” — only to break into the chorus of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” “Away in a Sacred Night” similarly blends “Away in a Manger” with an original Latin R&B-styled song; the result is beautiful and celebratory. “God’s Own Son” is a jazzy spiritual inspired by “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” There’s also the excellent R&B dance groove of “365,” which as you might guess is about behaving in the Christmas spirit all year long. Nicole sings a beautiful duet with her father for “The Christmas Song,” which draws obvious comparisons to Natalie Cole singing “Unforgettable” with her father. Her father-in-law is featured on “St. Nick’s Groove,” in which he reads the story of St. Nicholas. I hope kids are patient enough to listen to the two-and-a-half minute explanation, but thank you, Nicole, for putting the Christianity back into Santa Claus! Perhaps this album is best summarized with the spontaneous soulful groove of “Gifts from You,” a cute song that celebrates multiculturalism and God’s blessings of friends and family. The track features close to fifty (!) of David and Nicole’s family members singing along in celebration of the holiday. This is an exemplary Christmas album that easily ranks among the best in the history of Christian music. Not all the songs are for everyone, but everyone will enjoy something on this diverse recording.
Humble King: Christmas Around the World
Vineyard (Vineyard Music Group)
New–to–Traditional %: 27/73
Vineyard’s Humble King is an ambitious project that features studio recordings from six different worship teams around the world. The title comes from the worship ballad by Brenton Brown that first appeared on the 1999 Hungry album. It was originally intended to be a Christmas ballad, and the producers have restored the verse that made it so; unfortunately, this particular version of the song, as performed by Vineyard UK, sounds lifeless compared to the one you may know from Hungry. Vineyard UK’s tracks also reveal how some carols are sung differently in Britain; the hymn “Angels from the Realms of Glory” is sung to the tune of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and “Once in Royal David’s City” bears as much resemblance to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” as it does the original hymn. The latter also incorporates a bit of Scott Underwood’s “You Are God” towards the end. The guitar pop/rock of these tracks generally outshine the dull adult contemporary sounds of Vineyard USA (Anaheim, California). Neither “Lord, Come This Christmas” nor “Glory to God” are particularly interesting or inspiring, and the instrumental “Advent Carol” sounds like easy listening á la Kenny G. The Irish “Wexford Carol,” however, is a beautiful and haunting anthem that summarizes what Christmas is really all about. Their version of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is sort of like Sarah McLachlan singing with an orchestra. Tracks from Vineyard churches in New Zealand, South Africa, and India are generally too Westernized sounding, though South Africa does a decidedly African-styled cover of the Appalachian carol “I Wonder as I Wander.” New Zealand’s “My Soul (Magnificat)” has a simple but strong alternative guitar pop sound that’s characteristic of Vineyard’s stronger recent works. Interestingly enough, Vineyard Canada provides the most interesting tracks on the album. “Adoramus Te” is a delicate blend of old church Latin with new church inspirational pop. They also do a faithful rendition of Amy Grant‘s “Breath of Heaven,” which features more percussion and alternative pop programming. You get a lot of music for your money on Humble King, with 15 tracks and nearly 70 minutes, not to mention chord charts and other worship materials. If only the music were more interesting, the styles more diverse, and the mood more inspiring of the Christmas season.
Babes in Toyland
All the Joy in the WorldJump5 (Sparrow)
New–to–Traditional %: 00/100
By now, you’ve probably heard of Jump5 and are aware of their teen pop sound, geared to 7-12 year olds. If so, you probably can guess what you’ll get here: a collection of holiday favorites performed in Jump5’s vibrant dance-pop style. That said, I think this is the young quintet’s most consistent and best-produced project yet – an enjoyable Christmas pop confection. Jump5 continues to mature vocally, and the production by Mark Hammond (who recently helmed their All the Time in the World album) is more exciting and aggressive than either of their major releases. The only interesting thing done with the arrangements, other than setting them to an electronic beat, is the blending of other Christmas favorites within the songs. “Joy to the World” is exactly what you’d expect of a basic teen-pop rendition, but they marry it to a brief appearance of “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.” Likewise, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” begins with a cool nod to “Carol of the Bells.” I don’t think I can say I’ve heard “Sleigh Ride” to an electric slide-like groove, or it’s alternate hip-hop remix for that matter. Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” finally gets a contemporary face-lift that doesn’t simply try to recreate the original recording. It actually works well as a jazzy R&B track, and it also is featured again in an ambient remix at the album’s end. Jump5 also tackles a somewhat Beatle-esque rendition of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree/Jingle Bell Rock” that’s bouncy and enjoyable. They don’t stretch too far from 4Him‘s original version of “A Strange Way to Save the World,” performed here as smooth R&B that’s no less mature than what ZOEgirl or Out of Eden would have done with it. You should be aware that All the Joy in the World is only an eight-track album, including the two remixes (only 27 minutes of music). It’s appropriately priced under $10, though I’ve seen a lot of EPs that run longer for less money. Conservative listeners may balk at the secular song selection, with only two songs about Jesus’ birth. Remember this group is targeted at a demographic that was previously dominated by Veggie Tales and Miss Pattycake. Accept All the Joy in the World for what it is – a fun holiday album to appreciate with your kids while wrapping presents and making Christmas cookies.