Much like the Best of 2009 post I am also writing , this reflects the best media I have been exposed to during the year. A few of these came out a year or two ago, but I first heard them this holiday season. Some will be renditions of the traditional carols we all grew up with and some will be more modern originals.
The challenge with a lot of Christmas music is there is a plethora (in the correct sense of the word) of it and most of it is old and sounds like it. A lot of these artists mentioned below have breathed new life into the songs by either changing the tempo or altering the melody, adding a word or two, or by playing it with a skillful hand/heart.
Soon I will also be posting my favorite renditions of traditional Christmas carols as well as modern ones. Over half of these are available for free (or through donation) from Noisetrade, which is how I was introduced to 3 of these. That website is great because you can pay whatever you like for the mp3′s or just tell 5 friends about the offer and then you can download the mp3′s.
Here you can listen to songs from the albums listed below. I will add more if I get permission from the artists.
¶Michael Trieb – Christmas EP (2009)
This was the most surprising find for me. I didn’t expect much from this one because I read Michael’s description (recording in a bathroom using a Rock Band mic) before I pressed play. This has a Sufjan Stevens/David Bazan kind of feel to it. It’s folk. It’s electronic. It’s simple. But it is wonderful. 3 of the 4 songs are originals. I was hooked at the opening lines of the 2nd song “Getting Old.”
“The seasons changed but you stayed the same / Grinch by day. Ebenezer Scrooge by night…If we’re waking up with bags in our eyes but no bags under the trees / then maybe we should all go back to sleep…”
(from “Getting Old”)
You can hear the praise come out of his voice. I’m drawn to the imperfect singers of the world. There’s a sense of passion you can feel when Michael sings and sometimes strains his voice. There’s no overproduction here. The best song is “When You Were Born.” This is an honest song, that speaks of the the birth of Christ & what it means to him.
“You came as a baby just like me / and the winds still sing the same song that it sung on the night You came to be / that night You came You took my place when you were born / when You were born You saw my face / You knew my name when You were born
(from “When You Were Born”)
I’m anxious to check out the rest of his works and see how he matures over the years.
¶So Elated – The Bewildering Light (2008)
Indie rock with a flair. I became aware of this because of Noisetrade and this is an amazing album. Most of the other ones I downloaded from the site were bland and didn’t have much to offer, but not this one. The opening track, “Zechariah and the Least Expected Places.” sets the tone for this album with and sets it apart from the rest. No wonder it’s been near the top of the charts for Holiday music for 2 years.
This is more than just another Christmas album, it is more a concept album, featuring songs offering a personal view of events leading up the birth of Christ and those thereafter. You get to hear Ben Thomas sing intelligent narratives from the often unheard points- of-view of Zechariah (“Zechariah and the Least Expected Places”), of Joseph (“Stick With You”), and that of Mary during her pregnancy (“God is With Us”)
“but the Lord of Creation will not be subjected to expectation/ God keeps slipping out from underneath rocks / in alleys off the beaten path / Open both your eyes…
God, we will wait though we don’t understand Your redemptive story…”
(from “Stick with You”)
The album closes with the shepherds, the Magi, and the angels worshipping Jesus in a beautiful rendition of “O Come All Ye Faithful.” I only wish the band extended the a capella outro a bit longer.
¶Sojourn – Advent Songs (2007)
Sojourn Church, in Louisville, KY, is a member of the missional church movement with rich, theologically-sound worship and Bible teaching. The only problem I have with the Sojourn band is that they are so much better live than on CD. I listened to the stream of “Joy To The World” on their website and thought it was the best rendition I’ve heard. Then I heard it live on the first Sunday of Advent and it was immensely better. I wish there were a way to capture that experience and share it with you.
I’ve only been to the church twice in the 10 years I’ve known of the church, but both times have been amazing. If I lived in Louisville, this would be my church. Just listen to Jamie Barnes‘s update to the classic “Joy to the World.” They also have a full length CD “Songs for Advent” that is just as good and features a few of the same songs.
update: You can download 2 songs from the EP here.
¶August Burns Red – “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (2009)
There are only 2 songs on this CD, it’s essentially a single (remember those?) but they are both great songs, much better than you’d expect from a metalcore band. “Carol of the Bells” is a song I generally don’t like. The words & melody are annoying and it makes me think of this Peter Griffin clip from Family Guy. Fortunately, this rendition is strictly instrumental and better for it.
Also instrumental is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” This is one of the best version I’ve heard and I don’t miss the words. You can listen to both songs below.
¶JJ Heller – “Wake Up World” (2007)
This EP is amazing. Another one I found through Noisetrade. It’s mostly originals with a couple of updated carols. The EP opens strong with “Emmanuel.” and most of the EP focuses on the time when Jesus was born. I must admit the back half of the EP isn’t as strong as the first 2 tracks (not to say it’s not good, but not as good), but overall, it’s a remarkable EP. JJ Heller has a wonderful voice and it’s great to hear her interact musically with her husband, Dave.
“Come fall at His feet / Won’t you sing, sing to the King / Go tell everyone / Christ is born / Glory fills the sky as Mary sings a lullaby / Emmanuel is born tonight.”
“Wake Up The World” is a re-imagined amalgam of”Joy to the World.” and “Silent Night.” It’s an acoustic guitar ballad with the perfect piano accents.
She and her husband expand and retell the story of “We Three Kings.” with beautiful simplicity on “Star of Wonder.”
¶Justin McRoberts “Christmas Songs: Volume 2 (2008)
Justin McRoberts has been on the scene for a long time. I first heard him on a 5 Minute Walk compilation and saw him fill in for Reese Roper‘s empty shoes at a Five Iron Frenzy show in a roller skating rink in Nashville in 1999. The EP starts out quite unassumingly with “O Little Town of Bethlehem” with nothing but Justin & his guitar. But don’t let that fool you. This is a great, mellow, version of the song, but it serves as an appetizer for what comes next.
“Born Beneath These Stars” is a wonderful praise song that borrows from “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
One of the things that makes this EP stand out is the insertion of Justin’s new words with the traditional songs, most notably on “O Holy Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” You can get this one free from Noisetrade.
“Hallelujah! He is near to us / Christ our Savior born and dear to us / for the sinner / for the hungry ones / for the broken / our help has come / Hallelujah! He is near to us. Christ our Savior born and dear to us / for the sinner / for the broken ones / hallelujah!
(from “O Holy Night”)
Also, he is worthy of following on twitter.
¶Seabird – The Silent Night EP (2009)
I hadn’t listened to Seabird before I watched the fall finale of “Grey’s Anatomy.” on November 20th. At first I thought it might be Reindeer Section with more refined vocals. This was my favorite version for about a week. Then I heard Jamie Barnes’s version on the Sojourn site. Both songs are not the traditional arrangements but great pop melodies from this Cincinnati band.
Peace On Earth: A Charity Album Vol. 1 (2007) & Vol. 2 (2008)
Both of these are wonderful compilations and the proceeds go to support Toys for Tots. It’s mostly indie artists. The standout tracks are from Ohtis, Anathallo, Sleeptalker, American Analog Set, Chris Walla, Laura Gibson, and The Prayers & Tears of Arthur Digby Sellars.
Trans-Siberian Orchestra – The Christmas Trilogy
Their new Rock Opera, Night Castle, isn’t a Christmas album, otherwise they’d be on this list near the top. But what can I say? There’s a gothic, Saviour Machine, feel to all the TSO recordings and I love it. I’m sure they put on a great show. As a whole, their Christmas albums are solid and full of a variety of standards carols and original songs for their metal-infused rock operas. I gave my mom the Christmas Trilogy last year and my dad hated it. He said it was “songs he didn’t recognize” and “sounded like rock.” So there’s an endorsement for you. I think that you don’t have to be a fan of progressive rock or the the lighter side of heavy metal to enjoy; you just have to be someone other than my dad.
You can listen to all 3 CD’s, that’s 57 tracks, one time below.
Happy Christmas from BEC Recordings/Tooth & Nail Records
There are usually several good songs on these compilations. There are 4 volumes in this series. It was followed by X Christmas in 2008. They all contain various carols, covers, and originals. Some of my favorites are from this series, including:
- Switchfoot • “Evergreen”
- Relient K • “I Celebrate the Day”
- Puller • “Savior of the Fools”
- Plankeye • “Jesu Bambino”
- Seven Day Jesus “O Holy Night”
- Copeland • “Do You Hear What I Hear”
- Aaron Sprinkle • “A Christmas Song For All Year Round”
- The Almost • “The Little Drummer Boy”