With all the hubbub over Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" hitting the top of the charts after all these years — I mean, haven't we heard it enough after countless reruns of "Love, Actually," actually? — allow me to shift gears and let you know about some superb Christmas music you (probably) haven't heard before.
Over the Rhine "The Darkest Night of the Year"
Over the Rhine takes its name from a Cincinnati neighborhood where its founding members created stirring independent alternative rock with a Christian undercurrent in the early 1990s. And while Christmas albums by rock bands are typically little more than fun diversions, "The Darkest Night of the Year" remains a timeless, standout creation from a group that's done a ton of great work.
The album's key is an inviting combination of ethereal, moody guitar swoops and swells along with decidedly non-rock instruments — cello, upright bass, harmonium, and an ever-so-slightly out of tune upright piano (which gives the listener the sense of hearing these tunes in a Victorian-era parlor). That and Karin Bergquist's heavenly vocals.
The band offers wonderful takes on carols such as "The First Noel," "Silent Night," and "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" — and closes with the lush guitar instrumental "A Little Lower Than the Angels" that clocks in at more than 7 minutes and should be heard with all the lights dimmed.
Anonymous 4 "Legends of St. Nicholas: Medieval Chant and Polyphony"
I have no idea what the women who make up the quartet Anonymous 4 are saying on "The Legends of St. Nicholas," but their voices are soothing and beautiful — and you certainly won't hear them on your local radio station. Here the group offers medieval chant and polyphony, the latter of which is defined as "a musical texture that features two or more equally prominent melodic lines played at the same time [and] it is the combination of the different strands, all interacting together, that creates polyphony."
The theme of this 24-track, nearly 70-minute album is the life and work of the actual Christian saint that Santa Claus is based on. From the liner notes: "Patron of ancient sailors and modern icon of Christmas charity, St. Nicholas has long been the subject of many popular liturgical works. From the dark legends of his visits to evil-doers to his altruistic and miraculous acts in defense of his flock, the life of St. Nicholas continues to inspire even into the new millennium."
Phil Keaggy "Majesty & Wonder: An Instrumental Christmas"
Phil Keaggy has been absolutely flooring audiences with his brilliant guitar virtuosity as a member of progressive rock trio Glass Harp and then as a solo artist on the Christian music circuit since the early 1970s. With "Majesty & Wonder," Keaggy teams up with the London Festival Orchestra to offer a top-notch selection of instrumental pieces perfect for setting a Christmas mood whatever your tastes may be.
Among the selections he tackles — employing both electric guitar leads and finger-picked acoustic guitars — are "What Child Is This?" "Silent Night," "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," and a triumphant "Do You Hear What I Hear?" He also effortlessly pulls off the timeless classical piece, "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" along with original compositions over the course of 13 tracks. For guitar and Christmas music, it doesn't get any better than this.
Don Peris "Brighter Visions Beam Afar"
Don Peris is a founding member of alt-folk outfit The Innocence Mission, which emerged from a Catholic high school in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and released its critically acclaimed, self-titled debut in 1990. Peris, a guitarist, also released a number of solo albums since then — among them his Christmas-themed instrumental creation, "Brighter Visions Beam Afar."
From the opening strains of "Angels We Have Heard on High," it's clear that this record is quiet, gentle, and sweet — and it's an ideal mood-setter to counter the stresses and hustle and bustle of the season. Other carols featured include "Silent Night," "What Child Is This?" "Away in a Manger," "O Come All Ye Faithful," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear." Also included is Peris' dreamy electric guitar cover of "Christmas Time Is Here" of Charlie Brown/Peanuts fame.
You can download "Brighter Visions Beam Afar" for FREE from the artist's site. (Thank you, Don.)
Jeff Johnson, Brian Dunning & John Fitzpatrick "A Quiet Knowing Christmas"
Keyboardist Jeff Johnson has been producing evocative Christian-focused music for decades — and typically with a powerful Celtic bent. Here the worship leader gets assistance from longtime collaborator Brian Dunning (flutes, whistles, and accordion) and violinist John Fitzpatrick. The results are a dozen instrumental tracks that transport you to Ireland for the Christmas season.
Standout selections include "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming," "Sussex Carol," and the hopeful vibe of closer, "Auld Lang Syne." Wonderful stuff that sets a reflective, meditative mood.
You can start listening to "Stars in the Morning East" right now and download it for purchase via Bandcamp.
Bill Mallonee & Muriah Rose "Wonderland (A Christmas Season Album)"
A long time ago, Bill Mallonee fronted Vigilantes of Love — a critically lauded Athens, Georgia-based folk-rock band that attracted the production of R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, threaded Christian themes through its confessional lyrics, and gave sweaty crowds in small clubs more than their money's worth night after night.
These days Mallonee is still creating thoughtful story-songs as a solo artist. And here, with his wife Muriah Rose, he offers "Wonderland," which consists of five original songs plus a pair of Christmas carol arrangements ("In the Bleak Midwinter" and "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear"). It's plaintive, arresting stuff that reminds us that while this season brings much joy, there are elements of pain surrounding the season as well.
Johnny Mathis "Merry Christmas"
When I noted in the headline and first paragraph that I'd introduce Christmas music you may not have heard before, this is the exception. Everybody knows Johnny Mathis. And more than likely a good number of you have heard tunes from this album at one time or another.
I recall hearing "Merry Christmas" as a wee lad in my grandparents' red stone north Philly row house via the TV console turntable as shovels scraped the snow-covered sidewalks, a whistle called for the end of the shift at the cigar factory, and my grandmother's kielbasa churned in a pressure cooker while babka and butter sat ready on the dining room table.
Mathis' incomparable voice and the orchestral music that accompanies it combine to evoke a Norman Rockwell-like Christmastime in 1950s America. It may have been too good to be true — but hey, let "Winter Wonderland" and "Silver Bells" transport you there anyway. You can thank me later with a shake at the sock hop.
Jeff Bjorck "The Wondrous Gift: A Pure Piano Christmas"
Pianist Jeff Bjorck has been creating meditative original solo piano albums with a Christian focus since the 1990s, but here he shifts gears and offers his interpretations of a dozen timeless Christmas carols: "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "O Holy Night," "Away In a Manger," "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing," to name a few.
Where Bjorck sets himself apart is through his emotional approach to the arrangements. A prime example is "Coventry Carol," which concerns the infants killed by King Herod after Jesus' birth — and Bjorck's pauses between notes and respectful tempo capture the mournful aspect of this carol very well. Other standouts include "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," "Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella," and "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" — which ends the album on a happy, joyous note.
A final word: Let's not stop with these albums. Do you have recommendations for Christmas music that fellow readers of TheBlaze may not have heard before? Please share them in a Facebook comment. And have yourself a blessed Christmas Day.