Do You Care What I Hear?

The title’s a slight play on words for one of my favorite Christmas songs. Ryan and I have been giving each other ideas for posts for the last couple of months, and he did it again today (although this time unintentionally).

I should pause now and encourage you to use that link. Ryan’s one of my favorite people to “listen” to about music, even though I often disagree with his tastes. He’s knowledgeable, articulate, has a good ear, and the vocabulary of a good music critic. For all of those reasons, I forgive him his obsession with Charlotte Church and his dalliance with 4HIM.

The subject for today is Christmas music. Ryan mentioned a rant; I suspect it was related to how awful most Christmas music is. Ryan’s post focused on the good stuff, though, and so are we.

What is the “good stuff”? Well, mostly, it’s original songs. Just like the hymn kick that we got on a few years ago, the problem with Christmas music is that it’s mostly a hundred versions of the same ten songs. I’ve never understood that — somebody wrote those Christmas songs, surely someone can write new ones. And someone does, although it’s few and far between.

The other good stuff could also be classified as original — either original interpretations of old favorites (hence Ryan’s appreciation for Seven Day Jesus’ “O Holy Night”), or traditional interpretations that are so good, they seem original.

The Albums

If I could only keep one Christmas album, it would be Phil Driscoll’s Heaven and Nature Swing. There are songs I like more (we’ll get to those), but this is the best overall Christmas album I own or have listened to. Driscoll is the legendary trumpet player who wrote for Blood, Sweat & Tears and Joe Cocker and played with just about anyone you could name from the 70’s and 80’s. The songs on HaNS (for some reason I feel compelled to add “and FRaNS!” as I write that) are almost all traditional favorites, but as the title suggests, they’re swingy and jazzy and smooth(y). There’s also a wonderful original song, “Greatest Love Story”. You can listen to this album for hours and not get tired of it.

Ryan mentioned Happy Christmas, and I have all four volumes in the series (Vol 2, Vol 3, and Vol 4). They’re as varied as they are good — Sixpence None the Richer covering “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” Poor Old Lu singing “What Child is This,” and Switchfoot’s wonderful original song “Evergreen.” If you’re into indie rock, any or all of these albums would be great additions to your catalog. (I discovered while writing this that there is a Vol 5; I know what I’m going to be doing later.)

Honorary mention must go to the Christmas trilogy from Over the Rhine. OHR began doing an ongoing annual Christmas concert several years in their Ohio hometown. They eventually decided to release their first Christmas album, Darkest Night of the Year, which, as the title might suggest, has a slightly different approach to Christmas music than you’ve heard before. (One listener was prompted to ask, “Do they like Christmas?) Pay no mind; it and its two follow-ups, Snow Angel, and the just-released Blood Oranges in the Snow, are fantastic. Karin Bergqvist’s voice is silky smooth and made for late snowy nights and a cup of hot chocolate.

The Songs

My favorite traditional Christmas song is “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and my definitive version is from Margaret Becker in her prime on the cleverly named Christmas album. Mid-80’s Becker had one of the strongest voices in CCM, and she uses every ounce of it on this song, backed by some great electric guitar work. She begins a capella, and “haunting” doesn’t begin to cover it. This one should be listened to with the amp at 11; it’s traditionally the first Christmas song I voluntarily listen to every year. (Honorary mention goes to Third Day’s version from the WOW Christmas Green album.)

Speaking of haunting, Amy Grant’s “Breath of Heaven” is that as well as beautiful. She recorded it in candlelight, and it perfectly evokes that mood. (Write this date down, it’s the only time you’ll hear me praising Amy Grant or her music.)

“Do You Hear What I Hear” is another personal favorite, and an equally ancient version from Connie Scott’s 1988 Christmas album remains the top one on my playlist. Try to ignore the 80’s hair on the cover (and I mean totally 80’s hair); the album came within a hair (see what I did there?) of being mentioned above, and this song is it’s centerpiece. Starting soft with a gradual crescendo, Scott shows why she was another of my favorite artists from the mid-80’s.

I like “Little Drummer Boy” for reasons that remain unclear to me (“pa rum pum pum pum”, really?). Upon further review, maybe it’s not the song as much as the versions I have. Audio Adrenaline, Jars, and White Heart all sound exactly like you would expect them to sound; Audio all energy, Jars all smooth indie rock, and White Heart all, well, White Heart.

I’m not a huge fan of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” but Phil Keaggy and Kim Hill’s duet from 1990 is sufficient reason to listen. I’m not sure which of the two of them have the deeper voice.

You Gotta Get Up” is Rich’s only Christmas song, but it’s a wonderful one, evoking the magic and wonder of Christmas morning as a child. It’s a great song for the first person up on Christmas morning to play for the rest of the house. If you really want to wake them up, play them Five Iron Frenzy’s version. (That’s a video exception; it’s a synchronized Christmas light version done by a family in our own Fairfield, Texas.)

“Mary Did You Know” is a lovely theological twister with lyrics by none other than Mark Lowry (wait, what?), and there’s no other version but the original from Michael English.

We’ll end this list with “Step Into Christmas,” Elton John’s Goodbye Yellowbrick Road era Christmas song. This should be a guilty pleasure but isn’t, as I was a huge Elton fan in my high school years (back when he could sing). It has a very Phil Spector’ish sound that’s reminiscent of the era, and it’s just a fun listen, especially while driving.

That’s what I’m listening to this Christmas. How about you?

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