Do you hear what I hear? A whole lot of bad holiday music, that’s what! Let me play Scrooge for a moment in order to save me from having to run raving mad through a mall food court if I have to suffer another of these saccharine seasonal songs.
Honestly, where do you witness such unadulterated, sappy sentimentality and insanely stupid lyrics as in so much “holiday” musical fare? And consider for a moment the irony here – helping us to deeply celebrate the radical love of God in Christ are merchants and marketers piping in and broadcasting these jingles, hoping to hop us up on a seasonal high, the unconscious accompaniment as we spend far too much on things we don’t want or need.
Let’s set aside the musical quality for a moment and simply focus on the lyrics, which are often sternly moralistic (be merry and light-hearted or look out). They have invitations to outright denial (Have yourself a merry little Christmas’s line about “All our troubles will be far away.” Really, and that’s why the family Christmas celebration is known as the peak of family dysfunction!) or teach cozy revisionist theology (Away in a Manger’s cute little heretical statement about “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Oh, that’s right, he wasn’t really human after all; that body thing, just a good get-up to trick us all). And yes, let’s talk about the bad musicality, the absence of most any originality or the lifeless, sometimes awful, singing of much of it (O holy Crap, you completely missed those high notes).
And yet I love Christmas music. I listen to it before Advent hits and continue throughout the year. It’s music that reflects the reality of life as we live it and yet the bright hopes of the gospel. And what puts a smile on my face is how many of these overt gospel songs ring out through the voices of artists who profess no Christian faith (you really need to read a good article on this by Paul Vander Klay at ThinkChristian.net)
So let me recommend a few of what I’ve come to love. These versions are frequently changed from what you might usually hear, which is also what breathes new life into them. Here’s what I think is a great Christmas playlist, a few covers of carols and original songs that get played again and again on my Ipod.
- O Come, O Come Emmanuel – Sufjan Stevens (from vol. 1 of his 5 volume Christmas set – quirky, spare and nicely timed)
- Mary Had a Baby – Bruce Cockburn (from arguably the best Christmas album in recent memory, this song has the craziest line – “the people keep coming but the train is gone.” I want to hang out with whoever wrote this one at a Christmas Day worship service)
- Magnificat – Steve Bell (I love the whole album, The Feast of Seasons, and prefer this over the traditional Ave Maria)
- Good King Wenceslas – The Skydiggers (this has to be my all-time favourite Christmas cover – the studio version is brilliantly harmonized but you can see it live below. Great last line – “ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing”)
- Winter Wonderland – Harry Connick Jr. (a finger-snapping instrumental cover, from the When Harry met Sally soundtrack)
- Christmas Song – Dave Matthews band (the master Matthews in top form, musically and lyrically)
- I pray on Christmas – Harry Connick Jr. (OK, now we’re unwrapping the real-world hopes of Christmas. Even if you don’t believe in the Christmas story, you’ll wish it were true once you listen to this song)
- It came upon a midnight clear – Bruce Cockburn (the depth and aching beauty of the lyrics are breathtaking and simply putting this carol into a minor key transforms it into magic – and then there’s Cockburn’s guitar and harmonies with Sam Philips)
- Santa Claus is coming to town – Bruce Springsteen (well, because he’s the Boss)
- What Sweeter Music – Vancouver Cantata Singers (for a complete change of pace, try out this hauntingly gorgeous a cappella album of Christmas material. You can’t listen to this in a mall; you have to light a few candles and be still)
- Jingle Bells – Barenaked Ladies (because my kids go crazy for this version and it’s appropriately silly)
- What child is this – Sarah McLachlan (elvish, not in the Will Farrell vein but more what I imagine Galadriel might sound like singing a Christmas carol)
- God rest ye merry gentlemen/We three kings – Barenaked Ladies with Sarah McLachlan (another one of the best covers of a Christmas Carol – infectiously fun and worshipful at the same time, the perfect joy-filled pair for the holiday)
- Maybe this Christmas – Ron Sexsmith (what’s not to love about Mr. Sexsmith – one of the best songwriters who captures the hope of Christmas)
- Christmas is Coming and Skating – Vince Guaraldi (two Christmas classics introduced through the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Original music, fine jazz musicianship, communicating the hope and expectation of Christmas without a word)
- The Rebel Jesus – Jackson Browne with the Chieftains (my favourite non-carol, a John-the-Baptist like prophetic “calling the bluff” of every Christian looking for Jesus and celebrating Christmas)
- The Friendly Beasts – Sufjan Stevens (I love Sufjan and this pitch-perfect performance; a better “Little Drummer Boy” that makes me willingly want to be a stable animal, like an ass)
- Cry of tiny babe – Bruce Cockburn (a fresh retelling of the Christmas story – love the line of how “redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe”)
Do you have some favourite covers? I’d love to hear from you (but can we all agree that anything by Justin Bieber is disqualified from the get-go?).
And here is where you can view the Skydiggers live performance of Good King Wenceslas (but do yourself a favour and download the studio version).