Christmas is less than two weeks away, and even though most of us probably started cranking the Christmas tunes the day after Thanksgiving, here’s a look at some of this year’s best Christmas compilations so you don’t overplay, say, Amy Grant’s classic 1983 Christmas Collection.
Sufjan Stevens: Silver & Gold
Sufjan has certainly changed over the last few years. His last album, Age of Adz, marked almost a complete reinvention of his sound, ditching a largely folky, organic sound for a more electronic one. And his latest Christmas compilation, a five-EP release titled Silver & Gold, in part, follows suit. Where he used to build into grand orchestral flourishes on epics like “Majesty Snowbird,” he now opts for climaxes marked by electronic swells on tracks like “Christmas Unicorn” (which also has brilliant lyrics). Or take “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which features Irish flute flourishes backed by synths and hand claps.
Not to say that’s bad; it’s just different. One simply has to point to the advertising campaign or Sufjan’s crafty, anything-but-typical onstage getup to see that he’s not going for a Justin Bieber Under the Mistletoe aesthetic. Instead, Stevens remains a musical mastermind, and these songs are simply the latest from an artist that refuses to remain musically stagnant.
And there are also classic Sufjan folky tunes in there as well, like “Silent Night” and “Auld Lang Syne,” among others.
Silver & Gold features a lot of music, ripe with commentary on consumerism and Christmas in America, reverence to the holiday Stevens celebrates as a Christian, and good music.
Highlights: Silent Night, Christmas Unicorn, Justice Delivers Its Death
Branches: Songs for Christmas
Branches are an on-the-rise collection of best-turned-bandmates out of Azusa Pacific University, which is a short ride on the 210 East from L.A. And, fun fact, it’s also my alma mater.
I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is no, this is not some sort of cheeky attempt to get friends some good press. Branches have crafted a beautiful collection of Christmas songs that I think deserve a listen.
The EP features six indie folk-rock covers of Christmas classics ripe with foot stomping banjo licks (see “Go Tell it On the Mountain) and soft mandolin strums. Each song presents a refreshing take on songs typically taken for granted this time of year, with voices of the two lead singers, Tyler Madsen and Natalie Nicoles, weaving in and out and harmonizing in tandem to produce glorious celebrations of the birth of Jesus.
The best part? It’s free to have a listen! You can stream the album on their website here.
Highlights: Away In The Manger, O Come All Ye Faithful, O Holy Night
Reindeer Tribe: Last Days of the Year
For the past few years, a group of friends also known as The Reindeer Tribe have holed up for a weekend and recorded their favorite holidays songs live to analog tape. This year’s results, The Last Days of the Year, is a collection of intimate, mostly original Christmas songs blending a variety of instruments into a folky Conor Oberst-esque set of songs that occasionally ventures into the land of garage rock.
The rawness of the album, no doubt due to the recording method, stands out and is reflected in the content as well. The first words of “Drunks in the Choir” find the lead singer belting out, “I’m joining the drunks in the Christmas choir!” The song eventually plays with the concept, telling the narrator to shake off his headache because our savior as come, and that’s a sobering message. Indeed.
Christmas standards like “Silent Night” perhaps reflect the rawness and communal elements more so than others, as they are belted by what seems like everyone in the band.
Check out their album for free at their site here.
Highlights: Fairytale of New York, Rebel Jesus, Last Days Of the Year
Holidays Rule isa deliciously diverse collection of seasonal music featuring an array of contributions from across the musical spectrum.
The set boasts 17 all-new recordings, including pop phenoms fun., the legendary Paul McCartney, indie-pop luminaries The Shins, Americana favorites The Civil Wars, adored singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright (with Sharon Van Etten), playful popsters Fruit Bats, bluegrass revisionists Punch Brothers, soul icon Irma Thomas (with The Preservation Hall Jazz Band), cinematic rockers Calexico, eclectic troubadour Andrew Bird, Latin neo-traditionalists Y La Bamba, Texas twang-rock troupe Heartless Bastards, alterna-folk standard-bearer Holly Golightly, roots quintet Black Prairie (featuring Sallie Ford), choral revival collective AgesandAges, Fiery Furnaces alumna Eleanor Friedberger, and Seattle Americana outfit The Head and the Heart.
“I love holiday music,” co-Producer Sara Matarazzo said. “But every year I find myself going back to the standards. I wondered, where’s the holiday record for this generation? This was a chance to create something that gave today’s artists a chance to put their mark on the tradition.”
Need any more reasons to listen? The album is littered with musical giants and geniuses, and it’s reflected in the results. Holidays Rule is definitely a must have.
Highlights: Green Grows the Holly (Calexico), Wonderful Christmastime (The Shins), I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day (The Civil Wars), Auld Lang Syne (Andrew Bird)
Brandon Hook is the Online Assistant at Sojourners.
Photo: Santa Claus listening to music. andrea michele piacquadio / Shutterstock