by Levi Bagdanov
I think about Christmas music much in the same way I think about country music. Five percent of it is great, 15% is nostalgic or funny, and 80% is terrible. By the time Thanksgiving is over, I’ve had my share of yuletide carols and am ready for New Year’s and “Auld Lang Syne.”
However, the holiday season does warrant certain social obligations, and most of them include listening to Christmas music. Contrary to what you may believe, there are some Christmas albums that deserve to be more than background music. So in my Scrooge-like opinion, here they are, in reverse order of toleration:
Five Christmas albums for people who hate Christmas albums
5. Bob Dylan — Christmas in the Heart
In my home, this is a divisive album. My wife hates it; I love it. Dylan juxtaposes sugary sweet arrangements with the gravelly voice he’s been trying out for the past decade or so. The effect is a surreal and compelling collection that gives you a new perspective on Christmas classics.
Dylan’s take on “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” exudes the raucousness of someone crooning carols after a few eggnogs, whereas “Christmas Island” combines the sun-soaked sounds of 1940’s Hawaii with a washed up lounge lizard. This album won’t please everyone, but it’s a nice change of pace if your Christmas mix has become as stale as the gingerbread cookies hanging on your in-laws’ tree.
4. Mark Kozelek — Mark Kozelek: Sings Christmas Carols
For those who like to revel in the pathos of the holiday season, Mark Kozelek’s 2014 release is perfect. As Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek released one of the year’s best albums, Benji
. On that deeply personal album, Kozelek painstakingly explores themes of death, friendship, and family. These themes also feel present throughout this album of carols.
The arrangements are sparse, beautiful, and traditional with Kozelek demonstrating mastery of the classical guitar. His take on “O’ Christmas Tree” brings an emotional resonance rarely found in renditions of this ode to the evergreen. Kozelek’s album is the perfect companion for a dark, cold, and quiet December evening in.
3. Sufjan Stevens — Silver and Gold Vol. 3
I have limited my Sufjan Stevens recommendations to just two of his ten volumes of Christmas music. One of the things I enjoy about Sufjan’s Christmas albums is the way they synthesize the diverse sounds of his discography.
On Silver and Gold Vol. 3,
tracks like “Angels We Have Heard On High” and “Christmas In the Room” strongly recall Come on Feel the Illinoise
, while “The Child with the Star on His Head” sounds as if it’s straight off the All Delighted People
EP. Even the holiday standards “Do You Hear What I Hear” and “Joy to the World” utilize electronic beats from Age of Adz.
However, the album’s most memorable track is “Christmas in the Room,” which is an original song that you could listen to any day of the year.
2. Vince Guaraldi Trio — A Charlie Brown Christmas
Because who doesn’t love this album?
1. Sufjan Stevens — Songs For Christmas Vol. 5: Peace!
This album doesn’t only contain some of Sufjan’s best Christmas offerings but also some of his best offerings as a songwriter. “Get Behind Me Santa” is a brash defense of Santa Claus that is almost as good as its title.
“Sister Winter,” a low key and delicate ballad about the regret and depression that comes with the holidays, builds to a joyous and redeeming crescendo. This album of mostly original compositions is highlighted with short instrumental versions of Christmas standards that give the collection a cohesion rarely found in Christmas albums.
The shining moment on Peace! is the hauntingly beautiful rendition of “Holy, Holy, Holy.” The piano, guitar, and vocals dance around each other, creating an open and peaceful space that is simply transcendent. Sufjan approaches classic hymns and carols with a mixture of freedom and reverence that enables him to breathe new life into songs we have heard hundreds of times. In this season of routine and social obligation, this album rises above the noise.
Add your tolerable Christmas albums in the comments and listen to the playlist below. Ruminate Christmas
Levi Bagdanov is a carpenter and husband living in Fort Collins, Colorado. He sometimes writes Songs but then listens to Bruce Springsteen and decides maybe he should just give up and go fishing.
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