On this last day of November, on the precipice of the Christmas season (or did that start on Halloween?), I thought it’d be interesting to take a look at the holiday music world. Now we all know the stable of standards: Bing, Frank, Nat, etc. There’s also the pop artist Christmas approach: Lennon’s “War is Over, U2’s “Baby, Please Come Home for Christmas,” The Boss’ rendition of “Santa Clause is Coming to Town,” even Blink 182’s “I Won’t Be Home for Christmas.” And who can forget Mariah Carey’s late 90s album that was entirely dedicated to Jesus’ birthday? (I can).
These are all customary or fun, but what about Christmas music that is actually well-crafted and truly listenable?
Last year, indie artist Sufjan Stevens released a five-disc album entitled “Songs for Christmas.” The anthology contains both covers of traditional songs (“The First Noel,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” etc.) and Sufjan originals such as “Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!”
The beauty of this work is that it avoids the Christmas cliché, which Stevens refers to as “that creepy Christmas feeling.” The album paints a rural Midwestern landscape (Stevens hails from Michigan according to legend) that evokes feelings of the traditional, almost legendary Christmas: heavy snows, wind-whipped trees, strong eggnog, warm fires and family. The album also embraces the religious roots of Americana that seem almost ancient (it’s tough to describe, but you’ll feel it when you listen). For me, I can actually hear “real” rustic Christmas in Sufjan’s banjos, slinking guitars, make-shift choirs and hushed, soothing voice. Plus, his lo-fi recording style makes the album feel like he recorded it just for you (in fact, before the album’s release, Stevens had always recorded little homemade Christmas EPs for his friends – a tactic that is quite evident on the record).
So if radio-friendly Christmas music has you jaded and yearning for more, check why I consider, the present day Christmas masterpiece – it’s available on iTunes, but if you physically buy it, you’ll get sheet music, stickers, Stevens family Christmas photos, buttons and more.