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Christmas is coming quickly, and with thoughts of Yuletide cheer and Christmas carols in mind, we present to you our first annual Christmas Music Wrap-Up, summarizing the new Christmas albums released by Christian record labels in the last few months.
There seems to be two major trends in Christian music right now: praise & worship and music for women by women. A couple of examples are the popular Women of Faith worship albums and the recent Mercy Project and Heaven & Earth albums. Now we have an all women Christmas project entitled One Silent Night. I was afraid it would be yet another variation on the Point of Grace sound, filled with Christmas songs that all sound the same and follow the usual Christian pop clichés, or based on the cover, perhaps a collection of pretty lullabies. I love it when I'm wrong. Instead, we have smartly written original songs, interesting arrangements of classic Christmas songs, superb vocal performances, and intelligent production by Monroe Jones (Chris Rice, Mark Schultz). He's rapidly becoming my favorite producer in Christian music, skillfully blending the beauty of traditional Christmas music with modern pop sensibilities on this project. This is an excellent album that focuses on the mystery of God made flesh, and his ultimate destiny as Savior. And I haven't even touched upon the contributions of Cindy Morgan, Amy Grant, Leigh Nash (of Sixpence None the Richer), Ginny Owens, Crystal Lewis, and all the others. I was impressed with each of their performances and the quality of songwriting. Of all this year's Christmas albums, One Silent Night gets my award for artistic excellence. It should be sought out by anyone looking for something just a little different from the norm.
Yolanda's stunning voice has deservedly earned her a lot of attention in the last couple years, including a critically acclaimed Grammy-winning smash with her album Mountain High … Valley Low, which has sold over a million copies so far. Christmas With Yolanda Adams is her first Christmas album, and it's a pretty irresistible recording. Yolanda's voice is immensely likable, at times gentle and pretty while other times very soulful and powerful. The music also has a wide appeal, a well-blended mix of gospel/R&B and pop with neither genre heavily dominating the other. I wasn't thrilled with the overly R&B feel of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," but it's the only track that didn't work well for me — of course I'm not always an R&B fan either. The rest of the album is wonderful, especially two smart medleys: "Carol of the Bells" with "What Child Is This?" and the "Joy" medley featuring "Joy to the World," "Angels We Have Heard On High," "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," and "Ode to Joy." I also liked the beautiful and gentle acoustic treatment of "The Christmas Song" and an interesting upbeat version of "The First Noel." The songs are, for the most part, very similar in instrumentation, but you won't care — Yolanda's voice is too beautiful to make it an issue. The best Christmas albums appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds and instill feelings of nostalgia and reverence. Christmas With Yolanda Adams succeeded.
Avalon's Christmas project, Joy, is literally a cornucopia of styles and production — so it's hardly a surprise that the results are mixed. As expected from a group of four talented vocalists, there are plenty of moments that beautifully showcase their skills. I especially enjoyed their big production of Mariah Carey's "Jesus Born On This Day," Celine Dion's "Don't Save It All For Christmas Day," and the gorgeous "Manger Medley." Avalon also shines in their jazz arrangements, drawing natural comparisons to Manhattan Transfer on "Winter Wonderland" and "The Christmas Song." Unfortunately, the project slips when Avalon reverts back to their usual programmed dance-pop sound. There's nothing wrong with their upbeat dance pop, but I found "Joy (to the World)" (not to be confused with the classic hymn) and "The Angels Medley" just a little too perky and overwhelming compared to the rest of the album. It would have helped if Avalon limited their styles more to an all traditional/jazz collection, rather than mix it up so much. Still, fans of the group's music will be pleased with Joy. It's not a landmark Christmas album, but it's very likable and has some exceptional moments.
Crystal's first Christmas album is a very traditional soft jazz recording. Though not a live recording, the intimate feel of all the tracks makes it feel as though you're listening to Crystal in a jazz club. It's a soft and warm album that focuses on secular Christmas songs as much as religious, and it's a great one to decorate the tree to, or eat Christmas dinner, or curl up by the fire with. But since it is all soft jazz, the recording sounds a little too homogenous. However, the only real complaint I have about the album is the inclusion of little spoken bits called "Crystal Memories," where Crystal reminisces about past Christmases. They feel like the between-song banter you'd expect from a holiday variety special on TV, and therefore, seem a little out of place on a non-live album. Otherwise, Holiday! is a very beautiful and subtle Christmas recording sure to rekindle holiday nostalgia for Christmases past.
Essential Energy Christmas
Various Artists (Essential Records)
This is an EP from Essential records, free with the purchase of any recent release from the record label. You'd think you can't go wrong with five high-profile artists, but again the results are mixed. On the positive side, Caedmon's Call offers a vibrant folk/acoustic version of "What Child Is This?" (almost reminiscent of Burlap to Cashmere), and V*Enna presents a catchy, likable, and very straightforward cover of "O Come All Ye Faithful." But as much as I like Third Day, and though they perform it well, their classic blues rock sound is an odd match with "O Come O Come Emmanuel." FFH's version of "The First Noel" isn't very exciting, and it has some strange musical moments in it that don't quite mesh with the traditional carol. I loved the Jars of ClayDrummer Boy EP when it first came out five years ago, and there were two different mixes of "Little Drummer Boy" on that disc already; do we really need another? (Incidentally, word on the street is that the Jar boys are planning some sort of seasonal release for next year.) One, however, can't complain about Essential Energy Christmas too much. Go out and buy the new Caedmon's Call disc, or the City On a Hill project or any other Essential Records album as a Christmas gift for a loved one, and get this collection free.
Anyone familiar with the Christian a cappella group Glad knows exactly what to expect with their new Christmas album Voices of Christmas … and that's a good thing. This is a beautiful collection of classic Christmas carols delivered with the same warm vocal sound that Glad has made famous over the years. Of course, if you're not into a cappella music you'll obviously not care for it, and unfortunately, like most a cappella projects, the album is very homogenous and begins to wear out its welcome by the end. But I do appreciate Glad's desire to focus on Christmas hymns. It's not often you hear "Angels From the Realms of Glory" or Martin Luther's "All Praise To You" in contemporary circles. An album highlight is the group's dramatic and powerful version of "The First Noel," featuring all six verses. Voices of Christmas will be a welcome addition to the collections of a cappella enthusiasts and those looking for a very inspirational and traditional sounding Christmas album.
Lonestar is another mainstream act (which happens to be Christian) that has met with incredible success in the past two years. Their recent album, Lonely Grill, went double platinum, and now they're releasing their first Christmas album — This Christmas Time. This country rock foursome from Texas will appeal to fans of "pop country" like Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, and Garth Brooks. I can't say I found This Christmas Time to be an exceptional album. It's a collection of classic Christmas songs with a few originals thrown in, all performed in pop country style. But by the same token, I can't criticize it much because Lonestar performs it well — they have excellent vocals and harmonies. Besides, Christmas albums are rarely innovative and original. Looking for some good Christmas country? Look no further than Lonestar's Christmas offering.
This is certainly the most ambitious of this year's Christmas albums. The music from Child of a Promise is also being made into a conceptual musical, touring the country this Christmas season. The cd features a most intriguing roster of artists, from Christian music's finest — Steven Curtis Chapman, Crystal Lewis, Russ Taff — to some of mainstream's greatest — Michael Crawford, Donna Summer, Richard Marx. As a fan of great modern musicals such as Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, I approached Child of the Promise with much skepticism, but found that it's pretty good. It tells the Christmas story by focusing on God's faithfulness in fulfilling his promises. It begins with the prophecies of Isaiah, Micah, and Jeremiah, and concludes with the Wise Men. For the most part, the music is well-written. Like most modern Broadway, it can be rather cheesy at times (especially the spoken dialogue by the townspeople), and the music isn't consistently interesting. It would've helped if composers Michael and Stormie Omartian were a little more inventive in telling the story through the music. Instead, they fall prey to a common misconception that all you need to do to make a good musical is string a bunch of pretty-sounding pop songs together. But compared to other attempts at Christian musicals (not to mention the second-rate musicals being produced for Broadway today), Child of the Promise is a bold step forward. It may not be a great Broadway musical, but it would make an incredible church Christmas pageant.
The highpoint of A Christmas Reunion is "2000 Decembers Ago," a strong song that puts Christmas in proper focus, featuring new Reunion artist Joy Williams. The rest of the album consists of previously released material: Chris Rice's gentle "Welcome to Our World," performed by Michael W. Smith from his Christmastime album; Rich Mullins' cute "You Gotta Get Up" from his 1993 Liturgy, Legacy & a Ragamuffin Band album; and from Kathy Troccoli's recent Christmas album there's "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year", a jazzy duet featuring her and Andy Williams. Other artists include NewSong, Clay Crosse with Dino, Gary Chapman, Bryan Duncan, 4Him, and Fred Hammond. There's also a bonus instrumental section of a few classic Christmas carols. This is clearly a hodgepodge of several fine Christmas songs from even better Christmas albums that are mostly still available. Still, if you don't already have most of these songs, A Christmas Reunion may be a nice addition to your collection.