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This is a strong year for Christmas releases from Christian artists, and not just because there are more holiday albums than usual. Here, we present 13 of them, and most all rate good to excellent, with a few of them far surpassing what some might expect from the artists. So trim the tree, bake some cookies, wrap some gifts, and celebrate the season of our Lord's birth with 2005's most notable Christmas recordings.
Steven Curtis Chapman | Bryan Duncan & the NehoSoul Band Natalie Grant | MercyMe | Aaron Neville The Oak Ridge Boys | Sandi Patty | Point of Grace | Jami Smith Absolute Favorite Christmas for Kids | Come Let Us Adore Him Happy Christmas Volume Four | WoW Christmas [Green]?
Steven Curtis Chapman
All I Really Want for Christmas (Sparrow/EMI)
If this is the second Steven Curtis Chapman album for you after 1995's The Music of Christmas, there's a lot to love. But fans that bought Christmas Is All in the Heart exclusively through Hallmark in 2003 might feel cheated, since that album's six new tracks are again featured here—with six other new ones. (Our review of the 2003 album touches on the highlights, and fans that own that album may want to consider purchasing the newest tracks individually at Christianbook.com.) The newer stuff is fine, and there are a couple of adorable moments with adopted daughter Shaoey. But aside from some slightly folksier instrumentation, co-producer Ed Cash generally keeps things routine. It doesn't help that some of the new melodies and guitar riffs are too similar to recent Chapman songs from the last five years. The album's good, but all that Chapman fans really want for Christmas is something truly new.
Bryan Duncan & the NehoSoul Band
A NehoSoul Christmas! (Red Road Records)
After twenty years as a solo artist, Bryan Duncan left behind formulaic AC pop to pursue the music he wanted to make, resulting in his impressive NehoSoul Band, which made its debut with Music City Live. The R&B-flavored pop quintet makes its studio debut with this holiday album, but unfortunately, the production values are considerably lacking. The horn section is credited to "the Phil/Harmonic Horns," as in album producer and band keyboardist Phil Curry. Synthetic brass, strings, and harmonica are forgivable in a live setting where musical prowess dominates, but in the studio, the limitations of keyboards are woefully magnified. Too bad, because the band is indeed talented—Curry included. Duncan is in great voice performing soulful R&B/pop arrangements of Christmas favorites, plus Michael McDonald's "Peace," the classic "What a Wonderful World," and Duncan's own "This Christmas." Right style for Duncan, wrong aesthetic.
After reaching new levels of acclaim and success in 2005 with Awaken, Natalie Grant appropriately rounds out a year of blessing with her first Christmas release. The album is somewhat predictable in scope, touching on the usual mix of orchestrated pop and jazz to showcase her impressive vocal range and broad stylistic influences. It's masterfully executed, handily produced by husband Bernie Herms, who plays some killer piano on Motown rockers "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and "What Christmas Means to Me." The pleasant original ballad "I Believe" is unremarkable, overshadowed by a soulful-yet-traditional rendition of "O Come All Ye Faithful," a stunning a cappella choral version of "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," and a quirky disco interpretation of "Joy to the World." Enjoy Believe for its beautiful orchestrations, skilled musicianship, and a voice due for a Best Female Vocalist Gospel Music Award.
The Christmas Sessions (INO)
The six guys in MercyMe have apparently been working hard to develop their skills and broaden their horizons beyond their usual AC pop sound. Following singer Bart Millard's example with his refreshing solo debut of Americana-styled hymns, the band offers varied pop/rock versions of Christmas classics with flashes of country, classic rock, and contemporary jazz, with results nearly as strong. The influences are a little too obvious, but MercyMe convincingly uses U2's guitar and Coldplay's rhythm to transform "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" into energetic stadium rock. A similar Brit pop sensibility is applied to an ambient rendition of "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." If you crossed The Beatles with a Dixieland band, it'd probably sound a bit like this buoyant "Winter Wonderland/White Christmas" medley. Attribute it to a bigger recording budget or road experience if you want, but MercyMe is clearly improving as a band.
Christmas Prayer (EMI Gospel)
Retro and soulful pop
Your opinion of Neville's flowing soft falsetto tenor (soulful or whiny?) will decide whether Christmas Prayer is for you. It's too distracting when he uses it to stray from the melody on a plodding "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," and both "Mary's Boy Child" and Curtis Mayfield's "Amen" are poorly produced with extensive reverb effects. But Neville is spot-on for the jazzy "Merry Christmas Baby" and reverential "Ave Maria." The groovin' reggae of Neville's original "Christmas Everyday" is a well-written reminder of the reason Christ came, while the Blind Boys of Alabama join in for an a cappella "Joy to the World." The highlight is a non-Christmas song that still fits this album—Neville's stirring cover of "Amazing Grace," recorded for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. In fact, the New Orleans native has partnered with EMI Gospel to donate 60 cents to the American Red Cross for every copy of Christmas Prayer sold through the end of 2006.
The Oak Ridge Boys
Christmas Cookies (Spring Hill)
This is the fifth holiday release in twenty years for the veteran group—and if they're starting to sound past their prime, that's part of their old-fashioned country charm, especially with the cute lovey-dovey title track. Indeed, while the quartet does fine covering some traditional Christmas hymns and standards, the country-and-bluegrass-styled originals are the tracks that shine the most. "Hay Baby" makes a sprite two-step and "Blessed Be the Day (of Our Savior's Birth)" is an enjoyable Southern-styled Christmas hymn. Though it's initially hard to figure where weepy story song "From Love to Love" fits in the Christmas canon, there is in fact a strong spiritual payoff. Christmas Cookies is good for what is, appealing primarily to an older demographic with songs focused on the reason for the season and the family traditions associated with it.
Yuletide Joy (INO Records)
Though it's nostalgic to revisit songs from 1983's The Gift Goes On—Sandi Patty's first Christmas recording—in a concert setting, you'd think the gifted vocalist would be eager to record fresh holiday music. Five of that album's songs are resurrected for Yuletide Joy, but the '80s-styled inspirational songwriting hasn't aged well, and "Merry Christmas with Love" is in fact the same twenty-year-old recording. Also, considering her reputation for performing live with an orchestra, it's regrettable that Yuletide Joy relies on chintzy synthesizers that inadequately substitute the real thing. But Patty proves she hasn't lost her amazing soprano range, particularly in a showstopping performance of lesser-known gospel classic "Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child." A mellower, jazzier "Go Tell It on the Mountain" makes a nice change of pace, and "Jingle Bells a la Sandra" is a playfully varied tour de force despite some its over-the-top camp. Long-time fans will love Yuletide Joy, though even they will reluctantly admit it should have been better.
Point of Grace
Winter Wonderland (Word/Warner)
Traditional pop and jazz
Just as Michael W.? Smith's second holiday release was more orchestrated and traditional in style than his first, so is Point of Grace's follow-up to 1999's A Christmas Story. It perfectly suits their four-part harmony capabilities as they abandon formulaic AC pop for intricate, old-fashioned arrangements of jazz ("Winter Wonderland," "Jingle Bells," "Santa Medley") and classical ("For Unto Us"). This new level of vocal sophistication also works for modern favorites popularized by Glad ("In the First Light") and Amy Grant ("Breath of Heaven," "Little Town"). The album's sole new composition is "Let There Be Light," a contemporary ballad featuring John David Webster that's sure to be a favorite with choirs and praise teams. Smith himself lends piano to a stunning solo rendition of his own "All Is Well" by Heather Payne. All is well indeed on this marvelously performed holiday album.
Hope of All the Earth (Spring Rain Ministries)
This marks the first non-worship album from Jami Smith, and it's something of a revelation—the excellent Christmas project you would expect from artists like Bethany Dillon, Margaret Becker, or Jennifer Knapp. As produced by Will Hunt (Shane & Shane, Apt.Core), Hope's rootsy pop/rock sounds sharp, immediately apparent from an awesomely funky banjo-driven "What Child Is This?" that also features clav and accordion. There are also nice acoustic pop/rock renditions of "Away in a Manger" (featuring Shane Barnard) and "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" (featuring Robbie Seay). But Smith originals like "Draw Near Emmanuel" and "Birthday of the King" also shine with resplendent harmonies similar to Alison Krauss, and the poetic ballad "Song of Our Savior" could easily become a favorite performance piece at churches. Hope could well be Smith's best album, making you wonder what a full-out pop/rock effort from this worship leader might sound like.
Absolute Favorite Christmas for Kids (Fervent)
Programmed pop/rock sung by kids
Absolute Modern Worship for Kids followed in the footsteps of the mainstream's best-selling Kidz Bop series by featuring Christian music's biggest worship songs "sung by kids for kids." It quickly became the No. 1 selling children's album of 2005—who knew something so simple could work so well? This 12-song Christmas edition attempts to recreate that success, offering contemporary pop arrangements that are largely programmed with keyboards, drum machines, and some electric guitars. If only all school Christmas pageants sounded this cool and in tune. Half the tracks are Christmas standards, the others recent favorites like "Breath of Heaven," "Welcome to Our World," "The Christmas Shoes," and Big Daddy Weave's "Christ Is Come." Though generally simplistic and not for all tastes, it's still a charming listen, particularly for families with younger kids and children's ministry proponents.
Come Let Us Adore Him (Essential)
From Choir-boys Steve Hindalong, Marc Byrd, and Derri Daugherty, the same guys responsible for the City on a Hill series, this is the one to get if you're looking for new seasonal originals in 2005. Arguably better than 2002's It's Christmas Time, it's the lyrical content that's particularly striking—deeper and richer, with a touch of the liturgical. Joy Williams contributes the most stunning vocal performance for "Here with Us," a beautiful ballad with a strong melody that makes it a worthy successor to "Breath of Heaven." The worshipful song of the angels "Holy, Holy, Holy Lord" sung by Bebo Norman and Danielle Young (Caedmon's Call) is likewise a simple-but-adequate follow-up to "God of Wonders." And Norman himself offers one of his best songs to date with the sparkling, tranquil alt-folk of "Mary's Prayer." While more collaboration between the artists themselves would have been welcome, it's all in all a refined and reflective Christmas music experience.
Happy Christmas Volume Four (Tooth & Nail)
Whereas previous installments of the seasonal series have offered a mix of keepers and hastily recorded throwaways, Volume Four is generally a more consistent and crafted effort. Covers by alt rock bands like Copeland ("Do You Hear What I Hear?"), Mae ("Carol of the Bells"), and Anberlin ("Baby Please Come Home") are enjoyable enough. Number One Gun sweetly attempts to bridge the relationship between Santa Claus and Christ on the uncharacteristically dreamy sounding "Of Two Bearded Men." John Davis evokes Eastern-influenced Beatles with his holiday testimonial "God Is Real (Jesus Is Alive)." The album also capitalizes on the success of Switchfoot by unburying their thoughtful oldie "Evergreen" from 1998's Volume One, and Eisley's airy "Winter Song" has been floating around for years. But Hawk Nelson's guitars can't disguise the fluffiness of Wham's "Last Christmas," and Starflyer 59's effects-laden "Christmas Time Is Here" sounds as kitschy as Joy Electric. Still an overall good snapshot of today's indie rock applied to Christmas.
WoW Christmas [Green] (Word/Warner)
Like most things labeled WoW, this is another double-disc set featuring previously released material by today's top CCM artists, though unlike its 2002 predecessor, this holiday compilation relies almost entirely on traditional favorites. Still—Merry Christmas!—fifteen of the thirty tracks are new recordings for the Green edition, and most of them are pretty terrific. Joy Williams, Bethany Dillon, and Matthew West are particularly splendid with their old-fashioned renditions of classics. In contrast, Rebecca St. James presents another rocked up carol that sounds like it belongs on her 1997 seasonal release, while tobyMac spices "O Come All Ye Faithful" with Latin pop/hip-hop. Third Day's "O Come O Come Emmanuel" will leave you wondering why they don't rock this strongly more often, and what's this … David Crowder Band delivering an authentically spicy rendition of "Feliz Navidad?" Despite a few arrangements that are too simplistic to be memorable, it's hard not to recommend this collection of A-list talent delivering favorite carols, remaining true to both their artistry and the spirit of Christmas.