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Christmas Wrap-Up 2003

  • Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
Christmas Wrap-Up 2003
The local mall is already decorating for Christmas, so we can start thinking about it too. Besides, the new Christmas albums have already hit the stores. Here's what's new this year.While there aren't many high-profile Christian artists in this year's list of eleven new Christmas albums, there's no shortage in variety or holiday ambience. There's plenty of diversity, with Christmas favorites performed on everything from Australian didgeridoo to vintage synthesizers. And there's quite a generational span, from twenty-somethings (Relient K) to seventy-somethings (Andy Griffith, Blind Boys of Alabama). With all that considered, there's bound to be a new holiday release for your tastes to celebrate the season.

Rivertribe | The Blind Boys of Alabama | Steven Curtis Chapman
Integrity's iWorship—A Total Christmas Worship Experience
Andy Griffith | Joy Electric | The Katinas | Kathy Mattea
Relient K | T.D. Jakes | John Tesh


Christmas (Elevate/Inpop)
Modern instrumental world music

After developing an international following out of their homeland in Australia, Rivertribe made its American debut with an instrumental worship album in 2002. It seems a bit soon to follow up with a Christmas project, but it is the time of year when people are more open to instrumental music. Rivertribe's world music blends keyboards and African percussion with unconventional instruments like the light harp, Native American flutes, and Australia's distinctive didgeridoo, resembling the ethereal and eclectic work of Apt.Core, Afro-Celt Sound System, Enigma, and Moby. The unique sound transforms and expands upon Christmas classics such as "The First Noel," "Little Drummer Boy," "Silent Night," "and "I Saw Three Ships." Rivertribe appropriately paints "We Three Kings" with Eastern elements over a techno dance vibe. There's also a cover of "Be Thou My Vision" and an original about Christ's family's Egyptian exile called "Out of Egypt." The unusual instrumentation may throw some—and you may be sick of the didgeridoo before album's end—but it's really no stranger than the unusual sounds heard on Manheim Steamroller's holiday albums. In many ways, Rivertribe is much fresher to the ears, offering musical sensibility that doesn't instantly date itself, strong musicianship, and a uniquely worshipful holiday ambience.

The Blind Boys of Alabama

Go Tell It on the Mountain (Real World)
Acoustic gospel blues

It's hard to believe that in 60 years of recording, The Blind Boys of Alabama have never made a Christmas album—till now. These critically acclaimed seventy-somethings have done two consecutive award-winning albums, and this is another winner. Produced again by John Chelew, Go Tell It on the Mountain boasts an incredible roster of 12 guest musicians that would make any Christmas variety show jealous. After opening with the rocking spiritual "Last Month of the Year," The Blind Boys are one of few groups who can credibly cover Harry Connick Jr.'s gospel original "I Pray on Christmas"—with the aid of legendary soul singer Solomon Burke. There's a bluesy minor-key variation of the title track with Tom Waits, and the boys back Chrissy Hynde of The Pretenders for a fine folk-pop rendition of "In the Bleak Midwinter." Group leader Clarence Fountain was born to sing "The Christmas Song," here a duet with Shelby Lynne. And I still haven't mentioned outstanding tracks featuring Aaron Neville, Les McCann, and Mavis Staples! The only misstep is a traditional rendering of "Oh Come All Ye Faithful," ruined by a distracting spoken vocal by Me'Shell Ndegocello. Otherwise, it's a delightful surprise track after track, due to creative sensibilities and reverence for the traditional source material.

Steven Curtis Chapman

Christmas Is All in the Heart (Hallmark)
Acoustic pop

This album is exclusive to Hallmark stores, and if some of it seems familiar, it is. Half of the 12 tracks come from Steven Curtis Chapman's The Music of Christmas (1995)—acoustic pop originals "This Baby," "Going Home for Christmas," and the title track (featuring CeCe Winans), plus the pop orchestral arrangement of "O Come All Ye Faithful," the melodically altered "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," and the "Silent Night Medley" of Christmas lullabies. Fans will be more interested in the newer material, also produced by longtime collaborator Brown Bannister. The simple country pop rendition of "Silver Bells" isn't much, and there are straightforward acoustic pop versions of "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem." But "Go Tell It On the Mountain" gets a fun acoustic jazz gospel treatment, while "Winter Wonderland" and "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" get the signature Chapman sound—the former is playful jazz pop, the latter a reflective pop orchestration in the spirit of "Speechless." More originals or new arrangements would've been nice, but for $7.95 ($5.95 with an in-store purchase), it's a pretty good value—even if you already own Chapman's other Christmas disc.

Various Artists

Integrity's iWorship—A Total Christmas Worship Experience (Integrity)
Pop orchestral worship

The best-selling worship series from Integrity Music offers a mix of everything in this double-disc set. It features instrumental, choral, and pop, with occasional nods to gospel, jazz, and rock. Some is orchestrated, some programmed. There's old and new, familiar and obscure. A good portion of the album is comprised of instrumental tracks, bringing warmth and variety. The Women of Faith worship team performs a handful of tracks, including a wonderful a cappella medley of "One Small Child" and "More Precious Than Silver." A fine programmed pop version of "Do You Hear What I Hear?" sounds like Avalon. Darlene Zschech is featured with the gentle original, "Hallelujah." The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir and Joe Pace bring gospel to the mix. Perhaps best of all are three newly recorded songs by INO artists just for this album. Bart Millard's excellent vocals are more than up to the task in MercyMe's cover of "O Holy Night," and Sara Groves is perfectly suited for "Breath of Heaven," though her rendition isn't that different than Amy Grant's original. Sonicflood sounds their best in years on "Angels We Have Heard on High," though they unfortunately messed with the "Gloria" refrain. With 35 tracks and more than 2 hours of music, this is a comprehensive Christmas worship experience from every angle.

Andy Griffith

The Christmas Guest (Sparrow)
Easy listening country pop

This is Andy Griffith's first Christmas album in a long career of acting and singing; his two previous albums of hymns have sold almost three million copies combined. He sings about as well as a 77-year-old can—not great, but not without charm. Griffith was a music major in college and a high school choral director, so he sings perfectly on key. Producer Marty Stuart rightly compares Griffith's warm timbre to an earthy oak tree. The album features timeless country-pop arrangements like "Joy to the World," "Silent Night," and "Go Tell It on the Mountain." Surprises include the less frequently performed "I Wonder as I Wander" and the Southern gospel classic "Jesus Walked That Lonesome Valley." "Away in a Manger" is paired with "Golden Slumber" (the traditional lullaby that inspired The Beatles song of the same name), followed by "Beautiful Savior." Master storyteller Griffith also spins some tales, including the title track, a classic French story inspired by Matthew 25. Other readings, all set to lushly orchestrated instrumental music, include "The Juggler," "Belleau Wood," and, naturally, the Luke 2 account of Jesus' birth. The Christmas Guest is a sweet and heartfelt holiday release from one of America's most beloved celebrities, geared primarily for older listeners to share with their grandchildren.

Joy Electric

The Magic of Christmas (Tooth & Nail)

A Christmas CD from Joy Electric was inevitable for two reasons: Manheim Steamroller's successful synth-flavored holiday albums, and JE's previous contributions to the Happy Christmas compilations on BEC Recordings. Two songs from Happy Christmas are on this new disc, "Winter Wonderland" and the original "Lollipop Parade (On Christmas Morn)"—but, oddly, they didn't include "Mrs. Claus" from Happy Christmas Vol. 3. JE's particular style of synth-pop (no drum machines!) is on full display throughout. Blips and bleeps abound in electronic renditions of "Angels We Have Heard on High" and "What Child Is This?"—all realized with synth-drums, arpeggio runs, and portamento slides. Those are the only two sacred favorites, with the album primarily focused on secular classics like "Holly Jolly Christmas," "Frosty the Snowman," and "Let It Snow!" Despite the inventive sound and technique, the arrangements lack creativity and imagination. I'm sorry, but some musical greeting cards are more interesting than the ridiculously simplistic "Here We Come a Wassailing." The Magic of Christmas is a scant 22 minutes long, though adequately priced at $10 or less. JE fans will probably enjoy it, but overall, this project sounds more dated than Manheim Steamroller.

The Katinas

Christmas, sold with Roots (Gotee)
R&B pop

This is a limited edition 4-song EP bundled with The Katinas' 2003 release, Roots. Touring again with Michael W. Smith for his Christmas shows, the Somoa-born quintet of brothers puts its tight R&B harmonies on full display here, beginning with the opening bars of their jazzy "Let It Snow!" They're appropriately reflective during a pop cover of "Mary, Did You Know," and exuberant during a slick R&B rendition of "Joy to the World." The short disc is rounded out with an awesome a cappella cover of "O Little Town of Bethlehem," also featured on the new T.D. Jakes Christmas release (see below). If there's a drawback here, it's that four songs only whet the appetite for a full-length Christmas disc from The Katinas—potentially as good as Glad or Take 6.

Kathy Mattea

Joy for Christmas Day (Narada)
Acoustic folk country pop

This is veteran country artist Kathy Mattea's first Christmas album since 1993's Grammy-winning Good News. Mattea, who leans more toward acoustic-folk than country-pop, has a tremendous respect for the craft of songwriting—obvious even on these songs which she had little hand in writing. The opening "Christmas Collage" is a great arrangement, artfully tying together five carols in short time. There are also fine renditions of "Angels We Have Heard on High" and "Hark the Angels Sing." Even more original is the arrangement of "O Come, All Ye Faithful," which begins with pipe organ, is then sung a cappella in Latin, and dives into a country-blues shuffle—now that's something you don't hear every day! The real joy of this disc is the inclusion of well-written Christmas songs you've probably never heard before. I recognized only two of these seven gems: "Sing, Mary, Sing" by Jennifer Knapp, and the aggressive blues-gospel of "Baby King" by Marc Cohn. Other standouts include Melissa Manchester's powerfully affecting "There's Still My Joy" and Bob Franke's "Straw Against the Chill," a folk song connecting Christ's humble birth and sacrificial death. This beautiful album is one of the finest Christmas CDs I've heard, sure to be a classic if enough people discover it.

Relient K

Deck the Halls, Bruise Your Hand, sold with select copies of Two Lefts… (Gotee)
Melodic punk rock and pop

Doesn't Relient K come up with the best album titles? This ten-track disc (27-minutes) is packaged with their best-selling Two Lefts Don't Make a Right … But Three Do album. Some will understandably look at this packaging with skepticism, since it forces fans to buy Two Lefts a second time, thus boosting its sales records. It might be better viewed as buying a Christmas disc and gaining a Christmas gift for a friend for a total of only $10—the consumer definitely wins in this case. As you can imagine from their sense of humor and melodic punk rock sound, Relient K's renditions of "The Hallelujah Chorus," "Deck the Halls," and "The Twelve Days of Christmas" are a blast with the layered harmonies and rip-roaring guitars, as are relatively predictable covers of "Angels We Have Heard on High" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." The piano-driven medley of "Silent Night/Away in a Manger" is beautifully done, segueing into the very Christ-focused original, "I Celebrate the Day." Two other originals come from the Happy Christmas Vol. 3 compilation (BEC Recordings)—the hyperactive "Santa Claus Is Thumbing to Town" and the Ben Folds-esque "I Hate Christmas Parties" (by "Matt Thiessen and The Earthquakes"), which demonstrates that Relient K is not always a barrel of laughs. Overall, it's tons of fun.

T.D. Jakes presents

Follow the Star (EMI Gospel)
R&B gospel

Follow the Star is a companion to Bishop T.D. Jakes' new book of the same name. It's not a musical or a cohesive work by one producer, but various EMI Gospel artists and producers contributing to an album with Jakes' name on it. Two tracks are from new Christmas projects by The Katinas and The Blind Boys of Alabama (featured above). The album begins with Jakes telling his son Dexter where to look for God, leading into the R&B pop title track sung by Dorinda Clark-Cole. Mary Mary treats the listener with the album's other original, "Gift of Love," a funky R&B cut about the true meaning of Christmas. Highlights among the traditionals include knockout performances by Smokie Norful ("O Holy Night"), Darwin Hobbs ("O Come All Ye Faithful") and Aaron Neville ("The First Noel"). Donald Lawrence & the Tri-City Singers give an old spiritual a new R&B twist with "Go Tell It," featuring an electrifying lead vocal by Sheri Jones-Moffett. Bishop Jakes offers a little piano solo of "Silent Night" before El Trio De Hoy's Latin muzak-jazz rendition of "Noche de Paz." Some of Jakes' dramatic readings are stilted (before and during "Away in a Manger"), others inviting ("From Our House, To Your House"). This is a fine holiday gospel offering, featuring incredible vocal performances.

John Tesh

Christmas Worship, with DVD (Garden City Music)

We included this in last year's holiday roundup, but it's been retooled for wider release on Tesh's Garden City label. This new version—which comes packaged with a bonus DVD, Christmas in Positano—has been shortened from last year's original release, but it's no great loss. The reading of the 9/11 poem, "God in the Stairwell," was an awkward inclusion, and while Tesh's performances of "The Christmas Song" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" were great, they didn't really fit under the "worship" title—though that doesn't explain why the romantic "It Wouldn't Be Christmas (Without You)" remains. We're left with upbeat covers of "Joy to the World," "Carol of the Bells," and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," beautiful renditions of "Coventry Carol" and "Silent Night," plus two other Tesh originals—the instrumental "Positano Sunrise" and the comforting pop of "This Is Your Gift." Interspersed are a few modern worship favorites, which fit the context. Kathryn Scott's "Hungry" almost works as a song of expectation for Advent, Chris Tomlin's "We Fall Down" fits the image of the Nativity, and Rich Mullins' "Awesome God" could just as well be the "Gloria" sung by the angels. A well-produced Christmas disc resembling holiday releases from Michael W. Smith and Manheim Steamroller in many ways. The beautifully produced DVD, featuring Tesh and band playing Christmas favorites in Positano, Italy, makes a nice added bonus.

Past coverage of Christmas releases:
Christmas Wrap-Up 2002
Christmas Wrap-Up 2001 (Pt. 2)
Christmas Wrap-Up 2001 (Pt. 1)
Christmas Wrap-Up 2000Copyright © Christian Music Today. Click for reprint information.