The Best of the Best:
Christmas:An Irrational Season by Carolyn Arends, 2004
2004 was a stellar year to be a Carolyn Arends fan. Not only did we get an all-new-material regular album, Under the Gaze, we also got the long-awaited, eagerly-anticipated Christmas release, Christmas: An Irrational Season. Sometimes, when you wait a long time for something and it finally comes, your expectations have overwhelmed the possibilities of the awaited thing, and bitter disappointment ensues. Well, I am happy to report that this album bucks that trend. As the Wiggles might say, Christmas: An Irrational Season is a "beauty, mate!"
For the past ten years, Carolyn's church has asked her to write a song for their Christmas service. As Carolyn wryly notes, this sounded like a great idea the first couple of years. But if Carolyn's tongue-in-cheek observation speaks of a weariness of culling the ancient story for new inspiration, you would never know it by listening to the original songs she includes on this album. The album's unusual title was taken from a Madeleine L'Engle poem, "After Anunciation," and both the prelude and postlude tracks echo its beautiful refrain: This is the irrational season/When love blooms bright and wild/For if Mary had been filled with reason/There'd have been no room for the Child/There'd have been no room for the Child. Carolyn's sotto voice suits so well this poem turned lyric, and Spencer Capier comes in with a haunting violin solo of "What Child is This." And the mood is set for a truly unique Christmas experience.
The first of the original offerings follows the prelude. "Come and See" (Christmas 2003) is a spirited song that conveys the excitement of shepherds who have been heralded by angels and are now abuzz -- passing the glorious news onto friends and family as they make their way to the stable: Have you heard, have you heard/All the rumors are true/Spread the word, spread the word/This is such good news/The dream is not a dream anymore/Nothing is the same as before/Come and see, come and see/He is lying in the straw/He's a new baby boy who's the hope of us all/Come and hear, come and hear/It's a sound both sweet and strange/It's the great love of God in the cry of babe/It's the great love of God in the cry of a babe.
Next in line is another original, "Do Not Be Afraid" (Christmas 1995). While reminding the listener of the exhortation every angel who appears to man begins with -- Do not be afraid! -- Carolyn ties that idea into our modern celebration of the Incarnation: Half believing, half afraid/We celebrate the story/Our lives seem about a world away/From angels and their glory/Open our eyes to see what Mary saw somehow/Open our hearts to hear those angels even now/They're singing: Do not be afraid/Oh do not be afraid/Love has found its way to you/So do not be afraid.
Next comes the first cover of a classic on the album, "Angels We Have Heard on High." This rollicking rendition is the best I've ever heard of this song -- lots of jamming drums and guitars. It's always fun when Carolyn jumps into rock star mode and goes crazy. Sweet.
The next track is another cover, this time of a more modern song, "Christmas Must Be Tonight," by Robbie Robertson. This is probably my least favorite track on the album. Carolyn's smooth soft voice seems suited to this subdued, folksy carol, but I find the lyrics particularly unlikable. First of all, I have very little patience with songs that pretend that Jesus was born in the winter. Yes, I know that we celebrate His birth in the winter (or the summer in Australia and other lands south of the Equator), but most Biblical scholars agree that the Birth most likely occured in the spring. I love Christmas carols that have a wintry theme, so long as they do not intimate that the actual Event was in winter. But that is a small quarrel. My great disagreement is with the complete want of sense that the lyrics make when put together in the song. Individual lines may be good, but they are very disjointed when put next to each other. What do you think? Saw it with my own eyes/Written up in the sky/But why a lowly herdsman such as I/But then it came to pass/He was born at last/Right below the star that shines on high/How a little baby boy/Could bring the people so much joy/Son of a carpenter/Mary carried the light/This must be Christmas, must be tonight. Yeah.
The next song on the list, "Is Bethlehem Too Far Away" (Christmas 2002), brings us back to the superior song-writing of Carolyn Arends. A lovely, quiet song, asking whether we can Find our way to the baby King/Can we worship Him now in the hay/And can we believe He can change everything/Or is Bethlehem too far away?
The next track is one of my very favorites, and proof, if proof were needed, that Carolyn has not worn out the theme of Christmas when it comes to songwriting. "Now in Flesh Appearing" (Christmas 2004) never fails to bring tears to my eyes. Fast forward the Christmas Story 2000 years, and you find the stories of those who do not find Bethlehem far away at all. We learn of Joshua, who volunteers at the Union Gospel Mission, sharing soup and conversation with some strangers/And all his friends just can't believe/How he spends his Christmas Eve/He says it brings him closer to the manger. Next, we learn of Lisa who is a missionary abroad, working with orphans, hugging all those kids/Teaching them what Christmas is/And though her family misses her they know/That this is Christmas/A hand upon a shoulder/Christmas/...a little peace on earth/This is Christmas/The sweet love of Jesus/Now in flesh appearing, yeah. This is, I believe I can state with confidence, the only Christmas song in the world to include a rhyming line with "Kazakhstan." My favorite lines from the song: We celebrate the Baby King/And everything He came to bring/Every time we give goodwill to men/So on December 25/Or in the middle of July/Any time we do what pleases Him/Then it's Christmas/Merry Christmas/This is Christmas/Now in flesh appearing ... Amen.
Another tear-jerker follows on the heels of the above. "My First Christmas" (Christmas 2000) is the story of a woman's life, and all of the first Christmases she experiences. She is a baby in 1923, whose parents snap a photo and write on the back, "This is my first Christmas." Next she is a young woman who experiences a holy transformation on Christmas Eve in 1944, her first Christmas as a believer. Lastly, this "November past," she slips into the next world, and though The great-grandchildren miss her so/But if she could she would let them know/This is my first Christmas ... I first heard this song a couple years after I had lost my mother (in November) and this ministered to my hurting heart. I like to think of my mother's 1998 Christmas: First time to hear the angels sing/Glory, hallelujah to the Risen King/And a holy night is what this is/For this is [her] first Christmas.
Next up is that soulful perennial, "Go Tell It On the Mountain." You have not heard anything until you've heard a bunch of white Canadians getting funky on an African-American classic. It works, because they are having a lot of fun, and they are working it. Aw yeah!
The next track is one dear to my heart. Too often, Joseph's role in the Christmas story is diminished. Take, for instance, the modern classic "Breath of Heaven: Mary's Song" written by Amy Grant and Chris Eaton. It is a beautiful song, but it has one annoying line: In a world as cold as stone/Must I walk this path alone? Well, Mary was not alone, the Lord gave her a wonderful husband, a faithful man whose obedience is as important as Mary's in the Story, for if she had not had Joseph to stand by her and protect her, she would have been an outcast indeed. Carolyn's song, "The Lord's Servant" (Christmas 2001), gives the often-overlooked Joseph's part of the story due consideration. We must not forget that he too was the Lord's servant. And, with the way she has, Carolyn draws out the Story's relevance for today: It's been 2000 years/And yet you play a part/The Messiah still comes/If there's room in your heart/And if you are willing/Then our God is able/He sent His salvation/Down to a stable/So love can be born/And peace can be yours/If you'll be the Lord's servant/Oh will you be the Lord's servant?
The next song is a cover of a classic Christmas hymn. "Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus," written by Charles Wesley and Rowland H. Prichard, is given the most simple of arrangements by Carolyn, which emphasizes the gorgeous structure of language in the lyrics, the perfect balance of the melody, and Carolyn's own gentle voice. Israel's strength and consolation/Hope of all the earth Thou art/Dear desire of every nation/Joy of ev'ry longing heart. Pure lovliness -- you would want this sung as a solo at midnight service on Christmas Eve.
The last full-length song on the album is also an original Arends tune. "A Christmas Blessing" (Christmas 1999) is Carolyn's benediction to her listeners across the miles and the years. May the One who has come guide you and keep you/May you seek His face as all wise men still do/And may Bethlehem's road rise up to meet you/'Til you find Him and see that God is with you/May you find Him and see that God is with you. Words to ring throughout the Christmas season and in your heart the whole year through.
The delicate yet rich strains that echo out of the strings of Spencer Capier's violin begin the last track in a reprise of "What Child is This," and Carolyn repeats the lines with which she began this amazing album: This is the irrational season/When love blooms bright and wild/For if Mary had been filled with reason/There'd have been no room for the Child/There'd have been no room for the Child. What a journey this recording takes you on! My no-holds-barred, absolute favorite Christmas album -- there is nothing else like it in all the CD bins at any music store anywhere.
A Christmas Story by Point of Grace, 1999
I will not subject the reader to another Christmas album review as lengthy as the one I've dedicated to Carolyn Arends' seasonal offering. She gets so much space because her work is profound enough to warrant it. But, there are many other albums that I love at this time of year that, while not nearly as unique in artistic expression as Mrs. Arends', are a heck of a lot of fun. One such is Point of Grace's first Christmas album, A Christmas Story, which was released in 1999. This was my favorite album until, well, until 2004 (see above).
Point of Grace, if you do not know, is a Christian Pop group that sings songs with tight, soaring four-part harmonies. That alone makes their work worth listening to. They also pick some great songs to record, such as "The Great Divide," "Life, Love and Other Mysteries," "The Wonder of It All," etc. The original members of the group -- who worked on this album -- are Terry Jones, Denise Jones, Shelley Breen, and Heather Payne.
There are some nice newly penned songs on this album. "When Love Came Down" is a joyous way to begin the story. "One King" and "Not That Far From Bethlehem" are thoughtful expressions of the enduring miracle of the Birth. "Light of the World," which features the vocals of Michael Tait, is rather banal lyrically, but the vocals are lovely and the refrain is catchy. Moving on to such classics as "Angels We Have Heard on High" and "The Carol of the Bells/What Child Is This" medley, the ladies use their pipes to great effect. They also include a few rarely recorded gems, "How Great Our Joy" and "Coventry Carol." I do not appreciate their rendition of "O Holy Night," which is normally one of my favorite carols. They could have done it so beautifully, considering their vocal abilities, but instead they overlap the lyrics in a very distracting way that makes the exceptional message difficult to understand. Ah, what might have been... I also do not like the sappy new song, "Emmanuel, God With Us" which is so saccharine that I wince to think of its being paired in a medley with "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," which is incredibly powerful.
Especially delightful on this album are the secular songs they recorded. The medley of "Let It Snow/Sleigh Ride" is alternately sultry and spirited. There is a kick ass version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" that will surely leave a smile on the face of any listener. It is very retro, Andrews sisters sounding, and it is just alive with fluffy fun. "Jingle Bell Rock" is also well-done, probably the best rendition I've heard of this song (although, it is still not one of my favorite Christmas-time tunes).
Overall, this album will get you into the Christmas spirit, whether you want to be or not.
A Christmas Album by Amy Grant, 1983
Itty-bitty little picture of the album cover. Great big Grant-y goodness.
Amy Grant's first Christmas album is still my favorite of her seasonal offerings. Jason likes Home for Christmas the best, but, for me, A Christmas Album, set the standard for all modern Christmas releases. Few have attained this mark, let alone surpassed it. Sure, there's hokiness of interpretation and cheesy synthesized music to be found here, but this is vintage Amy Grant -- young Amy Grant who still has that purity of voice and vision that projects a life untouched by trouble or worry and filled with wonder. She sounds even younger than her twenty-two years on this album, and this youthfulness is infectious. I cannot help but feel more like a kid when I listen to it, and as I grow older, alas, with each passing year, that quality is more and more appreciated.
The opening track is a duet with (now) ex-husband Gary Chapman on a song that they co-wrote, "Tennessee Christmas." Once you are able to get over the pain of hearing it in light of their 1999 divorce, it remains a delightful modern classic. Amy Grant's "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" is my favorite version of the song -- her voice just soars and the music knows enough not to interfere with the ringing notes of her velvet pipes.
The synthesized sound of "Preiset dem König" leaves something to be desired -- it is a joyous instrumental, yet it is done without instruments.
The artificial music is apropos, though, for Michael W. Smith's rousing "Emmanuel." Amy Grant contains grit in that honeyed voice, and she lets it loose in a rock-n-roll growl that somehow works as a Christmas anthem. Another miracle of the season! As the final digitized notes of "Emmanuel" fade into the background, the pounding notes of "Little Town," Chris Eaton's updated arrangement of "O Little Town of Bethlehem," come to the forefront, the lyrics of which Amy belts forth with boisterous joy.
More in the vein of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" is the next track, "Christmas Hymn," another original song, co-written by Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith. From that lovely and serene offering, we are next introduced to another new song -- this one is a rollicking heck of a good time. "Love Has Come" just builds and builds until the end has this guy in the background screaming. And that may not sound like an attractive Christmas carol, but, again, these crazy kids make it work. Love has come for the world to know/Like the wise men knew such a long time ago/And I believe that angels sing, that hope has begun/When the God of glory, who is full of mercy, sent His Son. The youthful exuberance here just cries out for screams of joy. In the end, literally.
"Sleigh Ride" is a sweet interpretation of the ultimate frolicking winter fun ditty. I love Amy Grant's little whistles and yelling out to friends to, "Come on, you guys!" She then segues into a much more subdued expression of good cheer with that Mel Torme classic, "The Christmas Song." Any long-time Amy Grant fan is certain to list the next track on the album as one of their all-time favorite Christmas songs, old or new. "Heirlooms" is sung so very well, Amy's voice is alive with emotion and conviction: Time never changes the memory, the moment His love first pierced through me/Telling all that I come from and all that I live for and all that I'm going to be/My precious Savior is more than an heirloom to me. That's powerful stuff. The final track is "Angels We Have Heard on High," and I believe it is the only track on this album recorded with the full orchestra production that has come to define the later Amy Grant Christmas albums and concerts. It is very nice. I love this album.
Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas by Ella Fitzgerald, 2002
Ella Fitzgerald has the happiest voice in the world. And, when she wishes you a "swinging Christmas," well, buddy, you're gonna swing. Lady Ella has a way of interpreting a song that just bubbles over with optimism and benevolence. Even in a wistfully poignant song, which I have heard sad renditions of, such as "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve," Ella lets you in on a little secret. She may sing of being doubtful of being her object of affection's choice of New Year's companion, but there is a wink behind it all that let's the listener know that she had no doubt at all that she will prevail. When she asks for her baby back in the aptly-named, "Good Morning Blues," she sings with confidence that Santa will honor her "real good cause."
This is a great "decorating the tree" album -- the songs are almost uniformly jazzy in that signature Ella style that makes her so beloved. This is Sadie's favorite Christmas album, because it is the one that has the most songs about Santa Claus, snow, reindeer, snowmen, and all the other kid-adored components of this "hap-happiest season of all." Even last year, when she was only 20 months old, Sadie used to yell out "town" at the appropriate moment in "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Jason has confiscated this album for commuting entertainment. This is just a fun, fun, fun seasonal offering that gives nothing more profound than good cheer.
When My Heart Finds Christmas by Harry Connick Jr., 1993
Harry Connick, Jr.'s (HCJ) first Christmas album is the album that his predecessor Frank Sinatra should have made, but never did. Frank Sinatra never released a Christmas album worthy of his legendary status, so HCJ had to come along and make it happen. Plus, HCJ brings his own inimitable New Orleans style to some of the more soulful songs, and that makes this album such an eclectic treat.
"When My Heart Finds Christmas" is an original song, penned by HCJ, that one could easily imagine Sinatra's voice slipping into like a glove. It is lovely, but a little bland. Far better is the next original, "(It Must Have Been Ol') Santa Claus," which is a jazzy story of a young boy's Christmas Eve adventure with Santa himself. A "Happy ho! ho! ho!" indeed.
HCJ also does fine arrangements of such classics as "Sleigh Ride," "Let It Snow," "Ave Maria," "O Holy Night," and "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" Probably, the best original song on the album is "I Pray on Christmas," which is lyrically simple, but is alive with passion and goodwill. The entire package is wonderful, and my advice is this: If you are a Frank Sinatra fan who is looking for a good Sinatra Christmas album, there aren't any. Instead, buy this HCJ album and enjoy! And if you simply like good Christmas music, you cannot go wrong with this one.
Joy: A Holiday Collection by Jewel, 1999
If like me, when you saw Jewel's Joy
Your first response was to mutter, "Oy!"
I beg you please to rethink your stance
And give Miss J a second chance
For though most of her music leaves me cold
With annoying songs that soon grow old
This album's filled with Christmas spirit
Which you'll admit too, once you hear it
I love the way she sings "Silent Night"
And even her original songs seem right
There's surprising conviction in her voice
That makes this a favorite listening choice
Her arrangements are simple, her voice is pure
You ask: "Are you serious?" I reply: "I am sure."
And here is one last point to ponder
She includes that rare gem, "I Wonder as I Wander"
So, give it a listen, give it a try!
Borrow from the library, if you don't want to buy.
And as she trills, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing"
Raise a glass and let the joyous season ring!
Home for Christmas by Amy Grant, 1992
Everyone on earth loves this Christmas album, so who am I to disparage it? It has become one of the great standards over the past thirteen years, and it really is a lovely collection. The orchestration is rich and lush and a delight to the ears. Jason claims that this is one of the albums that immediately gets him into the Christmas spirit.
Amy chooses to begin the album on a gentle rendition of one of my least favorite Christmas songs, the wretched "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." But the album improves from there with a gorgeous version of "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." The debut of "Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song)" is found here. I think Vince Gill once recorded that song, which is difficult to imagine, considering the lyrics: I have traveled many moonless nights/Cold and weary with a babe inside/And I wonder what I've done/Holy Father You have come/And chosen me now to carry Your Son. Some men must be very in touch with their yang. Or is it their yin? Whichever is the girlie side.
Other notable songs from this album include "Grown Up Christmas List," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," and "The Night Before Christmas."
Winter Wonderland by Point of Grace, 2005
New for Christmas 2005! This is a beautiful new collection of standards with a few originals by the revised Point of Grace (Terry Jones left the group and was replaced by Leigh Cappillino). The girls always sound good together, and their harmonies add dimension to often recorded carols. They echo many of Amy Grant's most well-known versions, with similar arrangements on "It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," "Breath of Heaven," and "Little Town." One of the highlights is Heather's amazing vocals on "All is Well." This is very pleasant, and I am sure it will be a favorite for years to come.
WOW! If you've actually made it to the end of this rambling Kostelanstrosity*, you either really like Christmas music, or you are my dad who is bound by honor to read everything I write and compliment me beyond merit. Either way -- you rock! Have a beautiful Christmas filled with music and joy and blessed, memory-making family times. Peace!
* A Kostelanetz-ism that has gone above and beyond coma-inducing boredom and reached the point of monstrosity. Ah, Amigo, you've taught me well.