MODERN CHRISTMAS MUSIC - TRY SOMETHING NEW! by Brendan O'Regan
At this time of year the record shops dig out their supplies of Christmas Music (those that didn't go in the January sales). Most of the material on offer is either traditional Christmas carols done in the traditional fashion, or compilations of novelty pop hits from previous Christmases, such as "I'm walking backwards for Christmas" by the Goons or more serious efforts like the Band Aid song "Do they know it's Christmas". However there is a new breed of seasonal music that hasn't yet made much impression in Ireland - Christmas collections by contemporary gospel artists.
Much of this material is available only in the religious shops or on the web, but the most accessible are albums from mainstream artists who sometimes record gospel material. For example Emmylou Harris' 70's album Light of the Stable has recently been re-released on CD. This is a sensitive, gentle and largely acoustic collection of standards such as "Silent Night" and "Away in a Manger" with contemporary songs like "Angel Eyes" and "Light of the Stable", the latter featuring harmony vocals by Neil Young, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. Another country singer Kathy Mattea has two Christmas albums. Good News, a Grammy winner, is an impressive collection of lesser known songs. Her sleeve notes and her choice of material show that this was a heartfelt project and not an exercise in seasonal commercialism. Joy for Christmas Day has been well received and features a balance of modern and traditional. We Three Kings is a fine Christmas album in the roots/folk genre, by those esoteric singing sisters The Roches. This is a well crafted and infectious bunch of new and old carols from "Joy to the World" to "Frosty the Snowman"! The work of Peter Paul and Mary now spans four decades and they have regularly included gospel material in their output. Their Christmas offering is A Holiday Celebration, released in 1988 is still available. They sing here with the New York Choral Society, but there is still a strong contemporary folk backbone to the music. Their version of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" is particularly moving, though the inclusion of "Blowing in the Wind" is a bit odd!
One of the most readily available albums by a Christian artist is Home for Christmas by Amy Grant. This includes secular pop standards such as "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", traditional carols including a gentle acoustic guitar backed "O Come All Ye Faithful", and a lovely "Emmanuel" that would suit Advent and Christmas prayer services, and a most beautiful handful of modern Christmas songs that capture the true meaning of the season in a language and style for our times. Her earlier A Christmas Album is more vigorous and also well worth a listen. John Michael Talbot is one of the few Catholics in contemporary Christian music and his The Birth of Jesus is a marvellous combination of self-penned and traditional material. It contains what must be the most moving version of "We Three Kings" and the theology here is certainly meatier than in any of the others mentioned so far. His recent Signatures album contains the "Advent Suite" and from his folk-rock days "Prepare Ye The Way" from the New Earth album sounds like something John the Baptist would sing.
The St Louis Jesuits, who have produced some of the best known Catholic folk hymns like, "Be Not Afraid" and "Here I Am Lord" have a Christmas collection also, Gentle Light, which should be worth looking into. Evangelical Michael Card's work is always very intelligent and reverent. His Christmas album The Promise is still available, with standout tracks "The Promise" and "Immanuel" particularly suitable for Advent. His three album set on the life of Jesus is still available. The first, originally released as The Final Word, deals in detail with Advent themes, with strong emphasis on Jesus being The Word of God - there's also a catchy Christmas song "Celebrate the Child".
For those unwilling to take a chance on an unfamiliar artist, most of the Christian record companies (such as Sparrow, Myrrh, Alliance, Reunion) have compilation Christmas albums that showcase their respective rosters of performers. Often these contain songs especially recorded for the season rather than material culled from previous releases.
The beauty of these albums is that they present the true meaning of Christmas in a contemporary way for our times, whether through new material or striking new arrangements of the old. They help to ensure that this special season doesn't just become a cosy nostalgia trip with diminishing relevance. Produced professionally and performed with devotion they help to make Christmas a present and pleasant reality.