Marcus Hathcock: "A song that once felt like a goofy party song has taken a serious turn with Unspoken, and instead of using the Spanish as a shtick, it comes off as more inclusive of the joyful, reflective message."
Here's a completely obvious fact that needs restating merely for introductory purposes of this article: There's a TON of Christmas music out there. At some point in just about every long-tenured artist's career, they put aside their regular musical contributions and turn their attention to putting their signature spin on well-loved carols (and creating a few original tunes in hopes that they'll become classics).
The result—for better or for worse—is an ever-increasing library of tunes out there to enjoy for about four weeks out of the year. Although many people (myself included) are sick of the 12-song rotation that includes Bing, Brenda Lee and the Chipmunks all day long, it's also overwhelming to try to set out on one's own Christmas music quest.
To help, in some small way, I'm sharing a list of my favorite new Christmas songs released by artists in 2013. Although there's plenty more music out there from various other years, this list provides you with some pretty solid listening choices that are brand-new. (If you have any other must-listens from this calendar year, feel free to post them in the comments below!)
"Hallelujah Chorus" by John Schlitt
If you're not immediately aware of the name John Schlitt, chances are, you're familiar with his voice. As the current frontman of rock staple Petra, Schlitt's high-octane pipes have been known to make candy canes explode. Just kidding. But in all seriousness, the opening track of Schlitt's fan-funded The Christmas Project deploys some fantastic arena-rock firepower with some time-tested tunes. It's a rare thing indeed to see Handel's Messiah covered on Christmas albums (compared to some other standards), but when it's covered with distortion and gritty vocals, it's a total win.
"Joy to the World" by Citizens
Mars Hill worship band Citizens is known for its ability to take hymns and given them a fresh coat of uptempo hipster paint, and that's just what they've done with "Joy to the World." With a killer bass riff and xylophonic chimes opening the first track of their Repeat the Sounding Joy EP, you know you're in for something different on this tune. It's a great blend of the familiar melody line and an inventive, high-energy arrangement.
"Hey Moon" by Sidewalk Prophets
Sidewalk Prophets has a ton of fun on their brand-new (and first) Christmas album, Merry Christmas to You, but on the song "Hey Moon," things get deeper with a song about the Star of David talking to the moon about the birth of Jesus. The lyrically strong, piano-and-strings song, has a few great, memorable lines, such as: "Do you ever get tear in your eye? When you think about the time that God came down / I couldn’t help myself I had to shine so bright," and, "It’s funny how things have changed / I wish they could see the things we’ve seen / Before the colored lights / And Christmas trees."
"Christmas Madness" by The Rocket Summer
In the middle of November, one-man band Bryce Avary announced on his social media outlets that, on a whim, he decided to write, record and release a Christmas EP. The Christmas Madness EP is the result, and the title track is a great song about focusing on the right things in the midst of "Christmas madness." Avary said the song is "about the financial pressures that come with Christmas." It's a driving pop/rock song that is classic The Rocket Summer (or should we say The Rocket Winter?) featuring Avary's high-flying vocals and his playing all of the instruments on the track (except for the sweet saxophone his longtime friend played).
"Little Drummer Boy" by for KING & COUNTRY Into the Silent Night EP only has five songs on it (four if you take into account that there are two versions of "Baby Boy"), and the Smallbone brothers waste no time with each track. One of the highlights is the band's fantastic cover of "Little Drummer Boy," a carol that is difficult to pull off with any amount of originality. Plenty of bands have tried; most have failed. Joel and Luke give this B-level Christmas carol a major Brit-rock facelift with driving guitars, twinkling synths and echoing vocals. The delicate first few verses give way to bombastic energetic ending verses, with explosive interludes bridging them all together. Fans of the band know that for KING & COUNTRY loves playing the drums; you can easily picture them hopping around the stage slamming on drums live for this song. (NOTE: "Baby Boy" is clearly the standout on this album, but it was not introduced in 2013.)
"Emmanuel Come (O Come O Come Emmanuel)" by North Point
North Point Music—a part of Atlanta megachurch North Point Church—does a masterful job of taking a well-known Christmas song and giving it a contemporary chorus that enriches the context for today's audiences. They did it well with "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/He Has Come For Us" on their first Christmas album, and they do it again with their retelling of "O Come O Come Emmanuel," as sung by Clarissa Gibson on the Let There Be Light album. The song maintains the original's dark feeling of longing for a savior, along with the juxtaposed chorus of hopeful praise. For this song, North Point added a pre-chorus leading into a modified refrain of "Rejoice!" It's a great illustration of the need and the answer.
"Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" by Future of Forestry From Associate Editor Mary Nikkel's review of Advent Christmas Vol. III: One of the decisions that sets the tracklist apart from most other Christmas releases is the inclusion of "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring," sung in its native German. Foreign language pieces are always a gamble, as they run the risk of alienating English speakers who cannot understand the lyrics, but this rendition is tasteful and never overbearing in its presentation of the original Bach piece. The places where the German might seem slightly stilted to native speakers are smoothed over by exceptional instrumentation choices (particularly a notably rich string section) that give this song the most joyful posture of the EP's selections.
"Feliz Navidad" by Unspoken
This is one of those Christmas songs where you can only think of one rendition of it—Jose Feliciano's—and no one else has even come close to mounting a challenge of presenting to the world a viable cover version—until now, thanks to Centricity's Christmas compilation Christmas: Joy to the World. What's immediately noticeable about multicultural pop/rock band Unspoken's version of the song is that there are no horns, the tempo is slightly slower, and there's somewhat of a shuffled/swing beat. Not only that, but the band wrote verses of their own that reflect upon the past year and on Jesus' birth (all in English). The chorus attached to those verses is familiar—"I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas"—and the familiar "Feliz Navidad" chorus doesn't come out until 2/3 of the way through the song. A song that once felt like a goofy party song has taken a serious turn with Unspoken, and instead of using the Spanish as a shtick, it comes off as more inclusive of the joyful, reflective message. If you haven't heard this version, be prepared for a complete overhaul of what you expect from the song.
"Just A Girl" by Brandon Heath
Brandon Heath is an incredible songwriter, and on his holiday album, Christmas is Here, he turns his attention to a hypothetical story regarding there being no room for Mary and Joseph at the inn in Bethlehem. He imagines the thought process of the innkeeper—which involves wrongly judging Mary—only to regret his decision later: "He's just a babe / Just minutes old there trembling in the hay / I could have found a room for them to stay / I'm so ashamed / He's just a babe." It's a creative take on the Christmas story, and it focuses on a character that rarely has any screen time. The world didn't expect Jesus to come as He did. The question is, do we accept Him on His terms?
"Light of the World" by Lauren Daigle
New Centricity Records signee Lauren Daigle is introduced to the world in a big way with her first single on the Centricity Christmas compilation album, Christmas: Joy to the World. Daigle's voice is at times rough and at times pure and smooth; it's powerful and peaceful. With hints of Kim Walker-Smith, Dara MacLean and even Katy Perry in her voice, there's a distinct quality to her voice that lends some extra drama to this song about longing for Jesus. Daigle sings about real-life issues where people need peace and hope, and presents Heaven's answer: Jesus. The original tune isn't a take on "O Come O Come Emmanuel," but it's certainly a thematic cousin: "The world waits for a miracle / The heart longs for a little bit of hope / O come, o come, Emmanuel / A child prays for peace on Earth and she's calling out from a sea of hurt/ O come, o come, Emmanuel / And can you hear the angels sing it? / Glory, the light of the world is here."
BONUS: "Miraculum (LIVE)" by Lincoln Brewster
Check out this instrumental track from by one of the greatest electric guitar players on the scene today. With some familiar melodies and plenty of musical interest throughout, this is a great track to put on while you're making cookies, wrapping presents, decking your halls or whatever else you do that's Christmassy. What's more impressive than the song itself is the fact that Lincoln played this live—that's right, in one take. Enjoy the musicianship, as presented on Joy to the World: Deluxe Edition.
Posted December 03, 2013 | Editor-in-Chief Marcus Hathcock has been a newspaper reporter, an editor and a church staff member. He's also been involved in opera, acappella, a CCM group and now is a songwriter and the worship leader at his home church in the Portland, Ore. area. Follow his journey at www.mheternal.com.