More Christmas Music Worth Your Time

By Benjamin Guyer

Long ago, I wrote that a lot of Christmas music is morally problematic and aesthetically painful. At the time — that strange, dreamlike time before COVID — I recommended a handful of musical selections that fused musical artistry with mostly traditional content. It is difficult for Christmas music to not feel cheap, which too easily undermines the more noble aspirations of the season. But with a good soundtrack, it is possible to regain some of the focus so easily lost (often overwhelmed) as we make our way toward Bethlehem.

Bruce Cockburn, Christmas

Bruce Cockburn is to Canada what Bob Dylan is to the United States. Both specialize in folk rock, and although one might debate who is the better lyricist, Cockburn is by far the better vocalist and guitarist. His Christmas features 14 traditional songs and one original composition. In addition to the familiar, such as “Silent Night,” it also includes culturally diverse selections, such as “Ríu Ríu Chíu” (a Spanish carol), “Les Anges dans nos Campagnes” (the French carol that inspired “Angels We Have Heard on High”), and “Mary Had a Baby” (an African American spiritual). And, although “Iesus Ahatonnia” is familiar to Canadians, most Americans will likely not know it. Acoustic from beginning to end, Christmas is a fitting introduction to the breadth of the holiday.

Deep Sea Diver, It’s Christmas Time

Deep Sea Diver is known for mixing raw, post-punk energy with diverse timbres, often more akin to those found in shoegaze. Its most recent release, Impossible Weight, was voted the top album by KEXP Seattle in 2020. (Full disclosure: my first guitar lesson was taken during COVID-19 via Zoom with the band’s lead songwriter and frontwoman, Jessica Dobson.) It’s Christmas Time veers slightly more toward pop. Layered and looped, familiar songs are complemented by the original “It’s Christmas Time (and I Am Still Alive).” But the album is at its most powerful with its closing song, which finds Dobson belting “O Holy Night” accompanied only by her guitar. In this, it’s every bit as raw as anything found on the band’s other albums.

Low, Christmas

Low, primarily the duo Alan Sparhawk and his late wife Mimi Parker, combines a minimalist musical aesthetic with existential depth — and, occasionally, humor. Christmas is the same, while featuring Parker’s vocals more than some other Low releases. The classic “Little Drummer Boy” is given an unyielding wall of sound; “Blue Christmas” is more radio-friendly. But as with Low’s other work, Christmas most resounds with the blunt lyrics that drive its original compositions. As Sparhawk sings in “If You Were Born Today”: “We’d kill you by age eight.” The bridge and chorus then rehearse various of Jesus’ words, including the Beatitudes. It’s not standard holiday fare — thankfully.

Tess Wiley, Home (Recording) for the Holidays

Tess Wiley is best known as the short-lived guitarist of Sixpence None the Richer. She helped propel the band into noisier territory with its 1995 album This Beautiful Mess. Wiley moved on to a career in indie rock, and released two acoustic Christmas songs in 2020 that she had rediscovered on a defunct hard drive. And the songs are stellar. The first is “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” (“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”); the second is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The sparse instrumentation highlights Wiley’s world-weary singing, which makes the lyrics more believable. It’s what the holiday ought to be made of.

Ben Guyer is a lecturer in the Department of History and Philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Martin.

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