When we first started hearing about this year's Christmas music releases, there were few on the horizon to dazzle our December spirits. But good Christian men rejoice! As glad tidings of more albums trickled in, we listened to them all (well, most of them), and found some genuine gifts among them all.
These rose to the top:
Phil Wickham | Natalie Cole & the MTC | Wilson Phillips | Mike Crawford and his Secret Siblings
33 Miles | The Isaacs | Point of Grace | Jason Crabb | Newsboys
Phil KeaggyWelcome Inn (Kingsway)
Style: Melodic folk; compare to Randy Stonehill, Bob Dylan, Larry Norman
Top tracks: "Best Christmas Morn," "All Through the Night"
Keaggy—singer, songwriter, guitar phenom, and overall music legend—magically portrays Christmas with the vintage candor of his folksy voice, beautifully bright acoustic guitar, and a myriad of other acoustic instruments. Painting small-town scenes with artful lyrics and quaint melodies, Keaggy fashions the sights and sounds of Christmas into an intimate musical landscape that is childishly reminiscent ("Village Bells"), yet stark and stunning ("For the Twelfth Night").
Spencer CapierChristmas Instrumental (Independent)
Style: Heartland instrumental folk; compare to Chris Thile, Ron Block, Julie Lee
Top tracks: "Not One Sparrow Is Forgotten," "In the Bleak Midwinter"
Magnificently weaving his way through 12 tracks of seasonal liturgy, Capier, whose multi-instrumentalist skills have graced the music of folk-oriented musicians like Jennifer Knapp and Carolyn Arends, crafts a stirring work of art all his own here. Slowly picked mandolins, heartland fiddle lines, priceless pedal steel swoops, and gorgeous open guitars are all effective tools on Capier's masterful musical workbench.
Dave BarnesVery Merry Christmas (Razor & Tie)
Style: Singer/songwriter pop; compare to Matt Wertz, John Mayer, Brandon Heath
Top tracks: "Family Tree," "Mary & Joseph"
Issuing a classy Christmas collection akin to Harry Connick Jr.'s yuletide discography, singer/songwriter Barnes gifts his listeners with chic musical arrangements of holiday vintages and charming originals fitting of the same set list. Lyrically, Barnes shuffles themes of romance, family, and faith, wonderfully representing the best reasons for the season—relationship with God and man.
Future of ForestryAdvent Christmas EP, Vol. 2 (Credential)
Style: Artful electronic rock; compare to Paper Route, David Crowder Band, Gungor
Top tracks: "The Earth Stood Still," "Pie Jesu"
Though Advent may trade sleigh bells and massive choirs for tinkling glockenspiels, brooding cello, and climactic power guitars, it is no less classic, or sacred—celestially exampled on "The Earth Stood Still," a haunting retelling of the Christ Child's earthly entrance. Preserving vintage carol melodies while expressing unique arrangements, the spiritually sensitive six-song set should appease traditionalists and non-conformists alike.
Phil WickhamSongs for Christmas (Independent)
Style: Indie pop/rock; compare to Gungor, Leeland, Kevin Max
Top tracks: "The First Noel," "O Holy Night"
Available only through his website, Wickham's self-released project is a gem. Strip down the pop/rock panache of his critically acclaimed 2009 release, Heaven & Earth, add some poppy musical trinkets and leave plenty of space for Wickham's pure pipes, and it's a no-brainer. For a singer/songwriter, Wickham uses the unusual event of a mainly-cover tunes Christmas record to further pronounce his delightful artistry.