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.
Natalie Cole & the MTCThe Most Wonderful Time of the Year (Mormon Tabernacle Choir)
Style: Orchestral pop; compare to Barbra Streisand, Vanessa Williams, Celine Dion
Top tracks: "Grown-Up Christmas List," "The Holly and the Ivy"
Nine-time Grammy winner Natalie Cole contributes her classy charisma to the musical pageantry of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra's annual holiday spectacular. The 360-member chorus powerfully pillars sacred staples like "O Holy Night," but Cole's soulful bent is the true highlight, tenderly servicing standards like "The Holly and the Ivy" and "Grown-Up Christmas List"—a ballad first recorded by Cole in 1990. And her father's trademark, "The Christmas Song," is elegantly mastered here.
Wilson PhillipsChristmas in Harmony (Sony Masterworks)
Style: Synthesized vocal-pop; compare to Mariah Carey, Point of Grace, Katharine McPhee
Top tracks: "Little Drummer Boy," "Silent Night"
Reuniting over a sugary holiday set list of half originals and half standards, Wilson Phillips characterizes Christmas with their infamous early-90s vocal stacks. Whether happily harmonizing over a cheerful two-beat on "Sleigh Ride," showcasing three-part sweetness on spiritual standard "Silent Night," or wowing listeners on the inspo-synth-pop ballad "When a Child Is Born," the group's infectious multi-platinum pop remains unscathed, even if a bit hokey, by their decade-plus hiatus.
Mike Crawford and his Secret SiblingsSongs from Jacob's Well, Volume III: Songs for the Advent Conspiracy (Independent)
Style: Ambiguous folk-rock; compare to Sufjan Stevens, Arcade Fire, Wilco
Top tracks: "The Woman at Jacob's Well," "There's a Voice in the Wilderness"
Following the mission-minded example of the Christ child to "serve the least of these," Crawford and his musician friends craft another unusual seasonal soiree to support the digging of fresh water wells in Kenya. A swirl of mainly acoustic instruments outfit six original and four traditional tracks in psychedelic indie instrumentation, leaving listeners sometimes wondering what to make of the carousal of trombones, banjos, accordion, pedal steel, and a "Pirate Ship Choir."
Style: Hook-oriented acoustic pop; compare to MercyMe, Natalie Grant, Dave Barnes
Top tracks: "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "I Believe in Christmas"
Right off the top, Believe sounds like typical radio-worship holiday fare. But dig a little deeper and the pop duo reveals a tight Christmas catalog with special emphasis on family and faith. From bass-driven funk to acoustic soul to effective radio appeals, Jason Barton centers the engaging track list with excellent vocal flex. And though the carols are treated somewhat generically, acoustic accents sensitively salvage overdone, but engaging, classics like "O Holy Night."
The IsaacsThe Isaacs Christmas (Gaither Music Group)
Style: Bluegrass gospel; compare to Rhonda Vincent, Dolly Parton, Jason Crabb
Top tracks: "The Christmas Song," "Labor of Love"
Though famous for their over-the-top bluegrass chops and collaborations with country stars like Dolly Parton and Dierks Bentley, it's simple sibling harmony that makes The Isaacs so glorious. Whether hamming it up over kid-oriented originals ("Santa Claus Is Real") or delivering haunting vocal performances on stunning sacreds ("What Child Is This?"), the familial ebb and flow between this mom and her three kids is a rare gift.
Point of GraceHome for the Holidays (Word)
Style: Harmonized country-pop; compare to Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum, Wilson Phillips
Top tracks: "Little Drummer Boy," "Not So Silent Night"
Hitting up the holidays again with their fourth yuletide outing, Point of Grace tones it down—sans orchestra—with an acoustic-based collection that continues their country music evolution. Open guitar strums and fiddle drones nicely seat the women's signature harmonies on "Little Drummer Boy," and the Andrews Sisters-esque arrangement of "Candy Cane Lane" yields sweet results. The simple faith messages of new songs like "Immanuel" and Andrew Peterson's "Labor of Love" display more than their platinum-selling harmony exchange—it expresses their heart for ministry.
Jason CrabbBecause It's Christmas (Spring Hill)
Style: Soulful southern; compare to Guy Penrod, Michael McDonald, Gaither Vocal Band
Top tracks: "Go Tell it on the Mountain," "Silent Night"
Smoky soulster Jason Crabb continues to make inroads in Christian and country music because of his irresistible vocal charm. Whether covering modern classics ("Don't Save It All"), sentimental standards ("The Christmas Song"), or perceptive originals ("Joseph"), Crabb communicates with heart-wrenching musical finesse. Though production errs on the schmaltzy side, the man's voice has what it takes to make every Christmas tune a musical treat.
NewsboysChristmas! A Newsboys Holiday EP (Inpop)
Style: Arena pop/rock; compare to MercyMe, dc Talk, Tenth Avenue North
Top tracks: "All I Want," "O Holy Night"
With new frontman Michael Tait's Christmas charisma leading the charge, the newsboys glitter the band's first-ever holiday take with glitzy pop/rock—mustering the charming (and cheesy) musts (sleigh bells, chimes, lush strings) of a holiday classic. The five-song set list is fun, but unoriginal and truncated. Even so, the band's catchy glam rock is a worthwhile stocking stuffer.
Check out these other holiday releases with spiritual themes:
Susan Boyle The Gift
Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir A Brooklyn Tabernacle Christmas
Mariah Carey Merry Christmas II You
Jon Garrett To Find Love There
Brian & Jenn Johnson Love Came Down
Katharine McPhee Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You
David Phelps Christmas with David Phelps
Russ Taff Another Sentimental Christmas
Various Artists Bethlehem Skyline 2
Various Artists The Essential Christmas Collection
Various Artists Happy Christmas, Vol. 5
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