The biggest holiday music release of the season has been Cher’s new album, Christmas, featuring guests like Stevie Wonder (whose charming rendition of “What Christmas Means to Me” deserves a place on your Christmas playlist).
But this year’s crop of new Christmas music from Christian artists offers more than covers of the old standards. There are thoughtful folk ballads, carols sung over lo-fi beats, and choral arrangements with vibrant brass accompaniment. As you celebrate, prepare, wait, and pray this season, the latest songs from musicians on this list might make apt additions to your seasonal soundtrack.
As usual, I’m having a hard time getting my family to listen to new Christmas music. My four-year-old is only interested in Relient K’s 2007 Christmas album, Let It Snow Baby … Let It Reindeer, which I don’t mind. A pop-punk arrangement of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus is always a spirit-lifter.
Every Christmas, Michael W. Smith
If your yearly Christmas playlist still includes tracks from Michael W. Smith’s almost-cinematic 1989 album, Christmas, you’ll be glad to know that his latest album, Every Christmas, features new music that encompasses an array of choral arrangements (“Caroling, Caroling” and “How Great Our Joy”), fully orchestrated anthems (“Here with Us,” “God with God”), and contemporary ballads (“Freeze the Frame”).
Smith has a knack for incorporating dramatic orchestral arrangements into contemporary songs, and a Christmas album is the perfect place to flex that ability. “Here with Us” begins with a brass fanfare and swelling strings that fall away as Smith sings:
Rejoice, don’t be afraid
For it is written
A world of darkness waits
To be forgiven
A merry song we sing
For Heaven’s answer
To send an infant king
Our swaddled savior
Nothing on the album quite matches the energy of “Gloria” from 1989, but we can’t blame Smith for the fact that it’s not the ’80s anymore.
Like a Child, Blessing Offor
Blessing Offor, a Nigerian-born American singer who caught the public’s attention during his run on NBC’s The Voice in 2014, has worked with some of the most prominent names in the Christian music industry, including Chris Tomlin, TobyMac, and Ed Cash.
The three tracks on Offor’s Christmas EP pack a punch, showcasing his expressive, mellow vocal style and agility. The selections blend pop, R&B, and gospel characteristics, making standards like “Wonderful Christmastime” sound and feel brand new.
The second track on the EP, “Like a Child,” is a warm, cozy ballad that invites listeners to imagine scenes from Offor’s childhood Christmas memories—not knowing the words to Christmas carols, looking up at a tree that felt impossibly tall—with the perfect balance of poetry and sentimentality:
My heart is tender like a child
I will surrender like a child
For born to us both meek and mild was a child
A Mercyland Christmas, Phil Madeira & Friends
A Mercyland Christmas contains an eclectic collection of tracks featuring a surprising roster of artists including Sandra McCracken, Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer, Buddy Miller, and The McCrary Sisters. Producer and singer/songwriter Phil Madeira’s originals are blues-inflected, earthy songs that reflect on the details and grand narratives of Advent and Christmas. Tracks like “Leaving the Lights Up” (Jars of Clay) and “Old Man Winter” (The Choir) are folk/Americana-flavored originals, perfectly suited for a laid-back holiday party or a quiet night in.
In 2014 Madeira released the Kickstarter-funded Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us, a compilation featuring a list of impressive collaborators like The Civil Wars, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, John Scofield, and Emmylou Harris. Madeira told Paste magazine he set out to make “a record of mostly original stuff that said ‘What if God is love?’”
The final track on A Mercyland Christmas, “Some Kind of Love,” reflects that same animating purpose:
You treat me like I bear some royal name
You treat me like I’m family just the same
When one gives love without seduction
To those hell-bent on self-destruction
This must be some kind of love
A Merry Lofi Christmas, Forrest Frank
Forrest Frank, half of the Texas-based duo Surfaces and a rising figure in the Christian music industry, brings his pop and hip-hop sensibilities to a series of Christmas standards and carols like “Jingle Bells,” “Away in a Manger,” and “Joy to the World.”
Those familiar with Frank’s music will find the laid-back, lo-fi beats they expect, embellished with bells, jazz saxophone, and brass. Despite its overall chilled-out tone, the album manages to feel festive, especially on tracks like “Deck the Halls,” with its punchy piano accompaniment and saxophone interjections.
The whole album is a refreshing departure from traditional albums of covers of recognizable songs with big-band-oriented accompaniment and nostalgic, loungy vibes. Frank gives listeners the recognizable selections with none of the worn-out Christmas radio-hit tropes. This feels modern, merry, and perfectly suited for Christmas get-togethers.
Christmas Around the World, Knabenchor Hannover and London Brass
Christmas Around the World is a musical tour of Christmas carols and traditional songs, newly arranged for choir and brass. Listeners will recognize familiar standards like “Joy to the World” and “Jingle Bells” as they are introduced to some less widely known selections representing various centuries and regions.
There is a peaceful, contemplative arrangement of “Maria durch ein Dornwald ging” (“Mary walked through a wood of thorns”), a traditional German song (dated to the mid-19th century) that tells of Mary passing through a forest, bearing Christ in her womb, as the thorns around them begin to produce roses.
Mary walks amid the thorns,
Mary walks amid the thorns,
Which seven years no leaf have borne
Jesus and Mary
The choral tour of European Christmas and Advent music includes “Ríu, Ríu, Chíu,” a Spanish villancico (a devotional genre that grew from a popular secular song form during the 16th century), and “Huron Carol,” believed to be Canada’s oldest Christmas song, written by a Jesuit missionary in the 17th century.
Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery, The Gray Havens
Sometimes, encountering a hymn on a Christmas album that isn’t usually associated with Advent can recontextualize the song and make it newly meaningful. “Be Thou My Vision” and “In Christ Alone” don’t traditionally appear in worship services leading up to Christmas, but on this album from The Gray Havens, they fit in as natural supplements that turn attention to the expansive meaning of the Incarnation.
The simply and sparsely accompanied “Be Thou My Vision” moves the listener toward a singular focus on Christ at his Nativity, all at once a baby, “Lord of my heart,” “high King of heaven,” and “Ruler of all.” For those who have sung the familiar hymn countless times, it will be illuminating to meditate on the text with an image in mind of Christ as an infant lowly and miraculous.
The opening song is the modern hymn “Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery” by Matt Boswell, Matt Papa, and Michael Bleeker (2013). It’s a thoughtful call to worship at the beginning of a Christmas album of worship:
Come, behold the wondrous mystery
In the dawning of the King
He the theme of heaven's praises
Robed in frail humanity
In our longing, in our darkness
Now the light of life has come
Look to Christ who condescended
Took on flesh to ransom us
Most of the tracks are quiet and meditative, featuring primarily voice and acoustic guitar. The final selection, “Joy to the World,” closes the album on a celebratory, triumphant note with bells and brass.
Go Tell It (Gloria), Matt Maher and The Choir Room
This single is the latest release from Matt Maher and The Choir Room, a nonprofit organization based in Nashville. The group, founded by singer/songwriter Dwan Hill, hosts monthly community singing events that have grown to include 1,000 singers.
The song blends gospel and modern worship anthem styles and organically incorporates the choir as more than a background ensemble. Maher, Hill, and cowriter John Work have adapted the lyrics from the traditional “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” using the phrase in a call-and-response chorus between Maher and the choir:
Over the hills and everywhere
(Go tell it on the mountain)
The heart of the Father has heard our prayer
(Go tell it on the mountain)
Joy to the world, raise to the Lord
The Savior is born
Over the hills and everywhere
Go tell it on the mountain
It seems fitting to listen to and think about the proclamatory power of choirs of voices raised at Christmastime. Choirs of humans and angels have celebrated the arrival of Christ for millennia, a tradition we get to help continue each year.