Much Christmas music is a moral abomination that largely exists to manipulate holiday shoppers into buying still more. The following may not quite enable the musical equivalent of a monastic flight from the forced saccharine madness that blares from too many speakers in public places, but each album will help create spaces of Christian contemplation and reflection during the Christmas season.
Bethan, Bethan Presents Christmas (Velvet Blue Music, 2012)
On its Facebook page, Bethan describes itself as “Alternative Noir.” Their atmospheric pop is sprinkled with bits of ambient and neoclassical genres. Bethan Presents Christmas opens with the most haunting rendition that I have yet heard of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” There are neither musical nor thematic missteps in the songs that then follow. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” flirts with 1950s-era pop; “O Holy Night” begins simply with a lone acoustic guitar but slowly crescendos. Continuing on with “In the Bleak Midwinter,” the album concludes with an instrumental rendition of “Silent Night.” My wife and I had this on frequent repeat last year during our twelve-hour car ride from Tennessee to Florida for the holidays. This year, it is again a recurring favorite.
Lee Bozeman, Mother of God (Independent release, 2017)
Mother of God contains three original hymns to the Virgin Mary by Orthodox priest Lee Bozeman. Sparse and simple, the songs consist primarily of acoustic guitar, synthesizer, and Bozeman’s tender vocals. The lyrical content album spans a range of Marian themes. The title track, which opens the album, attributes one verse each to four different figures: the Magi, one of the shepherds, Joseph, and Mary. The second track adds percussion to the mix while painting a personal reminiscence of a past Christmas Eve. The final track enters more cryptic territory. “Who’s afraid of the Virgin Mary? / Everyone should be.” These two lines are sung again and again. Those who revel in the paradoxes of Christmas will find Mother of God an especial delight.
Over the Rhine, The Darkest Night of the Year (Scampering Songs, 1996)
Truth be told, my wife and I are very big fans of Over the Rhine, having seen them a handful of times, mostly in Nashville, but also at their farm in 2013. Their Christmas album features both original and traditional songs, but the latter are not in wholly familiar form. The band’s instrumental rendition of “The First Noel,” which opens the album, boldly gives the melody line to a slightly out of tune cello. In a nutshell, this is the entire album: angelic benediction eliciting our own, inescapably out of tune responses. “Silent Night” appears twice, first as a more upbeat pop song, but later again as a duet with portions of the melody rewritten. Much of the album is sparse, with upright bass and piano driving the tracks. Two pensive instrumentals, “Coal Train” and “A Little Lower than the Angels,” see the band dabbling in more ambient textures. The Darkest Night of the Year is a supremely fulfilling album.
Penny and Sparrow, Christmas Songs (Single Lock Records, 2016)
Americana duo Penny and Sparrow are a recent find. The eleven songs on their Christmas album are mostly traditional, but often worked out in an unconventional way. For starters, there is the first track, the doxological hymn “Come Thou Fount” — hardly a recurring tune during the Christmas season. Subsequent highlights include the Gospel-inflected “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” in which their vocal harmonies are accompanied by upright bass and strings. As a contrast with Bethan’s rendition, Penny and Sparrow offer a haunting, minimalist take on “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The album concludes with “Come Thou Fount (Synonym),” which retains the melody of the hymn but with entirely different lyrics. “Reputation as a leaven, prone to cheat like breathing in. / I would rather never wander. Help me cringe at where I’ve been.” It is a fitting reminder that Christmas is not for our comfort.
Dr. Benjamin Guyer is a lecturer in the department of history and philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Martin.