Christmas Favorites #1: Steven Curtis Chapman, The Music of Christmas

Okay blog friends… I’ve decided that I’d like to share some of my favorite Christmas music with my readers in the upcoming weeks. I’ll be looking at albums from a variety of artists. They won’t be ranked in any particular order because I don’t have time to rank them all. But, I just thought it would be fun to spread some Christmas cheer and maybe even introduce folks to music they haven’t heard. I’m going to use a special system for this series:

The Star On Top: This is my absolute favorite track.

Golden Rings: These are other brightly shining stand-out tracks.

Stocking Stuffer: This is a track which might escape your notice, possibly not grabbing you right away on first listen, but you want to reach into that stocking for it because it may grow on you.

Stale Cookies: These are tracks that aren’t as good as they could be. [Note: May not apply to all albums!]

The Coal In the Bottom: This is the track I really just don’t like and could have done quite well without. [Note: Ditto!]

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We’ll start with one of my absolute favorite Christmas albums: Steven Curtis Chapman’s first Christmas project, released in 1995: The Music of Christmas. This was between his pop phase and his rock phase, when his voice still had that golden touch. Next year he would release Signs of Life, a turning-point of sorts for his career as he started to branch out into harder-edged territory. In my opinion, The Music of Christmas was the last really great album he did, even though he still wrote some great songs in his “second phase.” With that much talent, you don’t just stop writing good songs. But I’ve always had a stylistic preference for his earlier work.

Everything about this album is excellent. There’s a nice mix of traditional carols and fresh material, and the arrangements are smart and fun to listen to. And vocally, Steven was really at his peak. I think that some people forget what a gifted singer he was (and still is, even though his voice isn’t what it used to be). He sounds warm, sweet, strong, and instantly likable.

The Star On Top: It’s hard to pick just one favorite track, but I think I would have to go with the tender ballad “Going Home For Christmas.” This is a story-song about a family whose grandmother passes away at Christmastime. It’s carried by an acoustic guitar, and it has a bit of a country feel. Just a beautiful, well-crafted song that never fails to stir my emotions. In fact, a southern gospel artist could easily cover it.

When possible, I will provide the best track from each album for my readers’ enjoyment:

Golden Rings: I’m going to use up all five for this album:

Hark the Herald Angels/The Music of Christmas — This is the first track on the album, the perfect way to kick it off. Steven’s lone guitar starts strumming at a fairly quick clip, then Steven begins to sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” After a verse of that carol, the orchestra swells, then pauses while a toe-tapping beat settles in for an original song. It describes the sounds of Christmas—the man on the street corner ringing his bell, the carolers surprising the lonely widow, the house alight with warmth and laughter. Granted, a few lines in the chorus are rather fluffy, but Steven knows where he’s going and pulls it all together with a sure touch that gracefully avoids the ooey-gooey mess it could have been in less capable hands. The final verse takes us back to that first Christmas night:

Long ago, a baby was born in the night,
And as He let out His very first cry,
The sound was bringing hope alive.
Stars were shining, angels singing;
All heaven and earth was ringing:
Love is here, this is the music of Christmas.

The production is outstanding. As for most of the tracks on this project, the guitar is the main instrument, with lush orchestra behind it. Yet somehow, he manages to give it that 80s/early 90s sound.

Instrumental Interlude — This is an instrumental medley combining the carols “Joy to the World,” “The First Noel,” and “Angels We Have Heard On High.” Steven’s guitar is front and center with a big orchestra behind him (and even a hint of  synth keys at one point). The arrangement is awesome, and it’s got a lot of variety to it. It starts out with some fast picking, moves into slower territory, then picks back up again with almost a Western flourish. Kevin Williams has just put out a new acoustic Christmas project that probably doesn’t sound much different from this—acoustic blended with orchestra. (Which reminds me, I’ve got to pick that up tomorrow!)

Carol of the Bells — Another instrumental arrangement, but this is completely different. Think Mannheim Steamroller gone acoustic (er, if that’s even possible). I’m telling you, this absolutely rocks. It reminds you just how talented a guitarist Steven is.

O Come All Ye Faithful — There’s something about this arrangement that’s so fresh and uplifting I can’t stop coming back to it. Regularly, I’ll choose it as my favorite version of this carol for any kind of a mix I’m putting together. Steven syncopates the rhythm to give it a unique twist. A children’s choir joins in at the end, and they work really well together with him.

Silent Night/Away In a Manger/O Holy Night medley — A classic weaving together of these three quiet carols. Steven’s smooth voice fits them like a glove. Once again, the guitar really carries the music along. A choir joins in for a big ending on “O Holy Night.” Steven knows his limits and doesn’t try for the really high note, but it works anyway.

Stocking stuffer: “Our God Is With Us” — This song was a rare co-write with Michael W. Smith. It takes a long time to build up. But if you listen carefully, you’ll hear the power in the lyrics. This was written for those who are weeping and alone at Christmastime, the ones who seem to have no hope:

One of us is crying, as our hopes and dreams are led away in chains,
And we’re left all alone;
One of us is dying, as our love is slowly lowered in the grave,
Oh and we’re left on our own
But for all of us who journey through the dark abyss of loneliness
There comes a great announcement: We are never alone
For the maker of each heart that breaks, the giver of each breath we take
Has come to earth and given hope its birth.

The second verse takes us straight into Scripture and reveals the promise of Emmanuel, God with us:

He spoke with prophets’ voices and showed Himself in a cloud of fire,
But no one had seen His face;
Until the One Most Holy revealed to us His perfect heart’s desire,
And left His rightful place…

I call this a stocking stuffer because of how slowly the music builds. It’s not an immediate attention-grabber, and it could probably be a minute or two shorter (it takes a while to fade out too), but trust me, it will grow on you. When writing for southerngospelblog, I suggested that it could be translated into a southern gospel piece.

Stale Cookies:

Christmas Is All In the Heart — I have to admit that even though this one is sweet, I’ve never been a huge fan. I know, I know, it was the big hit, and there was a nice music video for it. But it’s not one I go back to for seconds and thirds.

Precious Promise — This is pretty but not very memorable, as was the case for a lot of Steven’s closing songs in this era.

The Coal in the Bottom:

No coal for this album! Nothing really sticks out as THAT track.

Bad or Good: Very good. I would definitely give this five stars. If it isn’t already part of your collection, and you’re a fan of SCC (or maybe you just enjoy orchestrated pop with a slight 80s flare), you need this project.

I hope to cover stuff from the Gaither Vocal Band, Michael W. Smith, Signature Sound, Diamond Rio, Amy Grant, and more. Stay tuned! There’s a lot to cover, so I may do as many as two or three reviews per week. We’ll see. 🙂

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