Christmas Favorites: A Very Veggie Christmas

I started this series to showcase some of my favorite Christmas albums, but it fell off a couple years ago. Since I have some all-time faves that I didn’t even begin to get into, I’m going to revive it this year. (Feel free to catch up with the first five I wrote, which have been neatly sorted for your reading pleasure here.)

We’ll start with A Very Veggie Christmas. Yes, Bob, Larry and Co. are having a Christmas party. Unfortunately, Oscar the Polish caterer is inexplicably a no-show, so while they’re waiting, the Veggie crew puts on a Christmas production like nothing you’ve ever heard. The theme is Christmas Around the World. As Pa Grape describes it, “Kinda like Missionary Week. Without the food.”

This is definitely one of the most original Christmas projects I have, and I’m not joking when I say it’s one of my all-time favorites. It’s constructed as a running series of skits, interspersing the songs with off-the-wall banter and typical guest/party chatter, Veggie style. (“Larry, where’s the food?” “I dunno, shoulda been here by now.” “Bob, where’s the bathroom?” “Down the hall, first door on the left.”) Connecting tracks are literally labeled with titles like “Talking,” “More Talking,” and “Vegetables Talking to Sheep.”  Like Pet Sounds or The White Album, this one has to be appreciated as a whole.

Continue reading “Christmas Favorites: A Very Veggie Christmas”

Christmas Favorites #5: The Star Still Shines–A Diamond Rio Christmas, by Diamond Rio

A few years ago, country super-group Diamond Rio released a greatest hits album. As a bonus track, they included the patriotic “In God We Still Trust.”  Naturally, it wasn’t a favorite with many critics, but it quickly became a fan favorite. It was my introduction to the group, not having heard of them before then (this was before I really knew much about specific musical artists at all, just what I happened to hear and like). Since then, I’ve discovered just how talented these guys are. They’re not only good guys, but they’re exceptionally good at what they do. I can’t help enjoying their music. I imagine many if not most of my readers are already familiar with them, but if for some reason you aren’t… I highly recommend them. And I think this Christmas album would be the perfect introduction, since it gives you an excellent sense of their style with songs that are already familiar to everyone.

The Star On Top: “Christmas is Coming [Instrumental]” — This is the only instrumental track on the album, yet so brilliant it stands head and shoulders above everything else. It takes the Vince Guaraldi classic and completely reworks it as a combined jazz/country jam session. Every instrument sparkles, but at the center of it, the piano holds the listener enraptured. A must-hear.

Golden Rings:

“The Star Still Shines” — This song is classic, and Diamond Rio’s warm, rich harmonies are the perfect match for it. It can be done slowly or quickly. This version is upbeat, showcasing some really nimble piano work. If you play, you’ll probably try to play this after hearing it. Superb mandolin backup too.

“Winter Wonderland” — Lead singer Marty Roe said they were aiming for a slight 60s/70s pop feel with this arrangement. The rhythm departs from the traditional for a fresh twist. It’s got a faint Beatles sound in the guitar and harmonies, but it winds up firmly in the realm of country. Good different.

“Sleigh Ride” — This album is full of bluegrass overtones, and they come through particularly well on this infectious cover. Get ready for some merry electric guitar, banjo and mandolin pickin’… if you can keep up.

“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” — You don’t hear much country acapella, but Diamond Rio does it with class and style. Their tenor singer has an uncannily pure sound, and all the voices blend in a way that would melt the coldest Scrooge. Never content to leave the familiar un-tweaked in a good way, they throw in some gorgeous surprise chords on this one.

“Have Yourself a Merry Christmas” — This chestnut is usually done slowly and jazzily. Once again, Diamond Rio surprises with something a bit different from the ordinary. Instead of lazily lounging back, their version of this carol grooves along at a nice mid-tempo pace. It made me enjoy the song in a whole new way, which is exactly what a good, creative cover of any song is supposed to do. There’s an unexpectedly lovely vocal breakdown toward the end.

Stocking Stuffer: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” isn’t the first song I would think of when I think “country Christmas,” but Diamond Rio turns in a very interesting cover of it. It starts out completely acapella, with some faint, echoed “O come, O come” in the background. Then the instrumentation kicks in immediately with strings and guitar, coordinating in a way that feels oddly discordant for the first few bars before things settle into a strong country rock groove. Granted, Diamond Rio’s cheerful voices feel a bit strained as they attempt to imbue this song with solemnity and weight (the bass is greatly appreciated on this particular track), but this is worth a listen.

Stale Cookies: “The Christmas Song” and “Christmas Time is Here,” but only because neither of those songs has ever been a huge favorite. Diamond Rio performs both beautifully.

Coal in the Bottom: There’s no single track that merits this label.

In my opinion, it’s exceedingly difficult for anyone with a taste for Christmas music, country music, or music in general to dislike this album, because this album is good country music, Christmas music, and music in general. Even if you weren’t a fan of country voices, you’d still have to admit that there’s some amazing musicianship here.

And with that, I close out this year’s installment of my Christmas favorites. Come back next Christmas for more. Although I didn’t end up fitting in a lot this time, I did showcase some of the albums that are at the very top of my list, and this is one of them.

Christmas Favorites #4: The Season of Love, by 4Him

I know the twelve days of Christmas officially are about to end, but I’ll try to get up to five before the week is out so I can’t say this year’s installment of the series was a total flop.

We’re moving right along with the one and only Christmas album by one of my favorite groups: 4Him. I didn’t enjoy everything 4Him put out, and I only really enjoyed about half the group’s voices individually, but dang, they had a great sound all together, and they did have some terrific songs. I want to thank my friend Wes Burke for putting me on to this Christmas project. “I’m telling you, their Christmas album is pure gold,” he whispered in my ear. (Well, not exactly… it was in an e-mail, but you get the idea.)

The Star On Top: Without question, the star on top has to be “Strange Way to Save the World.” Yes, the lyrics are somewhat confused because they don’t convey Joseph’s Jewish perspective on the Nativity very accurately (see this post for further details), but the music is so beautifully written and the song so touchingly delivered that it’s rightfully considered a Christmas classic. It’s definitely my favorite Mark Harris feature. It has been covered by many artists, including several within southern gospel.

Golden Rings:

“Little Drummer Boy”I’ve already put a rendition of this carol into the “golden rings” section for another album (Buddy Greene’s). I really think it’s hard to go wrong with it. Andy Chrisman takes the lead on a crisp, clean rendition. It starts off with percussion only but swiftly segues into some classic synthesized 80s grooviness, a sound that delightfully pervades the entire album (being that the 90s hadn’t had enough time to recover from the 80s when it was released). Signature 4Him.

“White Christmas” — This is a fresh twist on the familiar carol. Mark Harris starts off crooning at a jazzy pace, but after the first verse, Andy takes over and the harmonies just explode in a doo-wop kind of style that takes things to a whole new level. Watch a live performance here (filmed some years later when they had better haircuts). [Edit: The link is broken and has been removed.]

“A Night to Remember” — Just a great 80s sound on this one, saxophone and all. Mark Harris takes the lead on it. Like all the 4Him guys, he was really in his vocal prime right around this time period. There’s just a little extra tone in his voice that he doesn’t quite have anymore. This original tune is a blast to listen to, and it moves surprisingly into a little “O Holy Night” part-way through (the lead shifting momentarily to Chrisman). I never thought “O Holy Night” could sound good with a jazzy saxophone, but the little snippet of it that they worked in amazingly does here.

“Do You Hear What I Hear?” I’ve always thought this carol was a little boring. Plus, it doesn’t really make sense. But the 4Him guys absolutely light it up. Seriously, this arrangement takes off like Marty McFly on his skateboard and doesn’t let up. It builds up to an almost black gospel breakdown. The backup harmonies are fantastic, and Marty Magehee really does a great job taking the lead. Even though he’s the member whose voice fits least comfortably in my ear, he always had a lot of natural talent, and he was surprisingly able with this sort of number.

“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” — Much like “White Christmas,” this is a doo-wop twist on an old favorite. It starts out with traditional acapella, but the melody is quickly syncopated, to pretty funky but cool effect. It may not be my favorite version of this carol, but it’s different and, like most of the album, fun to listen to.

Stocking Stuffer:

“In Your Care” — Andy Chrisman could sometimes be a little rough on his voice, but on this album he showed how good he was at singing ultra-sweet and ultra-clear. This song is a prime example of that. It’s sort of been lost in the shadow of “Strange Way to Save the World,” but I would argue it’s very nearly just as good. It’s beautifully written from the perspective of Jesus:

Sleep, Mary, sleep. I will be there soon
Entering earth through your precious womb
My child, oh my mother of earth
Give me the gift of birth…

The second verse is spoken to Israel, praying they will know He is their King (of course they wouldn’t). The recurring theme is that Jesus was entrusted to ordinary, earthly people who made the choice to either embrace him or crucify him. The idea comes full circle at the end when Jesus turns it around and tells Mary “You’ll be in my care.” She was both child and mother, both protector and protected. I think the one misstep in this song is the repeated use of the phrase “Please be aware.” Awkward. But other than that, very nice.

Stale cookies: A jazzy carol mash-up including “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “Away in the Manger” and “Silent Night” simply fails to inspire in any way. And the opening title track would be virtually intolerable were it not for the smart harmonies which kick in around the bridge to rescue it from being…

The Coal in the Bottom: “Hold On to Christmas.” Think “The Christmas Song,” except even sappier.

This project was released right around the same time as albums like Face the Nation and The Basics of Life. If you’re like me and that’s your favorite era of 4Him, you will greatly enjoy the sound of this CD. It embodies everything awesome and cheesy about that barely-out-of-the-80s-90s-sound that we all love, even if we don’t always want to admit it.

Christmas Favorites #3: Christmas… Not Just Any Night, by Buddy Greene

I sort of have this thing for bald, bearded, bespectacled folk musicians. Seriously, when you really think about it and start naming names… Michael Card, Jeff Taylor, Ron Block, Buddy Greene… you start to wonder if it’s the lack of hair, the beard, the glasses, or perhaps all of the above. (Of course there’s just an outside chance that it’s a coincidence.)

Anyway, it was a great thrill to me that I got to meet three of said musicians all in the space of a year. First it was Michael Card, at a dinner concert. Then Jeff Taylor, unexpectedly at a Keith and Kristyn Getty concert. Finally, Buddy Greene at a Gaither Homecoming. Seriously, I feel as though I’ve attained the height of cool having met all three of those guys. And I have glasses, just like they do. Now I’ve just got to start working on the beard and the hair loss. That part might take a little while, but it’ll all be worth it when I emerge as a superior folk musician.

Oh yes, this was supposed to be an album review. Well, it’s like this: You might recall that Buddy Greene offered me his latest album for free, but it was already on the way for Christmas, so he let me have my pick of the others. My eyes lit upon his 1998  Christmas project Not Just Any Night. After salivating a little, I snapped it up and promised Buddy I would enjoy it.

And so I did. Let me just get this out of the way right now: You need this Christmas album. I know, you don’t know you need it, but take my word for it that you do. Don’t even pause to find samples. Buy it sound unheard.

But if you really need convincing, I’ll do my best to give you a few reasons in this review.

The Star On Top: In an album with about as many stars as the night sky, it was painful to pick just one. But upon contemplation, there was one track that did stand out: Buddy’s cover of his and Mark Lowry’s classic “Mary, Did You Know?” While the Gaither Vocal Band’s version takes a long time to build to a triumphant climax, Buddy’s version flows at a medium tempo and rises until it peaks at a whisper, with his gorgeous falsetto lingering on the line, “the praises of the Lamb…” It is the best version of the song I’ve ever heard.

Golden Rings: I am going to use up all five slots. This album is that good.

“Hark the Herald Angels Sing/Joy to the World” — This purely instrumental harmonica and piano duet is a joy to listen to. David Huntsinger, whose golden touch on the keys pervades the entire album, joins with the inimitable Buddy for a simple, yet infectious medley of the two classic carols.

“Glory to God in the Highest”: Don’t confuse this song with the quartet classic popularized by Signature Sound. This is a different, Buddy-penned song. As with much of this album, I’m going to say think Michael Card. This song is memorably crafted in every way. Lyrics and melody mesh perfectly. It’s sweet.

“Little Drummer Boy”: I first heard this arrangement when Buddy forgot the lyrics at that Homecoming concert. Unlike most arrangements of this carol, the drums really don’t take center stage. It is simply and sweetly carried by guitar, with some very light percussion providing the needed rhythmic under-current. An unexpected key change leads into a section where the lyrics are replaced with “la-la-las,” before going back to the original key and continuing with the song. The drums become just a little more prominent as the guitar, mandolin and accordion gently bring this low-key arrangement to a close. The final touch is a single, golden bell which rings out over the instruments several times as they fade out.

“Christmas Time’s A’Comin”: Buddy took this country romp and slowed it down a good deal at the Homecoming concert. It works very well both ways. On the album, it breezes along at a fast clip, almost over before it’s started, delightfully carried by Buddy’s self-conscious country squeak.

“Go Tell It On the Mountain”: Every now and then, Buddy indulges his inner black gospel singer. You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but bespectacled folksy white brotha got a little soul in him! This take on “Go Tell It On the Mountain” really rocks, in the best possible way. All the classic instruments are there—the gospel piano, the B-3 Hammond, the smoky, bluesy guitar, and, of course, the harmonica. Buddy is backed up by Ashley Cleveland, who layered together several tracks of her rich, throaty voice to provide the essential backup singers (no black gospel tune is complete without backup singers).

Stocking  Stuffer: The most Michael Card-ish track on the album is the quiet, contemplative “The Servant’s Way.” The lyrics, written by Dan Fox, are exceptionally beautiful, as is the melody (a traditional Irish tune). I could easily see Keith and Kristyn Getty doing this.

We owed a debt only He could pay.
He died to show the servant’s way.
And we must die a little every day
As we live the servant way of Jesus.

Stale Cookies: NONE

Coal in the Bottom: NONE

This is the sort of album that won’t force itself intrusively into your Christmas celebration if you put it on in the background. But if you should have a moment to lend an ear, it will quietly and simply bless you. It is one of the best Christmas albums I have ever heard.

Buy it.

Christmas Favorites #2: Christmas With Ernie Haase & Signature Sound

Today I’m featuring Signature Sound’s first (and best) Christmas recording, with the lineup of Ryan, Doug and Tim. If I’m not mistaken, it came out in 2004. This caught the group between their “Stand By Me” and “Get Away Jordan” eras. It is one of my favorite Christmas albums. Even though it’s definitely southern gospel, it also has a somewhat contemporary flavor. It blends the group’s traditional and progressive leanings together quite nicely.

The Star On Top: “Come Make a Place” — This is a great ballad, easily my favorite track. It has a mellow 80s feel, the perfect fit for Doug Anderson. It recalls progressive Imperials balladry. There’s even a pretty cracking electric guitar solo on the final chorus. As non-SG as it sounds, EHSS takes on the style with remarkable ease. And it’s an excellent song.

Golden Rings:

“A Quartet Christmas” — Call it cutesy, but I’ve always had fun with this song. The lyrics are cleverly done, and it follows in a long southern gospel tradition of talking about quartet singing in a quartet song. “But if the bass could go low… And the tenor sing higher…” Try not to hum along to this one.

“Glory to God in the Highest” — EHSS’s cover of this quartet favorite has become a staple for them. It was used to kick off their self-titled DVD, and they still use it as a bookend for their concerts today. This version with Tim Duncan is the best arrangement of the song ever recorded, in my humble opinion.

“The First Noel” — This is a low-key acapella take on the familiar carol. An interlude of “O Holy Night” is unexpected and gives it some excitement. Pure acapella pleasure.

Stocking Stuffer: “The Night Heaven Kissed Earth” — This ballad seems to have been forgotten, but it’s a beautiful, reverent meditation on the Incarnation. The music has a wandering minor-key feel, tastefully accompanied by some classical-sounding guitar.

Heaven was silent as angels stood by
Anxiously waiting to hear His first cry
His journey from glory to a Bethlehem stall
Brought God down to man and gave hope to all…

Stale Cookies: “Is it Christmas Yet?” It’s cute but it doesn’t jump out and grab me.

The Coal in the Bottom: “Christmas Medley” — Entirely composed of fluffy secular carols, this is sort of cute but ultimately leaves you wanting to move on.

Other good tracks include the surprisingly punchy “Tonight” and a smooth-as-silk take on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” “Who Do You Think” is a quiet little number that I like as a song, though it never seemed to fit Timmy Duncan’s voice. I think Ian Owens carries it much better now (you can hear his version on their new Christmas EP).

Any fan of “that lineup” shouldn’t think twice about adding this project to their collection if he hasn’t already. I’m sure many would agree with me that the Ryan/Doug/Tim configuration was the high point of EHSS’s career. Not that Devin and Ian aren’t talented in their own way, but there was something special about that lineup. That excellent blend, combined with smart and satisfying song choices, makes this record a stand-out in their discography. Many Christmas projects are tired, uninspired affairs rushed out to make a little cash between albums, but this one does not disappoint.

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!]

*********

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. 🙂