Days after Christmas, we look back at some of the festive albums released this year. Here's our favorites, with snippets and links to our reviews.
1. Carolyn Arends "Christmas: The Story of Stories"
Carolyn Arends, being a gifted and seminal writer herself (in fact she has just released her new book "Theology in Aisle Seven"), is not into trite platitudes. Rather, these are songs with shafts deep enough that they will keep us mediating. They are acerbic enough that they pierce the soul to get us to worship God with fire again. And they are piquant enough that when Arends sings about the little details of life, we can't help but nod our heads with a smile expressed across our faces.
2. Michael W. Smith "The Spirit of Christmas"
Unlike other Yuletide recordings where songs are just thrown together in an ad hoc fashion, the sequencing of the songs here tell a story. Commencing with a childlike awe of the magical beauty of Christmas the album progressively traverses into the season's real meaning.
3. Aaron Shust "Unto Us"
These 10 tracks unfold like a musical cantata that tell the story of Christmas in three movements. Starting with proclamation, the first five songs deal with heralding the good news of Jesus' birth. The penultimate segment (tracks 6 to 8) are songs with the adoration of the Christ-child as their cynosure. While the record ends with a couple of songs that celebrate the birth in Christ.
4. Tribute "The Thought of Christmas"
When Tribute sings, it's a challenge not to pay attention. Attested across their most recent triumvirate of releases, "Hit Replay Again," "Journey of Hope" and this their second release this year "The Thought of Christmas," the quartet has a way of choosing songs with melodies that are so tight that they prevent us from roving in boredom midway through the songs. Every song on these three releases has a way of gluing our ear to every twist and progression of the song's melodic line.
5. Kim Walker-Smith "When Christmas Comes"
With the many years of leading worship, Walker-Smith has a commanding presence that effortlessly draws us into the songs. Therefore, regardless of the countless times we may have heard of "The First Noel" or "Away in the Manger" or "O Holy Night," she still has a way of creating a sonic presence that it's hard not to pay attention to. What also deserves two thumbs up is Edwardson's creativity in production. Rather than woodenly adhere to a singular template, he varies the approach to each carol as if they were written for first time.
6. Donna King "Song of Noel"
For many years, Donna King is the firehouse of the Christian group Hope's Call. After which, she had been behind the scenes writing and producing a copious list of songs that have graced numerous records. Lately, King has produced Mercy Well's brand new release "Today." And with her husband Zane King, the duo are readying their brand new album that is coming out later in the year. "Song of Noel" is apparently her first solo release.
7. Joshua Mills "Christmas Miracle"
"Christmas Miracle" is Mills debut seasonal album. Hailing from a background of leading worship where he has had released six studio albums and two live recordings, Mills certainly brings a worshipful attitude to these tracks. He is often careful to ensure that the songs as a whole do exalt Jesus and point to the real meaning of the season.
8. Pentatonix "That's Christmas to Me"
If you listen to just the opening track of this album, "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" all the mystery will unfold. Featuring just layered of voices seamlessly parlayed one on top of the other before breaking out into a Sister Act frenzy type of Gospel fun, what you get is the best of both worlds. Goosebumps traditional a cappella singing coupled with a modern rock sensibility that few together can muster.
9. Rend Collective "Campfire Christmas Vol. 1"
If Momford and Sons have first cousins in contemporary Christian music they would be Rend Collective. Rend Collective brings to the Christian music genre a raw streak of rootsy Americana that borrows the expressiveness of neo-hippie rock and the rustic folk of Guy Clark & Emmylou Harris; music that is far more gritty, organic, and raw than vast swath of today's country music. Thus, as the titular of this disc "Campfire Christmas Vol. 1" defines, the music here will not only take you out to the wilderness where you can hear the rustling of trees and experience the warmth exuding out of these campfire songs, but you will also experience their brand of folk-rock that gives this record its contemporary teeth.
10. Guy Penrod "Christmas"
The record takes on a relaxing, easy going, and languid pace slowing down the holiday rush as Penrod puts his gorgeous tenor to work on the album opener "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Brassy horns get dusted as Penrod does a Perry Como cum Frank Sinatra redivivus with "Sleigh Ride." "Winter Wonderland" continues along the same musical trajectory with some do-woop Motown thrown into it.