I’m currently on a mini vacation, away from the bitter cold, and staring at the base of the Catalina Mountain range south of Tucson from my dad’s back porch. In between the couple days off of spending time with family, I’ve taken time up in the air en route to soak in some Christmas music a little late into the season, but with the intent of doing a short review of some old and newer favorite tunes to play this week (or into the new year if that’s your preference).
Someday At Christmas – Jack Johnson
The acoustic plumes of Jack Johnson drip with nostalgia in high school when In Between Dreams was a sleeper indie sensation that sweetly rocked my closet romantic Mr. Hyde to an otherwise aggressive Jekyll that was getting into bands like The Black Dahlia Murder and Whitechapel. I’ve always enjoyed Johnson’s hushed vocal delivery painted in similar brushstrokes like Benjamin Francis Leftwich and Sufjan Stevens. But more than that, I like the instrumental gamut ran between unplugged and subdued ballads like Angel to swingers like Red Wine, Mistakes, Mythology that remind me of John Mayer’s Robert Johnson cover on Battle Studies. Though I have not listened to much beyond 2010’s To the Sea, I can confidently say that I still like Jack Johnson if not for that same aforementioned nostalgic factor. On the opening kickoff to an indie Christmas compilation from 2008, Jack Johnson returns his track Someday at Christmas with a satisfyingly nimble presentation that captures the insouciance of earlier work that earned him mainstream success. A simple chord progression carries Johnson through a brief lyrical sojourn wishing for a literal peace on Earth between nations, races, and even gender. It feels timely in our political climate, but surprisingly doesn’t fall to its own clichés on such subject matter. I like the catchiness of Johnson’s vocal melodies and the warmth in its tone. Compared to others on this list, Someday at Christmas is a nice change in pace that puts my feet up in front of a fire on a cold winter’s night.
Good King Wenceslas – Westminster Chorale
Shifting gears to a more traditional drivetrain, I’ve always had a thing for older hymns and gospel songs penned by forefathers of my faith in Europe during the reformation of the late 17th and 18th centuries. Their lyrical complexity, theological depth, and thought put in by the writers makes songs like Come Thou Fount (spoiler alert to later down the list). And, that is especially the case with Christmas songs like Good King Wenceslas. Originally written by an English hymnist in the mid 1800’s, this song dives into old Czech folklore about a king who rescues a peasant outside his castle during a winter storm during the Christmas holiday. With this peasant unable to return to his home through the storm, the king braves the weather and provides him with food and shelter. There’s something about the humanity demonstrated and symbolism in this song that makes it appealing to me. If you look into teachings of Jesus in the New Testament, this song draws parallels in the snow with stanzas such as this… Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing (James 2:14-17). Perhaps my favorite thing about this song is how my family used to play it as part of a compilation on an old 45 record that showcased a traditional choir in Westminster Abbey. Hearing such rich, diverse, and impeccable tone from a large choir gives this song an even more timeless feel and brings me back to decorating the house in my formative years.
Hosanna – Josh Garrels
I grew up liturgically rooted in those same hymns like the ones aforementioned in the previous song. My upbringing in the Episcopal church meant we were well versed in red leather hymnals and having a long-established service structure in corporate worship. Though my faith has evolved since and serve in a different denomination, I can still remember many of those old hymns when played anywhere, and that’s how Josh Garrels’ cover of Hosanna made it on this list. Garrels vocal style listens like an amalgam of Chad Gardner’s (King’s Kaleidoscope) soul, a dash of Bear Rinehart’s (Needtobreathe) grit, and the intricate restraint of Michael Gungor. It makes for a heartfelt listen with enough passion coming through to keep your attention yet with enough gentleness to cradle you through the experience. Though I haven’t successfully traversed a whole listen of his new Christmas album, The Light Came Down, I’ve been hooked on songs like The Boar’s Head and Hosanna. Before taking communion, the presiding reverend would walk us through the story of the last supper from one of the Gospels, bless the bread and wine, and would lead us in a chorus of Hosanna. The orchestral flourishes and subtle percussion behind Josh’s acoustic guitar gives this song a lot of character. As the song progresses, it builds in a way that preserves its mellowness but still has enough flavor to keep on the tip of your tongue. In fact, I think the profound lyrical content of celebration contrasted against such a comparatively tempered instrumental delivery makes the song even more spiritually powerful. It’s not a “Christmas” song, but it belongs on his Christmas album and it’s good, so I’m still counting it.
I Had A Heart – Real Friends
Pop punk has never been accused of taking itself seriously. Part of the culture in this subgenre is characterized by preserving a sense of wonder and rebellion that’s pined after through heartbreak and fumbling through adulthood. And, judging from Real Friends’ contribution to Punk Goes Christmas from 2013, that same attitude still sits at the Christmas table of dysfunctional family dynamics with enough angst to go around. I Had a Heart is the musical equivalent of watching a Hallmark Christmas movie that revolves around a hopelessly romantic young adult, alone during the holidays, and with a turbulent family dynamic. It’s emotionally bombastic and a bit cheesy, but the thing about those movies and this song…
I like them both.
This song comically captures a cynical side to the holiday season where people can become annoyed by extended family and wallow in singleness. I think it’s actually a clever cultural critique about what we place as important during the Christmas season and jokingly offers an opposite perspective to tidings of comfort and joy. Acoustic, punk instrumentals and a vocally austere performance from lead singer, Dan Lambton, fit this song’s message of teenage angst that is undeniable. I Had a Heart is not one to take as seriously or with as much conviction than the predecessors on this list, but I still think it’s fun and shakes up my Christmas playlist in the best way possible.
Carol of the Bells – I Declare War.
If you’ve seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with Chevy Chase, you’ll understand half the jokes littered between death metal vocals and aggressively rendered instrumentals.
Come Thou Fount (Synonym) – Penny & Sparrow
Come Thou Fount is one of my favorite worship songs on account of the narrative behind its writer Robert Robinson. It’s a tragic, yet beautiful story and there’s a modern reenactment of it on Youtube. Acoustic duo Penny & Sparrow capture this song with effortless charm, great vocal performances, and really hazy production.