Thursday, November 16, 2006

Santa Claus is Coming! Hear the Banjo Strumming!

One of my pet peeves is the way that savvy marketers have begun promoting Christmas earlier and earlier each year. (One Atlanta radio station started playing Christmas music during the first week of November.) Now, I enjoy Christmas music, but I'm also a fan of the liturgical calendar. For eleven months of the year, I'd prefer not to listen to Christmas music. Certain exceptions exist, though, like Andrew Peterson's excellent Behold the Lamb of God. Sufjan Stevens' newly-released Songs For Christmas now joins that list of Christmas music worthy of year-round enjoyment.

Simply put, Songs For Christmas is a wonderful collection. Several years ago Stevens began recording short compilations of Christmas tunes (mostly traditional, with some originals) for friends and family. Naturally, they ended up on the internet. Songs For Christmas includes all five of Sufjan's Christmas EPs (the last two of which had not been previously available). He definitely has an ear for breathing new life into familiar tunes, from the glory of "O Holy Night" to the campiness of "The Friendly Beasts." The earlier discs are charming, despite being basement recordings with blemishes preserved for posterity. The last two installments (especially Volume V) are considerably more produced and display Stevens' knack for layering instruments and voices to great effect. (I also noticed that he uses quite a bit more electric guitar for texture on IV and V, even compared to his studio albums. It sounds great!) Sufjan's original compositions are great, as well, from the wistful "That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!" to the peppy "Come on! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!" to the eerily-dissonant "Jupiter Winter" to the flat-out amazing "Get Behind Me, Santa!" (As you can see, he also has retained his penchant for "unique" song titles.)

But the music is just the beginning. The collection is packaged in a cool little box, which is overflowing with goodies. The liner notes booklet is a trip. Who else includes credits like "banjo, guitar, that Creepy Christmas Feeling"? Plus, it includes a few short stories/essays, which are kind of neat, especially one where Sufjan describes the genesis of his Christmas album project and his consequent transformation from Christmas Curmudgeon into true celebrant. The best part, though, is that the booklet also contains lyrics and chord charts for all the (non-instrumental) songs to assist with the inevitable Christmas Sing-A-Long.

Highly recommended for all, both for Sufjan fans and also for those just burned-out on boring old Christmas music. Order yours today!

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