Some Christmas Music That Doesn’t Suck

Christmas music usually stinks. I know this with certainty because I live with someone who turns on the Irish charity radio station Christmas FM on December 1st and as much as is possible, keeps it on through Advent until it finishes broadcasting about 7pm on St. Stephen’s Day. There is only so much “Christmas Shoes” and Justin Bieber promising “I’mma be under the Christmas tree” can be played before a man considers divorce. Christmas music stinks so much that Bruce Springsteen’s effort is horrendous. I am glad for your sake that you haven’t even heard the unreleased R.E.M. Christmas songs.

This year, more than any year, I have relished Advent and anticipated Christmas. Life is harder than I thought it was. And one of the undersides of the struggle is that I no longer have the energy to maintain the sour opposition to Wham’s “Last Christmas” and its musical fraternity. Who cares if it was originally “Last Summer” and they changed it because they spied a chance to make a mint? It’s a great pop song. The Band Aid song still pisses me off for the same reasons it pisses all sane people off. But to an extent I never thought possible, I enjoyed the Christmas build up, the secular Advent this year. It is no coincidence that my enjoyment of street lights and public Christmas trees and jingles played incessantly in H&M has increased in proportion to my engagement with the Christian practice of Advent. The Gospel shapes you to welcome light wherever it is found. The pseudo-piety of the Christian Christmas naysayer is revealed for a waste of time when you realise just how much fun it is to shout “IT’S CHRISTMAAAAS!” along with Slade.

Don’t get me wrong. Christmas music usually stinks. But there might be some albums that you can download and play for the next 9 days that don’t drive you demented. Here are three:

1) Moya Brennan – An Irish Christmas
Moya Brennan is a member of the legendary Irish traditional group Clannad. Think of her as Enya’s cooler, Christian cousin. That’s how lame Enya is. A Pentecostal Irish-speaking Christian is still cooler than her. This album has that Celtic, echoey feel that you’d expect from a musician from the Donegal Gaelteacht but it is not gratingly artificial like that stuff often is.

2) Annie Lennox – A Christmas Cornucopia
Lennox is not (to my scant knowledge) a Christian, but this album has the kind of muscle that comes from someone who gets the earthy, fleshy core of the Christmas message. If GK Chesterton was a Scottish pop legend, he’d record an album like this. At Christmas we rejoice in the light breaking into the darkness. But the darkness can’t be sentimentalised away. Lennox’s album keeps the menace of Christmas alive, if that makes sense. Listening to this you cannot mistake Christmas for the celebration of a baby meek and mild, no crying he makes. An invasion of occupied territory has begun. We are holding our breath in anticipation.

3) Blind Boys of Alabama – Go Tell It On The Mountain
This was the first Christmas album I ever fell in love with. Tom Waits joining with them as they command us “to go tell it on the mountain” is probably all the advertisement that you need to track this gem down. The first two albums definitely fit into the stereotypical musical tone of a north European Christmas. They are cosy albums for days that get dark early and that freeze. The Blind Boys record doesn’t have that scarf-and-hat feel. What it does have is sincerity. This is the closest to a worship album as you need to go for Christmas.

I will continue to quest for better Christmas albums. Someday I might have the patience to filter through Sufjan’s 100 Christmas songs to make an album of 10 viable tracks. But in the meantime, these are trustworthy choices.

My Favourite Christmas Song?
One Christmas I had to preach in the lovely little Presbyterian churches in Howth and Malahide in north Co. Dublin. Wife-unit was sick. I drove out there on my own and took too long and didn’t come close to saying something worthy of the setting but as ever, the congregations were warm and responsive and encouraging and joyful and when I got back into my car to go back home, I was full of gratitude for the job I had been given. On the radio, passing that crossroad at Portmarnock, a song called “Rebel Jesus” by Jackson Browne came on. I had never heard it before. But it moved me to tears. I had to pull in because it was a better sermon than I could ever preach.

I realise I love the songs the church sings at Christmas. But this awkward track might be my favourite, doubly so because it is a gift to Christians from “a heathen and a pagan.” Kate and Anna McGarrigle have a cover version that tops the original. On this, the third day of Christmas, it might be a blessing to you:

Your Correspondent, Celebrates the true spirit of Christmas; people being helped by people other than him.