Songs for Christmas (Asthmatic Kitty)
Go ahead, call us Scrooge, but Christmas music has long been the bane of our holiday existence. Sure, we cherish those mod and swinging collections by Ella and Esquivel, but one more “rum-pum-pum-pum” and we’re dumping the wassail bowl on Santa’s noggin.
So why go ga-ga over Sufjan Stevens’s strummy, hum-along omnibus of sacred and secular songs of the season? Because it’s so clearly crafted out of love for the material, and the occasion. Since 2001, the prolific songwriter has been recording holiday-themed EPs, full of traditional and original fare, to send his friends as gifts, part of a personal ritual that also included leading caroling crews around his Brooklyn neighborhood. This five-disc set packages up music from those sessions—about two hours in all—and has all the homemade goodness and warmth of a batch of fresh oatmeal cookies. There’s everything from indie-scruff amusements (the Beach Boys-ish “Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!”) to melancholy folk-grunge rearrangements of themes you’d think exhausted (“What Child Is This Anyway?,” a.k.a. “Greensleeves”).
A lot of these versions get over on the sheer, delicate beauty of choral voices, acoustic guitars and the instrumental colors of accompanying banjo, strings, vibes or flute. “Holy, Holy, Holy” has never sounded more devotional or sincere. But Stevens isn’t above indulgence in novelty: “Get Behind Me, Santa!” is too good a joke for the born-again singer to pass up. Meanwhile, his inclusion of deeply affecting pieces such as “Jupiter Winter/Sister Winter,” with their full string arrangements and passionate harmonies, suggests this project may be more than a Yuletide diversion.—Steve Dollar