Seven Christmas Albums That Don’t Suck: Christmas/Songs for Christmas

So, I know I said last time that despite the whole concept of “Christmas albums” all the music I’m recommending is wonderfully secular. Here is the exception that proves the rule! This is a double post, a Christmas Albums That Don’t Suck: Christian Musicians Edition, if you will, so if the idea of tiny baby Jesus clambering into your heart is a total turnoff you still have six great albums to choose from. (Also because if you like one of these albums you’ll almost definitely like the other.) So let’s get into it!

4a. Low, Christmas (1999)

Let me state the obvious right away: do not play this album at a party. You may have heard the first track, “Just Like Christmas,” and thought, aw, sweet and a little sad. Well, that’s by far the most upbeat song on the album. It’s, and I mean this in the best possible way, a huge bummer, as well as being overtly Christian. But if your Christmas Eve plans include sitting alone on the couch slightly stoned and/or with a glass of wine after your parents go to bed and watching the lights on the Christmas tree, I can’t recommend this album enough.

It takes that line of “beautiful but can I play this for other people without seeming weird?” and jumps right on over it, for instance with the lyric “If you were born today/we’d kill you by age eight,” about how we’d all definitely kill Jesus if he showed up today—I know it sounds like a nightmare, but the song, and the whole album, is simply gorgeous. Their droning, stately take on “Little Drummer Boy” (my third least favorite Christmas song, if we’re still keeping track) is the only version I like; their “Silent Night” is THE definitive “Silent Night,” and I know that sounds extreme since the song is 200 years old, but it’s perfect: it sounds like a quiet room late at night, two people singing harmony with a few instruments, hushed and, dare I say, holy. Are you ready to accept lo-fi Jesus as your personal savior? At least consider it.

4b. Sufjan Stevens, Songs for Christmas (2006)

Sufjan is, to put it mildly, crazy about Christmas. He actually has two massive Christmas compilation albums, each consisting of five volumes. If you’re a Sufjan fan, it’s worth listening to all of it, as an obsessive achievement of varying but mostly high quality. But for our purposes, we want crowd-pleasing albums you can play all the way through, and that’s tricky. Many of the ten volumes are in that in-between area of being too genuinely spiritual to work for your average cool-young-person holiday party, while veering too often into strangeness to make a no-brainer family Christmas Day playlist. (If you’re throwing a cool-young-Christian-person party I’m assuming you already have lyrics from these albums tattooed on your body and don’t need my recommendation).

There are beautiful songs on every single one of these albums, but for the most fool-proof approach, cue up Volumes 1 and 5 from Songs for Christmas. This has the bonus of summing up Sufjan’s trajectory over his first few years as a Christmas music arranger and composer (he makes one album per year as a Christmas present for his friends and family, because of course he does), from the more folksy renditions of Volume 1 to the more elaborate, ambitious arrangements on Volume 5. You’ll also get a good sense of his original Christmas songs, which range from the energetically goofy “Get Behind Me, Santa” to the breathtakingly haunting “Sister Winter” and “Star of Wonder.”

Some of my very favorite tracks are from different albums in the series; check out “Christmas in the Room” and “Carol of St. Benjamin the Bearded One” from Silver & Gold, for instance. Or read through this thoughtful ranking of all 100 tracks! Or, not to get weird, but follow me on Spotify (I’m laurell15) and check out my Family Holiday Mix, which includes my 20 favorite songs across all 10 albums.

And if all of this leaves you cold, don’t worry! All three remaining albums on the list have safely removed the Christ from Christmas.