Sufjan Stevens began writing and recording these Christmas tunes in 2001, in effort to combat the fear and sadness permeating the holiday atmosphere after September 11. He made CDs of the music to send to friends and family, complete with stickers and funny cartoons in the package. Since people liked the gifts so much, he continued to send out new CDs every year. This year, Stevens has decided to compile 5 years' worth of holiday music for the general public.
The end result is Songs for Christmas, five CDs (42 songs) which feature old standard carols and church songs, as well as original pieces. Along with the CDs (titled "Hark!" "Joy," "Peace," "Ding! Dong!" and "Noel"), the box set includes liner notes, stickers, cartoons, original essays, and a poster-sized creepy 1970s-ish Christmas family photo. Packaging like this makes me sad that we are addicted to iTunes, and the music is just as charming, so
Using guitars, piano, tambourine, sleigh bells, organ, recorders, and banjo, and soliciting the help of friends and family, the album in its entirety gives a warm, community feeling. Standards like "I Saw Three Ships" with its upbeat banjo sound, conjure up images of old-fashioned Christmases. The softness and delicacy of Stevens' voice in "Little Drummer Boy" makes you want to sit in reverent stillness, while the two acoustic guitars in "Amazing Grace" give it a folksy sound, more heartwarming and less funereal than that song usually seems.
The original songs, however, are the surprising delights of the album. It must be an enormous challenge to create new, enjoyable holiday music that will be relevant to modern listeners, but also familiar enough to appeal to those who may be reluctant to introduce new pieces into their repertoire of favorites. Many of the original tunes are fun, quirky, and charmingly innocent. “It’s Christmas! Let’s Be Glad!” for example, sounds like something Zach Braff would use in the soundtrack of a holiday movie. One of my favorites is “Come on! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!” with its happy bouncy tune and lyrics full of exclamation marks: “Kmart is closed! So is the bakery!/Everyone’s home watching TV!/ Santa Claus is coming!/ Hear the banjo strumming!”
Lately it seems that every over-produced pop star has recorded passionless renditions of the same old holiday tunes, and Stevens' album is like a response to this problem, an earnest attempt to bring back sweetness, hopefulness, reverence, and meaning to holiday music. With this expansive mix, Stevens has definitely earned a place (er, several places) in my holiday music lineup.