Thursday, December 4, 2008

Christmas Music; Music Review: Sufjan Stevens, _Songs for Christmas_

Music Review: _Songs for Christmas_ by Sufjan Stevens;

Working retail gives me a unique experience when it comes to Christmas. Most people go about shopping, going to church, and hear Christmas Carols occasionally, just enough to make them dear to their heart. Full of happy memories (or not), listening to the parents 33(1/3) record albums on an old turnstyle, decorating a tree. Or hearing them while shopping at the malls or at Kroger's for the ham and green bean casserole. But working in retail, you get to hear Christmas Carols on a whole other level. That is, incessantly.

It's interesting to see how it effects people working with you. Some can't stand it, react violently to anyone whistling a song outside of when the music is actually on. Others transition from enjoying it, to merely tolerating it, to downright hating it. Still others have a sense of humor about it, and knowing the songs as well as we do, turn to parodies to make the yuletide gay. I don't think I've ever hated listening to Christmas music, and while I've been known to do a parody or two, it's cool to play around with the music from a Christmas carol, moving the chords to minor or trying out a different note. Passes the time. And yes, I do get Christmas songs stuck in my head, especially from some of the old crooners, for they had no problem in singing it in a different arrangement, one that would be memorable. My least favorite music are the contemporary stuff made by today's "artists." I'd rather stick with the traditional stuff... with a few important exceptions.

Because that's what keeps Christmas Carols fresh and alive in my mind. Finding those songs that are different, but still drive home the meanings of Christmas, that accentuate the emotions that go along with it, be they happy, sad, nostalgiac, or even painful. There is no more complicated time of year for anyone's emotions than the holidays, when the sun is dim and low, and the cold weather chills you through your coats, and it always feels like snow, with clouds hanging, as if it were to tease you into thinking you might actually get some of the time stopping white stuff that turns us all magically into children again.

Each year I find new albums made from some of today's artists that endears the Christmas Carol all over again. Gives me shelter from all the negativity from my co-workers who would just assume never hear "O Holy Night" for as long as they live. A short list of must have Christmas Albums:

Robin and Linda Williams** - The First Christmas Gift

Barenakedladies - BareNaked for the Holidays

Billy Gilman - Christmas Classics

Sufjan Stevens* - Songs for Christmas

Hanson - Snowed In

*Sufjan Stevens is mostly known for his folk music style albums. He plays many different instruments, many on a single track. One of his main projects, and what helps him focus on a theme, is to release albums about states that he has lived in (ergo, Michigan and Illinois). He uses the locations, people, events of those states as an introspection into his own beliefs, spiritual and otherwise.

I had a friend who came into Borders and had to have Stevens' Christmas album. As did all his friends. So I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

In a style that could be considered "Alternative-Folk," Sufjan mixes traditional Christmas music, sung with as much deference and solemnity as possible, with his own unique compositions. They mix nostalgia and the depression that goes along with the holidays, with memories past and friends and family long passed, with the spiritual hopefulness of the meaning of Christmas, along with the silly and off-the-cuff lines that a contemporary 20 something would like.

I picture the band as a group of Christmas Carolers, standing on the street corner, with instruments entirely of their own making, and each a little off key. The modality of the songs is striking, and non-traditional, but very cool. The album is actually 5 cds, each a mini-album made each year between 2001 and 2006. The last album or so is a little weak, but the rest is amazing work. My favorite track is their take on "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing", which is done in a slow 6/8 time. With a banjo, nonetheless. Awesome work!

** I've talked about this album before, as it was my album of choice two years ago. Robin and Linda Williams' album is one that definitely grows on you. There are no songs on here that could be considered traditional Christmas Carols, but all of the songs should be. It gives me hope that folk is not dead, and neither is the actual meaning of Christmas.

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