Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Top 25 Albums of the 2000s, #21 - "Songs for Christmas," Sufjan Stevens

When I started thinking about the albums that had a chance at making this list, I knew that this one would be on there, somewhere. But how high to put it? After all, it is “just” a Christmas album. And how often does one listen to Christmas albums? Well, as the owner of about 100 of them, it’s probably fair to say that I listen to them more often than your average Joe. Besides that, I like to make compilation holiday CDs for my friends and co-workers, and in order to wrap that up in time to get them out early in the holiday season, one needs a little lead time. But even with that, my general rule of thumb is that the collection comes out on the day after Thanksgiving, and goes back into the cabinet on the day after Christmas. There are few things in life more depressing than listening to a Christmas song on the day after Christmas – why even bother?

So why does this particular Christmas album merit inclusion in this lofty company? For one thing, it’s an epic Christmas album, comprised of five EPs worth of material (42 songs in all), both traditional and original. Those familiar with Sufjan Stevens probably know the story of the album, but for those who don’t it’s worth telling again. Beginning in 2001, Stevens made home-recorded discs of holiday songs to hand out as presents to friends and family. The five discs of “Songs for Christmas” represent five years worth of those presents, and serve well to demonstrate his growth as an artist over that period. The early discs are very basic, and at times the instrumentation and vocals are just a bit off (which just adds to their charm). By the last disc, you’re hearing fully realized arrangements, by a very self-assured and confident artist.

What unites the material throughout is the obvious sincerity of Stevens. In that respect, he is not unlike Linus sitting in the pumpkin patch, hoping that his will be deemed the most sincere, and therefore worthy of a visit from the Great Pumpkin. Reportedly a devout Christian, Stevens is equally comfortable with traditional religious holiday fare (“I Saw Three Ships,” “O Holy Night,” “We Three Kings,” “Away in a Manger,” “Joy to the World”) and contemporary, even modern yuletide spins (“Put the Lights on the Tree,” “Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!,” Hey Guys, It’s Christmas Time!,” and of course, “Jingle Bells”). One of my favorite songs in the set (and one that I’d never heard before) is “The Friendly Beasts,” a traditional carol about the gifts that a donkey, a cow, a sheep, and a dove gave to Jesus at the Nativity. Another is the aforementioned “Hey Guys, It’s Christmas Time!,” which couldn’t be more different – featuring vocals and electric guitar that evoke Yo La Tengo at their best.

It’s obvious that Christmas means a lot to Stevens, and that feeling comes out in the songs. And given the breadth of the approach, there’s something to like for just about anyone who likes this kind of music. In fact, you might be tempted to set your own program, either basing it on the traditional hymns and songs, or his whimsical take on the modern holiday. Both are equally authentic, and equally impressive.

There are times when it seems like every artist and his dog has made a Christmas album. But if you’re going to make a great Christmas album, then you’d better sound like you care, and that you mean it. And on that score, “Songs for Christmas” is the best Christmas album since Harry Connick Jr.’s 1993 classic, “When My Heart Finds Christmas.”

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