A little context before launching into this list. Between 2001 and 2005, Sufjan Stevens would personally record a short collection of Christmas tunes (lots of original songs, lots of reworked carols, etc.) and give it to friends as a gift. In 2005, he collected these and released them publicly as Songs For Christmas.
Then he did it again in 2012 with Silver & Gold.
So we’ve got ten volumes of the most eclectic mix of songs and sounds. I am ranking them here in order of my least to most favorite. Thanks to Owen for the list idea.
10. Let It Snow: Vol. IX
Volume IX kicks off this list at the bottom as the most confusing volume in the collection. There are a lot of originals, but then some very odd takes on classic carols, like “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” It feels like a lot of missteps to me. I commend Sufjan for going out on a limb, even with the traditional tunes he chooses, but these are just a little too left of center for me to really get into them.
- “Sleigh Ride”
- “X-mas Spirit Catcher”
- “Christmas Face”
9. Christmas Infinity Voyage: Vol. VIII
Sufjan also uses a great deal of electronic instrumentation on this volume, but to slightly better effect than Volume IX. I like some of it, but a lot of it is unnecessary and kind of indulgent. Do we need a 15-minute original tune to close this volume out? Not particularly. More than half this volume is heavily electronic, and it makes for a unique listen or two, but I don’t want to hear “Do You Hear What I Hear?” or “Good King Wenceslas” through such a binary filter. Regardless, Sufjan still gets points for creativity here, throwing in a Prince cover with “Alphabet St.” It’s bizarre, and I have no idea why it got stuck on this Christmas collection, but it’s cool. And “Christmas In The Room” is a beautiful acoustic song among all the blips and bloops of the electronic stuff. And that 15-minute original I was talking about? The first five minutes of it are fantastic, like Sufjan’s take on a country/western song.
- “Christmas In The Room”
- “Alphabet St.”
- “Angels We Have Heard On High”
8. Noel: Vol. I
This is at number eight mainly due to the lack of traditional Christmas songs. There are really only two vocal, traditional carols on this one, and the rest is instrumental, original, and then “Amazing Grace,” which sticks out like a slightly bruised thumb. I love the instrumental “Silent Night” on this one, but it’s only 45 seconds long which is kind of a bummer. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is nice, but a little heavy on the combination of banjo and lute (or whatever woodwind instrument is playing in the intro) for my liking.
- “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming”
- “Silent Night”
- “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
7. Ding! Dong!: Vol. III
Sufjan goes for some more old school tunes on this one. He’s also got a very interesting pair of original songs, “Come On! Let’s Boogey To The Elf Dance!” and “That Was The Worst Christmas Ever!” The first is a pretty lightweight tune and I can imagine kids enjoying singing along, while the latter is a much more melancholy song, reminding me very much of something off of Seven Swans. This volume also has an absolutely stunning version of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” but it is tragically short. The rest of this volume is easily skippable for me. “We Three Kings” is a snooze fest, and while “O Holy Night” is one of my very favorite Christmas songs, the instrumentation of this version just doesn’t do anything for me, and robs the song of a lot of its emotional punch because of it.
- “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
- “That Was The Worst Christmas Ever!”
- “The Friendly Beasts”
6. I Am Santa’s Helper: Vol. VII
I initially had this lower on the list, but there are a few really powerful songs. This volume is almost solely with originals and old songs. I’m talking old songs, like traditional vocal compositions, songs sung by madrigal choirs in the olden days. Listening to this reminds me much less of decorating Christmas trees and more of attending midnight mass (I assume they do only old songs at midnight mass, I’ve never actually been). That being said, the old stuff can have some weightiest, most meaningful lyrics that are really affecting. For example, “How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee?” is not only a gorgeous vocal arrangement, but the words communicate this beautiful prayer towards Christ’s arrival that is deeper than most carols. Then you hit the opposite thematic end with “Ah Holy Jesus,” a German song written in the early 1600s. The song in full is a very penitent prayer to God and the admittance that Jesus suffered on our behalf and the only real response to that truth is to follow him. However, Sufjan notably chooses to sing only the first and fourth verses, creating a very melancholy tune that is rarely heard during this season. Incredibly powerful.
What’s odd about this volume is hearing songs like that against the lo-fi, gritty, crunchy originals like “Happy Family Christmas” and “Mr. Frosty Man.” These aren’t my favorite Sufjan songs strictly because I dislike the dissonance he plays with, so often coupled with lots of guitar feedback. These tunes keep this volume from really soaring.
- “How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee?”
- “Ah Holy Jesus”
- “Christ The Lord Is Born”
5. Hark!: Vol. II
Hark! is a good volume that wants to be great. There are some very good songs here, but overall nothing that I find stellar, save for the non-Christmas song, ironically enough. “What Child Is This Anyway?” is just a tad indulgent, clocking in at just under 7 minutes, and both “Angels We Have Heard On High” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” are awesome, but both are instrumentals that end before the 1 minute mark. Then you’ve got three old Christmas tunes, and I love when Sufjan does old hymns that sound like Reformation-era tunes, but “I Saw Three Ships” suffers from the Renaissance Fair treatment like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” from Noel: Vol. I and “Bring A Torch, Jeanette, Isabella” is a very lo-fi, stripped down version, and it would’ve been great to hear Sufjan instrumentalize it a bit more. And then you’ve got “Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing,” which doesn’t technically fall under the Christmas carol umbrella, but Sufjan knocks this one out of the park. On top of being one of my favorite hymns, Sufjan’s ever-so-slightly wavering voice suits it perfectly. This tune is a great example of banjo used against type, and the result is this gorgeous blend of instruments that challenges what good Christian music can sound like and doesn’t just end up a bluegrass tune. Major props to Sufjan for recording the original tune also, featuring the “Here I raise my ebenezer” line, one of the most affecting and worshipful lines I’ve ever heard in all of Christian music.
- “Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing”
- “Bring A Torch, Jeanette, Isabella”
- “Angels We Have Heard On High” / “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” (these could essentially be the same song)
4. Christmas Unicorn: Vol. X
This is a weird one and I’m kind of surprised it landed in the Top 5. But as I listen through it, I can’t help but love a lot of these songs. “Christmas Unicorn” is one of the stranger lyrically themed songs I’ve ever heard but (aside from the length) it totally gets me. This volume has just enough electronica that I don’t want to skip all the songs, and most of album consists of very original takes on common tunes that it warrants many repeat listens. “Up On The Housetop” is the perfect example of how thoroughly Sufjan can flip a song on its head and make it sound like you’re listening to a completely original song of his. Chords aren’t the same, melodies aren’t the same, and you’re left with something that might not hit that nostalgic Christmas, but something that’s definitely worth listening to again.
Special mention to “Silver And Gold.” Some of this tune is actually borrowed from a song taken from an old Rankin/Bass TV special, but Sufjan has reappropriated it into something truly powerful. A sharply-edged tune about material possessions and their dominance of this season, this isn’t an outright bashing of American consumerism, but a more general plea for a spirit of humility towards how much we are blessed with and how little we truly value the one True Gift. And it’s major throw-back Sufjan, musically. A beautiful marriage of finger picked acoustic guitar and gentle, melancholy piano chords. One of my very favorite songs off the entire collection.
- “Silver And Gold”
- “Christmas Unicorn”
- “We Need A Little Christmas”
3. Joy: Vol. IV
This makes the Top 3 of this list because of what Sufjan does with some pretty generic carols. He manages to make listenable one of my least favorite carols, “Little Drummer Boy,” by eschewing the classic marching drum beat that is so ubiquitous in renditions of this tune. He replaces it with a light acoustic guitar strum and adds a good blend of instrumentation on top of it. It’s so easy for this song to become the most repetitive thing and Sufjan avoids that completely. Also notable in this volume is “Away In A Manger,” which features an absolutely gorgeous bridge that is never heard in common renditions of the song. It elevates this lullaby-sounding song into a legitimate prayer to Christ, a plea for closeness and relationship with the human incarnation of God’s glory. Very awesome. Sufjan also has two originals on this volume, one being the so-so “It’s Christmas Time!” and the other being the somber and beautiful “Did I Make You Cry On Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)” This is easily one of my very favorite original tunes on all 10 volumes.
- “Did I Make You Cry On Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)”
- “Away In A Manger”
- “The Little Drummer Boy”
2. Gloria: Vol. VI
It makes sense this is the first volume of the second half of Sufjan’s Christmas volumes, as it is definitely the most thematically like the first five volumes, all of which stick pretty closely to the musical motif of Sufjan’s state-based albums. If you listen to the volumes chronologically, you won’t be thrown off by this album because it flows so well with the first five volumes. What I love is that it’s a gorgeous blend of his old and new styles. Acoustic foundations with the slightest hints of the electronica he’s adopted in the last few years. I also love the mix of songs he does on this one, going way back with “Coventry Carol” but staying fresh with his own composition “Lumberjack Christmas / No One Can Save You From Christmases Past”and “Barcarola (You Must Be A Christmas Tree).”
- “Lumberjack Christmas”
- “Silent Night”
- “Barcarola (You Could Be A Christmas Tree)”
1. Peace: Vol. V
Even as I put this at the top of my list, I wish this was an easier call to make. The interesting thing about all of Sufjan’s Christmas volumes is how diverse they are, from each other but also from themselves. You’ve got a wide array of styles, instruments, song choices, and originals on any given volume. It’d be far easier for me to just make a “Best Of” collection and call it good, but then I hate Best Ofs and I wouldn’t feel right doing it. So I’m left at the number 1 spot, bestowing it upon Peace.
Six(!) originals, three old carols, one modern carol and one non-Christmas related song. Weird variety on this one, but it wins me over on the strength of the old carols and more than half of the originals. “Jupiter Winter,” “Sister Winter” (kind of lazy on the song titles, eh Sufjan?), and “Star Of Wonder” are absolutely beautiful tunes, and minus the Christmas-themed lyrics, these would fit right in on any of Sufjan’s states-based albums. This “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is my favorite version of all the volumes. It consists of just sparse piano chords, but the cold-winter-night-crisp tone of the instrument coupled with the minor-heavy chord progression Sufjan chooses for the song just rips me to pieces. Sufjan really pulls out all the stops with his originals on this volume and brings the heat with his old carol instrumentals. And to top it off, his version of a non-Christmas hymn stops me in my tracks. While I hate to choose a favorite, this volume is the winner.
- “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
- “Star Of Wonder”
- “Holy, Holy, Holy”