Category Archives: Christmastime

Songs For Christmas: Volumes I-X Ranked

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.

songsforchristmas

Then he did it again in 2012 with Silver & Gold.

silverandgold

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

letitsnow

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.

Stand-outs:

  1. “Sleigh Ride”
  2. “X-mas Spirit Catcher”
  3. “Christmas Face”

9. Christmas Infinity Voyage: Vol. VIII

christmasinfinity

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.

Stand-outs:

  1. “Christmas In The Room”
  2. “Alphabet St.”
  3. “Angels We Have Heard On High”

8. Noel: Vol. I

noel

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.

Stand-outs:

  1. “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming”
  2. “Silent Night”
  3. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”

7. Ding! Dong!: Vol. III

dingdong

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.

Stand-outs:

  1. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
  2. “That Was The Worst Christmas Ever!”
  3. “The Friendly Beasts”

6. I Am Santa’s Helper: Vol. VII

santashelper

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.

Stand-outs:

  1. “How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee?”
  2. “Ah Holy Jesus”
  3. “Christ The Lord Is Born”

5. Hark!: Vol. II

hark

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.

Stand-outs:

  1. “Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing”
  2. “Bring A Torch, Jeanette, Isabella”
  3. “Angels We Have Heard On High” / “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” (these could essentially be the same song)

4. Christmas Unicorn: Vol. X

christmasunicorn

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.

Stand-outs:

  1. “Silver And Gold”
  2. “Christmas Unicorn”
  3. “We Need A Little Christmas” 

3. Joy: Vol. IV

joy

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.

Stand-outs:

  1. “Did I Make You Cry On Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)”
  2. “Away In A Manger”
  3. “The Little Drummer Boy”

2. Gloria: Vol. VI

gloria

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).”

Stand-outs:

  1. “Lumberjack Christmas”
  2. “Silent Night”
  3. “Barcarola (You Could Be A Christmas Tree)”

1. Peace: Vol. V

peace

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.

Stand-outs:

  1. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
  2. “Star Of Wonder”
  3. “Holy, Holy, Holy”
Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Christmastime, Music, Top 5

"I don’t make home videos, I make home films."

I’ve been wanting to write about this for three months. Colleen and I finally gave our Christmas present to her family; the (nearly) comprehensive collection of their VHS home videos on DVD.

First, the how. Here’s what you need:

  • Computer (I used my Mac)
  • VCR
  • Adapter with audio/video cable ports and USB ports (and included software for capturing video) (Elgato Video Capture Device for Mac users)
  • DVD burner
  • Blank DVDs
  • Video editing software (iMovie for Mac users)
  • DVD burning software (iDVD for Mac users)
  • Photoshop software
  • VHS tapes

In a nutshell, here’s what we did. Recorded all the VHS tapes using the VCR and adapter software, loaded the raw video files into iMovie, edited all unwanted portions out, placed chapter markers on the files, grabbed still frames to use for menu screens and the DVD covers, transferred edited video files to iDVD, picked the specific menu template, formatted the menu and chapter selection screens so they would fit a normal television screen, loaded stills into the menus, double-double-checked everything and then burned the DVD. Time-intensive parts were capturing the raw footage from the tapes onto the computer and burning the actual DVDs because capturing the video required just starting a tape and letting it play the whole way through in real time and burning the DVDs took like 6 hours a piece. Thankfully they were time-intensive and not labor-intensive; I could get one started and go do homework or something. The labor-intensive part was the editing. The most frustrating part was making sure everything worked. The worst portion of this entire project was the afternoon I got a video down to the final edit and tried to burn it. For some reason, the software kept saying I wasn’t putting in a recordable DVD in the drive when clearly I was putting in a recordable DVD. I couldn’t find an answer anywhere, online, I called Best Buy, Staples, everybody’s gave me the same answer, “Huh. Weird, it should be working.” Thanks a lot everybody. So I ended up having Staples send in the drive and get me a replacement drive, which worked perfectly. But for that afternoon…yikes. I was not a pleasant person to be around. But for the most part, the editing went fairly smooth, the biggest hiccup was trying to find a version of iMovie that had a chapter marker functionality. For some insane reason, Apple removed that tool from the previous version of iMovie when they upgraded to the version I have on my Mac (iMovie ’09). Thankfully, Colleen’s Mac is still kicking four years in and that had the older version of iMovie so we used that. The only problem is that hers is wicked slow so the process was slowed down a bit, but we still managed to get it done.

The covers were easier; Colleen and I went to the UIowa Main Library and used Photoshop to create the covers. I found a free cover template online that I loaded into Photoshop and changed around to feature our chapter titles, DVD titles, and stills from each video. We also made the backgrounds of each a different pastel color so put together the set of eight DVDs looks awesome. We just had them printed at Copyworks after their graphic designers resized the file so it would print to fit an actual DVD case.

Now a bit of the why: this is very possibly the biggest gift I’ve ever given or been involved in. Not physically big but more in the emotional attachment Colleen and I have to it. I’ve given some gifts in the past to Colleen that I was excited about, but this one was different, because it was really a joint effort between the two of us. It connected me to her and her family in a way that I hadn’t really expected. We spent many hours recording the raw video, figuring out chronological orders, adding clips together, editing out the many unwatchable, damaged parts of the VHS tape or random stuff like the 1988 Iowa/Iowa State basketball game Jim had preserved. In the past, when the girls would get out the old VHS tapes and watch them, I would usually watch and enjoy them to a certain extent, not as much as the girls but still laughing at seeing how they were when they were young. But working on this project connected me to this videos more deeply because the end result is ultimately ours. I wouldn’t label us “creative” types, and I don’t mean in the sense of being a unique personality (we are both pretty odd), but more in the sense of doing actual creating. We don’t paint, never had many drawing skills, never been much for creative writing, and we both are very musical but we don’t exactly create it. However, this project was an act of creation for the two of us. We took raw materials in an untouched form and turned them into something beautiful and creative. And finishing it up to give away is an emotional thing because it’s like your baby.

What made this gift especially meaningful for me to give away is that it’s exactly what I want to do with my career. At the core, librarianship is about getting information into the hands of people who want it and can’t find it. It’s about preservation of information and extending access to anyone who needs it. Colleen and I had a lot of raw information and a specific user set and we’ve connected the two beautifully. It was a very rewarding experience and I hope to do it again soon. The best part about it is that next time I do this type of a project, it will be so much more efficient because I’ve worked out 75% of the kinks and can visualize each piece of the process so much better than before. That being said, anybody who’s interested in hiring me, I’ll do a better job than Walgreens and for an insanely lower price. Just let me know. Seriously, I am itching to start another project.

But after all is said and done, can you really put a price on this?

That’s what our kids will look like.

-Jon

2 Comments

Filed under Christmastime, Librarianship, Random

we’re marley and marley….whoooooaaaaa!

it’s november 20th. at work, i’ve taken to putting on christmas movies when i have a chance, and i have been hearing some serious grumbling from customers about it.

“isn’t it a little early to be putting on christmas movies?”

“we haven’t even had thanksgiving!”

etcetera. and it’s annoying to me. you hear this every christmastime, people get so annoyed that businesses start putting out christmas merch really early and people are putting lights up too early and so on. honestly though, it’s always bugged me, and a few weeks ago i finally realized why.

when i was a kid, december would roll around and man would it go slow. like seriously the slowest month ever. it just took so so long to get to christmas. and as a kid i didn’t know how to appreciate the season at all. and nowadays, as i get older, time goes so much faster. my weeks have been flying by so quickly. and all i want to do is hold on to feeling you get during december. it is such a great feeling and comes only once a year, why wouldn’t we try to grasp onto it as long as we could?

i understand some people don’t like the commercialization of the holiday and all that, and i concede that wal-mart did have a gigantic christmas tree up literally on november 1st, but that’s not gonna stop me from putting on the ‘a charlie brown christmas’ album while i study or watching christmas movies at work.

by the way, Top Five Christmas Movies To Play At Work:
5. Elf
4. Jingle All The Way
3. I’ll Be Home For Christmas
2. The Santa Clause
1. Muppet Christmas Carol

home alone, home alone 2, and a charlie brown christmas are all excluded from this list even though they are all very near and dear to my heart. the home alones aren’t on there because everybody everywhere thinks they are great and for me, watching them more than once a year is too much, and a charlie brown christmas is too sweet to put it on and not give it your full attention.

in two days when i open at work, i’ll probably play each of the movies on my list at least once. and thanksgiving is still a week away. bring on the cheer.

-jon

1 Comment

Filed under Christmastime, Top 5

It’s Christmas! Let’s Be Glad

when i was a kid, the worst night of the year was christmas night. worst day was by far the 26th of december. they both sucked cause there was no more season left. it was over. people were tired of gifts, tired of eating, tired of family. it was like all joy was sucked out of the holiday and people were ready to move on to new year’s. now that i’m half grown up, it’s sad to think about. the reason people are sad is that the anticipation is over. nobody wants to take down decorations and think about getting a gym membership. nobody is thinking about Jesus on christmas night. and it’s His night! this whole day is about celebrating the birth of Christ Incarnate and people are bummed they don’t get to look forward to anything anymore. it’s a sad thing. i wish my focus was more on Jesus and His birth than on worrying about getting all my gifts wrapped and all the other stuff. this is a special time of year, because of the anticipation, the excitement of being with family, of feeling more love in our society than normal, but especially because of God’s gift to us, and i wish my excitement was a result of that; God’s great gift to us. one of my favorite christmas songs is O Holy Night. favorite line:
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till He appeared, and the soul felt its worth.” i want to feel that worth again through christmas, through His birth. such a touching line. i miss real christmas.

running with this christmas theme, sufjan stevens has one of the most incredible christmas albums i’ve ever heard. check it out here. from what i gathered, for like four or five years, he basically made a new mixtape of christmas songs each christmas for his friends and family and gave them away as gifts. how cool is that. a few simple mixtapes that become a terrific (and long) christmas album. he covers mostly classic christmas hymns (joy to the world, hark the herald angels sing, etc.), a few originals (get behind me santa! among others, how clever is that?), and a few non-christmas themed songs (amazing grace, come thou fount of every blessing, etc.). such interesting takes on mostly overdone songs. he makes all these old songs feel new and heartbreaking. so good. it’s absolutely worth the fifteen dollars on itunes.

and this is effectively the end of christmas 2007 for me. i’m going to bed and in the morning i redirect all thoughts and efforts towards getting completely ready for spain. daunting. i have shoes, jeans, umbrella, voltage converter, slippers, and all sorts of other things to buy that i haven’t even thought of yet. i also just realized the fact that tomorrow is the 26th of december is going to make everything less efficient…all of the kansas city metro area will be out returning crappy gifts. that’s a shame.

merry christmas.
-jon

Leave a comment

Filed under Christmastime, Music