- Vancouver, British Columbia - Songs For Christmas is more than just any Christmas album. It's more than an album actually. What we have here is a collection of EPs, which have Christmas songs that Sufjan Stevens put together over the last few years. There are five discs in total, one for each year from 2001 to 2006 minus a contribution from 2004. (Likely because he was working on Come On Feel the Illinoise). On top of that, there are stickers, a comic, short stories by Sufjan, and even the song sheets for the music so you can learn his music too. Can you say good times? It instantly makes it one of the most worthwhile Christmas music purchases. It's more than music; it's an experience.
Disc one: Noel
This certainly feels like Sufjan Stevens, but isn't quite as polished as his later works. And I think it's safe to say he overuses the banjo sometimes. I have to give him credit for making songs where I like the banjo, but I don't think he's quite reached that point with this collection of music. Though I do like the gentle folk atmosphere, the music can be off putting at times.
Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad little EP. I like the short "Silent Night" intro and I pretty much always enjoy "Amazing Grace." I don't dislike the minimalist approach; I just think it could use less banjo. He uses it well in his future works, but it's overpowering here.
Disc Two: Hark!
Already we're seeing the other sides of Sufjan's sound. A lot more bells and pipes and other stupendous instruments are used. Much like the first EP, this starts off with a brief musical rendition of a classic song. This one does "Angels We Have Heard on High" and it's a great opener. Sufjan's very own songs, "Only At Christmas Time" and "Put the Lights on the Tree," are great and fit well amongst the more traditional songs.
The highlights are "What Child Is This Anyway?" and "I Saw Three Ships," which are fantastic adaptations of the classic tunes. Hark! is a little more steadily enjoyable than the first disc and is more impressive in instrumentation and musical diversity. I quite enjoy it.
Disc Three: Ding! Dong!
This disc is even more impressive than the last. While the first two only featured two original songs by Stevens, this one has four. Granted, "Ding! Dong!" is hardly a complete song. It's more of just a brief tune with chimes and bells and as such I suppose it's perfectly titled. The disc opens with another version of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" which differs greatly from the one on Noel. It's not a full rendition of the song. It's a short piano piece that closes with just a portion of the vocals. It's quite pleasant and feels strangely complete considering how little of the song it uses.
While much of the songwriting is more complex, he still takes a more minimalist approach where needed, as he does on "We Three Kings" and "O Holy Night." The highlight though, for sure, is Sufjan's very own "Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance!" which has a charming high energy to it.
Disc Four: Joy
This disc proves to be the most uneven of the bunch. I think this is the first time I've heard "Away in a Manger" being sung by someone over the age of 6. And I have to be honest, it is pretty far from my favorite Christmas tune. Same with "The Little Drummer Boy." I've just never been a fan. That being said, Sufjan takes the dry old ideas and makes them fairly tolerable. However, I was strangely underwhelmed by the short adaptation of "The First Noel." The pieces just didn't seem to fit together quite right. I guess it has that quirky out of tune quality to it.
There are seven tracks, three of which are Sufjan's original pieces. (I should note that "Did I Make You Cry on Christmas? (Well, You Deserved It!)" is the greatest song title pretty much ever.) "Hey Guys! It's Christmas Time!" has a lot more bite to it than anything we've heard up to this point and that makes for a nice change of pace. Up until that point I haven't really heard any electric guitar. This time, it's safe to say that the new songs are the best ones on here.
Disc Five: Peace
This disc is actually the length of a short LP album with eleven tracks, clocking at over 35 minutes. Also, more than half of the songs are original songs by Sufjan Stevens. So, it's quite apparent that he put the most amount of work into this one. I guess that makes sense given that this was recorded in the year this was all released (2006.) Plus, as far as other albums go, the only other record he released this year was the outtakes from his Illinois album.
I have to point out that "Get Behind Me, Santa!" is both cleverly named and a pretty fantastic song. Actually, all of his original songs are pretty outstanding on this. “Christmas In July” is also a fun energetic tune, while “Jupiter Winter” and “Sister Winter” have a more solemn approach, but climb dramatically to something bigger in their own way. His songs are beautiful and rich.
Most of his covers are of lesser-known traditional songs like “Lo! How A Rose E'er Blooming” which is a 15th Century German Carol. This also marks his third take on "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and again, it differs from the last two. It's not all that musically interesting as it's pretty much just a short piano rendition, but it makes for a charming intermission and demonstrates that a lot of different outcomes can be made from a single idea.
I have reviewed this collection before and it was a somewhat unpleasant task at the time. Mostly because I was fighting a deadline and staying up unreasonably late to get it done. This year I listened to each disc at a steady pace and enjoyed the music, which was much more fun than sitting and listening to the discs, one after another, pumping myself with more and more Christmas spirit until I'm about to pop. Of course, that will never be something you'll have to do unless you happen to write music reviews and are bad at pacing yourself.
An important thing to take into consideration was that this whole thing was years in the making. In fact, you can see it in Sufjan's songwriting. Each year, his original works get consistently better and pretty soon start to outshine his classic Christmas covers. In just a few years he really found his footing as a songwriter.
The amount of work put into this really shows and I think it would be one of the best Christmas album purchases you'll ever make. There is just so much to do and it doesn't actually cost that much considering how much you get. Even in this age where digital music is taking over in a big way, this one is most certainly worth buying the physical package.
Rating: 5/5 Sour Grapes