If you’re a fan of quality Christmas music in the folk and folk pop world, here are two spectacular albums. We’ve feature both of these artists for their other work, so when we found out they were doing Christmas music, we could wait to hear them. Honestly, I can’t say I’m surprised at just how good they are.
Jenny and Tyler – Christmastime
-It’s not every day that you get to hear a song that could be one of those legitimate seasonal classics for years to come. The opener “Christmastime” has that perfect blend of nostalgia and originality. There’s a full string composition behind the endearing couple duo of Jenny and Tyler. Although Tyler takes the lead on this one, the two voices blend for a She and Him style vocal blending that is sweet throughout the album. As the opener lightly sways and conjures images of the season, it’s almost guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.
The duo has fresh takes on a few classics. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” has a lead vocal from Jenny, whose crystalline vocals cut right to the intimacy of the song. You’ll find the guitars to perfectly highlight the mood of the song. The stripped down, intimate style is perfect after the bigger sound of “Christmastime.” The following “Winter Wonderland” gets the swing going again, with a fun little uptempo version of the seasonal classic. The vocals are solid as always. What I like about the song, more than anything, is the legitimate jazz chops from the band. It’s a treat, really.
The album veers off traditional course a bit for an old, rare hymn called “The Maker of the Sun and Moon” which can really be described as a worship song. There’s a real transcendence to the track that pulls the listener in. The testimony is of a creator God, but the style of the song reminds listeners of the worshipful attitude of the wise men who traveled to see the Christ child. It really works for a unique sound on a truly creative endeavor of the album itself.
I am super excited for two of the songs on this album, though. The first is “In the Bleak Midwinter,” a song that is to me one of the prettiest melodies I’ve ever heard. Honestly. The slow, thoughtful, contemplative mood of the track is perfect for the season, too. This rendition does the classic justice with a simple acoustic style that breaks up the album perfectly. Then, as if I wasn’t impressed enough by these two, they perform a fresh arrangement of Handel’s Messiah (well, a part of it) that is superb. I would say it is a masterstroke to make this classic piece fresh for 21st century listeners. I hope to hear this version, with all of its genuine homage to the Incarnation, played for decades more.
The final tracks are equally good, but the whole album demands attention from listeners. It’s not just another Christmas album. This is one of the more artful holiday albums I’ve heard. Beyond that, Jenny and Tyler are excellent modern folk artists who really have a talent for arrangements, for vocals, and for crafting sounds that are beautifully familiar.
Penny and Sparrow – Christmas Songs
-Penny and Sparrow sing with earnestness on every track they’ve ever performed. They deliver lines, whether timeless or brand new, with full heartfelt conviction. If you were a fan of their debut album Tenboom (as I definitely was), you will love this Christmas collection. The duo are back with a glorious expression of holiday spirit that goes beyond surface “good cheer” and acclaims a truth that is far more profound, often deeply satisfying.
The album begins with a heartfelt rendition of “Come Thou Fount,” which we may not always think of as an advent hymn (but Sufjan did it, so I guess it’s fair game now), yet it does set the tone for the rest of the album quite nicely. The following rousing rendition of “O Come All Ye Faithful” is the exception that proves the rule for the album, allow this upbeat piece to offset several downtempo, expressive tracks. The lyrical message of the song – as a call for the faithful to worship – seems well placed near the beginning of the album.
Now, perhaps my favorite song of the 2016 holiday season, “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” These guys slay this track. Okay, maybe I’m not so hip with the lingo, but I really do love this song. The harmonies are so absolutely rich and satisfying that I cannot help but sing along every single time. This is Penny and Sparrow at their best, really since their debut. The heart is evident, the expression oozes from the composition and the performance, and the organ is on fire in this recording. I don’t want to go Full Gospel on ya’ll, but seriously the Spirit is with this one.
A few of the other hymns are equally captivating, but with a little less of the clap and sing along style. Their version of “Away in a Manger” is just how you’d picture a folk duo performing the iconic song. It tugs at my heartstrings every listen. The vocals dance together so perfectly, I think Simon and Garfunkel are jealous. The rearrangement of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is really a unique spin on it. The lead vocal, after the unconventional intro, comes across as expressive and deeply moving. I love those soaring vocals and how they seem to declare the message in their own way. It’s followed by another sweet classic in “Silent Night,” which they’ve managed to package like an old time radio broadcast. It is a nice perspective on the song, when we remember that people for generations and different continents have been singing the same song about the same savior. Pretty cool.
“O Come O Come Emmanuel” has quickly become one of my favorite seasonal songs. It’s a lament. It cries out for so much more than just a holiday of tinsel and bows; it’s the longing of a people who need a savior. The minor chords work really well, connecting the song to a rich musical tradition. Penny and Sparrow preserve and seem to dwell in that minor key, dwell in the depth of the sorrow and cry that the song presents. It’s a piece of performance art more than it is just another “Christmas song.” Sometimes they carol, but this one they cry out.
Of course they couldn’t end on a lament, so the album finishes claiming the JOY and hope of the season. Both “Joy to the World” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” show up, poignantly uniting the faith legacy of the holiday with the secular embrace of it. The way the album moves together, blending elements of different traditions and musical styles, is deeply satisfying. I don’t always find Christmas music that will make it into rotation for my own family, but this album certainly. I hope to sing along to some of these fresh arrangements to classic favorites with my own children as they grow. It’s an album I hope characterizes and defines the holidays for my home. I can’t think of a better compliment or sincere way to describe how I feel about the album.