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Best Christmas CDs of 2011

posted: November 28th, 2011 by Dave Trout

With Thanksgiving in the rear view mirror, you get the official green light to dust off your collection of Christmas music to give it the annual spin. I am a sentimental guy, so I love revisiting "Rudolph," "Silver Bells," and "White Christmas," but there comes a point where I can't take one more Kenny G. holiday tune. If you can relate, then you'll be happy to learn of some new music that's low on cheesiness and high on artistic quality. This list of the 6 Best Christmas Albums of 2011 will give you some great options to improve the quality of your seasonal soundtrack.

1. This Winter's Eve by Sarah Hart

This is a fairly low key release from an artist who's not a household name. Yet, my pick as the best new holiday release this year is Sarah Hart's This Winter's Eve. Sarah is an accomplished songwriter, even nominated for a Grammy Award in early 2011 for writing the song "Better Than A Hallelujah." In this holiday collection, Sarah's tender voice is the centerpiece, easily comparable to Alison Krauss or Leigh Nash. The songs have a timeless feel – poetic lyrics and soothing instrumentation. This is proof that a holiday album can capture the essence of Christmas without synthesizers and never-ending jingle bells. More impressive yet is that 11 of the 12 tracks are originals – written or co-written by Hart. If you long for a Christmas with less commercialism and more spiritual focus, pop in this CD and let it sweep you away.

2. Scarf Weather by Canaries In The Coal Mine

Chase Gassaway and Jordan Whitmore make up this Austin, TX-based duo who I just learned about this month. This 5-track EP has well-produced arrangements with tons of indie music charm – they should be played in a Starbucks near you! The standout song is the only original tune, “Falling Like Snow,” which shares how Christ’s birth fills our lives with hope. The 4 remakes range from the gospel song “Go Tell it On the Mountain” to the campy “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” Jordan and Chase tag-team on lead vocals, somewhat reminiscent of Jenny & Tyler, and they knock it out of the park. I was left wanting more! Canaries In The Coal Mine show a lot of promise, and I’m already looking forward to their next album.

3. Joy: An Irish Christmas by Keith & Kristyn Getty

While I have abundant respect for the Getty’s as songwriters (“In Christ Alone”), I never really became a big fan of their recorded music – which tends to have too much CCM polish on it for my liking. So, I honestly had low expectations when I popped Joy into my CD player. A Celtic toe-tapping rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” kicks off the album, and I was almost embarrassed to admit “Hmm, this is actually a really good recording.” By the 4th song, I couldn’t deny that it was one of the best holiday albums of the year. These dozen tracks have a great balance between remakes of classic carols and original Christmas hymns. They really owned their Celtic roots with arrangements that include Uilleann pipes, folk fiddles, pennywhistle, accordion, and Irish harp. These tunes and their amazing original lyrics (like “How Suddenly a Baby Cries”) will surely stand the test of time.

4. Snow Globe by Matt Wertz

Matt has been writing thoughtful, emotive mainstream acoustic pop for over a decade. He stays true-to-form in his latest collection of holiday songs – a cross between Gavin DeGraw and Harry Connick, Jr. The album is overall laid-back with a good measure of soft soul, R&B, acoustic folk, big band, and piano pop. You’ll find 5 original songs, highlighted by the finger-snapping title track – which has everything from horns and strings to bells and banjo. His updates of standards like “Sleigh Ride” and “Tennessee Christmas” are just downright romantic. This is another fantastically-produced album by Ben Shive, with cameos made by Amy Grant, Brandon Heath, and Dave Barnes.

5. Smalltown Poets Christmas by Smalltown Poets

This Georgia-based Christian rock quintet made a big splash on the scene with their 1997 debut album, which garnered 2 Grammy nominations. However, the band fell off the map upon their last CD in 2004. They’ve regrouped and put together a collection of holiday songs that really knocked my socks off. Here, you’ll find 7 well-executed remakes of classic carols, 3 instrumental interludes, 3 originals, and 1 cover (“In The First Light”) which I believe is the highlight of the CD. Smalltown Poets still show they have some creativity left in the tank and this release was a very pleasant surprise. The band has a surprise for YOU too – read below.

6. The Heart of Christmas by Josh Caterer

As an interesting backstory, Josh Caterer was lead singer of the punk rock band The Smoking Popes, which debuted in 1993. Josh became a Christian in May 1998 and quit the band in early 1999. In 2005, the band has reunited for occasional concerts and new recordings, and Josh also serves as a worship pastor in the Chicago area. This 5-song EP was a labor of love, with Josh performing all the vocals and instruments himself. It has a bit of a raw, stripped-down feel – which works quite well for these tracks. His remake of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is stellar, and my favorite tune is the foot-stomping original “The Baby of Bethlehem.”

Like any list of top picks, it’s a good conversation starter. So help us out by answering one of these questions:
a. What do you think we got right – or heaven forbid got wrong on this list?
b. Did you try out any of these albums based on our recommendation, and what was your reaction?
c. Whether 2011 music or a different year, what Christmas albums truly floored you in artistic & creative quality?

Remember how I mentioned a surprise? We have 5 download codes for the entire CD Smalltown Poets Christmas. We will randomly select 5 readers who answer (in the comment section below) one of the 3 questions to receive the CD download (awarded on December 6, 2011).

Comments (36)

I haven’t purchased any of these 6 yet, but your recommendations are helpful. Not familiar with most of these artists, though I do remember the Smallltown Poets from back in the day! I will say that in the past couple of years, the Tomlin Christmas CD really has become a favorite. I know some didn’t like it. But for me it was a perfect mix of old & new, and I thought it captured a spirit of worship that I felt was missing in most of what I listen to at least.

larzmarshall 01:22 AM Tue, Nov 29, 2011

I’m answering (b).  The article was so well-written that I tried out ALL of the albums. My reaction: delight!  I was unaware of three of the artists - Canaries In The Coal Mine, Josh Caterer, and Smalltown Poets.  Of the six albums, “Smalltown Poets Christmas” is my hands-down favorite, with Josh’s a VERY close second.  Now I’m headed back to iTunes to make a couple of purchases!  Thank you for the excellent list.

dulcigal 01:32 AM Tue, Nov 29, 2011

I loved How Many Kings by downhere—was it last year or in 2009? Either way, I loved it. The re-imagined version of the title tune was fantastic, but I liked their original song, “Christmas In Our Hearts,” too.

I’m curious about the Smalltown Poets CD. I love the song, “In the First Light,” I still listen to my Glad CD with that song on it. Ha! Glad. My first favorite Christian music artists.

I think I’ll breakdown and get the Getty’s “Joy” and hope to win one of the SP download codes. Thanks for the recommendations.

pattyink 01:34 AM Tue, Nov 29, 2011

As a Christmas music junkie, I would say one you missed is Enfield’s “God of God”.  Their version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is worth the album price.

Also Vineyard UK’s “Christmas from the Vineyard” is very good including a very TranSiberian spin to the ancient song ‘Gaudete’.

I’ve liked Smalltown Poets since they originally were called “Villanelle” and released ‘Pinwheels and Orange Peels’ - curious as to what their above mentioned project sounds like

dallord 01:53 AM Tue, Nov 29, 2011

As an Englishman living in the UK I am, alas, starved of good quality American folk holiday song. I am assuming we are talking Xmas holiday songs here. What I will say though, is that it will take a very good song indeed to surpass The Pogues ‘Fairytale of New York’. I would say, at risk of further opinions, that this is, the best Xmas holiday song ever written. Thanks to you all. Ian.

iand 02:13 AM Tue, Nov 29, 2011

I am a big fan of Josh Caterer going back to the original days of the Smoking Popes, and am glad to see some this EP highlighted. I just listened to some of it today, and really enjoyed it.

Another great album from 2011 would be David Crowder Band’s “Oh For Joy.”

I will say that I just yesterday discovered a great Christmas album from 2009, “Winter Songs,” by Halford, the metal band fronted by Jadas Priest’s Rob Halford. There is a version of “O Holy Nght” that is downright beautiful.

I am also a fan of the 2008 Project 86 EP “This Time of Year.”

AW 02:24 AM Tue, Nov 29, 2011

I suppose since it’s from 1993, Bruce Cockburn’s Christmas would be considered a classic by now.  If it were more well-known.  It’s definitely a classic at our house.  And we enjoy all our volumes of Sufjan Stevens’ Songs for Christmas.  I’m glad to see you’ve got Smalltown Poets up there.  We’ve been long-time enjoyers of their music and don’t have that one yet.  And since you said it all so nicely and used Alison Krauss’ name, I’ll probably have to go out and give a listen to This Winter’s Eve.

happybritta 02:27 AM Tue, Nov 29, 2011

I’ve been a big fan of Josh Caterer’s for years, especially enjoying his work with Duvall, but didn’t know he had a Christmas CD out. Score!

SWofJustice 02:35 AM Tue, Nov 29, 2011

My absolute fave for originality and its ability to give me goosebumps is Andrew Peterson’s ‘Behold the Lamb’. I NEED it to get my focus right for Christmas each year. Sixpence None the Richer has some cool songs on their Christmas one as well.

kmilligan72 02:43 AM Tue, Nov 29, 2011

I will definitely check these CDs out. I love what you are doing at UTR. If you have not heard of a band called Seryn, you MUST check them out. I heard them at Catalyst in Atlanta this year. They are the best group I have heard in a loooooong time and they have their own Christmas CD coming out on Dec. 2nd!

danokeeney 03:01 AM Tue, Nov 29, 2011

Thanks for the compilation! My interest in at least a couple of these has certainly been pricked by your descriptions.

One more I would add is “This Glorious Christmas” by The Annie Moses Band. It’s one of my favorite Christmas albums ever, with several originals (“Bethlehem, House of Bread” is outstanding) as well as new takes on old favorites (such as their stunning version of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”). The band (which is actually a family) has a very unique sound, with an intriguing conglomeration of blue grass, jazz and classical. Definitely worth a listen.

EssieLD 03:28 AM Tue, Nov 29, 2011

I do not, as of yet, have any of these albums, but will definitely give them a listen.

My top favorite overall Christmas albums are the original Christmas album by Michael W. Smith, Celine Dion’s Christmas album, Steven Curtis Chapman’s The Music of Christmas & Sara Groves’ Christmas album.

Honorable Mention: MercyMe’s song I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, Phil Wickham’s new Christmas album, Francesca Batistelli’s song You’re Here, Matthew West’s Let It Snow x3, Dave Barnes’ song Very Merry Christmas, JJ Heller’s Christmas CD & Andrea Bocelli’s What Child Is This, oh & I really like the music from the Home Alone soundtrack : )

avtsellers 03:42 AM Tue, Nov 29, 2011

I hope to try out a couple of these albums.

My favorite Christmas album is Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God.  Can’t get enough of it.  Was fortunate to see it performed live last year.  Highly recommend it!

shoesnsocks 03:54 AM Tue, Nov 29, 2011

I haven’t heard any of these yet, but am looking forward to giving them a listen!  I have to say that Behold the Lamb of God took my breath away the first time I heard it, and still does today. It is the story that transcends all seasons, and nothing else compares smile

ktoone 04:31 AM Tue, Nov 29, 2011

Thank you for the great recommendations!  While I would love to own almost every Christmas CD out there, I can’t- so I try to buy at least one every year.  I haven’t bought ‘Joy: An Irish Christmas by Keith & Kristyn Getty’, but our local radio station played just one of the songs from this album and that is enough to convince me that this will be THE CD this year… if I end up being able to purchase more, I’ll definitely be looking into the others you recommended.
As well, I like that others are contributing their favorites.  Andrew Peterson’s ‘Behold the Lamb’  and Phil Keaggy’s ‘Welcome Inn’ are two of my recent favorite purchases.  There are many others, and I would have a real hard time choosing just one, but these would get my focus right.

JaniceQuilts 04:50 AM Tue, Nov 29, 2011

I am going to give Sarah Hart’s album a try. I have been hoping to find some good, fresh Christmas music this year. I got David Crowder Band’s Christmas album and it’s good, but I like having the little known finds! Thanks for the recommendations.

cwheeler 04:59 AM Tue, Nov 29, 2011

Question C: what Christmas albums floored me.

Precious Child: Story of Christmas by Various Artists and Craig Bickhardt.  Hard to find, but worth the effort.  The narration is wonderful, and the songs are all brilliant originals.

Songs from the Voice, Volume 2, Son of the Most High.  An album of all originals incorporating verses from a new version of the Bible.  Written and performed by a variety of excellent artists (Lori Chaffer, Andrew Osenga, Maeve, Andrew Peterson, Matt Wertz, etc.).  Along with Songs from the Voice, Volume 1, which is not a Christmas album, this represents a high point in collaborative music making.

Lanny Cordola’s Blues for the Child.  Also hard to find, this is a fun album, sometimes jazzy, sometimes laid-back blues.  Very satisfying.  Hope you can find them; you’ll love them.

Hawk 07:40 AM Tue, Nov 29, 2011

I really like the song “Snow Globe” by Matt Wertz.  Based on your recommendation, I am going to give the rest of the album another listen.

Jeff C 12:38 PM Tue, Nov 29, 2011

2 things you got right (none wrong!): 
1.  I’ve been listening to the Matt Wertz album, and loving it.  No surprise to find Ben Shive as producer!
2.  With the exception of the Small Town Poets, I don’t know the rest of the artists, so fun is in store for me in listening to them.  Thanks for that!

Jenn C 01:40 PM Tue, Nov 29, 2011

I have really enjoyed the album from “City on a Hill”.  I picked it up last year, and it became an instant favorite.  I’m a fan of Smalltown Poets, and didn’t know they had a Christmas album, so I’m looking forward to giving it a listen.

SMiller 02:16 PM Tue, Nov 29, 2011

I’m a fan of most all of Sarah Hart’s work, so happy to see her at the top of this list!

Been hearing a lot about the Getty’s new album, and I’m excited to give that one a listen.

I’m not that familiar with the Smalltown Poets, but I do enjoy their rendition of “In The Bleak Midwinter” and I’m always looking for new and different Christmas music!

b0bb3h 09:48 PM Tue, Nov 29, 2011

Got Sarah Hart just right!!  Will be buying.  I was unfamiliar with Smalltown Poets.  Love what I am hearing.  Thanks for the recommendations!

sawyertunes 05:20 AM Wed, Nov 30, 2011

Will certainly check these out and thoroughly enjoyed Dave Barnes Christmas project last year. What about Regi Stone’s Christmas EP? (http://www.amazon.com/Holy-Night/dp/B0063PGRAI/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1322669974&sr=1-1)

juniorproducer 04:30 PM Wed, Nov 30, 2011

I’m back! I took your advice and got Keith and Kristyn Getty’s JOY and it is wonderful. I haven’t got a favorite yet, but I love Fullness of Grace and Jesus Joy of the Highest Heaven. They’re both original, too, so that makes them even more special. Thanks for the tip.

pattyink 08:12 PM Wed, Nov 30, 2011

I haven’t gotten to listen to any of these albums yet, but I did check out some of Sarah Hart’s other music and I love her. Can’t wait to hear the Christmas album.

Also, I’m looking forward to hearing the Getty’s at Bellevue Baptist Church later this month.

statum 01:33 AM Fri, Dec 02, 2011

Well, first of all I want to thank you for publishing this list.  I LOVE Christmas CDs. 

Second, I want to try to answer Question C for my entry in the giveaway, which won’t be easy, since I don’t think I can choose only one CD which floored me when I heard it.  I would put several in that category, most of them out of print.

1) Friction Bailey - The Silent Night
2) Various (Produced by Deri Daugherty) - Noel
3) Sojourn Music - Advent Songs
4) Sufjan Stevens - Christmas Collection
5) Kemper Crabb - A Medieval Christmas

blw777 02:58 AM Sat, Dec 03, 2011

Thanks so much for sharing these albums. I’m excited to give several of these a listen, especially “Joy” by the Getty’s.

Honestly, I usually have to listed to a Christmas album several times before I’m in love with it; but some that hold the place of dearly loved in my book are:
Behold the Lamb of God by AP
Silent Night by Red Mountain Church
Christmas by Andy Gullahorn and Jill Phillips
The Gift by Corrinne May

Also, I’ll for sure be getting Smalltown Poet’s Christmas album, whether I win it here or not—it’s just fun!

mounaineermama 03:35 AM Sun, Dec 04, 2011

I’m ecstatic that you put Matt Wertz’s Christmas album on the list.  I didn’t realize that he was putting one together.  I went out and immediate bought it.  Thanks for the recommendation.  The album is awesome.

Lee Tucker 08:19 PM Sun, Dec 04, 2011

Also, The Irish Christmas Album by Keith & Kristyn Getty is AMAZING!!  I absolutely love Celtic music, and to combine that with the Christmas season blew my mind.

Lee Tucker 08:26 PM Sun, Dec 04, 2011

Yay- I love Smalltown Poets!  So happy to see there is a Christmas CD by them.  Also… going to be checking out Sarah Hart too.  Thanks for these awesome suggestions.

scrappyc 08:30 PM Sun, Dec 04, 2011

My favorite of the suggetsted songs is Canaries in the Coal Mine song “Falling Like Snow”.
My favorite Christmas album of all time is by Sufjan Stevens.  I love the stripped down banjo sound.

Brigette 10:02 PM Sun, Dec 04, 2011

a. You got the Gettys right.  I got their CD when I saw them at Faith CRC in Elmhurst last month.  It was amazing to hear these songs live!

c. I’ve always loved SCC’s The Music of Christmas and of course downhere’s How Many Kings is getting played constantly at my house.

momof2boys 01:06 AM Mon, Dec 05, 2011

I am going to have to put in one I discovered on noisetrade.com. Folk Angel - Comfort & Joy Volume 1-3. Great stuff

rollerpimp 03:45 PM Wed, Dec 07, 2011

Well, it’s the 7th, and I was just wondering who won?  I’m assuming not me, since I haven’t heard anything but thought I’d ask.  Thanks!

blw777 02:39 AM Thu, Dec 08, 2011

Oops.  Sorry for the delay.  Our free download winners are….  drumroll…..  danokeeney, SWofJustice, pattyink, happybritta, and ktoone.  If I can figure things out, I should be able to email each of you today.  Thanks to everyone for making this our most commented blog post of 2011!

Dave Trout 06:16 PM Thu, Dec 08, 2011

Great recommendations!  I’m also enjoying Mindy Gledhill’s “Winter Moon” and Anna Gilbert’s “Christmas”.  Both indie ladies are in the Christian genre.

terryliz 10:47 PM Fri, Dec 16, 2011

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