No one has yet mounted a credible challenge to my assertion that I have the world’s largest, most eclectic and eccentric Christmas music collection. So I still hold the crown, and I’m uniquely qualified to steer you away from the tried and true, the boring and overplayed to the fresh, the different and the undiscovered in holiday music. So far I brought you a cross-genre selection of undiscovered gems, a full shaker’s worth of songs for Christmas cocktails and Christmas: The Dance Edition. Today is a complete change of pace, bringing you full circle and back to the beginning. Yes, it’s religious and spiritual Christmas songs. Even if you are a professed agnostic, you can’t deny the power of the story. And c’mon, you know you get all choked up in The Charlie Brown Christmas Special when Linus recites the Bible passage about Jesus’s birth to tell Charlie Brown the meaning of Christmas. So park your skepticism. These picks aren’t your standard boring hymns. These artists sing out loud and proud and sincerely enough to get even as famous an atheist as Bill Maher testifying.
As an added bonus, each of these songs comes from an album of gems just as magnificent. Don’t stop at ten song recommendations, buy all ten CDs.
So open your mind and heart and get reacquainted with the spiritual Christmas classics — but performed better, more uniquely and in a more heart-felt manner than you’ve probably ever heard them done before:
1. Walkin’ To Jerusalem by Mahalia Jackson from Christmas with Mahalia Jackson
Not ready to come to Jesus? Mahalia will get you there. Even Jewish and atheist friends have said her voice is powerful enough to convert. This song was also a surprise addition to my Dance Party Edition, because no one can get you moving like Mahalia Jackson, arguably the greatest Gospel Singer EVER. Oh, she’ll get you moving all right. Maybe swinging your hands over your head Southern Baptist style and movin’ down to the creek for a good ol’ Baptising. Yes, she’s that powerful.
2. Shout for Joy by Odetta from Christmas Spirituals
Just an aside here, if I ever joined a church fulltime it would have to be an African American church. Hands down, they have the best music. If you don’t know the great Odetta, voice of The Civil Rights Movement and the folk singer who influenced Dylan, Baez, Carly Simon and so many others, read this and believe. Here, Odetta gives a Gospel classic a Jazzy/Bluesy turn, helped by her Bass player Bill Lee (Spike’s dad).
3. Beautiful Star of Bethlehem by Emmylou Harris from Light of the Stable
This lovely Appalachian folk carol is given a soaring treatment by Emmylou’s crystalline soprano. Pals Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton often show up uncredited on Emmylou’s albums and I suspect theirs are the backing and counterpoint vocals here. The fiddle, dulcimer and guitars add the perfect touch of homespun authenticity.
4. Who Kept the Sheep by Johnny Cash from The Christmas Spirit
There are only a handful of singers I can name with as authentic an American voice as Johnny Cash (and most of them appear on this list). This gentle song uses almost the tone of a children’s song to point out one of the smaller miracles of the Christmas story. Johnny softens his rough-hewn voice to ask the listener, who kept the sheep from harm when the shepherds left to witness the birth of Christ. A beautiful parable in song sung by a man with the voice of an Old Testament prophet…by way of Arkansas.
5. Hark the Herald Angels Sing by Kathleen Battle from Kathleen Battle: A Christmas Celebration
I know you’ve heard this song a million times, but you’ve NEVER heard it like this. Great coloratura soprano Kathleen Battle sings out with a full chorus and orchestra including horns that you’ll swear are being blown by those Herald Angels. In fact, I highly recommend the album this came from as a source for many wonderful Christmas songs, some are spirituals, some are well-known carols, many are from other countries. All are wonderful.
6. Gaudete by the King’s Singers from King’s Singers: A Little Christmas Music
As long as we’re getting back to fundamentals, how about a ringing carol in Latin? You won’t think it’s a dead language when you hear this great group from Cambridge England belt out this Medieval crowd pleaser, complete with the ringing trumpets of the London Sinfonia Brass Quintet. They sure knew how to get people on their feet in Merrie Olde England back in the day!
7. Hosanna in Excelsis by Placido Domingo from The Greatest Christmas Show On Earth
I probably shouldn’t even tell you that this ringing Latin number is from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem. Yes, that Andrew Lloyd Webber and, yes, I find him insufferable, too. But when I first heard this, I thought it was an undiscovered Medieval masterpiece. Maybe it’s Placido Domingo who puts it across. I can’t vouch for the rest of the Requiem. I got this off a compilation album.
8. A Star in the East by Harry Belafonte from To Wish You a Merry Christmas
I featured another song from this album, Mary’s Boy Child, on my Undiscovered Gems list. I wish I could include every song because this album is that good. Only once in a while does an artist produce a Christmas album that isn’t just a retread of a bunch of holiday numbers, but really redefines Christmas songs through their own particular musical lens. Harry Belafonte does that. Many of the songs are spirituals done with his particular Bahamian lilt. But even European standards such as Silent Night or old English carols such as “Christmas is Coming” are given such a personal stamp that, after hearing them, you’ll never think they’re done quite right when done by other artists. The song I’ve chosen here is a traditional spiritual given a bluesy, Caribbean Belafonte spin.
9. Es Hat Sich Heut Eroffnet by The Trapp Family Singers from The Sound of Christmas
Yes, that Trapp Family. They didn’t have Julie Andrews, but they did have a lovely traditional choral sound. And the Germans really gave us what we think of as Christmas when German Prince Albert brought all his traditions such as trees and Santa with him to his marriage to Queen Victoria. So the Trapps are Austrian. Close enough. It’s not really a traditional Christmas without some Germanic singing. Make those singers a famous ski lodge owning singing family and all the better. All the songs on the CD are traditional; not all of them are German. In fact, they do a beautiful version of the Spanish carol A La Nanita. After years of searching, I finally discovered this in a bargain CD bin. So good luck finding it.
10. Angels We Have Heard on High by The Brian Setzer Orchestra from Christmas Rocks!
Just because a song is about Jesus, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to rock out to it. Here Brian infuses a classic with that Big Band Sound, ringing Christmas bells, plus a generous dollop of Rockabilly and a full chorus. The results are magical. You’ll never want to hear this song played any other way.
Merry Christmas, keep the faith and buy these CDs!
Titian’s Holy Family with Shepherd from the website of the National Gallery London.