Released: November 21, 2006
Reviewer: Dave Coats
Continuing to capitalize on the popularity of his seminal 2005 record Illinois, indie hero Sufjan Stevens now releases Songs For Christmas, a collection of five EPs recorded between 2001 and 2006. While his banjo ballads and bustling pop arrangements arenâ€™t likely to surprise anyone, Songs For Christmas is really a combination of three styles â€“ Christmas standards, which Stevens professes not to care for, often performing them as insipidly as possible (for instance, a wonderfully cheeky 0:36 instrumental version of ‘Jingle Bells’ performed on piano, complete with walking bass line); Stevens originals (ranging from the ridiculous ‘Itâ€™s Christmas! Letâ€™s Be Glad!’ to the exuberant ‘Get Behind Me, Santa!’); and Methodist hymns, not usually thought of as Christmas songs, but which actually prove to be the highlight of the package, especially the folksy banjo rendition of ‘Amazing Grace,’ and the impeccable vocal arrangement of ‘Holy, Holy, Holy.’
A number of lesser-known carols are also featured, including the traditional German carol ‘Lo! How A Rose Eâ€™Er Blooming,’ and heartwarming French carol ‘The Friendly Beasts.’ The package also contains extensive liner notes and extras (stickers, comics), which are worth the sticker price on their own â€“ Stevens is a masterful storyteller, and reading his humorous reflections on disconcerting family Christmases growing up helps to understand the contexts in which these EPs were made.
One must keep in mind that these EPs were made over a six-year stretch, and Stevensâ€™ songwriting and arrangements, while promising and likeable from the start, clearly improved over time. Nonetheless, Stevens is able to be artistic from start to finish without being pretentious, and Songs For Christmas comes across as uniquely meaningful in ways difficult to pinpoint. While itâ€™s no secret that Christmas is a time for record labels to execute the maximize-profits-minimize-investment formula to perfection, Songs For Christmas is sincere enough, unique enough and, frankly, good enough, to make it the canâ€™t-miss seasonal recording of 2006.