The Best Christmas Album You’ve Never Heard

"Christmas," Bruce Cockburn's humble masterpiece, is twenty years old this season.

Late into the Advent season, counting down only a few days before Christmas morn, you’ve likely exhausted your regular Christmas music repertoire. Even the stuff you spend November looking forward to has lost its flavor from over-listening. You become aware that Nat King Cole should probably not have attempted to sing in German. Even Vince Guaraldi can no longer charm after the hundredth listen and you’ve probably consigned yourself to the minefield of the Pandora Christmas station. Don’t settle for less. I’ve got one you’ve never heard that deserves to come around in everyone’s playlist each year.

I’m a traditionalist when it comes to Christmas music, but growing up in rural Texas, that never meant listening exclusively to choral arrangements. The spirit of Christmas could be felt in the earth around us: glimpsed in morning mist, overcast, bare bodark trees, and the twinkle of light-lined houses in the distance. Cathedral singing was still beautiful, but so far away from the crunch of dead grass underfoot.

This is why my favorite Christmas album of all time is Bruce Cockburn’s Christmas. It came out when I was six and my parents played it nonstop every Christmas thereafter, and so it became part of the swirl of childhood memory. But my fondness for the album outlasts the revolutions of nostalgia that come around every December. It’s a true work of art. Christmas sounds like no other Christmas album I’ve ever heard because it taps into the rural American experience of Christian tradition instead of winging us away to London or Nuremberg. To classify the album as “folk” would not exactly be incorrect, but it does not amount to profane, twangy arrangements of carols on banjos or mandolins. Cockburn conjures a uniquely North American soundscape that sounds no less traditional, ancient, or holy.

If you’re not already familiar with the prolific artist, looking up Cockburn’s (pronounced Coh-Burn) visage may not inspire much confidence in the average Christmas reveler. He looks the consummate ’80s counterculture avatar–like he and Adam Clayton share the same stylist. He enjoyed a brief moment of fame in the ’80s for a hyper-political ballad If I Had A Rocket Launcher, raging militantly against exploitative deforestation. Not a guy you might expect to say something like this:

I’ve always loved the music that I grew up with, and then to me, as a Christian, there’s obviously a significance to that season that is not shared by everyone, but it’s that significance that has been part of the motivating factor for me wanting to record that music, because obviously the spiritual side of Christmas is the least apparent aspect of it, most of the time these days.

But growing up, while I didn’t grow up in a religious family or anything, Christmas was still thought of as Christmas in those days, it wasn’t ‘The Holiday.’ There was still an element of the spiritual side of it that was remembered, and I suppose for a lot of people, and probably still, Christmas was a time when people who don’t spend much time thinking about spiritual matters, are reminded that maybe they should once in a while and actually do think some serious thoughts for a week or two.

– from “Revisiting Traditional Carols with Bruce Cockburn” by Liane Hansen, Weekend Edition, National Public Radio, 19 December 1993. Submitted by Nigel Parry. via cockburnproject.net

Don’t judge a book by its buzz-cut, earringed cover, traditionalists. Cockburn is the Christmas artist that the modern dilution of the holiday needs, as much today as in ’93. Cockburn’s stated goal in recording the album was “to try to bring the life back into these songs, and treat them…as songs that somebody actually put creative effort into writing and not just something that was intended to be wallpaper.”

The sonic texture of the album is its strongest suit. It manages, by some good spell, to be at once eclectic and strangely uniform. Its melange of sounds seems to hail from all corners of the America at once. Christmas sounds Southwestern and evokes the far north all at the same time. Cockburn is, like Neil Young, one of those Canadians that seems to represent American folk better than Americans themselves can do.

After a Leo Kottke-esque instrumental opener of Adeste Fidelis we’re launched into a lively saloon-style jaunt Early on One Christmas Morn. It’s a track that, admittedly, doesn’t sound very “Christmas-y” but it’s a crucial opener that tunes the ear to listen for sounds not commonly associated with Christmastime. It also helps that Cockburn is, in my opinion, one of the two white guys alive that can consistently pull off unpretentious versions of negro spirituals. The other is Ry Cooder, whose voice is remarkably similar to Cockburn’s–low, soulful and raspy without pushing an artificially ebonic accent. This and the penultimate track Mary Had a Baby are respectful tributes rather than gauche imitations or the more common music-industry offense: outright theft–blues rubbed clean of any blackness whatsoever a la Buddy Holly, The Beach Boys, or the Rolling Stones. Cockburn, correctly, puts all the rest of the album’s folk Americana between the parentheses of African American song.

Next, a campfire rendition of O Little Town of Bethlehem on guitar and harmonica picks up the opposite pole of tempo and spare instrumentation. Cockburn lets his own heavy voice do the work, and the results are warm and comforting. But it’s the next track that delivers the first taste of the album’s arrestingly unique soundscape. Most would probably remember Riu Riu Chiu as a gaudy Spanish choral arrangement best suited for RenFairs and Madrigal Dinners, but here it’s sung as a stark solo against an unrelentingly hypnotic guitar-and-bass riff that soaks the room. Presently, a lone fiddle comes in, echoing the mournful melody   lines at first, but it steadily grows more manic, by the end exploding into rapturous squeals of dissonance. The song builds on itself to higher and higher levels of emotional transcendence as if taking the oft-repeated phrase “the Spirit of Christmas” frighteningly literally as a force of possession, rather than a warm fuzzy feeling.

But after the fever breaks, the warm fuzzies make a return, and a triumphal one at that. I Saw Three Ships uses the same repetitive violin-over-guitar-riff formula heard in Riu Riu Chiu but it’s all honey instead of vinegar. Though it may not be the most original or instrumentally impressive track on the album, it’s far and away my favorite, mostly for the  the vocal humming.

Then comes the album’s standout Down in Yon Forest, a haunting modal dirge, a “ghost story” as Cockburn says in the liner notes. The song is played only on a hammer dulcimer and cello over a backdrop of wind chimes. The lyrics are a puzzle. It’s speculated it has something to do with the pagan practice of letting the king’s blood into the soil in winter to secure abundant growth in the spring, but then that image appears to shade into Christ’s own blood and at the end, the spectra of a great Communion Chalice “all gold outside and silver within.”

And that’s only the first half. By the very next track we’re off to Quebec (or perhaps New Orleans?) for Les Anges Dos Nos Campagnes. Other standout tracks include a blues guitar riff on God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and The Huron Carol, a traditional Native American carol. Each song stands alone in its own way, but also adds texture to overall landscape of rural America that binds all the music together. Like the holiday itself, Christmas gathers together traditions and musical styles from all over the country to sing, even praise, in one accord.

So much Christmas music ranges between over-serious and cloying, but Cockburn’s “Christmas” charts the course between. His songs are both cool and comfortable, cheerful and charred by memory and great age. His rural American vision of Christmas is both rustic and venerable. The final “cherry-on-top” to add to your listen is Cockburn’s own original contribution to the corpus of Christmas music which, curiously, does not appear on Christmas but rather 1991’s Nothing But A Burning Light.  It’s a no-frills country ballad called Cry of a Tiny Babe with the memorable refrain:

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe.

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