As Thanksgiving approaches (the official start of the Christmas season for all sane people…j/k) we all know that listening to Christmas music is right around the corner! So here’s a special 2 for 1 album review to help you find some new music to enrich your seasonal celebrations!
Aaron Shust: Unto Us (Released October 14th)
In general, most CCM Christmas albums follow a pretty specific pattern. A well known artist sings contemporary renditions of classic carols and holiday music with a couple of new songs to release as radio singles. And this is pretty much what I was expecting from Aaron Shust’s new album Unto Us. Fortunately, I was completely wrong.
Unto Us is an ambitious project comprised of 10 songs, most of which are original offerings. From the very beginning of the overture, “Star of Wonder”, it’s clear this isn’t a regular CCM Christmas album. With a soaring orchestration and a blend of classical and contemporary styles, the album actually sounds like a Christmas album, which unfortunately is not often the case for other seasonal releases.
In fact the obvious reference that this album calls to mind is with the Christmas projects of Michael W. Smith. Normally I wouldn’t compare one artist’s work to another in a review like this, but the parallels are so present it’s impossible not to make that connection. The orchestra, the adult and children’s choirs, the heavy use of brass, heck there’s even a song called “Gloria” on this album, just like the original MWS Christmas recording. This is both the strength of the project and its fatal flaw.
On the strength side, the use of the orchestra and choirs in conjunction with drums, guitars and Shust’s strong vocals bring a dramatic touch that makes each song an event in itself. It will take several listenings to grasp all the subtle and beautiful nuances of the arrangements here, even on the more subdued songs like “Sanctuary”. This was a feature MWS excelled at, and Shust is just as effective at it.
However, in other ways Unto Us just doesn’t live up to its obvious influence. “Unto Us”, the title track and first single, lacks both the dynamic melody and poetic lyrics to match its anthemic orchestration. MWS had a particularly unique talent at offering new musical and lyrical insights on what too often becomes a rote retelling of the Christmas story. Shust just doesn’t quite live up to that high bar, and it’s pretty noticeable. The album is also billed as having a dramatic progression of Proclamation, Adoration, Celebration, but I’m not sure most people would pick up on that without being told.
All in all, Unto Us is a very good, though imperfect Christmas album that definitely deserves a listen. For church musicians looking for resources for services, “God Has Come to Earth” is a nice worship anthem that most congregations could pick up pretty easily, and “Rejoice” is an excellent reworking of “Good Christian Men Rejoice” with an added chorus that could make this carol one of the favorites in your Christmas repertoire.
Buy the album here: Unto Us
Kim Walker-Smith: When Christmas Comes (Released November 4th)
Now, as Monty Python would say, for something completely different.
Unlike most other CCM Christmas albums, and in contrast to Aaron Shust, When Christmas Comes , by Kim Walker-Smith, does not feature any original songs at all. The album begins with a very short rendition of the Fanny Crosby hymn “Tell Me the Story of Jesus” with just a guitar and Walker-Smith’s vocals. The song is a beautiful, yet curious opener considering the next 16 tracks are a perfectly divided mix of sacred carols and secular classics.
What sets this album apart from the myriad other Christmas recordings is Walker-Smith’s innovation in her versions of these songs. While all of the melodies and lyrics are untouched, everything else is fair game including chord progressions, instrumentation and arrangement. For instance she takes the swing out of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and drives the song with simple piano line and drum riff that gives it an indie flair. The piano lead at the beginning of “The First Noel” seems totally at odds with the traditional melody, yet magically fits.
There are places where Walker-Smith pushes the musical envelope a little a too far, and others where she strangely seems to play it safe. Her rendition of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” is in the latter category and seems a strange addition to the rest of the catalogue. But when the songs work, they work incredibly well. The piano/string lead on “O Come O Come Emmanuel” is haunting, and the classic southern gospel feel on “White Christmas” has a gentle, relaxing feel that can’t help but bring to mind Norman Rockwell paintings and down-home Christmases.
Yet, with all the innovative arrangements, the real star of the album is Walker-Smith’s vocals. The pure tone throughout her whole range and gentle vibrato brings a sweetness to each song that provides grace for some of the more interesting musical choices she makes. Nowhere is her voice better featured than on “O Holy Night” which is the highlight of the album.
For what this recording is, another collection of the songs we hear on top 40 radio every December, it’s unexpectedly effective. For church musicians looking for inspiration, any of the carols arrangements would work in a December service. But hopefully listening to the innovative elements of this album will encourage others to push the boundaries on their arrangements of Christmas carols in their congregations.
Buy the album here: When Christmas Comes