It’s that time of year again—I’ve removed the decomposing pumpkin from my front porch, my family has watched The Polar Express several times, and my kids ask to walk through the “forest” of lit Christmas trees when we’re shopping at Target or Home Depot.
It’s time to build our Christmas 2022 playlists. This year brings new albums from prominent artists like Joss Stone, the Backstreet Boys, Michael W. Smith, and Switchfoot. After listening through the latest holiday releases, I’ve put together a list of seasonal tunes that spans multiple genres and styles and highlights albums that you might have missed.
The seven albums on this list include music that is festive, worshipful, traditional, sentimental, merry, and heavy (metal, that is).
December Songs, Resound Worship
December Songs from Resound Worship is a set of four theologically rich, thoughtfully arranged original songs, written with the congregation in mind.
The first track, “Do Not Be Afraid,” is a contemplative refrain that builds slowly, adding instrumentation and voices to each repetition of the phrases “Do not be afraid, God is here. / Do not be dismayed, O my soul, / For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” It’s a beautifully meditative and simple song that so perfectly expresses the posture of waiting in the darkness for the Light we know is coming.
December Songs is intended to be a resource for worship leaders. Resound Worship makes lead sheets and chord charts available for free. Full scores, videos, and backing tracks can be purchased as well.
Appalachian Christmas, Chosen Road
Chosen Road has a strong track record of reimagining favorite songs of the church for their albums Appalachian Worship (2020) and Appalachian Hymns (2021). As expected, the quartet’s Appalachian Christmas is an album full of rich harmonies and fresh bluegrass string arrangements of carols and popular classics.
There are gentle renditions of “Away in a Manger” and “Oh Holy Night” and dance-like versions of “Joy to the World” and “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.” Each track showcases the vocal and instrumental virtuosity of the group’s members.
It was also a fun surprise to find that the last track is a cover of Selah’s “Light of the Stable,” featuring Allan Hall, one of Selah’s founding members. The cover has the drive and energy of the original, with new bluegrass styling.
The Christmas Collection, Vol. II, Marc Martel
Marc Martel’s second Christmas collection offers exactly what many of us want in a new holiday album: fun and original performances of Christmas standards.
Martel leans into Christmas camp for tracks like “Run Run Rudolph,” “Blue Christmas,” and “The Grinch.” These lighthearted covers freshen up Christmas radio standards—I can’t be the only one who doesn’t need to hear Elvis sing “Blue Christmas” again.
“What Christmas Means to Me” is a perfect addition to a Christmas party playlist; Martel’s vocal power and range are on display, with a full complement of brass and vocal backing.
Alongside the pop covers are heartfelt renditions of spiritually oriented songs and carols like “Welcome to Our World,” featuring Leigh Nash, and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” It’s a compilation with a range of style and affect, encompassing the kitschy and the reflective.
A Merry Rockfest Christmas, Rockfest Records (various artists)
If you’ve been waiting for a rock-meets-hip-hop cover of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” this is your year. You’ll find it on A Merry Rockfest Christmas from Rockfest Records.
The compilation features artists like Seventh Day Slumber, Relent, Living Scars, Dawn Michele, and Matt Sassano.
Relent’s cover of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” showcases lead singer Miggy Sanchez’s impressive vocal range and agility on a track that also exemplifies the band’s unique fusion of metal and hip-hop. And Living Scars’ cover of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” is proof that metal can absolutely be festive.
The final track is a resonant, pulsing arrangement of the carol “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Seventh Day Slumber. As someone who loves the traditional English carol, I was not expecting to enjoy the rendition as much as I do. I’ve found myself returning to it—it’s on my annual playlist.
Into the Light, Cantus
My Christmas playlists always include a generous selection of choral or vocal chamber music. Usually, I start with excerpts from Handel’s Messiah, settings of traditional carols, and First Call’s 1985 Christmas album An Evening in December. (I don’t know whether it’s a work of genius or I’m just nostalgic, but I will always spend at least a day or two listening to this album on repeat during the Christmas season.)
This year, Into the Light from Cantus, a low-voice chamber ensemble, offers sonorous arrangements of eclectic choral repertoire. Most of the tracks are a cappella. The original arrangement of the French carol “Noël Nouvelet” by Sofia Söderberg shimmers with clustered harmonies and tempo shifts that effortlessly ebb and flow.
More-upbeat tracks include a lilting jazz arrangement of “I Saw Three Ships” and a lively version of the spiritual “Children, Go,” accompanied by a guitar-led instrumental ensemble.
Worship in the Word, Christmas, Shane and Shane and Kingdom Kids
My kids love Christmas carols. When we sing songs at bedtime, “Silent Night,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” are common requests, even in the middle of the summer. This live album from Shane and Shane and Kingdom Kids was a welcome addition to our family Christmas music rotation. It’s an accessible, singable, musically interesting collection of familiar carols.
The songs are led by Shane and Shane and prominently feature the voices of a children’s choir, but the selections feel more multigenerational than childish. And it’s apparent that folks at The Worship Initiative and Kingdom Kids have thought through the logistics of how kids sing carols.
“Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” is one of my favorite Christmas hymns, but songs like this can be challenging for children (and the rest of the congregation) because of their wordiness and potentially unfamiliar language (“Israel’s strength and consolation, / Hope of all the earth Thou art,” “By Thine all sufficient merit, / Raise us to Thy glorious throne”). But the arrangement is thoughtful, slow, and deliberate. You can hear the children’s choir sing every word, inviting listeners and singers to pause and linger a little longer on the powerful lyrics.
It’s exciting to see artists and worship leaders modeling practices and creating music that facilitate worship that can include the full range of ages in a congregation.
Milk and Cookies, Crowder
David Crowder’s decades-long career has shown us that we can always expect something new, eclectic, and surprising when he releases new music. Milk and Cookies is original, a little experimental, a little country, a little rock-and-roll.
I can guarantee that your current Christmas music collection does not have a song about the plight of the worker elf: unfair wages, punishing hours, etc. The clever lyrics and infectious groove of “The Elf Song” make it a fun listen. (You may even end up deciding to offer your Elf on the Shelf fair compensation if you don’t already.)
There are moments when listening to Milk and Cookies may give you a little whiplash. “Your Praise Goes On,” a worshipful ballad, leads into an upbeat country/bluegrass arrangement of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” featuring Ricky Skaggs. The next track is a pop-punk cover of “White Christmas.”
I don’t mind the whiplash. My own Christmas playlists are always like this: collections that put the worshipful, cheesy, reverent, and celebratory together to be played on shuffle.
You can listen to a playlist featuring selections from all seven albums here:
Kelsey Kramer McGinnis is CT’s worship music correspondent. She is a musicologist, educator, and writer who researches music in Christian communities.