Best Christmas Songs You’ve Never Heard

This post originally appeared on LifeWay Worship’s blog.

Well, it’s that time of year again and I know that many of you are swimming in last-minute choir rehearsals and church presentations. So, in the spirit of a little respite, I thought I’d share with you some lesser-known songs you won’t likely be singing in your church this Sunday, but nonetheless are some of my personal favorites.
What follows is a list, in no particular order, of songs you would likely hear coming from my iPod if you were to come to my house for dinner during this time of year. I’m also including a playlist at the bottom so you can hear them via LaLa’s music playing service. (If you’re not familiar with LaLa, they’ll let you listen one time for free. But they let you listen to the entire song, which is cool). I’ve chosen these because of the song itself, the performance, or both.

  • A Child Is Born by Oscar Petterson. This is a beautiful lullaby from a little known 1940′s radio Christmas drama. And who plays it better than Oscar?
  • In the Bleak Midwinter / O SanctissimaLiz Story delivers a nice touch on this tender hymn.
  • I Come With Love by Harry Connick Jr. OK, so we all know and love Harry, but this one is somewhat hidden among the other great tracks on his Harry for the Holidays CD. I checked this CD out from the library and was listening to it in shuffle mode. His presentation of the gospel stopped me in my tracks.
  • Cry of a Tiny Babe. This song is a great relief to the romanticized imagery so prevalent in church music. This is a gritty re-telling of the birth of Jesus and its implications for mankind. The best rendition that I know of is by its songwriter Bruce Cockburn for the Columbia Records Radio Hour. He is joined by Roseanne Cash, Rob Wasserman, and Lou Reed. I should warn you about Lou Reed. If you’re not used to Lou’s singing, it can be quite a shock to the system. To make matters worse (or better, depending on your perspective) he forgets how the song goes and tries to make it up as he goes along. The producers decided that it added charm and chose not to fix it. Hang in there though and you’ll get one of the best perspectives of the incarnation in popular song: “It isn’t to the palace that the Christ child comes, but to shepherds and street people, hookers, and bums.”
  • White Christmas by Ella Fitzgerald. Yes, we all know this song and love Bing’s rendition of it. However, this song really showcases Ella’s one-of-a-kind vocal quality. For my money, she is one of the best vocalists popular music has ever known. It’s also a great arrangement of horns / winds.

So, what about you? What are you favorite lesser-known songs of Christmas?

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About Jonathan Riggs

Singer, actor, songwriter, and entrepreneur. And I like vanilla bean.
This entry was posted in Christmas, music. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Best Christmas Songs You’ve Never Heard

  1. Steve Morley says:

    Thanks for the left-of-center song suggestions. Checking them out now.
    Cockburn is an amazing lyricist (have admired him for years) — “redemption rips through the surface of time” — whatta line that is. Ella is never less than high-class. Cool choices, Jonathan.

    Here are some of my picks — thanks for asking . . .

    “Kinda Looks Like Christmas” — The Royal Guardsmen.
    The flip side of “Snoopy’s Christmas”; pure candy-cane, ricky-ticky pop brightly colored with vibrato-laden portable organ and spilling over with unselfconscious seasonal joy. Someone needs to recut it, if only so there’ll be a version that isn’t sung off-key. But with the exception of some scary intonation, it’s a keeper.

    “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” — Roy Wood’s Wizzard
    Wood, the co-founder of Electric Light Orchestra, parted ways with Jeff Lynne early on and got increasingly more eccentric. He scored a big UK hit along the way with this jivin’ holiday goodie inspired by the Phil Spector girl-group sound and featuring a spirited kids’ singalong chorus. Note the sound of the cash register that kicks it off . . .

    “Light of the Stable” — Emmylou Harris
    Just discovered this one a few years ago, but it’s been around since the late ’70s. Sublime. Pure reverence so direct and organic that it could be a live broadcast on location at the manger.

    TIE: “C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S” / “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” — Eddy Arnold
    Here’s where nostalgia and sentiment kick in; Mom always loved Eddy, and we kids got the bug despite him being the antithesis of hipness as we understood it. His warm, sincere baritone can’t be beat on these tunes — the first one spells out the hallmarks of the holy day using each letter of Christmas, and it is uncompromising in its telling of the Gospel story. The second is the well-known Longfellow poem (minus the verses pertinent to the Civil War), but to a melody that’s different — and to me, more moving — than the one often used. The song’s protagonist laments the lack of actual peace and goodwill in the world and totters at despair’s brink, answered by this profound final verse: “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep / God is not dead nor does He sleep / The wrong shall fail, the right prevail / With peace on earth, good will to men”

    Honorable mentions:
    “Christmas Is a Special Day” — Fats Domino
    On the late-career (1993) and modestly produced Christmas Gumbo album, this surprise pops up from within a fairly predictable and secular track list. Fats’ laid-back vocal is seemingly at odds with the power and reverence of the Christ-based lyric, which comes across as very plain, simple and almost childlike, hitting you somewhat unexpectedly with the stunning truth of Jesus’ gift to us — and the reason we celebrate.

    “Jesus” — Queen
    This track from Queen’s 1973 debut isn’t technically a Christmas song; it’s a majestic rocker bearing a straightforward recounting of the Savior’s birth, alternating between bludgeon-strength staccato verses and a swaying 6/8 chorus. This one was a Christmas ritual for me beginning many years before I ever called myself a Christian. Maybe it helped get me there? . . .
    Also worth checking out is Sixpence None the Richer’s Christmas CD, The Dawn of Grace. It artfully covers the gamut of seasonal emotions in a mere handful of tracks; at times, Leigh Nash’s charming and girlish vocals capture the intangible magic of Christmas.

    A peaceful, blessed and musical Christmas to one and all!

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