City on a Hill
Christmas albums are difficult things. Not only do they only get played two or three weeks out of the year but woe to anyone who tries to write original Christmas songs. Likewise, woe to anyone who simply rerecords songs in the same fashion as those who made the song famous. A further hurdle is the fact that Christmas carols carry such a strong element of childhood nostalgia that it's difficult to determine if we're enjoying the song or the warm memories that accompany the song.
But these obstacles don't deter the release of dozens of Christmas albums each year, many of them mere vanity projects or as bland as unflavored gelatin. Enter City On A Hill - It's Christmas Time, the third installment in the popular (in certain circles) Christian worship album series. If anyone can do justice to a Christmas album it would be a Christian Christmas album, right? Although I've heard more than my fair share of awful Christmas albums from that market, I'm happy to say that It's Christmas Time connects more than it misses.
For a change, this Christmas album contains songs about the birth of Christ. The first single, "It's Christmas Time", is the predictable "let's get all the big artists in one room to trade off vocal leads." As an original Christmas song it's pretty decent, mixing in musical quotes from classic carols to create a more timeless feel. "Silent Night" follows in a beautiful and austere rendition, sung by Leigh Nash of Sixpence None The Richer. With a gentle yet reverent feel, acoustic guitars, and in this case cello, this song is typical of much of the album. The fact that so many songs stick to such simplicity not only gives the entire project a mostly homogenous feel not usually found in "various artists" projects but also helps to tie in the original songs with the classics. Caedmon's Call performs the original "Babe In The Straw" with nice accordion accompaniment compliments of Phil Madeira. Sara Groves lends her fantastic voice to the plaintive yet reverent "Child Of Love", a song which will surely be sung to background tapes in many churches this season. Written and performed by Julie Miller is "Manger Throne", perhaps the best song on the album with a near classic sound that might make it past the guards and into the timeless canon of Christmas carols. "Away In A Manger" is quite brief but is notable for it's pump organ and incredible horn arrangement by John Painter (half of Fleming & John and string arranger for Ben Folds). The final track is "O Holy Night" with a very nice cello arrangement and a stellar vocal performance by Michael Tait, formerly of DC Talk. The only real weak points on the album come from Jars of Clay and Out of Eden. Both abandon the acoustic tone for electronic drumbeats, keyboard sounds and other obviously non-organic timbres, nice songs on their out but sorely out of place. Program those out of your CD player and you've got a very solid, enjoyable Christmas album that effectively manages to mix classics with songs so craftily written that you might forget many of these songs didn't exist one year ago.
This review first appeared in WhatzUp, December 2002.