Not exactly sure why, but I have an inkling.
Maybe it’s because 2016 has been such a tough year for so many people I know. The summer and fall (right up to Thanksgiving) were, for many reasons, just brutal. For that reason perhaps, my heart has been pining for the echoes of childhood, when life was simpler and more innocent–for Christmas music, lights on houses, special Christmas services (ranging from ponderous candlelight services to light-hearted Christmas programs), the fun of presents and bright colors everywhere, inside and out, and the smell of winter, good food and hearth–whether that hearth is coming from the fireplace of a Cracker Barrel while you’re on the road or from an actual hearth in a home. No matter the source of “hearth,” the principle is the same: the warmth of refuge from the winter elements mixed with the joy of celebrating Christ’s birth, family/friends, and good food. Those things are not blessings to be taken for granted.
And neither should good Christmas music be taken for granted.
Along comes JJ Heller and her new Christmas album “Unto Us,” which, frankly, is perfect timing. There are some wonderful things about this album that make it a fitting answer to my heart’s eager cry for Christmas this year, and I’ll give you three reasons for now why this album is welcome medicine (then you can discover the rest of the reasons yourself when you pick up the album):
- A perfect balance of sacred and “traditional” Christmas songs. I don’t have anything against the so-called “secular”–or often labeled “traditional”–Christmas music. Anything that Bing Crosby sang is good enough for me. Those songs resurrect the newness and warmth of childhood memories like nothing else. I enjoy the sacred Christmas songs too, but I’ve always wanted to hear an album that has a nice mix of both. So many albums feel an obligation to lean entirely to one side of the equation. “Unto Us” has that balance I’ve always wanted to see in a Christmas album. For the traditional songs, her versions of “Winter Wonderland,” “White Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “Let It Snow,” and Irving Berlin’s “Count Your Blessings (Instead Of Sheep)” sparkle in the track-list like well-placed Christmas lights. And it’s the best group of “secular” traditional ones, in my opinion–the ones that have always moved me the most with nostalgia and childlike joy. But the album has also many of the best sacred Christmas songs: “O Little Town Of Bethlehem,” “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “Silent Night,” and–to my delight–“Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring.” (You can never go wrong with Bach.)
- The tasteful, smart production and performances. You had me the moment you decided to use a muted trumpet on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” That’s what I would say to the producers of this album. I’m biased (I play trumpet, and I think the trumpet in general is not utilized enough in Western popular music), but it’s just one example of the “Oh, that’s awesome,” choices that they make with song arrangements, texture-building, and all-around performance. And–JJ Heller’s fans don’t need me to tell them this–but her pristine voice just glides along through the snow beautifully. One of my other all-time favorite Christmas albums is “A Very Merry Christmas” by She & Him. One of my wife’s all-time favorites is Michael W. Smith’s classic “Christmas” album from 1993. My wife and I both agreed that JJ Heller’s album is a fantastic mix of both: the gentle, tasteful production of She & Him mixed with the orchestral style of Michael W. Smith’s “Christmas.”
- The original songwriting that gives the album a unique fingerprint. “Oh, To See Christmas”–written by David and JJ Heller–possibly my favorite track on the album, just dazzles with childlike earnestness and that pure, joyous exhilaration that a kid feels on Christmas day or in the days immediately following Christmas when they’re luxuriating in the fun of gifts, the endless play with friends, and the break from school. The popping, pitter-patting rhythm and the deliriously happy melody makes you feel as if you’re eight years old again and your mom is making apple cider, which you can smell in the kitchen, as you zip up your snow boots, then you’re off and running down the street, crunching and dashing through the snow to play with your friends. The talented Jason Gray joins David and JJ Heller in writing the worshipful, Jesus-focused song “Christmas Is Here,” and David and JJ Heller contribute another original with the contemplative title track “Unto Us.” These three original songs add just enough unique flavors to the album without pushing aside the well-known traditional and sacred songs.
This really is one of my favorite things about Christmas in America: we’re fortunate enough to have one of the highest quality music industries in the world, and some of the finest artists on earth today bring us new musical delights for Christmas every year. It’s a question I look forward to: “Who’s coming out with a Christmas album this year?” JJ Heller has raised her hand to answer that question this year, and her answer–“Unto Us”–is definitely worth adding to your library of favorite Christmas albums.