Various Artists 'A Very Special Christmas: Bringing Peace On Earth' Album Review
Prime Cuts: Bethlehem Skies (Dara MacLean & Dave Barnes), I Believe (Natalie Grant), Christmas Together (Jamie Grace)
You can always count on the compilers of A Very Special Christmas to come up with a red carpeted roll call of who's who in the music industry. Ever since its genesis in 1987, nine compilations have surfaced under the patent "A Very Special Christmas." With each opus seasonal renderings have been garnered from huge superstars such as Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder, Madonna, Stevie Nicks, U2, Mary J. Blige, Vince Gill, Carrie Underwood among others. This whole project started off as the brainchild of record producer and chairman of Interscope-Geffen-A&M records Jimmy Lovine. And at the behest of his wife proceeds from this endeavor have been given to the Special Olympics. Over the years these records have raised $100 million with the first compilation (understandably with Whitney Houston and Madonna on the same record) selling over 4 million copies. Fast forward to 2012, for the first time, these enterprising philanthropists have partnered with Word record to release a contemporary Christian version of A Very Special Christmas. Instead of harboring cuts from established acts (such as Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith and Steve Green), they have decided to cast the nets to the emerging, current and younger crop from the genre; artists such as For King and Country, Jason Castro, Sidewalk Prophet and Group 1 Crew. Save for Natalie Grant, Big Daddy Weave, Mark Schultz, BarlowGirl and Point of Grace, many of these performers are still pretty new on the block; each with only a couple or fewer albums under their belts. Such an approach is certainly rewarded with a palatable and a much more youthful sound.
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In line with the tradition of previous releases, not every cut here is newly recorded for this project. Out of the 16 cuts only 6 were recorded this year. And out of the 6 newly recorded songs, only 5 were recorded for this release specifically. So, let's start with some of the new cuts. Also found on her recently released festive record, Francesca Battistelli offers a stripped down piano-led version of the advent hymn "O Come O Come Emmanuel." Reverent yet brimming with understated drama, Battistelli's sings of the deepest longing for a Savior since the time of Isaiah that still hauntingly echoes in our hearts today. Like Battistelli, Jason Castro has taken the traditional route by given a medley of angel carols ("Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and "Angels We Have Heard on High") a modern rock vibe without shattering any new ground. More creative is Group 1 Crew's pseudo rap version of "O Holy Night" and Aussie duo For King and Country's "Baby Boy" exploring the often neglected Biblical theme of Jesus coming as the Divine Warrior. Of note also is Dara McLean and Dave Barnes' "Bethlehem Skies." Here McLean and Barnes do not just sing about Jesus' birth but through the carefully crafted word pictures they transport us into God's unfolding redemptive plan in Bethlehem. And when McLean sings that "(God did) all of this with me in mind" it strikes the heart so personally.
Of the previously released cuts, Natalie Grant throws us a faith-encrusted curve ball with "I Believe." While Christmas songs reminding us of Jesus are great but they do become dangerous if we never appropriate Jesus for ourselves. With this thoughtful piano piece, Grant offers a sobering challenge to make Christmas personal by taking Him on by faith. Though released in 2009, it is a delight again to hear Meredith Andrews adds her smoky contralto to a bluesy rendition of "He Has Come for Us (God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen)." Never envisioned as a Christmas hymn, but through some gorgeous strings, bells and sweet harmonies, BarlowGirl has ornate "For the Beauty of the Earth" with a festive makeover. Utilizing her signature finger snapping drum beats and hip hop groove that have garnered her debt record, Jamie Grace's "Christmas Together" is joyous festive hit to be with lots of radio legs to stand on.
However, not every track here works: Chris August's "Jesus Saviour" is a retelling of the Christmas story told from the perspectives of Mary and Joseph faulted by being far too wordy. While Needtobreathe gets far too rowdy with "Go Tell It on the Mountains." Kudos to Point of Grace for going country with the fiddle heavy ballad "Labor of Love;" but the song falls into the perennial temptation of making the Christmas account far too sugary and maudlin. With that said, the special folks of A Very Special Christmas and Word Records still need to thanked for allowing these emerging artists of contemporary Christian music to shine. And when they do shine: they are unapologetically Christ-centered in their messages yet fresh, accessible and engaging in their deliveries.
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