Candidates for top 10 albums of 2002: Bright Eyes - A Christmas Album
ome fall, you’ll invariably find lists of the best albums of the year, decade, millennium, epoch, etc. But you can’t possibly expect me to make any sort of legitimate judgment about music that has just dropped! So, instead, as you may know, I make lists of the best albums of 10 and 20 years back. (If I’m still doing this when I’m 30, I’ll have a bigger workload.) This is my third installment of my series of candidates for 2002. Matty (guitar/vox, 1/2) will compile his own best albums list; Radiohead didn’t release an album in 2002 so don’t count on a list from Aaron; Dan’s list would be really short since he spent the whole year listening to Songs for the Deaf. (can you blame him? me neither.) Anyway, here’s another record that might show up on my list. Coming soon.
A Christmas Album
Saddle Creek Records
Ever wonder what it would sound like if an atheist dead-panned your favorite Christmas songs? Me neither. But thank god it occurred to someone, because it’s awesome. I swear to god: this record is straight-faced, no-irony, Christmas-music arranged with just as much obsequious sensitivity as you’d hope but with a much more intimate touch than you could ever acquire with a choir.
Comparing these standards with their typical renditions seems incongruous; the versions we’re used to are so entrenched with spiritual, sinister, or selfish associations—preseeeents!!—that we can’t justly judge their merit as music. But, in this context, these solid tunes are finally given their due as solid tunes. By separating sentimentality, form is privileged over content and, thanks especially to a very vocally intimate touch, this is a collection of songs rather than activities or formalities.
A Christmas Album repurposes Christmas songs for music’s sake and, in doing so, puts Christian rock on notice. Now we know there’s no reason that celebrating religion has to be corny, cocky, and devoid of enjoyment for the listener. And thank god. There’s some sort of depravity in deliberately denying religious songs musical depth and dynamism just to demonstrate that musical skill isn’t the end.
Obviously, having DragonForce-esque, cock-wielding, guitar-solos in the middle of a worship record would be a grimy move. But is there any blasphemy in emphasizing solid songwriting with a vocalist who sounds like he’s sitting on the edge of his bed singing to a girl who’s awkwardly sprawled out on the floor in his parents’ house or who, hopelessly uninformed of the performance, is still next door? Maybe his intimate tone could be construed as inconsiderate but even Conor Oberst’s feigned teenage torment isn’t as pathetic as “Christian rock” “artists” who imply that buying their garbage records could win an exploitable consumer approval from the Lord. (And, as a musician, why would you even want to guilt-trip people into buying your music?)
The album, innocently and inadvertently, raises an interesting question: how much does the music we’re drawn to (whether it’s Nas, Phil Ochs, Bach, or Christian rock) say about musical preference vs. how much it says about identity-building and -buttressing? And, with that in mind, is there objectively good music? If so, is it the aural pleasure that makes it good or the divine Good?
But none of that has anything to do with this record. That’s not what it’s about. This is A Christmas Album and it’s about Christmas. And that’s it. But it does demonstrate that we don’t have to choose between using music as a tool to celebrate Christmas and listening to a self-sufficiently rewarding record. (Two birds with the first stone.) Why can’t all religious music be this good? (Oh yeah, because then we could just call it music.)