YOUR official Christmas 2019 LISTENING Guide

It’s the most wonderful time of the year ladies and gentlemen, which means it’s time for Christmas trees, Christmas decorations, Christmas fudge, Christmas movies and—oh yes—Christmas music! And, despite growing up in the Jerry Seinfeld school of “I hate everyone,” I will for one month a year shed my introverted skin and become a loud caroling fool.

Did I say “one month;” I meant “starting Halloween night.”

Now, if you’re not like me and you somehow hate Christmas (the whole Christmas season), then…this probably isn’t the article for you. On the other hand, maybe you’re just tired of the same-ole, same-ole that accompanies Christmas every year. In that case, stick around because THIS is YOUR official Christmas 2019 LISTENING GUIDE…

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The last time we did a listening guide, we focused on an eclectic group of albums that highlighted the magic of the holiday season in a variety of styles…

YOUR official Christmas 2017 LISTENING Guide

As far as I’m concerned, the 2017 article offers the definitive list of classic Christmas music. There are spiritual numbers, big band tunes, modern takes on old favorites, the works. It’s all great. Check that article out and, if by some horrible circumstance, you’ve never listened to those albums, do so immediately.

So what else is there to say?

I’ll tell you what else. It’s three words:

Over the Rhine

I know. They’re not exactly The Beatles.

Over the Rhine is an Ohio-based folk band, primarily consisting of the husband and wife team of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist. They began as an indie band, formed in the late ’80s, before getting picked up by IRS records. Virgin later acquired publishing rights but most recently they’ve been self-publishing their work through their own label, Great Speckled Dog.

Despite consistently recording and releasing music for thirty years, they’ve flown under the radar compared to major artists and groups. All the same, they have a devoted (but small) following who swear by their music. And what is their music?

Melancholic.

There’s no better word to describe it. At times it’s bluesy, at times folk, sometimes country, and sometimes soul, but no matter what style they play in, their tone never changes. The sound may change, but the emotions stirred by their music is consistently nostalgic, melancholic, and yearning.

The group has taken that style to the Christmas genre with a trio of albums: The first (1996’s “The Darkest Night of the Year”) mostly features traditional Christmas songs in instrumental arrangements. The second (2006’s “Snow Angels”) is chock-full of new compositions, and the most recent (2014’s “Blood Oranges in the Snow”) continues that theme, with a record full of new songs based around the holiday season.

Christmas music, almost by its nature, is old fashioned. Many of the lyrics of our favorite songs are, at least, sixty years old, with some dating back literally hundreds of years. The most memorable Xmas tunes are post-WWII standards sung by Bing Crosby. Very very few wholly new Christmas songs have managed to stick in pop culture because the things that make classic Christmas songs so classic is the classic arrangements that defined all music in, say, the 1940’s.

What I love about Over the Rhine is how they boldly tread new ground, releasing Christmas songs that don’t necessarily evoke the same sounds you expect from a holiday classic, nor do they try to. Instead, their best songs are about Christmas, as told through the eyes (and voices) of the singers, who experienced them in their own ways.

Consider a few of their best numbers, to illustrate what is so unique about their music.

ALL I EVER GET FOR CHRISTMAS IS BLUE… 

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Here’s a traditional blues number, highlighting Karin Bergquist’s raspy alto voice, which was absolutely made for singing the blues. Listen carefully to the lyrics and note how little it has to do with Christmas; instead, it’s a love song that is set during the holiday.

SNOWED IN WITH YOU

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Along the same line as the previous, Snowed in with You is textbook blues, with lyrics that evoke the holiday time moreso than the holiday itself.

DARLIN’ CHRISTMAS IS COMING

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Here’s probably the most “Traditional” sort of Xmas song they have in their arsenal, but it’s brand new; new lyrics, new arrangement; it’s not a sixty-year-old song, and yet, it feels right at home alongside the best of Dean or Bing or Elvis, etc.

WHITE HORSE

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This one combines religious imagery with an almost dreamlike story. It’s beautiful poetry and stunningly sung. It doesn’t feel like Christmas music you’ve ever heard before because there are no sleigh bells or big band instruments, but that’s okay; those things don’t have to have a monopoly on the season. If you don’t think this is a Christmas song because it doesn’t sound like one, let me encourage you to listen to it; the lyrics are as Christmas as it gets.

SNOW ANGEL

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The title song to the band’s second Christmas album teases the direction the duo would take their next Xmas album. This song is astoundingly written; the lyrics floor me; just beautiful poetry. Beyond that, the song is sad: It’s about the loss of a loved one and the yearning of the singer to be reunited with them again. What does it have to do with Christmas? How about this: Every year people lose loved ones. Every year a parent dies, a child dies, a spouse dies, a friend dies, and every year those who lost those close people spend the holidays missing them. It may not be pleasant to think about, but it’s reality: The holidays are, for many people, a reason for melancholy thoughts. Few holiday songs even touch on that; this song puts a spotlight on it.

It’s the kind of song you can’t just put on and talk on the phone while it plays in the background. You have to stop what you’re doing and just listen to it.

BLOOD ORANGES IN THE SNOW

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My personal favorite of theirs.

Here’s a song about taking a trip home for the holidays. It’s extremely specific to the singer’s personal history but even though I can’t relate to it, the lyrics are so enchanting, I can put myself right there in the moment as they drive through the snow (“confetti in a parade”) and talk excitedly about holding “Gracey’s baby (they say she’s all smiles).” It’s beautiful and, like everything else on this list, demands your attention, to hear the story being told.

ANOTHER CHRISTMAS

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Linford Detweiler handles the lead vocals here as he sings about entering another holiday season as a man who has made many mistakes in his life and looks to Christmas as a time to seek atonement…which makes the segue to Hark the Herald Angels Sing so meaningful. As with all their other songs, the lyrics are everything; this isn’t a vapid top-40 kind of song. This is a song you put on, lean back, and take in.

You might even tear up.

MY FATHER’S BODY

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Holy cow this song wrecked me when I first heard it. As with Blood Oranges in the Snow, it’s highly descriptive and very specific to the singer. He sings about his father who is dead and buried; he reminisces of the time they spent together, like the way they used to share a hymn book (“his right and my left side by side…”) but now “his hands hold nothing but the earth; hands that once held me moments after my birth.” Every Christmas Eve he goes back to visit his grave, to remember days gone by, and to wonder if he “could have been a different, better son.” Geeze louise, don’t listen to it without a box of tissues.

FIRST SNOWFALL

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The story of the song is similar to that of Another Christmas, though the tempo and tone are more optimistic. It’s about a person who spends the holidays on the wrong side of the tracks, and the unexpected beauty found therein. It’s a song for anyone who may have grown up in rough circumstances, and maybe let that pull them into some dark moments in life. The point of the song is this: You may find yourself in a dark place, but when Christmas time comes, if you listen carefully, you can hear music falling with the snowfall, and the optimism and hope that comes with it.

NEW YEAR’S SONG

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There are so many gems I didn’t highlight, but I don’t want to wrap up without the band’s take on Auld Lang Syne. Fittingly, they put their own nostalgic, melancholic spin on an already-nostalgic and melancholic song. It’s bluesy, it’s emotional, it’s poetic, it’s the perfect song to play late at night as you wrap up the holiday season and ring in a new year.

*****

Over the Rhine’s Christmas catalog is not for everyone, but for those who have heard the same old classics enough times to sing them forwards and backwards, and who maybe are looking for a change of pace, I can’t recommend them enough. These are genuine artists, writing beautiful lyrics, set to some of the most relaxing and, at times even heartbreaking, music you’ve ever heard.

Give it a shot.

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