Christmas music is ever-present in our culture. One can’t walk into a store after Halloween without hearing a blast of Yuletide cheer. And while these songs are festive, they are also misplaced.
Advent songs are far less familiar but every bit as helpful to creating the proper spirit of the season as Christmas carols. So here is a playlist for anyone seeking to embrace Advent more fully, and more spiritually, this year:
1. Song: “Starlight”
Artist: Cathedral (as part of the Vigil Project’s Series #2, Watch and Pray)
Year Released: 2016
Label: Papercastle Records, 4PM Media
“Starlight,” an almost entirely instrumental song, starts out slowly, piano and strings moving in a way that is evocative of the twinkling of the stars. This encourages the listener to be patient and wait: We are ever aware of each move made and each moment spent during both the song as well as during Advent, when we are not necessarily moving forward, though time itself still moves. As composer and violinist Shawn Williams explains on the Vigil Project’s website, “Starlight” was written to symbolically replicate the journey of the Wise Men and to help the listener appreciate the “in between” moments that each of us experiences, just as he says the Wise Men did, on our own journeys. Later, as the song builds in both tempo and intensity, we are reminded that our journeys do eventually end. The Vigil Project also composed other great songs for Advent, including “Prepare Him Room” and “Savior of the World.”
2. Song: “Veni, Veni Emmanuel”
Artist: Mychael Danna
Year Released: 2006
Label: New Line Records
Though a well-known song to sing or listen to at this time of year, this somber version of “Veni, Veni Emmanuel” (translated as Come, Come Emmanuel), is unique because of both its accompanying cinematic score, as well as because of how it is performed: as Latin chant — essential for an Advent playlist — which reverberates as if in a monastery or large, airy cathedral. Though the chanting only lasts for approximately 20 seconds of the just over 3-minute song, when accompanied with its score — as part of the first song in the 2006 film “The Nativity Story” — it helps to establish the setting for the time period in which Mary, the mother of Jesus, lived. The score evokes the mystery, uncertainty and drama of growing up during this time. It helps us to appreciate Mary’s own Advent journey and humanity’s timeless need for Emmanuel.
3. Song: “Awake, O Sleeper”
Artist: Ike Ndolo
Year Released: 2009
Label: Spirit and Song/OCP
Though it’s impossible that our hearts will be as tautly wrapped as the gifts we place under the Christmas tree, we are still called to prepare at Advent to receive Jesus when he is born. To put it another way, as Ike Ndolo exhorts, we must wake up from the symbolic sleep we are in and recognize that, while we are in need of Christ, we don’t have to despair. Christ comes for each of us and calls us out of both our spiritual indifference and lifelessness. Though many songs about Advent and Christmas have a more traditional feel and were composed many, many years ago, the contemporary nature of “Awake, O Sleeper” can remind the listener that we don’t merely commemorate the advent of Christ’s birth as a past, historical event but relieve it each year anew.
4. Song: “Wait for the Lord”
Year Released: 1991
Label: Ateliers et Presses de Taizé
Prayer is an important part of preparing one’s heart for Christmas. Because the song “Wait for the Lord” consists almost entirely of the repeated, slow-moving and gradually building exhortation “Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord, keep watch, take heart,” it lends itself to the kind of subconscious reflection/meditation that is also produced when one prays the Rosary. As Taizé says on their website, the simple songs they write like “Wait for the Lord” “allow us to keep on praying even when we are unaware of it, in the silence of our hearts.”
5. Song: “He Shall Reign Forevermore”
Artist: Chris Tomlin (co-written with Matt Maher) (Later released on Maher’s 2018 Christmas album)
Year Released: 2015
Label: Provident Music Group
This unique song takes pieces of more traditional hymns, “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Handel’s Messiah,” and blends them into an entirely new piece that recognizes the sovereignty of God’s kingdom. Though a song of worship and praise with a driving, modern beat, it’s not excessively joyful or happy as so many Christmas songs are. The first two verses, adapted from “In the Bleak Midwinter,” are cognizant, both musically and lyrically, of the state of the world prior to Jesus’ coming and the lengths man in his humility should be willing to go to meet him when he comes. The chorus, on the other hand — which incorporates a small portion of “Handel’s Messiah” — and bridge both talk of Jesus at his birth. The listener senses more the triumph, rather than the joy, at Christ’s coming into the world and establishing his kingdom, both now and forever. It’s a reminder that Advent is as much about the second coming as it is about the Nativity.
6. Song: “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”
Artist: Red Mountain Church
Year Released: 2008
Label: Red Mountain Music
An Alabama-based Presbyterian Church rendition of a 1744 carol takes composer Charles Wesley’s original lyrics about Jesus’ role as a king and savior and gives them a faster but still well-paced beat and arranges the song in a way that makes it relevant for a new generation of listeners. Ashley Spurling’s dulcet, clear vocals also rise just high enough above the background accompaniment so that one is encouraged to listen even more closely to the lyrics and message of hope and freedom contained in them. According to Red Mountain Music’s website, songs like this “have stood the test of time, and they will be here many years after we have gone.”
7. Song: “People Look East”
Artist: Embellish Handbell Ensemble and Chicago Bronze
Year Released: 2018
Label: GIA Publications, Inc.
With its bouncy tempo and lively character, this could be described as the most joyful song on this playlist, but despite its character, it is still a song of Advent. Ultimately the theme of the song, written in 1928 by Eleanor Farjeon, is of preparation for Christ’s coming. Humans, plants, birds, stars and the angels are all encouraged to be on alert and to perform their God-given roles to the best of their abilities. The version of the song chosen for this playlist, however, actually forgoes the lyrics — those familiar with the traditional song won’t need them anyway — and instead creates the tune using a choir of handbells. This arrangement must be experienced!
8. Song: “A Strange Way to Save the World”
Artist: Rascal Flatts
Year Released: 2016
Label: Big Machine Label Group
So few songs look at the coming of Christ or the Nativity from Joseph’s perspective. Many, if not most, Advent and Christmas songs talk about these events from either Mary’s perspective or else that of an anonymous third party. But Joseph had an important role to play in the Christmas story and in the Advent journey leading up to it as well, even if, as the lyrics suggest, he couldn’t see it himself. This particular version of the 1993 4Him piano ballad has the country-pop vibe that Rascal Flatts is known for, without losing too much of the character of the original.
9. Song: “The Prayer”
Artist: Celine Dion and Josh Groban
Year Released: 2008
Label: Feeling Productions/Sony Music Entertainment (Canada) Inc.
“The Prayer” isn’t strictly an Advent or even a Christmas song. However, it is listed as part of various artists’ Christmas albums, including that of its original performer, Celine Dion, in 1998. It doesn’t mention Jesus, Mary or even God directly.
Rather it entreats an unnamed presence to guide and light the way, providing wisdom, grace and faith, for the singer and listener, through all of life’s journeys. It is especially appropriate — regardless of arrangement, though this one with the deep, rich stylings of Josh Groban is particularly beautiful for Advent because with it comes the recognition that we don’t take any journey, especially our Advent journey, alone, and need God to help us stay focused and headed in the right direction. It’s a good reminder that the “light,” which the singer seeks, is the reason we take our Advent journey in the first place.
Jessica Marsala writes from Georgia.