In popular music, the Christmas album has long been a favorite of larger, cash-grabbing artists, either looking to cynically shift units or strategically fulfill a contract requirement. Every single year brings a new wave of artists trotting out phoned-in covers of “Winter Wonderland” or “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” or, if they’re really bold, “Jingle Bell Rock.” Nobody seems immune to the pull of this, from Clay Aiken to Bob Dylan (who released Christmas in the Heart nearly a decade ago, which featured the bizarre “Must Be Santa”). Truly quality Christmas music is shockingly rare and only comes from bucking the schmaltz altogether; the best example of this being Low’s absolutely seminal slowcore favorite, Christmas EP, featuring Mimi Parker’s haunting “Blue Christmas” and a characteristically drone-y, Gap ad-ready “Little Drummer Boy.”

This is why Songs for Christmas, the five-EP collection by Sufjan Stevens, works as well as it does. “Cynical” is the farthest word possible from the collection, due in part to the fact that this music already gels nicely with Stevens’ aesthetic; after all, his love of Jesus, group singing and song titles with exclamation points are key facets of Christmas music already. Further, it helps to underline why the Christian influence, so hackle-raising in the music of bands like, say, Newsboys, doesn’t cause the same reaction in Stevens’ music: it’s a part of the music, but it’s devoid of any sanctimony. His devotion doesn’t make him better than anybody else, because to him, being excited about Jesus is just like being excited for his boyfriend – it’s a relationship, not an obligation.

Even though we’re 17 years removed from Noel: Songs for Christmas, Vol. I (the first of the EPs), none of these covers sound dated, either – there was clearly a lot of care put into making these songs feel as timeless coming from him as they do to the world at large. The traditional song selection is both expansive and tasteful, carefully avoiding anything too modern, which helps to avoid dating the project too much. Mixing more obvious, well-known classics (“The Little Drummer Boy,” “Joy to the World,” even “Jingle Bells”) with deeper cuts like “Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming” (which gets two appearances), French carol “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella,” and “Once in Royal David’s City” feels wholly necessary, helping to make the collection feel less like a staid collection of obvious standards. Even the obvious ones feel tactical, chosen not because they’re obvious, but because you sometimes need the promise of an “O Holy Night” or “Holy, Holy, Holy” to get you past lesser-known carols like “I Saw Three Ships” and “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”

The only modern songs here are ones penned by Stevens himself, ranging from the rhyme-heavy, boisterous “It’s Christmas! Let’s Be Glad!” (which feels spiritually reminiscent of Illinois’ “Decatur”), to the call-and-response “Put the Lights on the Tree.” These songs are silly enough to be classically Sufjan, but demonstrate enough knowledge of the source material that they deftly dodge the same fate as other modern pop-Christmas songs like, say, Barenaked Ladies’ “Elf’s Lament” or Billy Mack’s “Christmas is All Around.” Remarkably, even songs like the nefariously-catchy “Get Behind Me, Santa!” (“I don’t care about what you say, Santa Claus/ You’re a bad brother breaking into people’s garage/ Jeez!”) and “Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance” (which openly references K-Mart being closed) manages to still sound totally earnest, using overwhelming tweeness to combat holiday every holiday music pitfall. He even goes as far as to self-parody with the beautiful “Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserve It!),” setting his story during Christmas, without being truly about Christmas.

The classics, of course, are all rendered beautifully, from the hypnotic “Angels We Have Heard on High” to the heartbreaking “Amazing Grace,” which can be forgiven for not really being a Christmas song, considering how stunning his rendition turned out. “Silent Night” is stripped back to an instrumental song lasting just under a minute, short enough to make you crave more (which is likely why the first follow-up EP, Gloria: Songs for Christmas, Vol. VI, starts with a full version of the song). Even if you’re not a fan of Christmas music, these renditions are crafted with the same care that Stevens puts into all of his music, so it doesn’t really matter that you don’t actually need three versions of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” – and even though you’ve probably never even heard of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” his aching version should be on any winter playlist you ever make.

But what truly saves each and every song here from suffering the same fate as any other throwaway collection of holiday songs is the arrangements. These songs were recorded in Stevens’ heyday, spanning from just after Enjoy Your Rabbit, through the elegantly crafted Seven Swans, and ending just after the sweeping soundscapes of Michigan and Illinois. Few songs here get the extravagant production that tends to come with his music, but his fingerprints are all over most songs – banjo abounds, with light synth tones bringing airiness to many of the collection’s songs. In moments – namely the original “Jupiter Winter” – deliver sneaky glitch sounds, hearkening back to his more electronic Enjoy Your Rabbit, while also letting us know that those sounds were still in his head, paving the way for what would come of The Age of Adz four years later.

Leave it to Sufjan Stevens, every indie rock fan’s favorite youth pastor, to manage a feat as difficult as making those same fans ravenous for banjo-laden renditions of stunningly religious Christmas music. Ultimately, what has made Songs for Christmas feel vital for even the most yuletide-sensitive listener over the last decade-plus is that he doesn’t ever completely bend to the songs sensibilities, instead choosing to use his love of the material to complement each song in whichever way is needed. One can’t help but be at least a little bit moved by how earnest the whole project is, even if it isn’t your kinda season.

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