MUSIC: Here are inspired versions of ‘The First Noel,’ ‘Silent Night,’ and other sacred Christmas songs you should listen to today

As you celebrate this Christmas Day and look for music to get you pondering spiritual truths as well as to provide beautiful atmosphere wherever you are, check out these inspired versions of sacred Christmas songs:

Over the Rhine

The
indie band from Ohio with poetic Christian underpinnings has long been a favorite of mine, and the group’s evocative Christmas album “The Darkest Night of the Year” is one I’ve spun every year since its 1996 release.

Standout tracks include “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “Greensleeves (What Child Is This),” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” offering sounds that transport listeners back in time to old-fashioned parlor pianos, horse-drawn carriages, and quiet fields of snow.

Here’s the opening song — an atmospheric instrumental version of “The First Noel” — that haunts with a lonely cello:


The First Noel

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Jeff Bjorck

Jeff Bjorck has been recording
solo piano music over the last 25 years and has six very fine albums under his belt. One of them — “The Wondrous Gift” — is full of inspired interpretations of a dozen faith-based Christmas songs.

Among the standouts are
“Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” “Coventry Carol,” and “Silent Night.” For an immediate example of Bjorck’s style, check out “Silent Night” below. It begins with gentle, almost yearning notes and then moves into the familiar melody — yet accented by memorable, creative flourishes that escort the song into new vistas:


Silent Night

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Phil Keaggy

A guitarist like no other — always in the conversation as among the world’s best — Phil Keaggy has released a few Christmas albums over his long career, but for my money his finest is an offering alongside the London Festival Orchestra: “Majesty & Wonder: An Instrumental Christmas.”

Full of creative approaches to faith-filled Christmas songs, Keaggy takes on the historic “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” along with “Good Christian Men Rejoice” among others. Below check out his version of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” that employs brand-new music on his classical guitar alongside the age-old melody:


O Come O Come Emmanuel

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Don Peris of the Innocence Mission

The Innocence Mission hit the indie, alterna-folk scene in the late 1980s, and the band’s guitarist — Don Peris — years later offered an instrumental Christmas album “Brighter Visions Beam Afar” which has remained one of my favorites ever since.

Simple and unassuming — just like his band from the fields of rural Pennsylvania — Peris employs plaintive, gentle finger-picking that puts the listener into a reflective emotional place.

Most definitely lend an ear to “Away in a Manger,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” — the latter of which you can listen to right now:


Angels We Have Heard On High

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Kemper Crabb

Kemper Crabb may be familiar to some fans of early 1980s contemporary Christian music as the creator of the heralded album, “The Vigil.” But Crabb years later also released an album just for this season titled “A Medieval Christmas.”

With a resonant, reverent voice and instrumental accompaniment that matches the ambition of the title, Crabb turns out memorable versions of “Good King Wenceslaus,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and a show-stopping “Let All Mortal Flesh”:


Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent

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Sting

When he was with the Police, Sting penned a lesser-known tune for “Synchronicity” titled “O My God” in which the world-weary, angry protagonist — presumably him — shakes his fist at his creator and implores “take the space between us / fill it up some way.” Clearly Sting didn’t believe Jesus already accomplished that miracle.

So it was an eye-opener a couple of decades later to encounter Sting’s solo offering “If on a Winter’s Night…” which contains sacred Christmas songs such as “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” — a German carol that first appeared centuries ago — and the even older “Gabriel’s Message”:


Gabriel’s Message

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Jeff Johnson

Veteran keyboard player and Christian songwriter Jeff Johnson has been producing excellent music with his own Celtic-styled flair for decades. His “Prayers of St. Brendan: The Journey Home” is one of my all-time favorites.

What’s more, Johnson just may be the king of Christmas music — at least for listeners who care deeply about the proper focus of the day — and has released a whopping seven Christmas albums over the years.

Within them he covers the lion’s share of sacred songs you know, as well as some that aren’t often sung by carolers on snowy street corners — such as “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella” from “A Quiet Knowing: Christmas” with Brian Dunning and John Fitzpatrick as well as “Once in Royal David’s City” and “Wexford Carol” from “Under the Wonder Sky” with Dunning and Wendy Goodwin:


Wexford Carol

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Bono and the Edge of U2

As a big U2 fan for many years — all the way back to when I first read the words “to claim the victory Jesus won” from the “Sunday Bloody Sunday” lyrics before I turned to Christ — the band greatly disappointed me with its 2018
endorsement to repeal Ireland’s abortion ban.

But perhaps faith in some form remains, particularly for lead singer Bono, who has been vocal about his belief in Jesus for many years. Maybe that’s why I got a lump in my throat when I played video of him and guitarist the Edge performing “O Holy Night” for a Dublin crowd on Christmas Eve a few years back. “Fall on your knees,” indeed.

Merry Christmas, one and all.


Bono and The Edge Oh Holy Night Christmas Eve Dublin 2018

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Dave Urbanski