Last year at this time, my family was weighing decisions about whether to have Christmas gatherings. This year, we started celebrating earlier than usual, like we’re making up for lost holiday cheer. We have already decorated Christmas cookies and put the tree up before Thanksgiving. My Christmas 2021 playlist has been in the works since mid-October.
Perhaps, like me, you have an annual Christmas playlist that is populated almost entirely with nostalgic favorites. Mine always includes Amy Grant’s Christmas albums and a collection of wintery orchestral pieces that my mom has played on repeat every November and December for as long as I can remember. It takes a lot for a new song or album to break into my Christmas rotation.
This year, there are plenty of new Christmas releases with tracks that have already landed in my 2021 holiday playlist. Here are six fresh albums to accompany the season as you move through moments of joy, solemnity, excitement, solitude, and celebration.
Advent Songs by The Porter’s Gate
Advent Songs captures the somber hopefulness of the season in beautifully arranged originals that invite meditation and repose as we observe a period of waiting. I love festive, upbeat Christmas songs, but this year, The Porter’s Gate offers a welcome call to rest and seek quiet in the relentless holiday going and doing. Songs like “The Reign of Mercy” and “Isaiah (O Come)” reflect on the cosmic reality of the Word becoming flesh. Others, like “Mary’s Lullaby (Black Haired Boy)” and “Simeon’s Song,” are human and intimate, coaxing the listener to think about earthy, fleshly details of the Advent story.
At Christmas by Brian Courtney Wilson
Grammy-nominated gospel artist Brian Courtney Wilson’s At Christmas EP is a warm, soulful collection of four holiday standards. With vibrant orchestration and modern gospel sensibility, Wilson’s adaptations of familiar favorites like “The Christmas Song” feel fresh and festive, perfect if you’re looking for some upbeat music to add to your playlists for gatherings or maybe a winter jog (or not). The exuberant brass and soaring vocals on “This Christmas” (featuring Gene Moore) make it the kind of track that you’ll want on your playlist alongside Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You.”
Night Divine by Brian Fallon
Brian Fallon, formerly the lead singer of Gaslight Anthem, surprises with an understated collection of Christmas carols and traditional hymns. Fallon blends rock and folk styles, offering sparse instrumental arrangements driven by picked guitar, piano, and occasional strings. His raw, plaintive vocal style lends itself nicely to hymns like “Amazing Grace” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” The opening track, “Virgin Mary Had One Son,” is a stirring adaptation of a traditional spiritual. Fallon gives credit to performances of the song by Odetta and Joan Baez as major influences for his version of the song.
It’s an Advent album that feels personal and original. Perhaps most surprising is the final track— a quiet, meditative arrangement of the popular Elevation Worship song “The Blessing.” In the context of Advent, the song takes on new meaning, praying for and anxiously anticipating God’s coming gift for humanity.
Emmanuel: Christmas Songs of Worship by Chris Tomlin
Chris Tomlin’s live Christmas album, Emmanuel: Christmas Songs of Worship, is the fifth installment in his ongoing “Christmas Songs of Worship” project. The album features guests CeCe Winans, Matt Redman, Blessing Offor, and We the Kingdom in a series of spirited, worshipful tracks. As one would expect from one of Tomlin’s albums, there are singable originals and rearrangements that will almost certainly show up in Advent and Christmas Eve services this year. (Winans’s flawless rendition of “O Holy Night” is enough to get this album on my Christmas rotation for the year.)
Tomlin’s rewritten Easter hymn, “Crown Him with Many Crowns” features new lyrics set to the familiar tune and a simple original refrain. The new lyrics reorient the popular hymn and turn it into a reflection that begins with Christ’s birth:
Crown Him with many crowns / The King who left His throne / Creator of the universe / Born to the world He holds / And with that first drawn breath / The Word has become flesh / Emmanuel has come to us / O crown Him, all the earth.
In the Bleak Midwinter: Christmas Carols at King’s by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
If you aren’t usually someone who listens to choral music, let the Christmas season be the one time of year that you do. This latest Christmas release from the Choir of King’s College offers over an hour of rich arrangements of sacred music and carols, some familiar and some less so. “Of the Father’s Heart Begotten,” a setting of ancient poetry over a medieval plainchant melody, describes the miracle of the incarnation in weighty, reverent language:
Of the Father’s heart begotten / Ere the world from chaos rose / He is Alpha, from that Fountain / All that is and hath been flows / He is Omega, of all things / Yet to come the mystic Close / Evermore and evermore.
“Still, Still, Still” is a breathtaking, tender arrangement of the traditional Christmas lullaby. Of course, there are also congregational favorites like “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” and “Hark, the Herald Angels sing”—each piece shimmering and resonant.
Brett Young and Friends Sing the Christmas Classics by Brett Young
I have a feeling that Brett Young had fun putting together this light-hearted collection of Christmas tunes. Featuring an eclectic array of guest vocalists, including Colbie Caillat, Darius Rucker, Chris Tomlin, and Phil Wickham, it’s a pop-country compilation of holiday music that leans into camp in all the right ways (what could be more Christmas-campy than a rendition of “The Chipmunk Song”?).
Enjoy some laid-back, lounge-y renditions of “The Christmas Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” And don’t miss “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” as an easygoing country duet with Darius Rucker.
Listen to our playlist below to get in the Christmas spirit with CT’s holiday mix.
Kelsey Kramer McGinnis is a musicologist, educator, and writer. She holds a PhD from the University of Iowa and researches music in Christian communities and music as propaganda.