In December of 2013, the Texas-based folk rock duo The Oh Hellos released what is, arguably, the best Christmas album ever. Better than Elvis and better than Kenny G. Better even, just barely, than the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas.
The Oh Hellos’ Family Christmas Album features the same dynamic, layered sound that makes their 2012 release Through The Deep, Dark Valley a joy to listen to—the same shifts between soft intimate moments and moments when the music is gigantic, the whole band singing over acoustic guitars and heavy percussion. Here The Oh Hellos bring this same sound into a series of Christmas songs that they’ve arranged into a four-movement retelling of the advent narrative.
Their retelling contains all the particulars you’d expect from a Christmas pageant—the angels and the shepherds and “raging King Herod”—but in the midst of the telling The Oh Hellos never lose sight of the bigger picture. At every moment they underscore the cosmic significance of the story.
The album begins in darkness and melancholy. It begins with a plea—“O come, o come Emmanuel / and ransom captive Israel”—and introduces a villain:
Herod the king, in his raging
charged he hath this day
his men of might, in his own sight
all children young to slay
Which is to say that the album begins with an emphasis on the brokenness of the world that you’d be hard pressed to find in many other Christmas albums. The first movement is titled “Rejoice! Rejoice!” but it’s a bleak and defiant rejoicing that ends only with a rumor of angels.
The second movement, “Begin and Never Cease,” opens on a brighter note as the angels announce to the shepherds the birth of the much awaited Christ. The song then goes on to invite listeners to assume the posture of the shepherds as the narrative third-person of “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night” gives way to a wonderful banjo solo before the song broadens out into a first-person plurual chorus of “O come let us adore him!” Note: Here the words “plural” and “chorus” should be taken very literally. The Oh Hellos consist of siblings Maggie and Tyler Heath, but they are joined on this record by 13 other musicians and at this moment just about all of them are singing at the top of their voices “O come let us adore him!”
The third movement, “Silent Night,” is softer, a chance to meditate on the Christ child himself, the light come in to the darkness of Movement I. While “Silent Night” can sometimes be a song that drags on if you don’t happen to be gazing pensively into the flame of a Christmas Eve candle, The Oh Hellos’ version is layered and lively, full of movement even as it remains quiet and reflective.
The final movement, “Every Bell On Earth Will Ring,” zooms out again to take in the big, cosmic picture. Tyler Heath sings, “Joy to the world, the Savior reigns / let men their songs employ!” It’s the sentiment that stands behind the entire album and it’s expressed here, at the climax of the record, just before the banjo solo from Movement II returns to lead listeners into a reprise of “O come let us adore him!”
The album ends with the chorus of “O come let us adore him” fading out as an acoustic guitar reprises beneath it the melody of “O Come, O Come Emanuel,” a reminder to Christians that even as they celebrate Christ’s arrival on the earth, they must also, in the midst of the darkness, continue to hope and pray and look forward to Christ’s return.
Ryan Rickrode is the founding editor of Dog Pond Magazine. He studied creative writing and religion at Susquehanna University, then earned his MFA in creative writing from the University of Montana. Elsewhere online he has written about time travel, roofing work, and the necessity of dogs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.