Classical Christmas Carols for the 21st Century

by Maggie Molloy

After years of the same old Christmas carols every December, the holiday hymns start to run together. But whether you’re the world’s biggest Santa-fan or a grouchy Ebenezer Scrooge, there’s still a little sparkle of holiday magic to be found in every classical Christmas tune—buried though it may be beneath the corny sing-alongs and ugly sweaters of the winter season.

This year, we’re highlighting composers who break out from the cookie cutter Christmas carols and reimagine holiday classics for 21st century audiences. From time-stretched hymnal melodies to bluegrass banjo solos and synthy washes of sound, today’s composers are getting creative with their Yuletide carols.

Here are our top picks for contemporary Christmas albums that will add some holiday spice to your winter soundtrack:

Jherek Bischoff: Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire Walk with Me (Self-Produced)

Jherek Bischoff’s new EP reimagines your favorite Christmas carols as timeless trios for electric bass, sleigh bells, and synthesizers. Composed in the style of Angelo Badalamenti’s moody Twin Peaks score, Bischoff offers eerie renditions of holiday classics old and new, ranging from John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” to Charlie Brown’s “Christmas Time is Here” and even a synth-laden “Silent Night.”


Imagine Christmas (Sono Luminus)

They’re classic Christmas carols like you’ve never heard them before: reimagined and rearranged by the likes of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, the Jasper String Quartet, the Skylark Vocal Ensemble, Cuarteto Latinamericano, and more. The result is a kaleidoscope of musical styles ranging from lute lullabies to Latin percussion, twinkling piano solos to swinging strings and ambient drones.


Phil Kline: Unsilent Night (Cantaloupe Music)

Phil Kline’s contemporary twist on Christmas caroling captures the sparkle and whimsy of the holidays without any of the corny sing-alongs. Unsilent Night blends shimmering bells, time-stretched hymnal melodies, holiday nostalgia, and ambient noise into an ethereal electroacoustic soundscape. Though originally composed as an aleatoric sound sculpture for outdoor performance, you can listen to the  album from the comfort of indoors.


DePue Brothers Band: When It’s Christmas Time (Beat The Drum Entertainment)

Christmas caroling meets bluegrass jam session in this “grassical” family album featuring a twangy twist on holiday classics. The DePue brothers dance through their own festive arrangements of Christmas hits brimming with sweet strings, infectious grooves, and a whole lot of banjo.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: DePue Brothers Band “When It’s Christmas Time”

by Maggie Molloy

Nothing says Christmas quite like family—and this week’s album celebrates both.

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The DePue Brothers Band puts a bluegrass twist on classic Christmas carols in their holiday album, “When It’s Christmas Time.” In addition to performing their own arrangements of Christmas classics like “Sleigh Ride,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and “Winter Wonderland,” the album also features two original Christmas tunes.

The DePue Brothers—Wallace, Alex, Jason, and Zach—grew up in a musical family, where they played violin together from a young age. Each of them has since grown into virtuosic violinists, but they still frequently perform together, especially around the holidays. The band also features their honorary brothers, guitarist Mark Cosgrove, banjoist Mike Munford, bassist Kevin MacConnell, and drummer and vocalist Don Liuzzi.

“All four brothers, when they’re together and when the music is happening—it’s symphonic in power,” Liuzzi said.

The group’s music combines elements of bluegrass, classical, and rock to create their own unique genre-bending sound they call “grassical.” Their music combines their classical music training with a down-to-earth, grassroots music aesthetic.

Their Christmas album is no exception. The brothers bring humor, charm, and a whole lot of bluegrass to all of your favorite Christmas classics.

“This particular album definitely reflects a lot of different styles and combines it well,” Jason DePue said. “And yet this album does manage to have a decent amount of flow from song to song…you still get the sense that stylistically the band remains cohesive and intact.”

The album is off to a giddy start with Jason DePue’s instrumental arrangement of “Sleigh Ride.” The brothers put a twangy twist on the original tune, spicing up the otherwise smooth string texture with bluegrass banjo riffs and cheerful, jingling bells.

The band switches gears for their performance of the 18th century French Christmas carol “Pat a Pan.” Liuzzi described his arrangement of the piece for four violins, banjo, guitar, and a variety of African and Middle Eastern drums as “Renaissance meets the Middle East.”

Next, the band’s jazz-influenced rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” comes to life with Liuzzi’s gleaming vocals complimented by a lush string texture and a series of solos from several of the bandmates.

The tune is followed by “Medley of Carols,” an instrumental rendition of five festive classics. With its heavily ornamented melodies and improvised elements, it almost makes you feel like you’re in the middle of a Christmas jam session at the DePue Brothers’ home.

Speaking of holiday traditions, the album also includes a song the brothers have performed for over 30 years: “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Wallace DePue plays solo violin on this simple, sweet, and sentimental version of Bach’s famous classic.

Another family tradition comes to life in the group’s performance of the title track, “When It’s Christmas Time.” The piece is Alex DePue’s arrangement of an original Christmas carol written by the brothers’ father, Wallace DePue Sr., who has written one Christmas carol each year for the last 40 years. The tune’s perfectly harmonized vocals and grooving beat are brimming with holiday nostalgia.

“There’s a real vocal tradition inside the DePue Brothers family,” Liuzzi noted. “And actually, you can hear it in their violin playing; they sing when they play.”

Later on, the band picks up the pace for “The Fat Man,” Alex DePue’s rock ‘n’ roll original which makes a musical nod to “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.”

They shift gears again for Alex DePue’s instrumental arrangement of “Winter Wonderland,” where Zach DePue’s solo fiddle elegantly sparkles with holiday magic. This is not your typical Christmas cover song, though—the brothers give this classic a rowdy bluegrass ending.

Next, their sentimental cover of “O Holy Night” captures the warmth and sincerity of the Christmas spirit, with Jason DePue’s solo violin melodies soaring over a soft and sweet string texture featuring harp, cello, and even horn.

“I dedicated [‘O Holy Night’] to my mother,” Liuzzi said. “She sang it every Christmas, and my mother had a voice that was heavenly. It was really beautiful—extraordinary intonation, extraordinary tone, and heartfelt. I wrote that arrangement with her in mind.”

In fact, Liuzzi’s mother passing away was a major impetus in the band’s decision to create a holiday album.

“After Don’s mother passed away, it was a good project to work on,” Jason DePue said. “During the holidays everybody has got so many different types of emotions, and I always say the best medicine for anything anytime of the year is keeping busy and keeping constructive.”

The album comes to an end with Jason DePue’s arrangement of Schubert’s timeless “Ave Maria.” The brothers’ glistening violin melodies sparkle above delicate piano arpeggios, ending the album on a gorgeous, poignant note.

“This is the only song on the CD that involves no more and no less than the DePue Brothers,” Jason DePue noted. “We thought we would close the CD with just the four of us playing this song together.”

“When It’s Christmas Time” celebrates Christmas music from across the ages and infuses it with a grooving bluegrass aesthetic. So this season when you’re yearning for some new holiday tunes, spice up your average carols with the DePue Brothers’ grassical twist on Christmas classics.

“This album defines the DePue Brothers Band and grassical, which is so many different styles coming into one expression, one musical statement,” Liuzzi said, noting that Christmas is both a joyful and thoughtful time of year. “It’s both festive and also contemplative—and boy, you get the extreme ends of that in this album.”