The Real Meaning of Christmas (Benson)
Various Artists
Night (Sparrow)
John Berry

By Victoria Moon

Christmas can mean many things to many people. To some, the very word conjures up pine needles, and thick snowfalls, and well-loved Christmas carols sung around a fireplace, accompanied by just a guitar. For others, Christmas might be the remembrance of a packed-out little church in the heart of some city, with a choir making a seriously joyful noise in celebration of Jesus' birth, loud and strong. But no matter where you come from, whatever your Christmas tradition is, I know where you can find the soundtrack for your holidays.

For the traditionalists among us, check out John Berry's album O Holy Night. Berry has a clear, sweet tenor voice that lends a purity to a group of ten classic Christmas carols including "Joy to the World" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." I found myself singing along with this album almost instinctively, appreciating Berry's traditional arrangements that let the beauty of these songs shine through. My personal favorite was his tender rendition of "Away in a Manger" (okay, I'm a sucker for that song anyway, but Berry's arrangement, with simple guitar and violin, still managed to choke me up a bit, even after all these years). On a couple of tracks, such as "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas," I would have appreciated a more stripped-down accompaniment such as I found on many of his other tracks, but that would be my only fault with this project, and it is a nit-picky criticism. On the whole, this is a lovely recording that does full justice to the beautiful melodies and lyrics of traditional Christmas songs.

And now for something completely different...

The Real Meaning of Christmas is a bold, in-your-face celebration of Christmas. This is not one of the "background noise" sorts of recordings in any sense of the word – if you get this project, be prepared to sit up and pay attention. The "various artists" on this album include some of the best of the new generation of gospel musicians, including Angelo and Veronica, Frank Hammond, Hezekiah Walker and Commissioned. This is not a reworking of traditional holiday music themes, but a brand-new take on Christmas music. Many of the songs are originals, such as "Suddenly," "Love Came Down at Christmas" and "Go Gabriel."

The songs that do have hints of the traditional, like "O Come All Ye Faithful" by Angelo and Veronica, are such unusaul takes on the song that you can't sing along with it, just sit there with your mouth open and wonder how any human being can possibly hit those kind of notes. Commissioned had a serious groove goin' on their song "Real Christmas" and "New Born King" (like you would expect anything else from Commissioned!) and Ben Tankard's take on "Away In A Manger" was a jazz-piano instrumental version, possibly the most beautiful song of the album (I can't help it – I love that carol!) And then, my old favorites, the Colorado Mass Choir, are back with a vengeance. This choir, quite frankly, rocks. Energy and smooth coolness ooze out of every perfect note of their songs "King of Israel" and "Real Meaning of Christmas." It's almost enough to make me want to move to Colorado.

So, whether you like your Christmas music gentle and traditional, or street-hip and funky, it's all here. Either of these projects are well-done reminders of what Christmas is all about.