Few contemporary alt-rockers are more of a natural fit for Christmas music than Sufjan Stevens, who not only already leans toward songs filled with bells and chimes, but is also an actual, openly practicing Christian. Since 2001, Stevens has been recording an almost-annual series of Christmas EPs—he skipped one year while working on Illinois—to distribute to his family and friends. Now he's collected all five discs into a box set called Songs For Christmas, which is both hauntingly beautiful and a helpful summary of Stevens' career to date.
The five discs are split between traditional carols and Stevens originals (which themselves sound like traditional carols), and musically, they progress from the mostly spare acoustic sounds of Stevens' early career to the bubbling, layered, symphonic sound he's currently exploring. It says something about the direction Stevens has been heading that the first Songs For Christmas EP runs a tight 17 minutes, while this year's outing sprawls past 35. An inability to pare down has increasingly become Stevens' weakness, and it's hard to imagine too many people who'll make their Christmas-party guests endure an hour and 45 minutes of these winsome, ethereal yuletide blessings.
But at the same time, it's hard to say what Stevens should have cut if he'd wanted to put out a "Best Of Songs For Christmas." One of his other flaws—sort of a flaw, anyway—is that his music is so crystalline and impeccable that it almost defies reduction. Luckily for Stevens and his fans, the same could be said of Christmas music itself, and when Stevens coos and plucks his way through "Little Drummer Boy," he sounds like he's delivering the song direct from a heavenly host. Even better are some of his originals, like "That Was The Worst Christmas Ever!", which remembers that cranky families and shoveling snow are as much as part of the season as silent, holy nights.