2014: Looking Back

What a year it’s been for us. 2014 took off running and never slowed down. I feel like every time we got through one major thing, something else major came up. Here are the highlights (and some lowlights as well).

Travel: T and I went to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in February, to visit friends. It was my first time in South America and T’s first international trip ever, and the language barrier was quite a challenge. I also went to England and France with my grad school chamber choir, where I explored Oxford, nerded out at Harry Potter Warner Bros. Studios, attended an Evensong service at Westminster Abbey, took in tons of champagne and World War-era history in Reims, and admired the Paris Opera House, drank incredibly thick hot chocolate, and stood in awe of the Eiffel Tower for the first time. Finally, I spent a month in Weimar, Germany for a summer opera program.

T and me with Christ the Redeemer in Rio.

T and me with Christ the Redeemer in Rio.

Work: I started two new jobs, one at the dental office and the other as the director of our church choir. T made great strides in his job as well, getting promoted and working towards some certification tests.

Family: Three new babies were born into our family, which has been a huge blessing. My dad got married, and my mom sold her house, bought a new one, and moved just yesterday. Multiple family relationships have been stretched thin and subsequently healed this year, and I hope for further strengthening over the next year.

Baby T and me at Christmas.

Baby T and me at Christmas.

Friends: Two of our best friends got married in July in a wonderful celebration. Three weeks later, one of them was diagnosed with cancer. It was a big shock to everyone, and it definitely caused T and me to think about our own health and lives. After surgery and chemo, our friend is now cancer-free. In the midst of all this, we’ve continued to strengthen the bond we have with our friends and learn to trust in God for His mercy and healing.

Singing: I made the difficult but absolutely right decision to quit my pursuit of singing as a career and instead focus on the things that truly matter to me. It was a long, hard, painful process, but I know it’s where God has been leading me for a long time. I will continue singing as a hobby and a passion, but from now on my career choices will be ones that contribute to our current and future family. On a positive note, I did get to sing one of my favorite roles for the second time, as well as add a couple of new roles to my resumé, and I will be starting rehearsals for a new show next week.

Church: Our church had been going through a process over the past couple years of determining whether or not to leave our denomination, Presbyterian Church (USA), because of some faith-based issues arising in the upper levels of PC(USA). After months of discussion and debate, a straw poll in June, and more months of discussion and debate (and lots of fragmentation and division within the church), our church body voted earlier this month to leave PC(USA) and move our church to a different Presbyterian denomination, ECO. None of it was easy or pleasant, but seeking the will of God and following His direction is ultimately more important than anything else.

Personal: I achieved many of my monthly and yearly goals, including saving money consistently and adding at least one new role to my resumé (see above). I also overcame one of my biggest fears, and I made the extremely important decision to quit the business of singing and focus on creating a future for my family.

And now, my goals for 2015!

  • Look to God’s will for my life and use it above all else to determine my choices.
  • Create a solid savings account that will go towards a down payment on a house.
  • Develop a healthier lifestyle, whether that means cooking at home more often or being more physically active.
  • Figure out what sort of career path I might want and take steps to get there.

Happy New Year, everyone! May God bless you in the coming year.

Casting Crowns – Peace On Earth

Merry Christmas, everyone! What a joy it is to celebrate the birth of our Savior!

I’ve been saving the best for last in the Christmas Album Countdown. Today I give you my favorite Christmas album, the one I’ve been listening to on repeat since Halloween (don’t judge). This is the one that T and I will have playing in our house today as we celebrate Christmas with my family. It’s Peace On Earth by Casting Crowns.

Casting Crowns has been one of my favorite Christian bands since high school. Besides the fact that their music is singable-along-to, their songs address profound spiritual issues and doctrines as well as social justice. I’ve had my soul spoken to on more than one occasion by a Casting Crowns song (like this one). I’m so glad they have a Christmas album, because it falls right in line with how I perceive their music.

The album includes a handful of standard Christmas carols, like “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Away in a Manger,” and quite possibly my favorite version of “Silent Night.” They also perform a few of their original songs, such as “While You Were Sleeping,” “Christmas Offering,” which our church has since adopted as a congregational worship song, and “God Is With Us,” which I have sung as a solo in Christmas Eve services. The album concludes with a beautiful piano-accompanied arrangement of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” which reminds us that the world had no idea what Christ’s birth would lead to. This is followed by the closing track, a haunting violin solo of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” that leaves us with a heavy sense of anticipation.

It’s really hard to choose a favorite track to share with you, so here is the one I know T would choose. It’s the opening song on the album, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” but like you’ve never heard it before. Enjoy the song (and the rest of the album), have an absolutely wonderful Christmas, and may the birth of Jesus bring joy and peace to your hearts today.

Glad – An Acapella Christmas

Merry Christmas Eve, everyone! We’re just two days away from the end of the Christmas Album Countdown. Can you believe Christmas is already here?

I’m betting that 99.9% of you have never heard of the a capella group Glad. It’s not too surprising… they’re a group of five middle-aged guys who were at their music-producing peak in the 90’s. However, I grew up listening to their music, and we even hosted them at our church once for a Christmas concert. It was a much bigger deal than it sounds. At any rate, their Christmas album, An Acapella Christmas, is one of my all-time favorites, and I’ve listened to it so many times in my life that I could probably sing you all five of the parts for any song on the album.

As you probably already know from my posts about Pentatonix and Straight No Chaser, a capella is one of my favorite vocal music genres, simply because of how cool it is that voices alone can create such complex music. Glad is no exception. Every one of their songs is rich in texture and harmonies, and I love the purity of their voices. It doesn’t sound overly pop-y or manufactured, like other a cappella groups can sound at times. Besides that, the guys of Glad are all Christians, and maybe it’s just me, but I think you can actually tell by the way they sing that every word of every song means something to them.

The album opens with a fanfare on the text, “Glory to God in the highest!” and it only gets better from there. They sing innovative arrangements of “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night” (with the first verse in German), “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and more of the most beloved carols. There are also a couple of original songs, like “Starlight” and “One Quiet Moment.” But the absolute best song on the album is the penultimate track, “In the First Light.” It tells the story of Jesus’s birth, life, death, and resurrection in an incredibly moving and ultimately triumphant four minutes. You will get chills and maybe tears as you listen to this song and realize that there is so much more to the story than the birth of a baby.

Michael Bublé – Christmas

I love Michael Bublé. He’s the modern-day Sinatra, the epitome of cool. Okay, maybe not quite, but he’s very suave and his voice is yummy. In fact, I love his music so much that T and I had our first dance at our wedding to “Everything.”

His Christmas album, simply titled Christmas, isn’t as exciting as I would have hoped. In my humble opinion, it makes better background music than it does a listening event. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not great, and there are definitely some highlights. One of my favorites is “Santa Baby,” where Michael changes the words so that the song actually comes from a guy’s perspective. Instead of asking for a ring, he asks for “cha-ching,” and among the other items on his list are a Rolex, a convertible, and the deed to a platinum mine. The album also includes several holiday favorites, like “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Holly Jolly Christmas,” and “White Christmas” as a duet with Shania Twain.

But the best song on the album, hands down, is the smooth arrangement of “Feliz Navidad” that serves as the album’s musical climax. It begins with an introduction of “Mis Deseos” that builds into the main chorus of “Feliz Navidad.” The song continues to build in intensity, with a full choir eventually joining in. Words don’t really do it justice, so have a listen for yourself. Try not to hit repeat, I dare you.

Lady Antebellum – On This Winter’s Night

Here’s another album that I listened to specifically for the Christmas Album Countdown. I’ve only been a very casual listener of Lady Antebellum in the past, which basically means I knew the couple of songs that were played on my local Top 40 radio station (and that only until my classical station came back on the air). But I knew I liked their sound the first time I heard them, so I thought On This Winter’s Night would be a good album for this series.

I was right. For one thing, there’s a lot of balance on this album. There are songs that feature male vocals and others that feature female vocals. There are upbeat tunes like the opening track, “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” which I was immediately singing along to, and there are romantic ballads like their take on “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” There are the generic holiday songs like “Let It Snow,” and there are the overtly religious carols like “The First Noel.” I think my favorite track of all is the title song, “On This Winter’s Night,” which describes both the love we feel towards each other at this time of year and the love God showed to us in sending his Son. What a pleasant surprise from Lady A.

Beach Boys – Christmas With the Beach Boys

Like a good California girl, I’ve always loved the Beach Boys and their very recognizable barbershop sound. In my mind, their music is associated with sand, sun, and surf, with some classic cars thrown in the mix, so it’s kind of fun in a weird way to hear them singing Christmas songs on Christmas With the Beach Boys.

The first thing T said when I hit play on this album was, “Isn’t this the same melody as ‘Little Deuce Coupe?'” To be fair, the song was “Little Saint Nick,” so it could totally have worked to just change the lyrics of the original song. If you’ve ever spent more than about five minutes listening to the Beach Boys, you know that all of their songs start to sound the same after a while, so the melodies do tend to run together in one’s head. It’s also hard not to picture southern California beaches, the usual image that goes along with the Beach Boys’ music, just with a few Santa hats or garland-bedecked light posts. Of course, that could be because that’s the visual I have of my own visits to Pismo Beach around Christmastime. Yes, it’s true… Christmas even comes to California beach towns.

There’s a lot going on on this album. There are classic tunes as well as obscure ones, and in some cases there are multiple versions of songs (there are three of the aforementioned “Little Saint Nick”). There’s a somewhat odd orchestra-accompanied arrangement of “We Three Kings.” There’s “Santa’s Got An Airplane,” complete with something vaguely resembling airplane sounds. And there’s the Beach Boys’ take on “Mele Kalikimaka,” which is really the perfect song for their Christmas album.

Kristin Chenoweth – A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas

It seemed only fair to do a post about Kristin Chenoweth’s Christmas album, since I did one for Idina MenzelA Lovely Way to Spend Christmas was released all the way back in 2008, but somehow I didn’t know about it until now. A terrible travesty, considering how lovely this album is.

All of the songs on here fall into one of two categories: either they are upbeat and peppy, like Kristin’s character Galinda in Wicked, or they are soft and mellow. Both types contribute to the holiday spirit, and there is a nice balance of the two. In the first category, we have songs like “Christmas Island,” “Sleigh Ride/Marshmallow World,” and “Come On Ring Those Bells.” The second group includes beautiful arrangements of songs like “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” “Do You Hear What I Hear,” and “What Child is This.” I tend to be partial to Kristin voice over Idina Menzel’s (sorry Idina) because Kristin is a master of both the chesty belt and the light, floaty head voice, and both show up throughout the album.

One of my favorite tracks is “Born On Christmas Day,” a ballad that tells the story of Christ’s birth. The lyrics express the miracle and wonder of the Lord Jesus coming to earth, and Kristin sings it with power and delicate expression at the same time.

Weezer – Christmas With Weezer

Weezer was one of T’s favorite bands in middle school… at least, I assume that’s the case because a) he knew who they were and that they had a Christmas album, and b) he suggested I use it for this series. I wouldn’t have even thought to choose it on my own, but after listening, I actually really like it.

The album is short and sweet, with only six songs totaling thirteen minutes. That’s okay though, because it’s packed with energy. The electric guitar and drums pretty much drive the whole thing forward and give each song a refreshingly un-classic sound, even though all six songs are old, solid Christmas favorites. At the same time, the vocals are actually quite simple, which fits the “can I sing along to this” bill. Two points.

I don’t know if I could pick a favorite song because they’re all pretty similar in sound and style, so here’s a good representative sample. My conclusion, as you can probably tell, is that I’ll be keeping this EP around for some stylistic variety in my Christmas playlist.

London Philharmonic – Messiah

There is some debate in the classical music world over whether Handel’s Messiah is a piece more suited for Advent or Lent. It’s easy to see the confusion. The piece is divided into three sections, with “Part the First” being devoted to the anticipation and birth of Christ, and the second and third parts telling the story of his death, resurrection, and reign.

Since tonight is opening night of the San Francisco Symphony’s annual performance of Messiah, I thought it would be a fitting album for today’s post. I don’t have a whole lot of commentary to share about the piece, and there’s about one album out there per year of the piece’s existence (read: 273). But despite its position in the choral/symphonic repertoire as borderline cliché, it remains one of my favorite pieces of all time. From “And the glory of the Lord” to the final “Amen” chorus, I never get tired of singing it (except maybe physically). It’s the greatest story the world has ever known, set to some of the best-known music ever written.

She & Him – A Very She & Him Christmas

A Very She & Him Christmas was one of the albums that T suggested to me for this project, and I’m glad he did. I love Zooey Deschanel, and the whole album gives off a relaxed, adorable, and slightly funky vibe, like this New Girl lover would expect.

Musically, it has a sort of lazy, acoustic style, and it’s super easy to listen to, whether you’re driving or at work or anything in between. Not gonna lie though, it’s hard not to picture Jessica Day accompanying herself on the ukulele and maybe doing a crazy dance.

There are several familiar songs interspersed with unknown ones, but my favorite track is the reversed-gender-roles rendition of “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” where Zooey is the slightly creepy girlfriend trying to get her innocent male counterpart, guitarist and singer M. Ward, to stay the night.

This is definitely an album that will be sticking around in my Christmas music library in the future.