Monday, December 06, 2004

The Best Christmas Recordings Ever

Well, maybe not ever, but I'm allowed a little hyperbole, aren't I? Anyway, everyone has their lists of Christmas favorites; this is mine. We've had the Christmas music out since the day after Thanksgiving, but last week I was too busy writing finals and getting caught back up from the holiday to post anything. My apologies, but you still have plenty of time to bulk up your collection and increase your listening pleasure, should any of the following strike you as interesting. Last year, on my old blog, I gave a brief rundown of my favorite Christmas albums and collections; this year, I'm listing specific songs. Some are originals, but most are hymns, carols and popular songs that have been recorded a thousand times or more; these are, in my opinion, the best versions one is likely to find of them anywhere. Clearly, some won't agree with my choices; as always, suggestions, corrections and outright rejections are welcome. (The list is in alphabetical order according to artist.)

"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings," Barenaked Ladies with Sarah McLachlan. Yes, this is a brand new recording, but this version is clearly going into the canon. A smart, up-tempo take on the material, with a wonderful blending of two oft-abused carols.

"In the Bleak Midwinter," Blind Boys of Alabama with Chrissie Hynde. Just about the strangest vocal combination one can imagine--but it works.

"Away in a Manger," BYU Choirs and Orchestra. Years ago, when I was a student at BYU, Mack Wilburg arranged this humble carol and lullaby for a couple of hundred voices and a full orchestra; a single quiet oboe line guides the number throughout. A gorgeous treatment, one that I often heard imitated in recent years, but this recording has never been surpassed.

"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," The Canadian Brass. An old version, but still funny. The members of CB trade gossipy comments about Rudolph and his cosmetic problems while the instruments pump away.

"Once in Royal David's City," The Chieftains. Really, it's The Renaissance Singers who deserve praise here, for an ethereal and glorious rendition of this hymn.

"Love Came Down at Christmas," Shawn Colvin. Shawn gives this quaint traditional just the right touch.

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," John Denver and Rowlf the Dog. Yes, from the Muppets Christmas album. No performance of this song has ever gotten to the heart of its lyrics the way this version does.

"Winter Wonderland," The Eurythmics. The first Very Special Christmas album was by far the best, and this compelling techno-version is the stand-out recording of the whole bunch.

"Frosty the Snowman," Ella Fitzgerald. No one has ever swung this snowman the way Ella did.

"Jingle Bell Rock," Hall and Oates. Almost impossible to find, but you need to get it. Why? Because you were alive in the 1980s, that's why.

"Santa Baby," Eartha Kitt. The first version I ever heard of this song was Madonna's vaguely creepy Betty Boop-style take. Yuck. Much later I heard Eartha Kitt lay it down, and it became immediately clear where the real talent was to be found. Available on several collections, but you might as well get it straight.

"The Cherry Tree Carol," John Langstaff with the Christmas Revels. I've rarely heard recordings of this old traditional carol, and never a better one than this.

"Stille Nacht," Mannheim Steamroller. Out of the probably tens of thousands of versions of Silent Night, why this instrumental one, from the first Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album? That it's a touching, delicate arrangement goes without saying; that the music is beautiful is indisputable. I think it must be because of the guest appearance by Santa Claus at the end. (Listen for the sleigh bells; you'll hear it.)

"Here Comes Santa Claus," Elvis Presley. The thing which so many people don't get about Elvis is that he was kind of dopey, as well as kind of dangerous, at the same time: his voice was both blusey and filled with bathos. Hence the greatest track on this, the greatest rock and gospel Christmas album ever, isn't the much imitated sexual hustle of "Blue Christmas," but his silly take on this old chestnut. Picture The King wearing a Santa Claus hat while slightly snearing and thrusting his hips. Yep, now you've got it.

"You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," Rockapella. Hehehehe--Barry Carl's bass voice can't be beat.

"The Night Before Christmas," Carly Simon. A charming and thoughtful original, mostly unknown because of its appearance on the soundtrack to a movie hardly anyone's ever heard of. It wasn't even on Simon's Christmas album, strangely.

"Santa Claus is Coming to Town," Bruce Springsteen. Loud, heartfelt, hilarious holiday fun. To my knowledge, not available anywhere except on this cd-single.

"It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," Andy Williams. Andy couldn't hold a candle to any of the truly talented crooners of the 1960s, but his recording of this homey, delightful tune remains definitive. Get it the original LP.

"Jesus Jesus Rest Your Head," George Winston. An elegant and spare piano solo rendition of this haunting folk hymn.

Hmm, I thought I had 20 favorites, but I guess not. Oh well, that's probably enough for now.

Update: Hah--I knew I was forgetting one. Thanks to the comments on a similar thread over at Times and Seasons, I'm reminded of Take 6's recording of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing"--a positively angelic a cappella rendition.

Oh, and it's not a Christmas song, but since you never hear it besides at holiday time, we might as well include "Baby, It's Cold Outside." The definitive version? Clearly, Barry Manilow and K.T. Oslin's take, with a minimal jazz arangement and so much crazy swinging-60s banter that it's practically performance art. ("Well, I must say, this couch is very comfortable." "It's not a couch, pudding-pop, it's a love-seat.") Groovy, man.


Anonymous said...

John Fahey, man, John Fahey. Great unheralded and unclassifiable finger-pickin' american guitarist with a taste for the avant-garde. Back in the 60's and 70's, he ended several of his albums with his rendition of a hymn. My favorite was "In Christ there is no east or west," which is just brilliant. He also released several Christmas albums. There are christmas songs on there I never really cared for until I heard his version. 

Posted by DJW

Anonymous said...

Yep, Fahey's Christmas music is excellent. Also I like "Merry Christmas Baby" by Charles Brown a whole lot -- this song has been covered many many times but no one has ever captured the beauty of the original. (And don't forget the chipmunks!) 

Posted by Jeremy Osner

Anonymous said...

I just don't believe that Chrissie Hynde's and The BBoA's version of IN the Bleak Midewinter can be better than Bert Jansch's astoundingly melancholy, drunken version of it. I can listne to that and fell myself transported back to a different world and time. 

Posted by harry

Anonymous said...

Can I recommend an album -- even though that's not the topic?

A long-standing family favorite in our house is the Boston Camerata, An American Christmas. We also like the Christmas Revels, for what it's worth.

--Michael Kremer 

Posted by Michael Kremer

Anonymous said...

Tom Jones and Cerys from Catatonia do a delectable "Baby It's Cold Outside" on his Reloaded album... 

Posted by Doug

Anonymous said...

A bit belated but you must take a listen to the Cyndi Lauper Christmas album. You'll be sure to find a classic or two there. 

Posted by David Salmanson