Monday, December 14, 2009

My Essential Christmas Albums

Say you're like us, and you broke out the Christmas music right after Thanksgiving (or the end of November, for those of you outside the U.S.), diving right into the holiday. If so, by now, you've been listening to the stuff for over two weeks (or even longer, if you have a local radio station that went to all-Christmas programming before Thanksgiving, which I personally think ought to be a federal crime). You're probably mentally sorting it all out, separating the essential from the ephemeral--at least, I am. So herewith, in the spirit of my occasional music cataloging, the twenty Christmas albums I don't think anyone should go through the season without. These aren't necessarily the sources of all of my all-time favorite Christmas recordings--Bruce Springsteen's unconquerable "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" isn't here, nor Andy Williams's classic rendition of "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year"--but I think these albums provide a range of Christmas listening, including some simply definitive takes on certain songs, that pretty much can't be beat. (And yes, I've done something like this before, but that was six years ago, and who says I can't update myself as necessary?)

So, in alphabetical order, by artist and/or album title:

Barenaked Ladies, Barenaked for the Holidays. Definitive track: "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings," with Sarah McLachlan singing along with the band. The whole album is filled with fun originals and whimsical pop interpretations of traditionals, but their up-tempo arrangement of these two oft-abused carols is a triumph.

The Blind Boys of Alabama, Go Tell It On the Mountain. Definitive track: "In the Bleak Midwinter," with Chrissie Hynde. The album goes from soul to funk to gospel and back again as it runs through many old favorites; of all the excellent tracks, I love this subtle, simple rock arrangement best.

BYU Combined Choirs: A Celebration of Christmas. Definitive track: "Away in a Manger." In the 80s and 90s Mack Wilberg, whose arrangements have since been played around the world, was a local superstar at Brigham Young University, and his work was never on better display than on this 1991 recording, a live concert which PBS filmed and showed repeatedly over the years. Wilberg conducted the BYU's Men's Chorus and the combined choirs in some wonderful numbers that night, but I think his arrangement of this humble lullaby for a couple of hundred voices and a full orchestra, with a single quiet oboe line guiding the number throughout, is the best.

Canadian Brass, A Canadian Brass Christmas. Definitive track: "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Patented Canadian Brass fun, with a full, exquisite sound. This track wins out over the others because of all the snide comments the guys throw in about Rudolph's unfortunate dermatological problems.

The Chieftains, The Bells of Dublin. Definitive track: "Once in Royal David's City," with The Renaissance Singers. The whole album is a creative celebration, drawing on traditional Irish, American country, and Celtic Christian sources, with contributions from everyone from Marianne Faithfull to Elvis Costello, all backed up by The Chieftains peerless musicianship. This hymn, coming at the end of the album, is ethereal and glorious.

The Christmas Revels: Wassail! Wassail! Early American Christmas Music. Definitive track: "The Cherry Tree Carol." The whole album is filled with wonderful music, but when John Langstaff sings his baritone on a spare arrangement of this ancient folk ballad, it's transcendent.

Shawn Colvin, Holiday Songs and Lullabies. Definitive track: "Love Came Down at Christmas." A tender, homey, motherly album, filled with quiet, sometimes borderline saccharine arrangements, but perfect for after a long day of wrestling over Christmas decorations with kids. She picks up the tempo a little for a smooth, full rendition of this traditional carol, and it just hits the spot.

John Denver and the Muppets, A Christmas Together. Definitive track: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Personally, I don't hear a single false note in the whole album; dude, I even like "Alfie, the Christmas Tree," so you know I'm a hopeless case. But I defy even the toughest cynic not to grant, at the very least, that Rowlf the Dog (Jim Henson) and John Denver discovered something essential about this song while recording it. They don't sing the original, more somber lyrics, but rather the slightly more upbeat ones first used by Frank Sinatra, but still, the song's tale of a bittersweet, reluctant acceptance of holiday joy is undeniable.

Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration. Definitive track: "But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming?" So many awesome performances on this funk, gospel, hip-hop, jazz, and soul recording of Handel's masterpiece. There's Al Jarreau's "Why Do The Nations So Furiously Rage?," there's Stevie Wonder's "Oh Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion," there's more. I'm just to going to have to go with Patti Austin's awesome, R&B powerhouse as my favorite, though.

The King's Singers: Deck the Hall: Songs for Christmas. Definitive track: "Mary Had a Baby." A brilliantly diverse album from the early 1970s, with 14th-century church music, old English plainsongs, 16th-century carols, some Tchaikovsky, and a couple of spirituals thrown in as well. Of these two, the second is the highlight of the record.

Mannheim Steamroller, Christmas. Definitive track: "Stille Nacht." Their first, and still their best. The "traditional tunes played on Renaissance instrumentation combined with synthesizer beats" shtick has been endlessly copied over the past couple of decades, and can get tiresome, I'll admit. Not every track on this album has held up equally well. But by and large, the music is still beautiful, none more so than the closing track, which brings out the wintertime, Northern European (complete with a subtle guest appearance by Santa Claus) sensibility of the song out better than any other I've ever heard.

Mormon Tabernacle Choir, The Joy of Christmas. Definitive track: "The Animal Carol" (aka, "The Friendly Beasts"). The MoTab has changed. With Mack Wilberg conducting, with their own orchestra and a huge performing venue in Salt Lake City, the Choir has leveraged itself into being a multimedia presence the likes of which it never was in decades past. Its annual Christmas shows are hot tickets, with big stars from around the world dropping in to be part of the festivities. And, inevitably, there's a new album (or dvd) every year. But I don't need to keep up, because we've got this gem from 1963: the MoTab singing along with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. It's lush, stately, unsurprisingly white-bread Christmas music, but no less listening to for all that. Their recording of "The Friendly Beasts" beats by a mile the version recorded last year.

The Osmonds, The Osmond Christmas Album. The definitive track, "It's Beginning to Look at Lot Like Christmas/Pine Cones and Holly Berries." Shut up, haters; it's a fabulous, goof-ball slice of 1970s American Christmas soft rock, and if you haven't given it a listen, you should. If you're lucky, you have the original, not the knock-off Osmond Family Christmas cd which cut out half the music; if you're extremely lucky--as we are--then you've got the original on tape or vinyl, which means you've got the lost Merrill Osmond cover of "A Very Merry Christmas," and the Osmond Brothers singing "The Christmas Waltz." But, failing that, you can at least enjoy the finest, cheesiest medley on the album, as demonstrated here.

Elvis Presley, Elvis's Christmas Album. Definitive track: "Here Comes Santa Claus." Simply put, the best rock and gospel Christmas album of them all. Elvis's singing was at its most sultry and dangerous, I think, when he was just goofing off, which explains why his version of this Gene Autry song works a lot better than anyone else's.

Raffi, Raffi's Christmas Album. Definitive track: "Old Toy Trains." Would I have ever listened to this album if Melissa and I had never had any children? Or, more particularly, if we hadn't had some Canadian friends who very patriotically forced the songs of Raffi Cavoukian upon us? Who knows? But I'm glad they did, and we did, because this is, hands down, the most joyous Christmas album we own. Childish glee and fun suffuse every track, even the quieter, more somber ones, like this great little number (which for years I thought was actually "Little Toy Trains"--but then, I didn't know anything about Roger Miller back in those days either).

Rockapella, Christmas. Definitive track: "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." They've changed their line-up a time or two since they recorded this album, and when Melissa and saw them in Arkansas, their bass was solid as a rock. Still, for this one song at least, Barry Carl's bass voice just can't be beat.

Take 6, He Is Christmas. Definitive track: "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." Take 6 is one of the finest gospel vocal groups in the country, though this particular album was a bit of a departure for them, as it inlcudes a fair amount of jazz and disco instrumentation along with the singing. They've since returned to a more strictly a cappella sound, which is what they do best, I think. This number from the album, with is just unadorned vocal harmony, is stunning.

James Taylor, James Taylor at Christmas. Definitive track: "Auld Lang Syne." I think it's quite possible that I own every single James Taylor recording ever put on the market; at the very least, he is a the only big-name performer that I've forked over the dough to see play live more than once. So yes, I'm a fan. There's a lot that's very, very good on this album--his more reflective numbers, like Joni Mitchell's "River" and "In the Bleak Midwinter" are wonderful--but I like how he finishes it off best, with this song. His tenor voice--older now, but still smooth--seems to balance the lyric's sense of regret and times past, with a spirit of resolution and determined gusto, that I find absolutely charming.

Vienna Boys Choir, Merry Christmas (Fröhe Weihnachten). Definitive track: "The First Nowell." No doubt someone more in the know than I will write in a tell me that the famed Vienna Boys Choir is a sham, a big Austrian marketing tool, and nothing like what it was in the old days, whenever they were. Well, screw 'em; I love the sound of this old Christmas album, and I love hearing high classical voices transform some pretty humble German, English, and French Christmas and folk songs. As a bonus, the choir performs all six original verses of the song, which you hardly ever hear these days.

George Winston, December. Definitive track: "Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head." Soft, spare, elegant--it's the archetypal New Age piano album. For years I had a cassette tape of this which I'd picked up in South Korea, and only recently have we finally gotten it on cd. Still sounds great though, especially in his delicate treatment of this old folk hymn.

So there; that's twenty. Oh, but wait--one more: The Vince Guaraldi Trio, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Definitive track? The whole thing, obviously; the single greatest jazz Christmas album of all time doesn't need to have any single stand-out recording. Just 40 minutes of sweet, perfect Christmas charm.

Anyway, that's my list. How about yours?


Caleb said...

This year we're really digging Over the Rhine's album, Snow Angels. A few years ago someone also gifted us _Christmas with Chanticleer_ (with Dawn Upshaw), and it's become a fave. Thanks for the tips! I also love that James Taylor album.

Anonymous said...

Have you picked up the new Sting Christmas album that just came out?

Russell Arben Fox said...


Over the Rhine's Snow Angels, huh? I've never heard of it, so I'll have to check that out. We don't have the Christmas with Chanticleer cd, but we do have another of their Christmas albums--Sing We Christmas--and we love it. Glad you agree about JT.


We have picked up Sting's If on a Winter's Night, and I think it's very, very good. Sting's a pretentious fellow, but you can't deny the raw intelligence he brings to bear in many of his songs. My favorite off the album is "Soul Cake," which really isn't a Christmas song at all, but he fits into into the spirit of the whole cd expertly.

Bill Logan said...

I just purchased Twisted Sister's "A Twisted Christmas." If you want to hear "O Come All Ye Faithful" sung like "We're Not Gonna Take It," you'll love it!

My favorite version of "Silent Night" is Enya's "Oiche Chuin (Silent Night)." There was a single and I think it's on at least one of her Christmas-themed albums.

Matt said...

I mostly don't like non-religious Christmas music and can rarely stomach an album of the stuff but I do like the Pogue's "Fairytale of New York" as a song. I must say, though, that when I hear "little drummer boy" I want to smash someone's christmas toys.

Abe Fox said...

Long Live the Osmond Family Christmas Album! My wife and kids are complete converts (well, almost), and you just CANNOT decorate the tree without "Sleigh Ride" by the Osmonds blasting on the stereo....granted we don't really get any decorating done during that number, just a whole house Dance Party!!

Anonymous said...

Check out West Country Christmas by Johnny Coppin

Stuart said...

An interesting list with several albums I'd really like to hear. I'll try them out on Rhapsody

What no Bela Fleck or Brian Setzer? And how about "Mambo Santa Mambo"

Here's my list of jazz Christmas CDs