Monday, December 01, 2003

A Christmas Music Review

Spend any time around Melissa and I, and you'll discover pretty quickly that, when it comes to day-to-day family things, we're a pretty sentimental and traditional couple. This is never clearer than at the holiday season, during which we and the girls delight in all sorts of rituals and kitsch. We kick off the family Christmas season on November 30th, St. Andrew's Day, by getting out all the Christmas decorations and spending a few hours transforming the house. Go ahead, be cynical; doesn't hurt me a bit.

One of the things I enjoy most about getting into all those boxes is pulling out the holiday music which I haven't listened to in a year. Some of it is, I'll admit, mediocre, but some of it is fantastic stuff. And it occurred to me that, while I'm sure plenty exist somewhere on the internet, I've never read a list of favorite Christmas recordings. And so, I determined to sit down and write one. Take it for what it's worth. In no particular order, the best holiday music we have (and the recordings I'd happily recommend to anyone) includes the following:

1. Wassail! Wassail! Early American Christmas Music, by John Langstaff and the Christmas Revels. Not everything on this delightful collection of folk music is holiday-related, or even seasonal, but it all holds together. A great celebration of Americana, including early Native American, African-American, colonial, and frontier folk songs and poetry, ranging from the Igulik in the far north, south to Kentucky Appalachia. It includes a haunting rendition (Langstaff's solo baritone, accompanied on dulcimer) of one version of "The Cherry Tree Carol," a beautiful and rarely sung Christmas tune.

2. December, by George Winston. I've heard some people call this the single best-selling "new age" album of all time. Could be. It's only available in a new, 20th anniversary special release now. My version is an old cassette tape, printed in Korean: I got it from a fellow missionary (who had received it from a Korean friend) fifteen years ago, while I was serving in South Korea. Why that other missionary didn't appreciate Winston's piano solos I'll never know. Beautifully spare and elegant at times; shinning with sound at others. My favorite is his classy, restrained treatment of another humble and rarely sung folk carol, "Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head."

3. Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration. This cd was an instant hit among just about everyone I knew when it came out in 1992. And what's not to love? While very much a late-1980s pop/gospel production, the producers saw fit to bring in artists of nearly every stripe to tackle portions of Handel's masterwork. Thus we have Al Jarreau cooking with a big band on "Why Do the Nations so Furiously Rage?," Stevie Wonder and Take 6 sliding luxuriously through a honey-smooth "O Thou the Tellest Good Tidings to Zion," and my favorite, Patti Austin's powerful and righteous vocal work on a funky "But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming?" Worth the price of the cd alone.

4. The Bells of Dublin, by The Chieftans. More than a fine collection of carols and seasonal Irish folk music, this recording--which begins and ends with the chimes of the twelve bells of Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin, recorded live--aurally transports you into a distinct and delightful Christmas world, filled with piety and gaiety, good drink and good food, and few arguments as well (see Elvis Costello's contribution, "St. Stephen's Day Murders"). Jackson Browne melds well with the Chieftans in "The Rebel Jesus," his secular contribution to the season; the high point, however, is the Renaissance Singers gorgeous choral performance, accompanied on the organ of St. Anne's Cathedral in Belfast, of "Once in Royal David's City," possibly my favorite religious carol of them all.

5. Christmas, by Rockapella. Not everyone is a fan of a cappella music, I know, especially when it comes to Christmas songs. What makes this collection of vocal arrangements stand out? Well, I'm not sure. I mean, Rockapella is good, but are they that good? Maybe not. But they're fine pop-jazz vocalists, every last one of them. And this cd does have, hands down, the best, funniest, most rocking cover of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" I've ever heard, so at least it has that going for it.

6. A Christmas Together, John Denver and the Muppets. A sentimental favorite? Yes, but that doesn't mean you can't make a good case for its music. Somehow, Denver's aw-shucks-folks demeanor melded about as well with Jim Henson's and Frank Oz's lovable Muppet-mania as any performer who ever showed up on their show; no wonder he was their first and only choice for a Christmas album. The result is magic: the treacle in Denver's "Alfie: The Christmas Tree" and "It's in Everyone of Us" is so thick you could cut it with a knife, but it still goes down sweetly. And I insist that Denver's duet with Rowlf the Dog, in his piano man mode, on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is just about the definitive rendition of the song: reflective, spare, and melancholy, but whimsically upbeat all the same. A must-have.

7. A Charlie Brown Christmas, by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. I've looked and listened, but still, I've yet to come across a Christmas jazz record which touches this one. Every piece on here, from "O Tannenbaum" to "Greensleeves" is a gem. As the reviewers say, buy it for the nostalgia, but keep it because it is, holiday aside, very nearly a masterpiece.

8. A Very Special Christmas. There have been so many sequels to this great collection, and many of them have some pretty good stuff on them, but the original is still, I think, the best of the bunch. It's dated, but so what? The Sting on this album (giving us a dark, brooding cover of the rarely sung carol, Gabriel's Message) is the moody, oh-so-burdened, long-haired Sting of the late 1980s; on the other hand, Run-DMC's pitch-perfect "Christmas Rap" joyously and raucously serves up the whole hip-hop banquet, long before the genre became a parody of itself. The most original arrangement has got to be the spooky, synthesized, cool (literarlly) pop treatment which the Eurythmics give "Winter Wonderland." A confession though: I love this recording partly because my copy of it is an old tape, copied from another tape, with various other recorded-off-the-radio bits on it--and the highlight of all that errata is a recording of Bruce Springsteen's cover of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," which is, I believe, only available on a hard-to-find single Springsteen released in 1985. In case you've never heard it, I assure you: it rocks.

9. Christmas, by Mannheim Steamroller. There is something to be said for all of Mannheim Steamroller's Christmas albums; everyone has their own favorite. Their third Christmas recording, Christmas in the Aire, includes a haunting, slow, distorted bass-heavy arrangement of "Jingle Bells," as well as a whimsical take on "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" via electronically souped-up toy instruments. Melissa's dad adores their second album, Fresh Aire Christmas, because of its touching choral arrangement of his favorite carol, "Still Still Still." But I prefer their first effort, because of the simple perfection of their take on "Silent Night." It's always the last thing I listen to before I blow out the candles on Christmas Eve.

10. A bunch of random stuff. We have The Osmonds Family Christmas--what Mormon family doesn't? Our copy is (again!) a tape that's been handed down for years. I won't tell you to go out and buy it, but Jimmy's song "It Never Snows in L.A." is really kind of cute. Of course, we have one of the innumerable Elvis Presley Christmas collections--we live in the South, after all. Forget the knock-offs; his "Blue Christmas" really is solid gold. We haven't given Harry Connick Jr.'s new Christmas cd a listen yet, but his When My Heart Finds Christmas has some good songs on it--his big band stuff doesn't swing as well as he imagines it does, but his more intimate, bluesy jazz numbers, like the gospel-tinged "I Pray on Christmas," are wonderful. And while I'm put off at how she frequently drops the more Christ-focused lyrics (such as the middle passages of the wonderful carol, "In the Bleak Midwinter") from her recordings, I do very much like Shawn Colvin's Holiday Songs and Lullabies, if only because of her sweet, light renditions of "Love Came Down at Christmas" and "Little Road to Bethlehem." Charming.

There. That'll get you started.