I’ve always liked Christmas music. One of the things I liked about Christmas Eve was how the radio stations would switch over to non-stop Christmas music for 24 hours. (Starting in October, like some stores and stations do now is a bit much). I bought my first iPod in late fall, and didn’t start loading it up until mid-November of that year — right at the start of the holiday season, which means I have a ton of Christmas music on my iPhone now — so much, that I had to create a Smart Playlist called “Not Christmas” for the other eleven months of the the year.
In general, the recordings I like the best are the ones that basically play it straight with the songs. Here are some of my favorites:
Windham Hill was an instrumental/New Age record label in the 80’s and 90’s, featuring original music by instrumental artists. Most of the music is rather quiet and reflective — right up my alley. They released a series of Winter Solstice albums, featuring a mix of wintry and Christmas music. I still remember flying back to Boston after spending the first weekend of December with my brother Tom, listening to a Winter Solstice tape on my Walkman. For some reason, I like the odd numbered albums best.
- Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring (Volume I, David Qualey)
- Greensleeves, (Volume I, Liz Storey)
- Bach Bouree (Volume I, From The French Suite) (Mike Marshall & Darol Anger)
- Petite Aubade (Volume I, ShadowFax)
- A Tale Of Two Cities (Volume 1, Mark Isham)
- Little Drummer Boy (Volume III, Schönerz & Scott) — Probably my favorite of them all
- Dona Nobis Pacem (Volume IV, Michael Manring)
- We Three Kings (Volume IV, Barbara Higbie)
- Skating (Winter Solstice on Ice, George Winston) — the music from the Charlie Brown Christmas special
Speaking of George Winston, one of his “seasonal” albums is December, which is a mix of winter and Christmas music. I especially like “Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head”, “Joy” and “Carol Of The Bells”. “Carol Of The Bells” is a one of those songs, along with “O Holy Night” that does well in a variety of different interpretations.
The Mannheim Steamroller Christmas albums have been a Christmastime staple for me for a long time– dating back to the days when I was running a photo lab. They’re an interesting mix of classical and electronic music. The electronic pieces always felt apt when I was running around trying to get Christmas card orders out in the photo lab, and the classical pieces are just plain pretty.
- “Deck The Halls” (Christmas) — a fast-tempo electronic piece, hearing it still reminds me of photofinishing machines pumping away.
- “Bring A Touch, Jeannette, Isabella” (Christmas) — a quiet French piece on flute, oboe and strings
- “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” (Christmas) — a combined piece, it captures the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season
- “Stille Nacht” — (Christmas) featuring vocals, piano, and a heartbreakingly beautiful violin. Just gorgeous.
- “Los Peces En El Rio” (Christmas in the Aire)
- “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (A Fresh Aire Christmas) — another electronic piece.
- “The Holly and the Ivy” (A Fresh Aire Christmas) — a traditional piece on flute and harpsichord
- “Still, Still, Still” (A Fresh Aire Christmas) — a choral translation of a traditional German carol
- “Carol of the Bells” (A Fresh Aire Christmas) — an electronic version, about as different as you can get from George Winston’s version, but still good.
We grew up with John Denver — my Dad loved his music, and he was one of the few non-elevator music artists we could listen to. In 1975 or so, he released Rocky Mountain Christmas, in tandem with a television special. Most of it is surprisingly good. There are a few originals, including one non-Christmas winter song, “Aspenglow”, that I like a lot. There is unfortunately, one track on the album, “Please Daddy, Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas”, that my mother absolutely loathes, but nowadays, it’s easy to omit it from playlists. He also does absolutely straight, absolutely beautiful versions of “What Child Is This”, “Coventry Carol”, and “Oh Holy Night”.
A Charlie Brown Christmas
The soundtrack from the television special, by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. Just great, all the way through.
Los Angeles Guitar Quartet
I tripped over their album, Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker Suite – Praetorius: Terpsichore – Warlock: Capriol Suite (Arr. for Guitar Quartet) last year on Sirius XM. It’s the Nutcracker Suite arranged for guitar, and it’s really good.
There’s a lot of traditional Christmas music I like — the recordings that have become part of the landscape of Christmas.
First up is the Boston Pops Orchestra, and White Christmas, under Arthur Fiedler. Traditional Christmas music done in a traditional manner. The Pops under Keith Lockhart are horrible — I saw them live a couple of years ago and they were terrible; just schmaltzy award show type muzak of bland boring modern compositions that had no dynamism, and no feel. This album, of traditional music played in classical fashion is more my cup of tea, starting with “A Christmas Festival”, a medley beginning with “Deck the Halls” and continuing on with a number of other favorites, all played by an orchestra that sounds like an orchestra.
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”)
Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby” is a hoot.
The Time-Life Treasury Of Christmas is a really good compendium of a lot of well known recordings. My favorites:
- “The Little Drummer Boy” (Harry Simeone Chorale)
- “Carol Of The Bells/Deck The Hall With Boughs Of Holly” (Robert Shaw Chorale) — for some reason, this one really takes my back to the Christmas Eves of my childhood
- “Ave Maria” (Leontyne Price & Choir of St. Thomas)
- “What Child Is This?” (André Previn)
- “Do You Hear What I Hear?” (Bing Crosby)
- Angels We Have Heard On High (Robert Shaw Chorale)
- Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (Judy Garland)
- Mary’s Boy Child (Harry Bellafonte) — My mother likes the version by the Boney M, but I much prefer this version
I should say here that I don’t much care for White Christmas — I don’t dislike it, but I don’t really like it either, and while snow makes for a good Christmas card, in real life, I’m not dreaming of a white Christmas.
In general, I’m not a Frank Sinatra fan, but I really like “The Christmas Waltz”.
There are a couple of other pieces that bear mentioning in passing. The first is the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)”. It starts off as a quiet riff on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, and becomes a full fledged rock opera. Not exactly in the spirit of a child being born in a stable, but still, it’s good.
Sarah McLachlan has a beautiful, ethereal version of “Silent Night” on Wintersong.
Over The Rhine has done a number of rather… different… Christmas albums over the years. I do like Karin Berquist’s rendition of “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” on The Darkest Night Of The Year, and the sultry “North Pole Man” on Snow Angels. I’ve picked up the new one, Blood Oranges in the Snow, and am looking forward to getting to know it.