Happy New Year!
We’re still in the midst of the Christmas season (those 12 days many know only from the song), so there’s still time to enjoy this wonderful music outside of the context of shopping malls and people trying to induce you to buy stuff.
Having just said that, I’m going to link to amazon.com for each of these. Maybe you’ll want to buy an album here, but the reason is really just to provide you with more information, and amazon does a pretty good job of that. Often they have samples to listen to as well.
1. The Chieftains—The Bells of Dublin
This album is always the first Christmas album I listen to each year. It’s the Chieftains doing what they do so well—collaborating with musicians from a variety of different styles and genres. I love that it opens with church bells, which is a great way to start the Christmas music. But the album also has so many classic Christmas hymns and carols, along with a couple modern offerings, such as Elvis Costello’s “St. Stephen’s Day Murders” and Jackson Browne’s “The Rebel Jesus.” The album has several movements (of a sort), including a few carol medleys, and ending with what feels like an abbreviated Lessons and Carols service (beginning with the boy chorister’s solo on the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City”). Much of the album just feels like a rollicking good party, while other portions are remarkably reverential.
Highlights: “Il Est Né/Ca Berger” sung by Kate and Anna McGarrigle; “O Holy Night” sung by Rickie Lee Jones (my sister once commented that she sounds as if she’s just seen an angel); and “Don Oiche Ud I mBeithil,” first narrated in English by Burgess Meredith and then sung in Irish by the Chieftains’ own Kevin Conneff.
2. Bruce Cockburn—Christmas
I always listen to this album second. If you don’t know Bruce Cockburn’s work, this is as good a place as any to jump in (and it’s one with samples to listen to on the amazon page). He is himself an excellent musician, and also manages to surround himself with excellent musicians. While T-Bone Burnett didn’t produce this album (Cockburn did), he did turn up in the studio to hum on “I Saw Three Ships,” apparently. Burnett’s then-wife, the incredibly talented singer/songwriter Sam Phillips, also joins Cockburn on a track (see “Highlights” below). The range on this album is more than you might expect from a folk-rock singer/songwriter: traditional, spiritual, and an original composition; songs in English, French, and Huron (all of which fit nicely with the fact that Cockburn is Canadian).
Highlights: “Riu Riu Chiu,” which is given a deliciously rich folk treatment here; “Down in Yon Forest,” of which Cockburn says in the liner notes, “If there were a contest for the title of spookiest Christmas carol, this ought to win hands down”; “Iesus Ahatonnia,” a.k.a. “The Huron Carol,” which he sings in the Huron language; and “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” which was arranged, in a minor key, by Sam Phillips, who also provides backing vocals. Cockburn writes, “Her clever and simple devise of shifting the song to a minor key enhanced the poignantly thoughtful words in away that made me wish I’d thought of it. The next best thing was to sing it that way—so here it is.” Alsoa highlight: Bruce’s liner notes! He comments like that on every song.
3. Annie Lennox—A Christmas Cornucopia
Here’s a rather new album, after those two early-’90s offerings. But it’s quickly become a favorite of mine. Even if I can’t stand the cover art (sorry…maybe it’s just the photo of her, the dress maybe? or is it the pose?). Like several of the ’80s alternative pop stars whose Christmas albums feature here, she opens the liner notes with an I-don’t-actually-believe-this-of-course disclaimer: “While I don’t personally subscribe to any specific religion, I do believe that the heart of all religious faith has to be rooted in love and compassion, otherwise it serves no purpose. … Through listening to a Christmas Cornucopia, I hope that people will discover a fresh perspective.” No matter. I believe this stuff, and I enjoy this album tremendously. It’s Annie Lennox! She can sing.
Highlights: “Angels From the Realms of Glory,” which she sings to the tune (“Gloria”) most US Americans know for “Angels We Have Heard on High.” But it’s such a great hymn, with great theology; “See Amid the Winter’s Snow”—she sings this song with such gusto and passion you can’t help but be transported when the chorus comes ’round: “Hail, thou ever-blessed morn! Hail, redemption’s happy dawn!”; “Lullay Lullay (The Coventry Carol)”—This one she sings with an appropriate harshness, given its subject matter, even though “By by lullay lullay” is supposed to be just that—a lullaby; “As Joseph Was a Walking (The Cherry Tree Carol),” which is actually not the Cherry Tree Carol. It’s a strange carol I didn’t know, though, and has the amusing verse, “He neither shall be christened / In white wine nor in red /But in the fair spring water / With which we’re christened.” Anyway, I like how she sings it.
One of the reviewers on amazon calls it “the ANGRIEST Christmas album” they’d ever heard. It really does kinda come across that way, at least on the first few songs. I would love to put “Il Est Né” in the highlights, but even though I love the brashness of her arrangement, her pronunciation and scansion of the French annoys me. On balance, still an enjoyable track, though. Her obligatory original track, “Universal Child,” is rather uninteresting in my opinion.
4. Sting—If On a Winter’s Night…
…What? If on a winter’s night, what? Never mind, it’s a gorgeous album for Christmas and the winter season. It’s also another with samples on the amazon page.
The back of the CD carton (it’s one of those paperboard deals rather than a jewel case) there’s a little blurb calling winter Sting’s favorite season. The album, it says, “takes traditional music from the British Isles as its starting point and evolves into a compelling and personal journey with music spanning over five centuries (including two of Sting’s own songs).” Even if you’re not particularly a Sting fan, though, give this one a listen. It’s also fairly new (2009), but quickly became a favorite of mine, one that’s fourth in line in my 100-disc changer (stop laughing; I know that’s so last century,but it hasn’t broken yet, why replace it with a docked iPod?).
Highlights: “Gabriel’s Message”—that wonderful carol about the annunciation. I first heard a version of this from some Christmas special that Sting participated in; a coworker of mine had it on her mp3 player and shared it with me. This version is a little different, but just as magical; “There is No Rose of Such Virtue,” which is a favorite Christmas hymn of mine, and Sting sings it beautifully; ditto with “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”; “Balulalow,” which is Peter Warlock’s setting of the traditional carol—a contender in Cockburn’s imaginary creepiest Christmas song contest; and “Cherry Tree Carol,” which actually is the Cherry Tree Carol, in which Joseph snaps at Mary to “let the father of your baby gather cherries for you” and the cherry tree miraculously bows to the Virgin so she can pick its fruit. Sting’s rendition is about as good as it gets.
5. and 6. Various Artists (Projekt Records)—Excelsis: A Dark Noel and Excelsis vol. 2: A Winter’s Song
If you like your Christmas music on the darker side, darkwave label Projekt has (had? Not sure if they’re still in print) a couple albums you will love. I’m including both in one listing, for some reason that’s not entirely clear to me either. While the second album is titled “Volume 2,” the first was not. Presumably, the second album only materialized because the first was a success. I’m going to refer to them as “volume 1” and “volume 2” anyway.
Not all the songs are Christmas songs; Projekt founder Sam Rosenthal’s band, Black Tape for a Blue Girl, offers “Chanukkah, Oh Chanukkah” (volume 1), and Faith and the Muse bring “A Winter Wassail.”
Highlights, Volume 1: Arcanta’s “Carol of the Bells”—well, anything that guy sings is going to be phenomenal; FuchiKachis Etbu, “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”; and the two end tracks, back to back: Autopsia’s “Stille Nacht (g)RAVE remix” and Attrition’s “Silent Night.” Those last two blend together seamlessly, it, um, seems.
Highlights, Volume 2: El Duende’s “Gaudete, Gaudete,” a favorite Christmas song of mine; The Crüxshadows’ “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” sung like they really mean it; Unto Ashes’ “Lord of the Dance,” the chorus of which is to a different tune than you’d be expecting (not “Simple Gifts”); Faith & Disease’s “Silver and Gold,” which shimmers; Thanatos’ “Silent Night”—his rendition of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” might have you expecting a strange twist to this traditional carol, but it’s just his usual stripped-bare style; Lycia’s “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (I love everything they do, together and individually); and Human Drama’s “I Believe in Father Christmas.”
Runner up for the highlights: On Volume 1, Eva O contributes a strangely beautiful goth version of O Holy Night, but it’s irreparably marred by her, and her backing vocalists, singing “pinning” instead of “pining” in the first verse. And apparently no one involved—none of the musicians, recordists, producers, etc.—caught it. It’s mind boggling. I still enjoy the track, but wince at that point every time. Or laugh. Sometimes it strikes me as funny.
I’m sorry there aren’t samples on the amazon pages for these, but maybe you can find some on youtube or something. Don’t be put off by the bands’ names…
PS: It appears Projekt has also released a “best of” version of these two CDs, with 4 unique tracks, confusingly titled A Dark Noel. It seems to be in print, though. The others you can probably find used—online being your best bet.
7. Loreena McKennitt—A Winter Garden
Now we’re into territory where I’m not really numbering in order of my favorites. To be honest, this one is slipping in my favorites list, but I still love it. Getting the link for amazon, I see she has other Christmas albums, too. I should check those out.
Highlights: There are only 5 songs on the album, so not a lot to choose from. “Coventry Carol,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and “Good King Wenceslas” are brilliant.
8. Sarah McLachlan—Wintersong
It opens with “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” and then includes Joni Mitchell’s “River,” which isn’t actually a Christmas song (just because it mentions the holiday doesn’t make it a Christmas song) but there are plenty of standards too. I actually like hearing “River,” though, and she sings it well. I just want someone to give her a stole or jacket in that photo! Brrr!
Highlights: “What Child is This? (Greensleeves)” is, contrary to her title, not sung to the tune of Greensleeves, although that tune is buried in there somewhere; “The First Noel/Mary, Mary”—I love her take on The First Noel; “In the Bleak Mid-Winter”; and “Silent Night.”
9. Various Artists—The Edge of Christmas
With a 1995 release date (according to the back cover, anyway), this compilation has been around a while, and no doubt you know some of the tracks, if not the collection itself.
Highlights: Queen’s “Thank God It’s Christmas”—I never knew I liked a Queen song, until I checked the back of this CD to see who was singing this first track on the album; David Bowie/Bing Crosby, “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy”—one you probably know. It’s a very interesting duet; The Cocteau Twins’ “Winter Wonderland,” which you probably hear on the canned music in the mall, but I love it. Really these tracks are enough reason to own this CD.
10. Over the Rhine—The Darkest Night of the Year
Another with samples on amazon!
OTR has at least one other Christmas CD out (which I have), but this one is far better. They bring their typical charm and expertise to many standard Christmas classics with and without vocals, with a few original songs as well (including a couple more instrumental pieces). The album art is fun, too. (Their album art is usually more artsy-fartsy, in a good way, and always high quality.) The album is perfect for a quiet evening with a few friends, maybe some good wine…just keep the lighting dim.
Highlights: “Silent Night,” which is set to an original arrangement (which may come as a relief to those sick of that particular hymn) and almost book-ends the album (tracks 2 and 10 out of 13); “Coal Train,” a moody little instrumental piece written by Ric Hordinski; “Mary’s Waltz,” a sad song that really shows off Karen’s vocal abilities; and “Amelia’s Last,” another original piece, another sad song, with a lovely tune. The instrumental work on this album is what makes it so perfect for a dark and quiet evening in December or early January.
11. She & Him—A Very She & Him Christmas
Another new addition, released in 2011. She & Him are M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel (you don’t have to be a hipster to like them), who make a fantastic duo for 20th century Christmas standards. You won’t hear anything devotional on this album, but that’s OK. If you want to hear some of the songs I’ve highlighted below sung by someone who’s not a member of the Rat Pack (or Elvis), you will be very pleased—just check out the samples on amazon. M. Ward keeps his guitar playing relatively simple but interesting, and Zooey Deschanel’s voice has just a hint of reverb and the perfect amount of cheer. There’s alsopiano, organ, uke, and percussion, but it’s all used sparsely. The CD insert is designed like a Christmas card, and is in a little envelope glued inside the (cardstock) cover. Along with the appropriately-mid-century record cover design, it’s a nice touch.
Highlights: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas;” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”; “Silver Bells” (she plays the ukelele on this track); “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” with the typical vocal duet; and “Blue Christmas.”
12. Douglas Nelson—Our Hopes and Our Fears
I know this guy! He’s and his wife volunteer on the Altar Guild I direct. I can vouch for the fact that he means every word he sings here. You can hear samples on amazon, but can’t buy it there.
Highlights: “Do You Hear What I Hear”; “Away in a Manger,” which isn’t in the least bit twee here (as it so often is); “Chasing the Bethlehem Star,” an original composition from which the album title is taken; “What Child Is This”; and a punk take on “Silent Night”!
13. Fernando Ortega—Christmas Songs
This is a gorgeous album. Just gorgeous. I’d never heard of this artist, who’s apparently a Christian musician. The amazon link describes him as a “classically trained…pianistbut also steeped in the Hispanic tradition of his New Mexico homeland.” That’s a good way to communicate the style. Anyway, I found the CD in a bin in a used CD store, and was attracted to the artwork. I’ve discovered a lot of great music that way, actually. But when I saw the track listing, I was sold.
Highlights: “Carol of the Birds”; “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”—the hymn, which isn’t exactly a Christmas song, but it does speak of Christ taking flesh. This is a stunning version which you could enjoy year ’round if you put it on your mp3 player; and “Angels We Have Heard On High,” which has an interesting rhythm.
14. African Christmas: Christmas Favorites with an African Beat
It’s not clear to me whether this is an ensemble that got together for this record, or whether it’s a “various artists” compilation. The back cover says, “A collection of holiday favorites featuring some of South Africa’s finest talents—including Bongani Masuku, Mandisa Dlanga, Max Mthambo & Vernon Abdul—in vibrant Zulu-flavored renditions of some of the season’s best-loved Christmas carols.” I like this album, but I prefer it in a mix rather than listening to straight through, and I could do without “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.” YMMV.
The above link to amazon has samples to listen to, but when I tried it just now, it was playing the wrong tracks. However, my internet’s acting kinda funny at the moment…
Highlights: “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” the opening track; “When a Child is Born”; and “African Christmas Acappella.” [sic] These will run through your head, as will “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
15. Various Artists—Christmas: The World Rejoices (National Geographic Music Series)
This is another CD that’s particularly nice in a mix. It features songs from various geographic and national areas (listed thus on the CD): Spain, Venezuela, Russia, Brazil, Norway, Andes, Cuba, France, India, Caribbean, Hawaii, Bulgaria, USA, and England. The songs range from folk tunes to classical, but all are exuberantly performed. The CD also includes a pull-out, folded map showing those regions (for the geographically challenged), which also describes some of the Christmas traditions from those areas and lists holy days from 1 Advent through Candlemas (for the liturgically challenged). It also seems to have been packaged a bit differently and under the slightly different name, Around the World Christmas: The World Rejoices.
Highlights: I’m not going to do highlights for this one. I’d have to list almost every track. There’s just so much variety here!
Now, this is about 1/5th of my Christmas CD collection, which also includes several recordings of Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, and several other classics, like Johnny Cash, a couple Motown collections, that sort of thing.
What are your favorite Christmas albums? And, seeing what I really like, what do you recommend I try to pick up by next Christmas?