Ruinenlust—Taking pleasure in ruins

This post is adapted from one of my comprehensive exams in my doctoral program.

What does it mean to take pleasure in ruins? There’s a German name for it: ruinenlust. It turns out this is pretty much a European (and European-American) phenomenon, born out of a Romantic sensibility—that is to say, it’s relatively recent. Taking pleasure in ruins is sometimes equated with the “aestheticization” of ruins—what is commonly now called “ruin porn.” The critique of such a narrow understanding of aesthetics will have to be another blog post. Suffice it to say that its broader meaning incorporates how we learn, through our senses, what we ought to love. (My sources for this are primarily Thomas Aquinas, Alexander Baumgarten, and, especially, Charles Sanders Peirce.) So let us return to our ruins.

When I say “ruins,” the image that pops into your head probably depends on where you live and what your experiences have been. It is common to think of such ancient structures as Angkor Wat or the Parthenon, but there are other types of ruins, each with different (though overlapping) sets of aesthetic concepts and responses. For my purposes, I will categorize “ruins” into three broad categories: ancient (e.g., classical and medieval ruins in the West), ersatz ruins, also known as “artificial ruins,” a subset of which is the folly; and modern, also called “industrial” ruins. There are other ways, of course, to classify ruins—for example, by the cause of destruction (war, the effects of time, natural disaster, abandonment, etc.), which will also play a part in my discussion. When we know how a ruin became a ruin, such knowledge impacts our aesthetic experience of the ruin. But in many cases we simply do not know, and part of the enjoyment (for those who enjoy ruins) is imagining what might have happened.

Aesthetic attitudes toward all kinds of ruins have varied according to philosophical, religious, and political frameworks. For example, Christian polemicists have pointed to Greek and Roman ruins as an allegory of Christianity having supplanted the pagan Greek and Roman religions. But ancient ruins have also been upheld as reminders of a particular nation’s or culture’s proud history.

The most common source of such pride, naturally, is the ancient (pre-modern) ruin, as its continued existence hints at past wealth, power, or expertise—a culture’s ancestors’ having had the materials, such as marble, as well as the knowledge, skill, and workforce to build structures that have lasted. Ancient ruins have not always evoked such pride, however. In many parts of the world, ruins were simply part of the landscape until European tourists started showing up to see them. And in pre-modern Europe, disused or ruin structures were often left abandoned and forgotten, or they were treated as mines, so that materials such as large blocks of marble would be removed and re-used elsewhere. In other cases, new buildings were erected over ruin sites (as was a common practice in the ancient Near East) or integrated into them. The Piazza del Anfiteatro in Lucca, Italy consists of newer buildings that, over time, completely displaced the ancient ampitheater that used to be there—a little bit like the engine of my ’97 Dodge, I’m sure…

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, archaeologists were quite busy digging up ruins and artifacts. A fascination with ruins became a tourist industry. Eventually, ruinenlust developed as a romantic reaction to the Enlightenment aesthetic that prized perfect proportions and other abstract ideas as contemplated by the (disinterested) rational mind. In contrast, ruins were wild, incomplete, irrational, and highly sensual. Rose Macaulay’s classic early-twentieth century book, The Pleasure of Ruins, describes this aesthetic well. For Macaulay, the aesthetic pleasure offered by ruins is bound up not only in the visual appearance (although that certainly is part of it) but also in the sounds and smells of the plants, animals, and elements—water and wind, in particular—that have made their home at the site. She seems disappointed in any ruin that lacks “screech-owls” and jackals, ivy and wildflowers.

In the US, the lack of ruins (recognizable to Europeans as such, anyway) was alternately seen as an embarrassment—a sign that history was lacking—and as possibility. For Americans, it indicated that this continent was virginal, waiting to be civilized by European immigrants. It played into justifications for subjugating the Native peoples: as they had produced no ruins, they must have yet to produce any culture (again, recognizable by European-Americans). Visitors from Europe sometimes viewed the lack of ruins as a mark of the Americans’ cultural immaturity. But some European tourists (such as Alexis de Tocqueville) sought out other kinds of ruins, from Native burial mounds to log cabins abandoned by westward-traveling pioneers.

During the same period, as the aesthetic interest in ruins grew, and with it, the understanding of ruins as symbols of nationalist glory, the ersatz ruin emerged. This phenomenon was especially popular in England. Land owners might build a small “ruin,” a broken column, or a shack of sorts, made to look ancient, in a corner of their property—some going so far as to get a hermit to live in it! Other property owners constructed larger artificial ruins or collections of “ruins.” A house might be designed to look as if it had been built into the Gothic arches of a ruined church, for example, even though no church had existed there. Some houses used visual tricks, optical illusions that might give the impression of structural instability. Such “follies” were meant not to imply a grand past but to play with the visual aesthetic of ruins.

A similar “art for art’s sake” visual aesthetic seems to inform much of the photography of modern ruins that has recently become so popular. Whether seeking to capture a fleeting moment or to study the geometrical designs of a building and the decay that disrupts them, many “urbex” (“urban explorer”) photographers seem to pay little attention to the meanings that might be read into their work. Whereas earlier painters generally used ruins allegorically, contemporary photographers seem to prefer not to push a message. Painters had depicted ruins as a primary subject, often in order to contemplate some moralistic idea about human mortality or the ultimate futility of earthly power. Later, the ruins became a backdrop for another subject, but still carried allegorical import, as, for example, when the nativity of Christ was depicted among classical ruins to suggest the passing of pagan religions with the advent of Christianity. These uses fed into the appreciation of ruins as “picturesque,” an aesthetic idea that justifies their appreciation for their own sake, and not for their symbolic value. Perhaps the present urbex photography simply is an extension of that.

Cass

Modern ruins, especially in North America, tend to be the result of abandonment resulting from the exigencies of consumer capitalism as well as from technological changes. Older ways of making cars, e.g., such as the multi-story factory, are replaced with more efficient methods—e.g., the single-story, sprawling factory that is easier to build in a rural setting. Workforces shift, or are shifted when cheaper labor is found elsewhere. Or the demand for a product wanes. Not only the factories, but the entire local economy supporting and supported by them, fall into disuse and decay, leading to the abandoned factories, churches, schools, houses, libraries, train stations, office spaces, and other buildings enjoyed by “urban explorers.”

But there is another kind of modern ruin, the one produced more suddenly by disasters such as war, earthquake, tsunami, fire, or terrorist attack. These ruins also fascinate, but our primary impulse is to demolish or restore them (as the economic and cultural resources warrant) in order to efface the memory of the devastation. (Macaulay wrote briefly of war ruins, and left it an open question as to whether or not there was any room for aesthetic enjoyment of them. She leaned toward answering no, citing the fact that any relatively new ruin has not yet reached that state of détente where the ruin continues to exist relatively unchanging. By contrast, photographers Yves Marchand and Roman Meffre cite the ephemeral nature of modern ruins as integral to their project.)

These aesthetic responses to ruins are, naturally, framed within cultural, religious, philosophical, even political contexts, and shaped by cultural attitudes toward decay, imperfection, impermanence, and conceptions of history. For example, Christianity in the West has normally emphasized the perfection of God as the standard of beauty. In addition, Hebrew and Christian Scriptures use ruin as a metaphor for divine judgment. While these are not the only aesthetic concepts available to Christians or to Westerners more generally, the suspicion exists—even among lovers of ruins—that there is something perverse about an aesthetic appreciation of decay. The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi can be helpful here, and can find correlates in Western thought if one searches for them.

“Wabi” is a term relating to a philosophy of life; “sabi” is a corresponding aesthetic. “Wabi” initially meant something like “the sadness of poverty,” but has come to express the spiritual value in living simply, in contentment with what one has, and a mindfulness toward living that appreciates material objects for what they are—however imperfect—and for their impermanence. It involves a profound awareness and acceptance of the fact that nothing lasts forever. “Sabi” is the aesthetic appreciation of imperfection, as well as the age of materials and the effects of time and use. It values patina, even, in some cases, grime. At the same time, it encourages care for material things. The patina comes from use, not neglect or abuse. Several centuries-old temples built of wood, with no aspiration toward permanence, still exist in Japan. I think that speaks to a valuing of place, buildings, and materials, a valuing that has preserved the structures.

In the West, such a value for the very materiality of things as such, for their use, and for their impermanence does exist, and does make up part of the fascination with ruins. But the values of wabi-sabi have not been so well fleshed out, articulated, and intentionally practiced here—they tend to be more the idiosyncratic tastes or values of individuals. In our consumer culture, especially, we value newness, sparkle, and disposability, and also cheap goods that simply will not last, and certainly will not age well. Perhaps we would do well to consider ancient ruins in this light, and to learn from modern ruins where our consumer-culture aesthetic actually leads.

Occasionally, Western architects have imagined their work as eventual ruins. Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, was charged with building structures that would make for beautiful ruins to provide a lasting testimony to the glory of the Third Reich (which was, meanwhile, engaged in the production of ruins throughout Europe and inviting the Allies to likewise produce ruins in Germany). When architect John Soane built the Bank of England in London, one of his draftsmen, Joseph Michael Gandy, drew it as a future ruin—perhaps to symbolize its importance as an institution. A New York periodical invited writers, in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, to describe New York’s buildings in ruins, as an exercise in considering building design and technology. Today, as sustainability emerges as a value among architects, engineers, and building owners, perhaps a similar exercise is being practiced, or should be—if not imagining the building as ruins, paying close attention to chosen materials with an eye toward impermanence. If the West were to adopt the values of wabi-sabi, what would we build?

Pentecost—It’s a beautiful day!

Here in Detroit, the gorgeous weather we’ve had this weekend is starting to gear up for the thunderstorms that are predicted over the next four days. But luckily, I’m not talking about weather.

I’m talking about the feast the Western Church observes today. In my own Episcopal church, we dress up the church (and sometimes ourselves) in festal red, the color of fire; we listen to Scripture read in multiple languages; we sing, “Hail Thee, Festival Day!” A beautiful liturgy for a beautiful day—the “birthday of the Church,” Pentecost.

The name “Pentecost” derives from the Greek for “fiftieth,” and was originally applied to the Jewish festival Shavuot in the Greek-speaking diaspora in the Roman Empire. Shavuot, which falls 50 days after Passover, commemorates God’s gracious gift of Torah at Sinai, and the people’s reception of it. Shavuot also celebrates the first fruits of each year’s early harvest. The Christian festival picks up these same themes, but with the different inflections of a different language.

St. Luke mapped the Christian onto the Jewish feast, in the second movement of his Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles. Because Jesus died and rose again around Passover—a deeply meaningful connection made by all four canonical Gospel accounts—it certainly makes sense to link the outpouring of the Holy Spirit with the giving of the Torah. Hints of the parallel may be found in today’s Gospel, John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15 (follow the link for the text):

‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. [NRSV]

The Spirit will be to the Church what Torah has been to Israel: a teacher and guide; a way for humans to deepen their understanding of the divine; a means to be in relationship with God. (That, of course, is not an exhaustive list.) Placing the Christian celebration of God’s outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the feast of Pentecost should not efface God’s gift of Torah to Israel or fuel the unhelpful (and often destructive) “spirit v. law” dichotomy. Rather, it links together the two great events, showing them to be two harmonious movements of God’s love song for the world.

But there’s another element to Pentecost: the “gift of tongues.” St. Luke describes it in Acts 2:1-11:

When the day of Pentecost had come, [the disciples] were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. [NRSV]

It is often remarked that this scene represents a reversal of Babel—the story in Genesis where God “confused the language of all the earth.” It is a strange story. According to the text, everyone in the world spoke one language. They decided to build a city, the highlight of which would be a tower reaching all the way to heaven. The reasons given in the text are “to make a name for ourselves,” and to prevent humankind from being scattered throughout the world. So God comes down to earth to check it out. Apparently, God is impressed, but not in a good way. In fact, it sounds as if God feels threatened by what humans had achieved, and worries about what else they might do. So God decides to break them up by causing them, rather suddenly, it seems, to all speak different languages so that they cannot understand each other. It worked: people found the others who spoke their language, and these language groups each went their own way, simply abandoning the work they had begun together.

The story leaves us with some strange impressions: for example, that human unity is a bad thing; or that God feels threatened by human achievements. Certainly there is an element of hubris in what the humans in the story have proposed to do, but there is nothing inherently evil in building a city or a tower.

What struck me today, hearing these texts in church, was the vastly different visions of unity in each story.

In the first story, human unity is grounded in homogeneity. “Look,” God observes, “they are one people, and they all have one language…” They proposed to build one city with one tower, in an attempt to preserve this kind of unity. It is a unity that has to be enforced, lest it disintegrate naturally. The city, had it been completed, probably would have been full of sameness, micro-managed by homeowners’ associations and building codes and fashion police. God’s presence, then, was a dangerous and threatening one. God seemingly just wanted to thwart the construction project—and to destroy mutual understanding among humans. That doesn’t sound like any God worthy of the Name, does it?

Maybe, though, if we read this story through the lens of Acts, we might see that God has a different vision of unity.

One ancient definition of beauty, in fact, is unity-in-diversity: different parts making up a harmonious whole, like the movements of a symphony. What if in “confusing” human languages and dispersing people through the earth, God was creating diversity, in order to unite humanity again more beautifully?

The unity we see in Acts involves disparate peoples together in one place, understanding each other through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Unity, in other words, is not something humans can engineer, no matter what building projects we undertake. Unity finds its source in the one God. What does that unity look like? Christianity affirms that the one God is three Persons. God is inherently relational (“God is love”). So beauty finds its source in God: the Holy Trinity is unity-in-diversity, is beautiful. This beautiful, loving, relational unity is God’s gift to us humans. It is a major concern of the Torah, and it is Christ’s own prayer for the Church.

Continuing his story in Acts, St. Luke tells us that Peter, prompted by the Holy Spirit, preached to the (highly diverse) crowd, and three thousand of them believed in Christ and were baptized. Not only that, but “day by day the Lord added to their number.” These were the “first fruits,” we might say, of Christ’s Passover. St. Luke describes this nascent but growing community thus:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. … All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. [NRSV]

As with Shavuot, we have a multi-faceted commemoration: God gives, we receive. God’s gift bears fruit, and we feast with “glad and generous hearts.” God’s gifts create covenanted communities, in which we are united with God and with each other.

The gifts we receive from God are for the life of the world, as both Jews and Christians can agree. So the movement builds, weaving familiar motifs into increasingly complex and beautiful music. Or, if you prefer the gastronomic metaphor, each successive harvest adds new flavors, colors, textures, and complexities to the feast. At any rate, it is a unity-in-diversity which, when scattered throughout the world, produces a harvest of beauty.

There’s a famous quote from Darwin that I think applies here:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. [Source: On the Origin of Species, last line in the text.]

Why it’s been quiet here for a month…

I just wanted to briefly note here that I’m in the process of moving back to Detroit! Yay!!!

Things have been quiet here as I’ve been wrapping up my life in California, finishing up my comprehensive exams (part of the PhD program I’m in), saying good-byes, sorting through and getting rid of all that stuff that somehow accumulates in closets and drawers (and, let’s be honest, pretty much anywhere it can), moving out of my apartment, house-sitting, planning, and shopping for a cheap car.

Yes, I’m driving back to Detroit, which should be an adventure in an old car with a slightly less old cat. Good people are providing me with places to stay all along the way. Perhaps I’ll be able to post here as I travel, but if not, I’ll see you in Detroit!

(I passed my comps yesterday, though! Woo hoo! On to the dissertation proposal…)

Favorite Christmas albums

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

Album cover, 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

Album cover

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

Album cover

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…

Album cover

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

Album cover (Vol. 1) Album cover, Vol. 2

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

Album cover

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

Album cover

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

Album cover

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

Album cover

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

Album cover

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

Album cover

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

Album cover

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

Album cover

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)

Album cover

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?

From home to Home

I’ve arrived in Detroit. To me, Detroit is home, but not in a sentimental or nostalgic sense. In the past week when I mentioned to anyone that I was headed to Detroit, usually their response was something like, “Oh, are you going to see family?”

Well, sort of. I’ll see family next week, when I head outstate. Right now, I’m visiting Detroit (and also friends in Detroit). Detroit is home in the sense that it is where my mental map is centered, and it has formed my identity. It’s true I was born here, but I didn’t grow up in the city; I chose to live in the city as an adult, and immediately felt a sense of belonging.

It’s hard to explain—but why should I have to explain it? It’s like being in love. If you can explain why you’re in love with someone, then it’s probably not the real thing.