Monday, December 1, 2008

The Definitive Christmas Album List

This is a long one -- you might want to take it in bite sized pieces. Think of this more as a handy reference guide to your holiday music listening enjoyment. 

Well, it’s that time of year again. 

The ubiquitous Christmas carol. Somewhere in the background, everywhere you go, from now until January 1, from malls, to grocery stores, to elevators, to restaurants, and on, and on, will be playing somebody’s rendition of some holiday song. 

EVERYBODY does a Christmas album! 

Why? Because they are relatively quick and cheap to make (most of the songs are already written) and there is already a built in audience -- even if a fan is only luke warm on most of an artist’s work, there’s a good chance that they would be curious enough to buy the Christmas Album. The problem is -- and trust me I’ve done the research (I used to buy every Christmas CD by any singer that I was remotely familiar with) -- 98% of them SUCK!

Now let me qualify that by saying that I think about 98% of everything in the music industry today SUCKS as well. So, what’s the problem? The problem is, that when you are making an album of the same songs that everyone else is recording, it is very hard to stand out. Even great singers often do bland interpretations of Christmas songs -- good for background noise, but nothing memorable. For instance, if I could have any person’s singing voice in this world right now, it would be Josh Groban’s. He has a beautiful (yes beautiful - get over it), powerful, tenor voice, but he released a Christmas album last year that is chloroform in a CD format.    I’m not necessarily advocating a complete overhaul of the Christmas catalog -- in fact I’m a big fan of tradition. 

Even the titles of most of these albums aren’t original -- you can almost predict them: Country singers will name their CD -- naturally -- “A Country Christmas”, whereas your more pretentious artists will call their holiday collection “Noel”. And, of course, there’s the always popular, if bland, “The Christmas Album”. But, before I go too far, I suppose that I shouldn’t harp too much on titles, because, as the saying goes “You can’t judge a book by it’s cover” (some of the titles that I have named are in the following list of “Essential CD’s”).

I’m also not saying that there hasn’t been innovation in the genre of Christmas music. For instance, take the Trans Siberian Orchestra - not only a catchy, if somewhat baffling, name for a band, but, the music is a very original take on traditional Christmas songs. It was designed to be a sort of Rock Opera (ala “Tommy” by The Who), so the music is very heavy on electric guitars and drums, and actually is very earnest (though, at times, it sounds as though they are trying to beat their instruments into submission). The problem comes, mainly, from the lyrics and the singing. The lyrics (not that I could do any better) sound like they are written from a veteran of the rock power ballads of the late 1980’s/early 1990’s, though, as I said, they are very earnest. 

Then there’s the sounds do I put this? sounds like Satan singing Christmas carols. And that’s just not right. I know they don’t mean for it to sound that way, but I can’t help it, when I listen to the guy sing, all I hear is “Joy to the World! and pass the live bats!”

In these days of itunes and create your own playlists, is it really necessary to have a list of Essential Christmas albums? Of course it is, or I wouldn’t be doing it. Most Christmas albums, even the most bland ones, won’t cause your ears to bleed, and there is usually at least one song that approaches listen-ability. But, wouldn’t it be nice to put in a CD that you can play, in its entirety, and actually enjoy every song? Christmas is a time of many different emotions, and what follows is a list of 14 Christmas CD’s that will get you through all the highs, lows and in-betweens of “the most wonderful time of the year.”

1. Bing Crosby: Christmas Classics 
   Bing Crosby sings everything better than anyone else. He is, literally, the voice of Christmas. He's also everywhere at Christmas, so how do you know which album is going to give you the biggest bang for your buck? Well on every Bing Crosby Christmas album you will find "White Chirstmas." No one but Bing should sing this song. EVER!  This CD has that song, as well as the popular, and fun (though more interesting when it wasn't played so often) duet with David Bowie -- "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy". The real gem however is a beautiful song called "The Littlest Angel." 

2. Peter Breinholt: Noel 
  Okay, so this is one of those predictable titles, but trust me, it works here. Peter Breinholt is a local guy here in Utah, but over the years , he has acquired a substantial following outside of the immediate area. If I had to classify his music, I would call it folk, but really his sound is unique. His music is an acoustic amalgamation. There are guitars and banjos and fiddles and drums and pianos and cellos and on and on...Very rich and very original. Nine of the eleven songs on this CD are traditional Christmas songs, but every one of them feels original, but not in a distracting way. Actually, listening to this CD, makes you think that this is the way these songs are supposed to sound. His two original songs -- "Christmas Eve Song" and "Wake up Little Child"  -- are vintage Peter, sort of a stream of consciousness collection of wonderfully descriptive sentences, paired with beautiful music. I could play this CD all year  long. I don't even do that with Bing. If I could recommend one new CD, from any on this list, this would be it. 

3. Kurt Bestor: Noel
   So, I mock pretentious titles like "Noel" and then I give you two in a row? Yes, but I swear it's okay. The title of this CD is also appropriate -- but ONLY these two, no more! Kurt Bestor is another local (what can I say, we have a plethora of local talent). He has scored music for movies, TV shows, even the Olympics, as well as several albums of his own. But, he made his name with Christmas Albums (he has five) and his yearly Christmas concerts -- which used to be really good, but have gotten a little stale lately (though he'll be the last to know it -- he has a bit of an ego). Luckily we have recordings of his music. Noel is his third Christmas CD, and he was really hitting his stride. It has a little of everything (all instrumental by the way) from new age piano to quiet traditional to full orchestral pieces. The prettiest song here is "Star Carol," but be sure to check out the piano solo mid way through "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." 

4. Jimmy Buffett: Christmas Island
   Jimmy Buffett was born December 20, 1946. Christmas 1996 was Jimmy's 50th birthday, and to celebrate he decided to release his first, and only, Christmas CD. This is a unique CD. You see, Jimmy Buffett used to be capable of producing good, entertaining, clever music (just not in the last five or six years).  "Christmas Island" is a very fun album. At his best Jimmy has many different sounds, and this album has something for everyone: A reggae version of "Jingle Bells", a very serviceable turn as a crooner on "Mele Kalikimaka", and a rockin' surfer version of "Up on the Housetop." He also, perhaps predictably, covers John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (war is over)"  which is a little overdone, but all remakes of this tired song are better than the original for one reason -- no Yoko. But, the best songs on this CD are the original compositions.
 "Merry Christmas Alabama" is a touching musical Christmas card to friends and places of Buffett's past. And the coolest song on the CD is "Ho ho ho and a bottle of Rum" -- a little ditty about Santa, and a well deserved vacation.


5. Michael Mclean: The Forgotten Carols.
   Most Christmas albums try to include a new song, hoping it will catch on as the "new Christmas classic." But, most of them, of course, SUCK! But, with the Forgotten Carols, Michael Mclean has added to the Christmas catalog the best new Christmas songs, in a generation. The songs tell the story of a woman named Constance, a nurse who moves into the home of a kindly old gentleman named John, to care for him over the holidays, while his family is away on vacation. Constance is uptight and solitary, with very little use for Christmas, but she gradually has a change of heart, as she gets to know John, and learns the stories behind some very special Christmas ornaments. John may be older than he seems, as he tells of experiences with the Inn Keeper of Bethlehem, Joseph, the husband of Mary, and George Friedrich Handel, among others -- from each of whom John has acquired a memento which he hangs on his Christmas tree, to remind him of that person's connection to the celebration of the birth of the Savior.
 All the songs are wonderful, but the most touching is the story of Joseph -- "Joseph (I was not his father, he was mine)."

6. Mannheim Steamroller: Christmas 
   This was a groundbreaking album in the Christmas music genre. It was so innovative that it spawned a whole new movement in the field -- new age Christmas music. After this album, other artists realized that they could tweak traditional Christmas tunes, without being burned for heresy. The music actually spans quite a spectrum -- from contemporary "rockin" versions of songs like "Deck the Halls" and "God rest ye merry, gentlemen," to more traditional takes on songs like "Coventry Carol." This CD is really known for the jazzier stuff, but the real gem is the final song "Stille Nacht." Mannheim Steamroller has done several more Christmas CD's since this one, with varying degrees of success, but none have had the impact of this first album. 

7. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Spirit of the Season
   Actually, I included this CD, because it happens to be the one that I own. There are several, and they are all magnificent. At some point during the Christmas season, you get the urge to hear a good choir, and this is the preeminent choir in the world. Actually, this album does not contain it, but I would suggest finding a recording of the Tabernacle Choir singing the"Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah -- you win;t find it done any better anywhere. This CD happens to be the recording of the Choir's Christmas concert from a couple of years ago. The guest vocalist is Sissel --  a beautiful Norwegian woman, with an amazing voice (she did the haunting vocals on the soundtrack form Titanic).

8. Elvis Presley: If Every Day was like Christmas 
   Elvis has become something of a joke -- and for good reason -- but once you get past the sequined jumpsuits, and the impersonators, it turns out he really could sing. Usually Elvis and Christmas  means "Blue Christmas" -- which is on this CD -- but there are so many other great songs on this album, that "Blue Christmas" is more of a footnote. Elvis puts his unique spin on several traditional Christmas songs (Silver Bells, The First Noel, Silent Night etc...) but the best songs on this disc have a lonely, melancholy sound. "It won't seem like Christmas without you," "Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees," and "If I get home on Christmas Day" remind you that Christmas is not always presents and joyful exuberance, sometimes it is loneliness and heartache. I'll admit, this album probably isn't for everyone, but don't judge it too harshly before you've given it an honest chance. 

9. Harry Connick Jr.: When my Heart finds Christmas
   Harry Connick Jr. is a throwback to the crooners of old. His style takes a classic New Orleans jazz sound and makes it cool for a new generation. While his up tempo stuff is a real kick, he doesn't quite have the chops to match up to the old crooners (Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole...) on the slower songs. That's not to say they're not worth listening to -- "When my heart finds Christmas" and "What are you doing New Year's Eve?" are the kind of songs that make you want to make a cup of hot chocolate, and stare out the window at the falling snow (if you're into that kind of thing). But he really nail it on the big band songs. "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" is a fun new take on an old favorite, but the best song on the CD is "It must've been ol' Santa Claus" about a fanciful ride with Old St. Nick, by a young unbeliever. 

10. Sarah McLachlan: Wintersong
   I used to add several new CD's to my Christmas collection each year, but as I have become more discriminating, the additions have become smaller. In 2006, I only bought two, this beauty being one of them. Sarah McLachlan sings from love's ragged edges. Most of her music has a beautiful melancholy to it. This album is full of glorious melancholy. This is a CD to play on that day that you KNOW is coming, when the pressure of the holidays makes you wonder if we've all lost sight of the beauty of a simple Christmas. There are none of the fun "kid" songs here -- no Rudolph, no Frosty, no Jingle Bells. The traditional songs are the quieter hymns of Christmas -- O little town of Bethlehem, Silent Night, What Child is this?  -- the other
 selections are mostly covers of other artists, and they are all better than the originals. There is no real surprise here: "Happy Xmas (War is Over), which, like the Jimmy Buffett version, is better than John Lennon's original because, once again, no Yoko. Even better is the version of the Joni Mitchell song "River" -- with a beautiful dobro accompaniment. Best of all the covers though is "Song for a Winter's Night" -- originally sung (and written) by Gordon Lightfoot. Sarah, no slouch of a songwriter herself, has a pretty little composition of her own called "Wintersong." But, I've saved the best for last -- "In the Bleak Mid-Winter" is  not only the best version of this song, it's one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard. The whole CD is gorgeous. It's the best addition to my Christmas music collection in the last ten years. 

11. Ryan Shupe and the Rubberband: The Gift
   Ryan Shupe and the Rubberband have a very distinct sound -- it's bluegrass, but it's also folk, and rock and country and jazz fact, they describe their sound as "Post Hee Haw - Funkadelic - Hip Hop - Newgrass." That pretty much covers it. This is mostly a fun album ( if you ever get the chance to see these guys in concert, they are as much fun to watch, as they are to listen to), with bluegrass treatments of many Christmas favorites -- "Rudolph," "Jingle Bells," "Silent Night," and a really cool version of "Carol of the Bells" -- with no bells. The really great songs on this album are the original -- "The Gift" (which is sort of a take on "O Come all Ye Faithful") and the unusual -- "Far Far Away" -- which is an original sound for a lesser known Mormon Christmas hymn "Far Far Away on Judea's Plain." The music is very rich (these guys are good friends, and often perform with, Peter Breinholt -- see #2) -- banjo, guitar, and Ryan Shupe's specialty, the fiddle (or violin, if he plays it slower -- yes, that's the only difference -- I don't care what your high school music teacher said).

12. John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together
   Okay! Listen to it before you judge it! This is good stuff. I LOVE the Muppets, and heck, I even really like John Denver. Sue me. The amazing thing about a Muppets CD is that it's really a bunch of guys in a studio, singing in funny voices, but the magic is that what you hear, and what you see in your mind's eye, are Kermit and company. But, beyond the novelty of listening to puppets sing, the songs are very touching, especially when combined with the heartfelt earnestness of John Denver. It seem that back in the late 70's, John and the Muppets were always getting together, for one reason or another. They blend so seamlessly, that I almost think that maybe John Denver was a Muppet. Some of the songs on the CD are only Muppets (and all of your favorites are here == Kermit, Piggy, Gonzo, Rolff) like "Christmas Wish" sung by Kermit, and some are just John Denver -- "Noe: Christmas Eve 1913." But, of course, the best songs are the ones where they sing together. Highlights are "The Twelve Days of Christmas" -- which descends into madness -- and "Stille Nacht" -- which opens with a narration of the story of how this most beloved of all Christmas carols came to be written. 

Honorable mentions: Alabama Christmas, volumes 1&2
   These holiday offerings, by perennial country favorites Alabama, are packed with great -- mostly original -- Christmas songs. In fact, of the 23 songs between the two albums, only three of them are traditional Christmas carols, the best of which is their version of "The Little Drummer Boy." Only a couple of songs are really forgettable, and some are very touching. Alabama has a very warm, heartfelt sound, which really works Christmas songs. These are songs to listen to, as you sit in front of a roaring fire (in the fireplace) and admire the great job you did decorating your tree. . Highlights: "Santa Claus (I still believe in you)," "Tonight is Christmas," "Thistlehair the Christmas Bear," "Tennessee Christmas, " "The Christmas Spirit," and, if you can believe it, a song called "Happy Birthday Jesus" (I cringed at the title, but they pull it off). There are two songs that I especially love, because they remind me of my dad, who passed away just before Christmas, a few years ago -- "Christmas Memories" and " I was Young Once Too." I'm not sure why I called these albums honorable mentions. Go ahead and think of them as numbers 13 and 14, if you'd like to. 

There you go. 
The essential Christmas Album list. You can't go wrong with anything from the above selections. Trust me. I wouldn't something this important. 


Honey Mommy said...

WOW! So much great Christmas music! I have some of it, but I am going to have to check out some of your selections!

SalGal said...

Ok, you left some good stuff off here, but not a bad selection altogether.

First, "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" from John & The Muppets is priceless!!

Second, NO ONE but Bing should sing "Mele Kalikimaka".

Third, The Carpenters have a pretty righteous Christmas sound.

Fourthly, "Barenaked for the Holidays" is pretty rockin' and should not be overlooked.

Last, but not least...

Nobody, and I mean nobody but Andy Williams should sing "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year".

I'm just sayin'.

Melissa said...

That was a long one....but a goody!!
Anyway-- I love Manheim Steamroller's Christmas album....oh and of course Bing Crosby's, that's a classic!!

Michelle said...

John Denver and the that brings back memories!

Brent Taylor said...

Old blog entry, but if anyone reads this it's a good list... even a few I haven't listened to (and I have nearly 5,000 mp3's of holiday fare. But the quintessential albums are missing. Already mentioned The Carpenters. But where is the Osmonds (and I'm not referring to this being a Utah blog; a classic awesome album). And the #1 album of holiday fare ever -- Beach Boys? No Christmas complete without them. You also skipped Amy Grant.