I love Christmastime. Three ways this love is manifest:
- I tie an awesome small wooden Santa around my neck with a green string.
- I watch four movies: It’s a Wonderful Life, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Elf, and Love Actually.
- I listen to a lot of holiday music.
The main purpose of this post is to discuss the third point, holiday music. When it comes to finding quality holiday music, I find myself on the fence that separates festive from compulsive. The search began in the days of free napster when I had no scruples about downloading and distributing pirated music. Though financially strapped I had blank CDs, a CD writer and a lot of time so I decided to spread holiday cheer by making a delicious compilation of Christmas songs from contemporary artists for my family and friends. The aptly titled Merry Xmas Mix was a hit; five years on and we’re still listening to it while eating Chex mix and chocolate covered coconut balls and playing Scrabble around the dining room table.
The first album I think of when I think about Christmas music is A Christmas Together, the timeless classic that features John Denver and The Muppets. What can be more jolly than singing along with Miss Piggy as she wails “FIVE GOLDEN RINGS” on Twelve Days of Christmas? So the bar is set pretty high. On the other end of the spectrum is Michael McDonald’s album Through the Many Winters which listening to made me want to shoot myself in the face. Rest assured I did not purchase the album: I won it along with Kenny G’s Holiday Collection and Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas Celebration at a work holiday party three years ago. I believe I trashed the McDonald CD but the mp3s still find their way into itunes’ shuffle playlist way too often. So far none of the albums I discussed were actually purchased by me. The artists who put out albums that I sampled and purchased, in order of preference are: Jars of Clay, Jewel, Barenaked Ladies, Harry Connick Jr, and James Taylor. I posted a brief review of the Jars album Christmas Songs last year and stand by it: it was the first album I listened to this year and one I doubt I will ever tire of. Several years before Christmas Songs, Jars of Clay released “Little Drummer Boy” as a single and it remains my favorite holiday song.
Jewel’s album Joy: A Holiday Collection is beautiful in its simplicity. No matter your opinion of her as an artist, poet or lyricist, there is no denying she has a lovely voice. Her rendition of “O Holy Night” is my favorite track. I could do without the yodeling though; fortunately it only shows up in one track. Barenaked Ladies’ album is a typical, up-tempo, goofy collection of songs. The band teams up with Michael Bublé on the hilarious track “Elf’s Lament” which documents one elf’s attempt to organize his fellow elves. My two favorite parts:
Toiling through the ages
Making toys on garnished wages
There’s no union
We’re only through when we outdo the competition
We’re used to repetition, so we drew up a petition
We, the undersigned, feel undermined
Let’s redefine “employment”
If you’re in the mood for James Taylor or Harry Connick Jr and it happens to be Christmastime, their albums are fine. For me the arrangements deviate too far from tradition.
Last year Starbucks released a compilation, Stockings by the Fire, which has several excellent songs. Sarah McLachlan’s version of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is beautifully done. Other favorite songs are “Carol of the Bells” by The Bird & The Bee and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Hem. Rufus Wainwright steals the show though with the ballad “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”.
I’d be remiss if I did not mention A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. “Christmas Time is Here” is a song that immediately transports me with warm thoughts to happy times.
Two singles I have and immensely enjoy are the timeless “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan and a relatively new song by Regina Spektor called “My Dear Acquaintance (A Happy New Year)”. I’ve heard so many versions of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and it is Lady Ella’s unmatched skill and understated coquettish mastery that makes her version stand above the rest. Spektor’s song is simple and hopeful, a good song to listen to while making resolutions for the new year.
Two albums I added to my collection this year are Songs for Christmas by Sufjan Stevens and Silent Night by Red Mountain Church. Songs for Christmas is actually a collection of EPs. According to amazon.com Stevens began making annual EPs of traditional carols and songs mixed with his own holiday-themed tunes to combat “that creepy Christmas feeling” that typical Christmas music stirs, probably the same music that I am singing the praises of above. Regardless, the lo-fi folk songs are wonderfully crafted and a delight to listen to. My favorite tracks are the original composition and unapologetic downer “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever” and the classic “O Come O Come Emmanuel” (which appears three times). Silent Night is another terrific album from Red Mountain Church. On the inside jacket cover it says “We tried to stay out of the way and honor these timeless melodies as best we could. We hope you like them, and we hope they remind you of Advent.” Without question the album accomplishes its goal.
I’d be interested to hear about your favorite holiday song or album.