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It is beginning to sound a lot like Christmas

I love Christmastime.  Three ways this love is manifest:

  1. I tie an awesome small wooden Santa around my neck with a green string.
  2. I watch four movies: It’s a Wonderful LifeNational Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Elf, and Love Actually.
  3. 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.

sara said,

December 4, 2008 @ 6:24 pm

I loved this post, and it conjured up many warm and happy memories for me too– driving in that gosh-forsaken, heat-lacking VW bus, belting out 12 days, Muppet-style, fighting over who got to be 5, but secretly delighting in the fact that there were 6 of us (sorry, no JC yet) so we each got 2. 🙂 JD & the Muppets is the immediate album when I think of childhood Christmases, and I don’t think I’ve ever been able to listen to it without cracking a smile.
My faves: Jewel, your Merry Xmas Mix, RMC’s, James Taylor’s, and Harry’s. RMC’s Come thou long expected Jesus is my hands-down favorite this year. I listen to it in the morning before work, and in the evening before I go to bed. What a wonderful song to be in my head (and heart) this season.
I chuckled (out loud, unfortunately, given a student was sitting in my office at the time) thinking of your story of you and Donna singing Baby it’s cold outside last Christmas w/ Jake in the car.

Andrew said,

December 4, 2008 @ 7:38 pm

Ah good times. I almost forgot about Donna and me serenading Jake last year. Thanks so much for the stories and memory refresher.

katie said,

December 7, 2008 @ 10:49 pm

My votes…for classic – Vince’s Charlie Brown.
for recent – Sufjan’s “..christmas” AND, the recently purchased Sarah McLaughlin’s “Wintersongs”. I’ve always loved “Song for a winter’s night” and this entire album is nearly as rich as that single, mixing traditional hymns done with a unique bent, and some newbies that are lovely. Nice for a rainy December day with a christmaslight glow.

Oh, and for the record, Rufus Wainwright ALWAYS steals the show.
(and now I mUST hear that song you refer to).

K

Bips said,

December 12, 2008 @ 12:37 am

I must add one of my favorite memories. I am sure you remember decorating the Christmas tree in the dining room with the linoleum over pine wood floor. As I recall the beautiful music was punctuated by the regular explosions of glass ornaments unceremonially falling to the ground. Can’t remember how many we lost that year…. but I do know that next year we had an awful lot of those mini stuffed animals or knitted or crocheted ornaments that could be tossed off of the Empire State Building without losing a stitch!
One of my favorite Christmas music “album-cassette-CD” is Amy Grant’s first Christmas album with Tennesee Christmas and her rendition of “Hark the Herald.”
It’s a good thing that our brains hold on so tightly to the good times and soften the difficult or trying times.
With regard to favorite movies, I have to go with Christmas Vacation (Now, that’s an RV, Clark), Elf (SANTA, I know HIM), and Home Alone.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all ….
Bipper

sara said,

December 16, 2008 @ 2:08 am

Bips, that was quite a year. I think that two people fell off chairs that year or hurt their back– Amy and Mom? Was that the year Jake ate the pointsettia? I’m chuckling remembering… Fa la la [crash] la la, la [crash] la la la [crash].
🙂
Btw, I love that rendition of Hark the Herald too. It makes me happy.

Clare said,

February 4, 2009 @ 12:03 am

Love Actually is such a gem of a Christmas movie! Nobody ever considers it as an actual Christmas movie, I’m so glad to see you do!

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