Christmas is a season, not just a single day. Part of the fun of Christmas is celebrating the season with media we don’t usually consume the rest of the year. Books, movies, music all help to create a festive atmosphere in our homes. So I thought in this season I would share some of the special things that help prepare me for Christmas morning. Today, we’ll look at Christmas music.
I actually have—or had—quite a stack of Christmas albums. I suspect if I were to visit my daughters’ homes, I might find some CDs that “migrated,” but ’tis the season for sharing, right? As always, these are my picks. Just because I don’t include your favorite doesn’t mean it isn’t good. You are welcome to listen all day to Tennessee Ernie Ford Sings Frosty The Snowman if you like. But if you were to come to my house, chances are these are the Christmas albums I would be playing.
First of all, a couple of honorable mentions. When the producers of A Charlie Brown Christmas suggested jazz music as the soundtrack for the half-hour animated special, the executives at NBC went nuts. Jazz was adult music, and this was a kids’ show, right? The producers kept pushing, and good thing. Forty five years later, the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas is the soundtrack for many people’s Christmas. Simple, yet delightful.
Nat King Cole’s Christmas Song (chestnuts roasting on an open fire) is traditional Christmas fare presented by one of the most gifted singers ever. Hard to find a better album to please most everyone than this classic.
And just for fun, you ought to toss in Bob Rivers’ Twisted Christmas with such “classics” as “The Twelve Pains Of Christmas,” “Wreck The Malls” and “The Restroom Door Said Gentlemen.” And yes, those words will be stuck in your head when you go to sing the real songs at church this Sunday. Sorry.
Ok, here are my top five Christmas albums, starting with…
Number Five: Bruce Cockburn’s Christmas. Some people have called Cockburn (pronounced COE-burn) Canada’s Bob Dylan. I prefer to think of him as one of the most insightful songwriters who happens to be a Christian. This is a simple album with few instruments to go with Cockburn’s guitar and vocals, but that simplicity is what makes this a great album to listen to on a quiet, snowy evening when you have had a day filled with “noise, noise, noise” (to quote Boris Karloff from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas). His arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is one of my favorites.
Number Four: Sting’s If On A Winter’s Night. It struck me this week that the songs that tell of the birth of Jesus I like best are sung by those who, as far as I know, are not followers of Jesus. Jackson Browne, Ricki Lee Jones, Karen Carpenter. Whether Gordon Sumner (Sting’s real name) continues in the Catholic faith in which was raised or not I don’t know, although if you listen to the songs on his 2003 release, Sacred Love, you will find it filled with strong Christian themes. The same can be said of Sting’s Christmas offering. He brings new life to old songs such as “There Is No Rose Of Such Virtue” and “Lo How A Rose E’er Blooming” while recasting a couple of his earlier songs, like “The Hounds Of Winter.” Another simple album for listening on a snowy evening.
Number Three: Ultra-Lounge Christmas Cocktails, Part Two. Â Oh come on, now. Loosen up a bit. Tell me you don’t want to hear Lou Rawls sing “Merry Christmas, Baby,” Nancy Wilson’s “The Christmas Waltz,” or Les Brown and His Band of Renown do “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm.” This is the album I grab if I have to actually leave my house to do some Christmas shopping. (Amazon.com is a the way to go. Forget the malls!) If you are having a Christmas party at your house, get this and put it on “repeat.” But that Christmas sweater? No. Put it back in the closet and back away slowly…
Number Two: The Carpenter’s Christmas Portrait. How can you not like Karen Carpenter’s vocals? This is my “happy holiday” album. Every song on this selection will make you smile. Yes, it has 1970s written all over it. So what. It wasn’t that bad of a decade. Ok, maybe it was. (Disco, bell bottoms, Richard Nixon—need I say more?) But this album proves there is always something good amidst the bad. If the holiday season starts to wear on you with all you have to do, slap this CD in your player, sit down with a mug of hot chocolate, close your eyes and listen. See if you aren’t happier by the time Karen finishes singing “Silent Night.”
Number One: Michael Spencer and I agreed on many things, including what we both considered the best Christmas album of all time: The Chieftain’s Bells Of Dublin. I love this so much, I often pull it out and give it a listen in the summer. Oh, no doubt this is a Christmas album, but it is just so rich it doesn’t feel out of place to hear in July. The Chieftains are one of the greatest Irish bands of all time. They play traditional Irish instruments, which gives familiar songs like “I Saw Three Ships A-Sailing” and “O The Holly She Bears A Berry” and new sound. And with Ricki Lee Jones singing “O Holy Night” and Elvis Costello adding a really weird song about “The St. Stephen’s Day Murders,” you have eclectic on steroids. But what really makes this album—and again, Michael and I both agreed on this—is Jackson Browne’s “The Rebel Jesus.” If I were driving cross-country in December and could only listen to one album the entire way, that would be painful. But if I had to do that, this would be my choice.
Ok. I’m sure I left out your favorites, so now is your turn. What do you listen to during this season? Is music an important part of your Christmas? Who would you like to record a Christmas album who hasn’t done so?