October 22, 2017

A Few Christmas Favorites

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.  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?

Comments

  1. You’re gonna force me to write an answering post, aren’t you?

    And what? No “Over the Rhine”?

    • I don’t have Snow Angel by OtR, Chaplain. But Adam Palmer says it’s great. And yes, I’m waiting to hear how Michael Jackson Sings Santa’s Favorites inspires you…

    • Bruce made number 5 and that’s good enough for me.

      Best section from “cry of a tiny babe”…

      Like a stone on the surface of a still river
      Driving the ripples on forever
      Redemption rips through the surface of time
      In the cry of a tiny babe

      followed by…

      ‘Cause the governing body of the whole [Holy] land
      Is that of Herod, a paranoid man
      Who when he hears there’s a baby born King of the Jews
      Sends death squads to kill all male children under two
      But that same bright angel warns the parents in a dream
      And they head out for the border and get away clean

      Gotta love Bruce!

    • OTR is at the top of my list. I’ve been able to see Karin and Linford’s Christmas concert at Calvin College several times.

  2. I’ve been putting off writing a paper for the past hour by looking for christmas music online. You’re not helping things here.

    My Christmas music is mainly made up of everything Nat King Cole and Mariah Carey ever recorded, with a sprinkling of random songs here and there just for fun:

    1) The Barenaked Ladies version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
    2) Savage Garden’s version of Last Christmas
    3) Judy Garland’s version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
    4) Leon Redboan’s version of Baby It’s Cold Outside
    5) The Cory Band’s version of Stop the Calvary http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O91kqMsigZs
    which, fun fact, I have loved since childhood but read the lyrics for the first time today and discovered it’s an anti-war song, which makes me exceedingly happy.

  3. I have fond memories of Dr. Demento’s Christmas Album. Given how much I played it, I wonder if my parents regretted giving it to me as a gift. I haven’t listened to it in ages, but I still remember a great deal of the Dragnet parody.

    Beyond that, I always liked the traditional carols, sung, well, the way we expect them to be. Good King Wenceslas, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Silent Night, etc. For some reason, the non-religious carols set my teeth on edge. I think it’s the association with shopping malls, but I’m not sure.

    I think my favorite Christmas song is one that I had to learn in middle school. Christmas in the Trenches by John McCutcheon tells the story of the Christmas Truce of WWI. The soldiers on both sides of the Western Front (not all the soldiers, but over 100,000) simply stopped fighting, sung carols and went out and met their enemies. A couple of days later, they were shooting at each other again.

  4. Love, love, love Ricki Lee Jones. Jeff, if you like the traditional classics, I’d love you to listen to the version of “O Holy Night” I just recorded. I’m offering it as a free download. Let me know what you think & a joyous holiday season.
    Twitter: @CharlieWMusic

  5. There are several Christmas songs that found their way on non-Christmas albums. “Home By Another Way” by James Taylor is a good one. Bruce Cockburn’s “Cry of a Tiny Baby” and “Shipwrecked at the Stable Door” are two more.

  6. I love Bruce Cockburn and the song Michael Bell is quoting from is on the album I have of Bruce’s, but I don’t thing my album is called Christmas. I will have to check it out. And I do like Sting, so maybe I should check that one out too. I have a couple of instrumental albums of Christmas songs I like to listen to. Plus, I had a friend who made me four cassette tapes of jazzy Christmas songs he taped as they were played on the radio I think. Lots of great black singers from the 1940s, I think, on those. They are fun to listen to!

    • It’s from “Nothing But A Burning Light”… my go-to album for road trips through the Mojave desert.

  7. John Michael Talbot’s “The Birth of Jesus” is a good album. If there’s still room for Mary at the Manger, then John Michael Talbot’s “For the Bride” is a classic.

    Also good are “Sing We Christmas” and “Magnificat” by Chanticleer.

  8. I’m actually more of a Christmas music junkie than I care to admit, and I have some albums that I’m not really proud of owning. I’ve kind of gotten tired of a lot of “Christian” Christmas albums, but Behold the Lamb of God by Andrew Peterson is one of the rare exceptions. It’s simply phenomenal. Also, it may be the only album to make a song out of the genealogy in Matthew…

    But, yes, both OtR Christmas albums are great as well. I still kind of like the first one because it really captures the nostalgia of the season very well.

    The Sting album is very good, too.

    Because of sentimental reasons, I still like Amy Grant’s first Christmas album. I have a hard time not crying when I hear the song Heirlooms even though it’s kind of sappy. Her second one is very good too. Phil Keaggy’s playing on “O Come All Ye Faithful” is great – understated and elegant. The arrangement of “Jesu, Joy of Men’s Desiring” at the end of that album is very good, too.

    One sleeper album that I really like is Russ Taff’s A Christmas Song. I’m still surprised that an album of this caliber was released on a Christian label. It’s just plain classy.

  9. Christiane says:

    I must admit a fondness for Celtic Woman’s Christmas music.
    This is a favorite, sung in the Irish:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6NnTCGXJTIw&feature=more_related

    And for Advent, there is always Enya’s ‘Oh Come, O Come Emmanuel’. So ethereal.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPHh3nMMu-I&feature=related

  10. What a great topic this conversation might become:

    I submit the most exhilerating “O Holy Night” I know of is by the great Hawaiian singer Willie K

    at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAMwsBPfRIc

    or to watch him sing it live visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13m_isWrtho&feature=related

    If these addresses don’ translate to active links, be persistent at You tube and you will not regret the effort.

    Tom

    Tom

  11. Dan Allison says:

    Christmas at my place is pretty simple musically: Guaraldi, Loreena McKennitt, The TranSiberian Orchestra, and the Jethro Tull Christmas Album.

  12. Don’t listen to popular entertainers much, so am not familiar with most of your selections.
    As serious songs, I still like “Angels We Have Heard on High”, and after hearing “Silent Night” as a recessional at the Munich cathedral and in its original language, I seem to get watery eyes upon hearing it.
    Stan Freburg did a number on a number of popular favorites, like “Deck the Halls With Advertising”. Not sure about donning gay apparel, either (kinda sad how meanings of words are co-opted so drastically). I also like “Chipmunks Roasting on an Open Fire”, the original of which isn’t very Christmasy anyway.

  13. I am NOT an opera fan, but my favorite Christmas album by far is Charlotte Church’s Dream a Dream. I also love my Celtic Christmas CD I picked up last year. I add to my collection every year with one or two new CDs, so this is giving me much food for thought. I think Over the Rhine has to be near the top of the list!

  14. Re: “The Christmas Song” –
    I long ago burned out on secular Christmas songs. In addition, I find it somewhat unseemly that a Jewish songwriter (Mel Torme) should be profiting from Christmas.

    • flatrocker says:

      Seems to me that quite a few Jews profited from the first Christmas. Some of them are even mentioned in the Nativity story.

  15. The album Celtic Christmas by Eden’s Bridge. Some great versions of familiar songs, and some phenomenal songs not so familiar to me.

  16. Although I am a big music fan (especially early seventees genre) I like the traditional stuff, the things I remember my parent’s playing. I can’t even recall the albums except Burl Ives. I do also like the theme to Peanuts Christmas. And I have adopted the Brenda Lee Christmas CD since that is what my wife grew up on.

    But the tradditional still sends shivers up my spine – in a good way.

  17. Trans-Siberian Orchestra always makes me stop and listen.

    Songs from old Christmas cartoons, I love those. Of course the Charlie Brown Christmas songs, and the Grinch, and Frosty the Snowman 🙂

    I heard a new version of Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel last night on the way home from work, it was beautiful.

  18. I’ve got to agree with the Bruce Cockburn selection. Cry of a Tiny Babe is a great song, one of the best gospel narratives in song I’ve heard. And his Christmas CD is timeless.
    But one of personal favorite Christmas songs is Shawn Phillips A Christmas Song from 1971. i just love his New Orleans jazz band sound in the song as well as a pretty good message for the holiday season.

  19. Moinir correction – “A Charlie Brown Christmas” originally aired on CBS, not NBC.