October 17, 2017

…And a Few More Christmas Favorites

By Chaplain Mike

In usual fashion, the Very Right Reverend Jeff Dunn has thrown down the gauntlet by posting five of his favorite Christmas music selections.

You didn’t think I would keep quiet and not respond, did you?

Actually, I’m going to give you two lists. Jeff focused on folk and contemporary expressions of seasonal music, from Bruce Cockburn’s earthy tunes to the sublime Celtic renderings of the Chieftains, to jazz and pop standards. I love his list, by the way, and I think one of the reasons the Chieftain’s album is #1 is because it is more expansive than one genre and draws the listener in as part of a great gathering to celebrate Christ’s birth.

That said, I need more than folk or contemporary music to help me contemplate the spirit of the season. It’s not Christmas to me without the traditional music of the church and community—ethereal choirs echoing the angelic chorus in Bethlehem’s fields, brilliant brass ensembles playing warm and sparkling arrangements of beloved carols, the stark simplicity of early music voices and instruments, the pageantry of gala festival music.

I’ll start with my more contemporary list, avoiding duplication with Jeff. Some of these may be kind of hard to find today—they have grown on me over many years. However, I urge you to seek them out, for they are the real thing amid all the fool’s gold out there.

Favorite Country Christmas Album

Precious Child: Story of Christmas, Thom Schuyler, Craig Bickhardt (various artists). A who’s who of Nashville artists got together and did a church Christmas cantata in the singer-songwriter style back in 1992. The result is a delightful journey through the Christmas story through the eyes and voices of its characters. I especially love the song lamenting the exile, “One More Generation,” and the Joseph and Mary duet, “Part of Heaven.” Refreshingly genuine.

Favorite Vocal Group Christmas Album

Christmas—Singers Unlimited. This 1972 recording is one of the true classics. Along with Vince Guaradi’s Charlie Brown album, no modern American Christmas season would be complete without the stylings of this amazing jazz vocal ensemble. One of this record’s greatest contributions is the group’s renditions of Alfred Burt’s carols. Burt is best known for composing fifteen Christmas carols in the 40’s and 50’s, but only one of them was performed in public during his lifetime. They are like perfect miniature portraits of the spirit of Christmas. After you hear one of the best jazz vocal groups ever perform these sublime pieces, you will never forget them.

Favorite Folk Instrumental Christmas Album

New England Christmastide. Otis Read, from Warren, Rhode Island, is an experienced composer and performer in a variety of genres, including blues, folk, jazz and Americana. He says this about his first Christmastide album (there are two): A total of 14 musicians perform on a variety of instruments, among them flute, mandolin, piano, guitar, violin, cello, bass, banjo, concertina, accordion, tin whistle, and even vielle, hurdy-gurdy, harmonium and Irish pipes. All performed in small instrumental ensembles.” Delightfully down-to-earth.

Favorite Contemporary Christian Album

Merry Christmas, Love Honeytree. I’m going to reach way back for this one. In fact, I don’t even have this recording anymore (wait, it may be buried in a box of LP’s in the attic). But of all the “contemporary Christian” singers and groups that have put Christmas music together since the Jesus Movement days of the early 70’s, I always found this record to be the most authentic offering. This is a pleasingly gentle and lyrical album, in the tradition of folk singers like Joan Baez and Judy Collins (who also made wonderful Christmas records).

Favorite “Traditional” Popular Album

Bing? Nat? Frank? Ella? Johnny Mathis? Louis Armstrong? Ray Charles? There are many good compilation albums out there, and I could just recommend one of those, but that would be cheating. I might take the Carpenters here, but Jeff beat me to the punch. Gotta make a choice. But I can’t, I just can’t narrow it down to one. So it’s a tie:

White Christmas, Bing Crosby. One reviewer writes: “Bing Crosby’s recording of the song “White Christmas” is considered the bestselling single of all time having sold over 50 million copies worldwide. This album was first put together in 1945 when it was released as 10 songs on five 78 rpm discs. The album was released as a standard vinyl LP for the first time in 1955. It has remained in print ever since and is considered the longest in-print album in the US except for the original cast recording of the musical Oklahoma! which was first released in 1943.” For a lot of folks spanning several generations, it just wouldn’t be Christmas without Bing.

Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, Ella Fitzgerald. In my opinion, Ella was the best female jazz/pop singer ever…no contest. In this album she puts her stamp on the Christmas season with impeccable arrangements and interpretations of seasonal standards. You ain’t had a sleigh ride until you’ve taken one with Ella.

Later today . . . my “serious” Christmas music list.

Comments

  1. Chaplain Mike, that New England Christmastide is one of instrumental Christmas albums I have. It’s great to wrap presents with that playing in the background. We are due for snow tonight and tomorrow in my part of Maine (maybe just a total of 7 inches…nothing like Buffalo, NY!) so it will be perfect for decorating my tree and doing other Christmas-y stuff.

  2. Oh, and I like A John Prine Christmas. In one song, he narrates a bit before singing. He talks about how he went through a divorce that year and that he nailed his electric train to the dining room table “…just because I could.”

  3. Clay Knick says:

    One, among many, that I love is, “Good News” by Kathy Mattea.

  4. Love “The Bells of Dublin”! Also put the Canadian Brass “Noel” album on the list.

  5. Chaplain Mike, you don’t include our favorite Christmas album, which you introduced us to. In fact, you gave us the copy. It’s the Boston Camerata’s American Christmas. We learned and performed many of the songs over the years, and there are still more I want to figure out. It’s rich and beautiful.

  6. Christmas in the Heart by Bob Dylan (2009). Bestest Christmas Album ever!!!

  7. I think Chaplain Mike and the Very Right Reverend Jeff Dunn and the lot of you (and it’s only my opinion, of course) are all daft. THIS is Christmas music that stands the test of time:

    http://wn.com/H%C3%A4ndel_For_unto_us_a_child_is_born

  8. Does anybody have a favorite gospel (old-school African-American style gospel) Christmas album?

    • Steve, I can’t speak of favorites but only give second-hand information. Mahalia Jackson would be a good representative of classic African-American gospel. I know Aretha Franklin has a Christmas album out, and there’s Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir too.

      Anyone more familiar with this genre who can help us?