Top Ten Christmas Albums

Just in time for Christmas shopping, and just in case you’ve missed them, here are some suggestions from the World’s Largest Family Collection of Christmas albums:

Carolyn Arends, The Irrational Season–This album combines the whimsical freshness and realism of Carolyn’s own compositions mixed with some well rendered classics in her beguiling folk style. (“Do Not Be Afraid,” however, is a song for all year ’round: powerfully comforting.)

Steve Bell, The Feast of Seasons–This was my first “favourite Christian Christmas album,” and it’s still one of my favourites. The T. S. Eliot-evoking “Old Sage,” the plaintive “Magnificat,” the smooth guitar solos–no one who likes music can’t like this album.

Bob Bennett, Christmastide–just listened to it again this morning, and it’s a multifacted jewel of composition, arranging (way to go, Roy Salmond!), and performance. It takes several listens to get into the subtle layers of this deceptively “folky” album.

Chris Botti, December–Don’t be put off–or seduced–by Chris’s glamour boy album cover. And don’t listen to the jazz police who hate anyone smooth and popular, as Chris is. The guy can play, cats, and this album manages to both soothe and startle in its creativity.

The Carpenters, Christmas Collection–no one has sung like Karen, and no one has arranged like Richard (put your headphones on, sit still, and listen to “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” for Richard’s characteristic voice layering that now is done routinely by a capella groups, but this was thirty years ago)–but the guy can also wail on the piano (“Carol of the Bells”), as this terrific pop album attests.

Bing Crosby, White Christmas–Bing recorded several Christmas albums, and here’s a good one to get you started. He is, after all, The Greatest Singer Ever, and even though some of his Christmas stuff is comically schmaltzy, no one sounds better when he’s serious–or swinging.

Vince Guaraldi Trio, A Charlie Brown Christmas–One of the more unlikely pairings in the history of television was the Charlie Brown Christmas special and the undeniably groovy jazz of Vince Guaraldi. On “Skating,” for example, listen closely to hear a master imitating two pianos as he comps with the left hand while the right hand sends up flurries of snowflakes. And the chords of “O Tannenbaum” have made one of the dullest of Yuletide songs into virtually a jazz standard.

Diana Krall, Christmas Songs–I admit it: I’m in love with Diana Krall and I have been since my wife and I first heard her at the Winnipeg Jazz Festivals before she achieved pop goddess status. (Yes, I heard her before you did and, yes, that makes me better than you.) This isn’t her best album musically, of course, but it is a fine album that puts Holly Cole in the shade as the silly phrase-stretcher that she sometimes is while adding a welcome bit of fireside smoke to classics grown thick over the years with sugar-coating.

Kathy Mattea, Good News–Sister Kathy sings it as if she means it, which she does. And this good ol’ country album goes well beyond good ol’ country (with the almost-too-clever “There’s a New Kid in Town”) to some intriguing vocal arrangements (“Good News”) and simply the best version available of “Mary, Did You Know?”

Mannheim Steamroller, [all of them, but the earlier, the better]–I know, I know, the Mannheim Steamroller does tend to steamroll over some pieces in overproduced, overwrought enthusiasm. But “Silent Night” is unforgettable, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is a rocking blast, and “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella” tugs at the heartstrings.

And, yes, G. F. Handel’s Messiah has some pretty singable stuff in it, too. Give it a listen if you haven’t already.

Merry Christmas!

0 Responses to “Top Ten Christmas Albums”

  1. D.J. Brown

    Thanks for the suggestions.
    Re Carolyn Arends’ album title, “The Irrational Season”… Madeleine L’Engle wrote an Advent book in 1977 titled,
    “The Irrational Season”, and the following poem which was included in a collection edited by Luci Shaw in 1988:

    After Annunciation

    This is the irrational season
    When love blooms bright and wild.
    Had Mary been filled with reason
    There’d have been no room for the child.

  2. Ally

    Carolyn Arends’ album starts and ends with a setting of that Madeleine L’Engle poem…

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who doesn’t consider “Do Not Be Afraid” to be not only a Christmas song… there’s actually a couple on that album that I keep in the playlist all year long…

  3. scatteredgraces

    My parents first date was a Carpenters concert. I think I’m gonna go out and buy 2 copies. Hope they have it on iTunes. šŸ™‚ thanks!

  4. matichuk

    Where is Mahalia Jackson? You must have spent too much time dreaming of a white Christmas with Bing, because your top Christmas albums look positively pasty.

    • John Stackhouse

      Oh, dear: Must we? Must we deploy race, gender, class, and sex in a discussion of favourite Christmas albums? I actually own lots of albums by people of colour, by women as well as men, by people who are rich/middleclass/poor, and by people who likely have various sexual preferences, and I DON’T THINK ANY OF THAT MATTERS.

      Perhaps you are referring to some sort of “black music,” a contestable categorization indeed. I note that jazz shows up on most of these albums, in fact. And Take 6 does a very fine Christmas CD that almost made the Top 10 list here.

      As for your nomination, I like gospel as a genre, and even have been known to play it myself at times! I’m just not a big fan of Sister Mahalia (or any other traditional gospel singer) when it comes to Christmas music–although Whitney Houston’s fabulous stuff on the soundtrack of the Christmas movie “The Preacher’s Wife” is a terrific exception.

      Now, if you were just joking, ironically injecting a wildly inappropriate note into the proceedings, then I apologize and I offer a rueful smile. But if you weren’t, then please receive this brotherly smack. And a glass of eggnog.

  5. matichuk

    It was an inappropriate joke so I’ll see your rueful smile, forgo the smack and go directly to eggnog.

  6. Eric

    Thanks for this list John. I find it interesting to listen to these and compare with my own choices from a (slightly) different cultural background. Coming from and English choral tradition – I can’t ‘do’ Christmas music without Ralph Vaughan Williams.
    For me this is all to do with roots and I guess our differing choices have much to do with ‘Christmas Past’?

    Thanks by the well for the Steve Bell – which I am enjoying as I type – although it is still Advent šŸ™‚ Btw, his music reminds me greatly of Michael Card who I have always thought bears at least a slight resemblance to . . . your good self šŸ™‚ Perhaps it’s all deep in our genetic heritage somewhere??!! šŸ˜‰
    Anyway – enough incoherent rambling for now – thanks for the post! And Season’s greetings to you from Aotearoa (where I’m having to Acclimatize to Advent in the sun!)

    • John Stackhouse

      I agree that my list leans heavily pop. So if we move toward the classical, the Canadian Brass have a delightful CD, marred only by a stupid “Frosty the Snowman” (only the California Raisins’ very fun album does “Frosty” in a way that keeps me from vomiting). The Cambridge Singers properly show up in the next comment, and my wife rebukes me for not including Anonymous 4’s “On Yoolis Night”–an ethereal album for considering over mulled wine by a candle-lit tree.

  7. Jonathan Friesen

    As I’ve had the Christmas tunes on all afternoon, I can affirm that Steve Bell has a fantasic Christmas album. Not a dud in the bunch. Let me also contribute the the Crash Test Dummies “Jingle All the Way,” which, despite the title, is predominantly composed of sacred Christmas songs. The album is a little uneven in quality, but has some gems, including a beautiful rendition of the Canadian-penned Huron Carol.

    Two more make up my favourite list: Christmas with the Cambridge Singers, and Sunshine and Snowflakes. The latter was my most listened to Xmas album as a kid, a combination of a kids choir and a Doobie Bros inspired early 70s band. The result is a hoot. I can only imagine how the album was received when it was pressed in 1973 by the Christian establishment!

    • John Stackhouse

      Yes, our sons liked “Sunshine and Snowflakes” when they were small. And I didn’t know the Dummies did Christmas, but I’ll check them out now!

    • John Stackhouse

      Yeah, I love Mr. Cockburn’s guitar playing and he has composed some terrific stuff. But his moaning excuse for a singing voice–which does, I admit, work great on certain plaintive kinds of songs–just makes me laugh out loud on several songs on the Christmas album. And that’s not the effect we’re hoping for here….

      I know Cockburn fans are fiercely loyal, and I admire you for your fanatical refusal to admit the obvious deficiencies of his voice, but I just can’t be part of that impressive conspiracy that includes even my musical friend Steve Bell. But Brother Bruce just sounds really bad too many times on this album. Can’t list it here. Sorry!

      (And I will now don my Nomex suit for the flames undoubtedly coming my way…)

  8. Carolyn Arends

    Well, that made my Christmas bright, being included in this very fine list. Thanks! If I may chime in with the nominations and suggest another project for investigation – Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God is an utterly charming song cycle that starts somewhere back in Exodus and works its way to the Gospels to tell “the true tall tale of the coming of Christ.” It’s worth the price of admission for “Matthew’s Begats” alone. And of course, the Spencer Capier Christmas project (which you’ve noted in other posts) is also a delight.

    • John Stackhouse

      Thanks for this recommendation, Carolyn. I don’t know Andrew Peterson’s album and anyone who can write a song about “Matthew’s Begats” and have someone like you recommend it clearly has magic to share….

      (Did I ever sing for you my oratorio based on the extended legal passages in Leviticus and Numbers? No? Want to schedule a performance? No? Thought so.)

  9. sadiesmom

    Carolyn Arends, Bob Bennett, and Spencer Capier — yes! yes! yes! That trio of Christmas goodies has been rotating in the car CD player since Nov. 1. Also love Point of Grace’s first Christmas album, Amy Grant’s first Christmas album — and a little offering from Starbucks about 10 years ago which was Ella [Fitzgerald] Wishes You a Swinging Christmas — devoid of any religious sentiment, but filled with good cheer!

    My husband could not imagine how any such list could exclude Nat King Cole, but he would highly approve of your adding Der Bingle. Interesting, I always think, that Frank Sinatra never made a Christmas album that was something worth listening to (imo). You have to really love Frank (as my husband does) to sit through any of the 3 or so he made (again, imo).

    Downhere’s How Many Kings is worth a listen for “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “Good King Wenceslas” alone, though many other songs are nice, as well.

    One of my favorite Arends Christmas songs is not on Irrational, but I highly recommend a singles download from her website: Christmas Changes Everything . . . or is it Everything Changes at Christmas? Either way, it’s a good ‘un. Irrational was released in 2004 — and I’m hoping 2012 will have her considering a second seasonal offering with all the new songs.

    Merry Christmas!

    • John Stackhouse

      Point of Grace’s first album does indeed have some VERY groovy stuff–top-notch Nashville CCM sound (which to some purists means top-notch schlock, but not to me) with simply gorgeous vocal layering and some lovely updating of some classics (e.g., “Angels We Have Heard on High”).

      Sister Amy is outmatched by the grand Christmas stuff–just lacks the instrument for it–but not only the first album is good but some items on later albums are lovely as well. And “Gabriel’s Oboe” is an unexpected, haunting jewel.

      We have Ella and NKC swinging as well on several albums, but no single album seems to me to be ‘way up there–although she almost makes “Rudolph” worth listening to….

      Thanks for the other tips–and now that you mention Downhere, Jars of Clay’s Christmas album has been added to our playlist and refreshes several carols.

  10. Doris Goheen

    Several years ago the Salvation Army put out a freeby called Sing Noel and it is still my all time favourite next to Boney M’s Christmas and Kenny G’s Miracles The Holiday Album.

  11. Alan Koeneke

    Um, where are the Chipmunks? šŸ™‚ Hope all is well in Vancouver, Professor Stackhouse.

  12. Mike Morson

    I picked up James Taylor’s ‘At Christmas’ a few years ago, and it has already clinched a spot on my all-time list. You should check it out – great song selection, and a crack band that plays absolutely tasty arrangements!

    • John Stackhouse

      Yes, I like JT’s album, too. His rendition of one of my favourites, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” is especially poignant. Thanks for the recommendation.

  13. bjbruder

    My Christmas is never complete without Alabama’s “Thistlehair,” and Boney M’s Christmas Album! Perhaps very self-revealing. šŸ™‚ Your list is excellent, though. My husband and I have some new music to check out, thanks!

  14. Mark

    Phil Wickham’s “Songs for Christmas” is excellent. Includes a couple of originals, and his instrumental textures and gorgeous tenor give an addictive allure to classics such as “Oh Holy Night”, “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and “Little Drummer Boy”.

  15. Mark

    Thanks for the list, by the way. Some great suggestions!

  16. Frank

    My favourite Christmas album comes from the classical side — O Magnum Mysterium by Polyphony directed by Stephen Layton. It’s a superb mix of early chant and modern British carols, including works by Herbert Howells, Kenneth Leighton, Peter Warlock, etc.

    The harmonies on the modern carols can take a while to warm up to (the antithesis of John Rutter’s Christmas bonbons), but they survive repeated listenings much better than more pop-oriented Christmas music.

  17. joyfullyyours

    John, great list…always good to see CanCon contained in recommendations. If opportunity affords you, check out Jacob Moon’s “This Christmas”, it’s a recording that is on perpetual repeat in my car this time of year. He records on Steve Bell’s label, and is exceptionally talented!

    Another Canadian voice is Emilie-Claire Barlow. A jazz artist from Toronto (don’t hold that against her), her Christmas recording does some unexpected delights with some of the old standards.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours.

  18. Mr. Bultitude

    My Christmas album list is small, but some other great Christmas albums that I enjoy.

    Kevin Max – Holy Night

    Produced on a very slim budget if I recall correctly. I tire of Kevin Max’s frequent complaints that listeners “just don’t understand me”, but he has a wonderful voice and there is something timeless about many of the Christmas songs on this album.

    Various Artists – Noel

    Goodness, what an excellent collection of talented musicians on this Christmas compilation! Derri Daughtery (The Choir), Michael J. Pritzl (The Violet Burning), Riki Michele (Adam Again), Buddy and Julie Miller, among others.

    Bill Mallonee – Yonder Shines The Infant Light

    My two favourite songwriters are Mark Heard (“all too soon the heartbeats are slower”) and Bill Mallonee. I cannot think of a better lyricist to wade in both Christian and mainstream waters than Bill. “Every Father Knows” is a great Christmas tune.

    Merry Christmas.

  19. Tim Cunningham

    . . . and on a slightly different note, don’t overlook instrumental music particularly, Christmas Festival, Leroy Anderson’s magnificent orchestral setting of Christmas carols which climaxes in the most triumphant and compelling setting of “O Come All Ye Faithful” yet written.

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