Top Christmas Albums (Reprise)

Last year I published this post and readers enjoyed adding to (and correcting) this list. Since that time, Eldest Son Trevor has put our CD collection on a dedicated iPod, thus giving us 140+ albums’ worth of Christmas music to put on rotation for this month.

Here, then, is last year’s alphabetical list (Spencer Capier‘s Christmas album is pretty tasty, too). And please give us your nominations as well–ideally with links. Let’s all find the best music we can!

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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. And Steve has a new Christmas album out now: “Keening for the Dawn.”

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. Favourite song: “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree,” the arrangement of which is simply astonishing.

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!

P.S. Search “Christmas” on this weblog for more recommendations of music and an array of Christmassy reflections–useful especially if you are charged with a speaking/preaching engagement this month.

11 Responses to “Top Christmas Albums (Reprise)”

  1. Kristen B

    Merry Christmas to you! This is the time that we should all remember especially to live in His image.

    It reminds me of this video I recently came across– it’s a cute little song about how Jesus and his followers actually Occupy Jerusalem.

    Anyways, here it is: http://youtu.be/a6akkb_afqs

  2. James

    You nailed a good number of our household favourites (Carpenters, Mannheim Steamroller and Vince Guaraldi ), and I am grateful for your recommendation of Chris Botti’s CD last Christmas. That has been a great addition to our collection as well. Choral works were absent from your list, and I would nominate John Rutter’s ‘On Christmas Night’ for one of the best in that category.
    Another beautiful album which seems to capture the haunting stillness of cold, dark and snowy Canadian winters is George Winston’s ‘December’.
    One final one, which will date me pretty quickly, is not an album but a single track: Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Silent Night with the Six o’ clock news’. One of the best musical anti-war statements from the Vietnam era.

  3. Mike in Pennsylvania

    Sting’s If on a Winter’s Night (2009) has become one of my favorites. It includes some Christmas songs and poems and captures the mood of the (Northern Hemisphere) winter season.

  4. Jon

    Little known folk artist Aaron Espe has some good stuff as well. Known more for his original writing, his take on some Christmas classics are a more stripped down approach.

  5. Tricia

    Thanks, John and thanks, Jon. Aaron Espe has just joined the Christmas playlist.

    Two of my favourites (besides anything by Ella Fitzgerald) are:
    “A Winters’s Night – The best of Nettwerk Christmas Albums” The Barenaked Ladies’ version of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen with Sarah McLachlan is the best seasonal sing along.

    For chilled out listening music is “Down Home Christmas” which I can’t find on iTunes but here’s another link. http://www.allmusic.com/album/down-home-christmas-waterfront-mw0000170565

    Looking forward to other suggestions. There aren’t enough hours in the day to trawl through iTunes.

  6. Sharon

    Great list, John – since I’ve most of them on my Xmas playlist too!

    But you’re missing our local gal, Sarah McLauchlan: Wintersong … especially the amazing arrangement of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” – just listen for the restraint used in the bass … magic!
    http://www.sarahmclachlan.com/

    And James mentioned John Rutter and I couldn’t agree more – especially for those wonderful choral arrangements. (He has a good website himself!) But each year we still spin “Christmas with the Cambridge Singers” … a winner! http://www.allmusic.com/album/christmas-with-the-cambridge-singers-mw0000276621.

  7. Bryan Burton

    A Couple of Additions John…
    *Bruce Cockburn CHRISTMAS
    *Over The Rhine Snow Angels and Darkest Night of the Year
    *Bob Dylan Christmas in the Heart

    Thoughrts???

    • John

      No, no, no! Bruce Cockburn is a talented guitarist and songwriter, but an awful singer. Come on! Just terrible. Bob Dylan is a talented songwriter and average guitarist and at least as bad at singing. “Over the Rhine” is much lovelier to listen to: I don’t know these albums, though, and I’ll look for them. But I simply cannot abide anyone commending Cockburn or Dylan to actually LISTEN to, let alone have them fill the house at Christmas. It’s just sad, very sad, to do so… ; )

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