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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!

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