Thursday, December 07, 2006

Christmas Music

The Christmas tree is up in the corner of the front room and Christmas gifts are patiently waiting to be festooned in bright paper and shiny bows. Two new Christmas tales are written and waiting to be inserted into this year’s Christmas cards (which themselves are waiting to be handed over to the tender mercies of the US Postal Service.) Despite my advancing age, I retain an undeniable fondness for the season of lights and magic (mindful of the gaudy veneer of commercialism that has become part and parcel of the holidays I still choose to see the season as being touched by wonder and, yes, magic.)

And, of course, there is music. I take unabashed delight in the music of the season. There are some for whom hearing the umpteenth version of “The Christmas Song” or “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by a pop star is akin to fingernails slowly scraping across a blackboard…but, while acknowledging that there is a fair measure of crappy holiday music, I remain a true fan usually adding 2 or 3 holiday CDs to my collection most years.

Last year, I highlighted some of my favorites (see here) and this year I add a few of my newer favorites (well, one’s not so new but it could be the best Christmas album ever…)

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must say that my favorite Christmas CD is probably Someday at Christmas, a 22-song compilation I burned a couple of years ago and gave out with that year’s Christmas cards to selected friends and family. Kicking off with Patti Austin’s soulful version of “Christmas Time is Here” and ending with a lovely “Auld Lang Syne” by James Taylor, it features Springsteen, John and Yoko, Macy Gray, Lena Horne, The Supremes, Donny Hathaway, Barenaked Ladies, Laura Nyro, and the Jackson 5 (on the title cut) among others. I played it yesterday and it still sounds grand (however immodest that might sound :-) from beginning to end.

This year offers up some new delights including and especially the immortal soundtrack from A Charlie Brown Christmas (arguably the best animated Christmas special ever) by Vince Guaraldi wonderfully re-mastered (it sounds amazing) and bolstered with a handful of alternative takes (all quite lovely.) This sublime music has been the soundtrack of the season for yours truly (and many others of my generation and those that followed) and it’s never sounded better.

Aimee Mann’s One More Drifter in the Snow is a warm, appealing versions of holiday chestnuts (“The Christmas Song”, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) along with a couple of new songs (the bittersweet “Christmastime” written by Mann’s husband Michael Penn and the wistful “Calling on Mary” co-written by Mann herself) and a delightfully playful “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” with Grant Lee Phillips ably taking the narrator role made famous by Boris Karloff on the original version from How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Sufjan Stevens (who apparently has as much unreleased music in his archives as Tupac did) has a holiday offering, Songs for Christmas, that is chockfull of goodness: 42 charming, witty, reverent songs spread out over 5 CDs (one each for the 5 years in which the songs were recorded: 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2006), stories, an animated music video, a quirky, charming comic strip, photos, essays. It’s a groovy collection.

Eventually every pop star who no longer reach the upper levels of the charts will offer up a Christmas collection (even nice Jewish boys like Neil Diamond have made Xmas discs) so it’s not surprising that the Divine Miss M has finally broke out with Cool Yule. While I would have preferred fewer ballads drenched with swelling, syrupy strings (that said, the Christmas version of “From a Distance” is very cool) and more sassy fun (thank goodness for the delightfully jaunty “Mele Kalikimaka”, the charming duet with Johnny Mathis on “Winter Wonderland/Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!”, the snappy version of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”, and the swinging title song), Bette’s collection finds her in grand voice and it’s a fine addition to the burgeoning pantheon of pop Christmas CDs.

* * * * *
Some Christmas stories by your host
can be found here: Christmas Annex
and here: Bread and Roses


Very Anonymous Mike said...

Thanks for hooking us up with listening links. I could do it, but I like it when you do it better.

The Fat Lady Sings said...

Thanks for the list. :) I too love Christmas and everything that surrounds it - especially the music. My husband's favorite Christmas song is "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" which is cute as a bug. I tend toward the more sublime and orchestral - Manheim Steamroller always comes out with wonderful arrangements every year. We also have our list of favorite holiday films from ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ to Will Vinton’s wonderful animated work. My especial favorite is ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’ featuring Teresa Stratas. It was first broadcast on TV when I was a little kid, then disappeared until the Stratas version. I even sang ‘Amahl’ once as a choral in college. Beautiful, evocative and touching on all that Christmas should be.

Very Anonymous Mike said...

Surprisingly, I liked the samples of Sufjan James. Usually, I'm for a bigger orchestra and a bigger choir, but these are "sit close" versions that he's made his own.

om7ack said...

nice post :)