It’s time for an informal review of holiday music from my personal CD collection. Every year I pick up a couple of new holiday CDs, and at this point have almost 100. It means I get to revisit some favorites every year, and discover some new music as well. (Note: I wrote about some of these CDs for the RPO blog back in 2008 and 2009.)
(Click on the album links below for a place to listen to audio clips…)
I started off my holiday listening this year with A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. This includes all the classic music from the TV special, including the “Linus and Lucy” theme and “Christmas Time is Here.” It’s usually one of the first CDs I listen to, since it just personifies Christmas for me. I still have my hardcover Charlie Brown Christmas book from when I was a kid.
In recent years I’ve discovered the Canadian band Barenaked Ladies. Their holiday CD opens with a very morose sounding “Jingle Bells,” which suddenly goes up-tempo. It’s sort of manic-depressive, and very funny and unpredictable, which I’ve come to expect from this band. In addition to the traditional Christmas songs, they have a number of originals, including “Elf’s Lament” with Michael Bublé – which puts an unusual twist on how we typically picture the North Pole, with the elves threatening to unionize – as well as a beautiful Hanukkah song.
Speaking of Michael Bublé, his holiday EP showcases this jazz crooner in a terrific version of Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song,” as well as “Let It Snow,” “White Christmas,” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Last year he came out with a full-length holiday album, and I was pleased to see it had a couple of original songs in additional to some of the classics.
Yo-Yo Ma’s Songs of Joy and Peace features a number of guest artists, including Dave Brubeck, James Taylor, Natalie MacMaster, Alison Krauss, Renee Fleming (along with Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile – quite an unusual combination!), hotshot ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro, Chris Botti, and the Assad Brothers. Mingled throughout are various interpretations of “Dona Nobis Pacem” (“Give Us Peace”), which is a nice touch.
Chris Botti’s December has a few unusual selections, besides the typical holiday music. He includes a very sweet version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and a jazzy interpretation of “Perfect Day” by pop/rock singer Richard Marx. Botti’s smooth trumpet playing is always great for setting the mood, and he also sings on a couple of songs. He’s coming to Rochester next month for a concert with the RPO – I’m looking forward to that one (already have my tickets)!
Another long-time favorite is Nowell Sing We Clear, featuring the English folk singers John Roberts and Tony Barrand. Their “Best Of” collection has lots of classic Christmas carols – among them “The Holly and the Ivy” and “Coventry Carol” – as well as many you probably haven’t heard. At least I hadn’t, until I saw one of their concerts, which is along the lines of the Christmas Revels. It includes the kind of yuletide songs you might have heard carolers singing in England 200 years ago, as well as a Mummers play, and usually wraps up with “Lord of the Dance.”
I always like to listen to Handel’s Messiah. When I’m singing along at home, I can join in on all the different solos, and I love the song “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted” for the way the music illustrates the text. When the tenor sings “the mountains and hills made low,” the music starts on a high note and then drops down on the word “low.” The choral parts are especially glorious – especially the “Hallelujah Chorus.”
For something a little different, there’s Sunday Music 5: Holiday. These collections are put out by Barnes & Noble and feature a wide range of music by various artists. This holiday mix includes Norah Jones, Ingrid Michaelson, Sufjan Stevens (I love his CD Illinois), Ray Charles, and Lou Rawls. There were also several artists I didn’t know, but was pleased to discover – The Bird and the Bee, and Imogen Heap.
Folk singer Christine Lavin’s Christmas album features a number of a cappella rounds including the traditional “Dona Nobis Pacem” as well as the more unusual “Tacobel Canon” (yes, it’s what you might guess). She also has some wonderful stories on here, including “The Runaway Christmas Tree” and “Polka-dot Pancakes.”
And of course every year I play the RPO’s A Holiday Celebration. I love Jeff Tyzik’s “Chanukah Suite” – with its lush orchestration and sweet melodies, it sounds like it could be a movie score – and “The Twelve Gifts of Christmas” makes me chuckle. “Three Songs from Home Alone” are surprisingly touching, considering how funny that movie is. The CD was recorded at the RPO’s annual Gala Holiday Pops concert.
Happy Holidays, and here’s to more great music in the New Year!