So this is Christmas; well, almost. It’s the weekend after Thanksgiving as I type. But for me, and everyone except Starbucks (for whom the Christmas/unoffensive-nebulous-holiday season began shortly after Labor Day), Black Friday is also Red and Green Friday — the day we start the Christmas tunes a ring-ting-tingling through our iWhatevers.
This is a big day — the day I dust off all my Christmas albums. And by “dust off” I mean open iTunes, navigate to the genre “Holiday” and “Select All,” and then “Check Selection,” to reactivate all those jolly gems.
Christmas songs fall into that category of things people strain to avoid talking about in small groups for fear of word wars about who thinks what’s best, and who hates that very thing, and so on. It’s right up there with politics, religion, and submarine sandwiches — you put signs in your front yard declaring your preferences on them, but you sure don’t talk about them.
Well, it’s time to take down those old, lame signs. It’s time to blaze a new auditory adventure. And, you can’t spell adventure without Advent.
As a Christmas canticle connoisseur (I could start my Christmas playlist and let it deck the halls all the way through the twelve days of Christmas before hearing a single jingle twice), I present these 9.08 Christmas albums, not as the best Christmas music ever, but simply the recordings I never tire of hearing. Those for which I have a yearly yuletide yearning.
(In a somewhat — but not overly — particular, non-qualitative order.)
A Charlie Brown Christmas, Vince Guaraldi Trio, 1965, CBS Records
If you don’t have this you aren’t from Earth. I can’t be certain what planet you are from, but either buy this recording TODAY, or go get in your flying saucer and warp back home.
If you already own it and don’t absolutely love it, there’s nothing neither I, nor Dr. House, can do for you. In fact, you probably have an aluminum Christmas tree and hate floppy-eared dogs and large-headed, cartoon children. The best advice I have for you is to stop reading. Just stop right now and think about how you got to this place. Our prayers are with you.
When My Heart Finds Christmas, Harry Connick Jr., 1993, Sony/Columbia
It’s hard to go wrong with a talent like HCJ. (He told me to call him that when we met at a JazzFest back in 1999 . . . actually, that’s not true. I lied. I’ve never met him. Please don’t tell him I said anything, though, in case we meet someday.)
Writing a new Christmas song is one of the most difficult creative endeavors. Ironically, the holiday commemorates the beginning of one of the archetypal stories to which most good stories and many amazing works of art point. Nonetheless, the pantheon of gifted artists that have left a heritage of unassailable classics makes tapping even this manger of creativity a tough one for anyone.
Yet, HCJ delivers no less than two new nativity numbers that ought to be standards, “I Pray on Christmas” being my favorite among all non-classic/traditional Xmas tunes.
Once Upon A Christmas, Dolly Parton & Kenny Rogers, 1984, RCA
Chalk this one up to nostalgia. If you don’t like for its 1980s sincere “we think this is really terrific music that will stand the test of time” optimism*, you’ll love it as one of the greatest pieces of American Christmas kitsch ever. I guarantee you’ll be singing along by the second song. It’s got an inexplicable irresistibly to it, like raw ground beef and raw onion on a slice of pumpernickel. Well, not like that at all. That dish, served all over southeastern Wisconsin around Christmas, is disgusting.
*(The original recording is no longer available; a re-release, that loses a few of the original tunes and gains one less than stellar addition, is.)
Since Kenny and Dolly are two icons of country music with distinctive and perfectly harmonious voices, the recording is not “bad” by any stretch of the imagination. They play to each other’s strengths and keep the schmaltz to a minimum, opening the doors for cynics like me to still enjoy this hard to find treasure.
A Very Ping Pong Christmas: Funky Treats From Santa’s Bag, Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra, 2008, Ubiquity Records
I can only describe it thusly: it’s like being in the back of Starsky & Hutch’s 1976 Gran Torino, listening to Christmas tunes on 8-Track, and not wearing a seat belt.
Enough said. Download it right away.
A Jazzy Wonderland, Various Artists, 1990, Columbia Records
Good music deserves to be listened to, with focus. But, when you’re blasting the holly harmonies at your house 24/7, you’ll occasionally need to tone it down into the background. Therein enters this jazz jamboree for all you un-hip cats out there. If, like me, you love jazz, it’s perfect in the forefront.
This album is also perfect listening for tree-trimming, baking pumpkin pie, or maybe having just a half a drink more. It’s the only compilation on the roster because most complications are merely collections of songs that originally appeared somewhere else. Such is not the case with A Jazzy Wonderland.
Check out the list of artists that perform: Monte Croft & Terence Blanchard; Marlon Jordan & Delfeayo Marsalis; Fred Simon & Traut/Rodby; Richard Tee; Ellis Marsalis; Kirk Whalum; Wynton Marsalis; Tony Bennett; Karl Lundeberg & Full Circle; Grover Washington Jr.; Kimiko Itoh & Nancy Wilson; Joey DeFrancesco & Dwight Sills; and Harry Connick, Jr. & Branford Marsalis.
It’s a soulful parade of jazz hall-of-famers. I recommend you dim the lights, sit by the open fire, and get out your chestnuts for roasting.
The Andy Williams Christmas Album, Andy Williams, 1963, Columbia Records
Everyone knows this one even if they don’t know they know it. Sadly, that’s because it’s most often heard in Midwestern department stores two months out of every year. But, don’t let that hinder your ho-ho-ho. “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is a celebratory romp that’s sure to get the eggnog flowing in that $700 electric eggnog fountain you bought from the SkyMall on the red-eye back from Seattle. At least it came with cool moose glasses.
Andy Williams, who is still singing, has some powerful pipes. No wispy, wimpy, Josh Groban-ness to be found.
The Christmas Shoes, Newsong, 2001, Reunion
Wait! Wait! Before you muffledly stomp your pointy-elf-slipper-shod feet away from the computer in absolute disgust, I am ONLY recommending their rendition of “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” (I bet you thought you’d entered a Twilight Zone Christmas nightmare for a second there.) That’s just one of the twelve songs on the record. The only other one of those twelve I’ve heard bears the same title as the album itself, which, if you heard it one of the exactly 12,445,678,453,124,245,456 times it was played last year, you know that song instantly disqualifies me from recommending any more than 8/100 of this album.
That said, it is a show-stopping arrangement. Quite fun.
The Season, Jane Monheit, 2005, Sony/BM
Jane Monheit’s singing is as angelic as her backstage persona. (I know this because, in fact, my wife and I met Jane and conversed with her for bit at the Blue Note jazz club in Greenwich Village some years back. True story this time.)
No other songbird’s call is quite as sublime. Forget Mariah, Whitney, Beyoncé, Celine, Ella, Dinah, Sarah, and everybody else. (Though Rosemary Clooney gives her a run for her money.) Jane’s voice is truly majestic, a soft waterfall cascading down upon a silvery unicorn bearing your life’s love, while the moon rises and comets streak through regal skies over snow-capped mountains barely visible behind shimmering rainbows cast by the fading sun through joyful tears falling from a host of heavenly angels.
One thing’s for sure, if you fill your hearing holes with Ms. Monheit’s magnificent music, you’ll multiply your merry moments by millions.
The Voice of Christmas – The Complete Decca Christmas Songbook, Bing Crosby, 1935-1956, Decca Records
He truly is the voice of Christmas, and perhaps the most recognizable, stunning, and perfect voice ever recorded. If I had a million years to imagine things, I still couldn’t imagine what it feels like to sing like Bing.
While listening to Bing bellow, it’s interesting to be reminded that people have been opening gifts and sharing time with family to the strains of these exact versions of classic Christmas songs for almost seventy years. It’s one thing for the song itself to belong to antiquity, it’s another for an actual performance of one to endure. Plus, the whole recording has that “old-timey” feel. Probably because it was made in the “old times.”
He Is Christmas, Take 6, 1991, Word Entertainment
Before I made it big as a writer, I was an editorial intern for an industry trade magazine. I was in charge of compiling a list of “desert island discs,” or “moon mission music” as I called it. An artist submitted this recording as one of the five he would take on a one-way trip to the moon. That’s high praise since the magazine was for musicians about chamber music.
Normally I’d tread lightly when recommending an a cappella group to an unknown audience, it’s sort of like sweetbreads, you either love them, or the thought of it sends you hurtling towards the water closet like Santa after a night of drinking warm, spoiled milk.
But, with all the Glee fanaticism these days, maybe now is a good time to dip your toe into the post-doo-wop-gospel-second-wave-jazz-a cappella-vocal-pop scene.
These guys are just like the cast of Glee, except middle-aged, African-American, all-male, probably bad actors and dancers, but can sing circles around the faux-teens any day.
Give them a try. Who knows, maybe if you like it, you’ll order sweetbreads next time you go to a restaurant that serves sweetbreads — whatever kind of restaurant that is.
So there you have it. 9.08 Christmas albums yule love, or your holiday cheer back.
Musical Christmas to all, and to all a not-so silent night.