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Christmas Music That Doesn't Suck

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She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed has something of a penchant for using just about any holiday as an excuse for doing something ... decorative (not to be confused with decorous). Partly because our kids were reared to respect others' cultural and religious traditions, partly because she just likes to have this kind of fun. So almost anything goes, whether it represents the jewish, christian, islamic, kwanzaa, whatever traditions. Of course, that means that I occasionally find speakers that are festooned with garlands and ribbons and the like. And this means that she likes to fill the house with the "standard" music of the season as well. Doesn't take long for me to reach a state of cringing burnout (especially after a trip to the mall). Then there is the matter of marauding bands of caroleers, always stopping in front of our house, knowing we are supporters of the local music scene and that we count among our friends and relatives those who are musicians of all stripes, music educators, music directors, music producers, etc. (Or do they do that at this time of year for curmudgeonly scrooges?)

To offset this state of affairs somewhat, I reach for something like the Bach Choir of Bethlehem's Christmas in Leipzig, a gift from my late mother a few years ago, quite nice, but one that holds my interest for only so long.

Finally, several seasons ago, I discovered something that is so wonderful that I even play it off-season from time to time, and have been known to replay it for hours on end. Here is what I queue up when I reach the enough-already point:

A New Joy - Orthodox Christmas Music (Harmonia Mundi, 2006 - CD/SACD) is an album of music in the Christian Eastern Orthodox tradition, performed by perhaps one of the finest chamber choirs and orchestras in the world, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, directed by Paul Hillier. The music features compositions by a number of composers, including one of my very favorites, Arvo Part. Here is how opera critic Robert Levine, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, puts it:

Beginning with bells tolling in Tallinn, Estonia's St. Alexander's Cathedral, this collection of 19th- and 20th-century Orthodox music from Russia and the Ukraine celebrates the Nativity. Most of the music was suppressed by the authorities, and some of the composers represented - Kastalsky, Barvinskyi, and Izvekov (whose stunning "Christ Is Born," the longest piece on the CD, here receives its first recording) were persecuted, imprisoned, or executed for their religious beliefs. There is also music by Tchaikovsky, Arvo Pärt, and a couple of other, lesser-known composers. Many of the pieces have the distinctly Slavic sound--and chant melodies--opera fans will recognize from the choral sections of "Boris Godunov," while others are more humble. But the harmonies are hypnotic, sometimes dense, and always rich and evocative. The charming Ukrainian carol "Bells Rang Early in Jerusalem" features alternate choirs imitating the tolling of church and sleigh bells. Needless to say, Paul Hillier's leadership of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir--a world-class group--is superb. A unique disc.


Pink Martini's nondenominational, multi-cultural Joy To The World (Heinz Records, 2010). If you like Pink Martini (who wouldn't?), you will find this a welcome alternative to the usual fare. Let's quote PM's description here:

Joy To The World is a festive, nondenominational holiday album with music from around the globe. “There are 14 songs on Joy to the World,” says Thomas Lauderdale, “including well-known traditional holiday songs like Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”…sung by China Forbes in English and by the incredible Saori Yuki… the Barbra Streisand of Japan… in Japanese. With the Pacific Youth Choir and the handbell choir Bells of the Cascades, we recorded “Shchedryk,” known in English-speaking countries as “Carol of the Bells,” with the original Ukrainian text which tells of a lark flying into the house at the start of a new year, thus bringing good fortune. We recorded a Hebrew prayer “Elohai N’tzor” with Ida Rae Cahana and Ari Shapiro and Patricia Costa Kim. (Ida Rae Cahana was for many years the canter at Central Synagogue in New York City and now lives in Portland… Ari Shapiro is the NPR White House correspondent… and accordionist Patricia Costa Kim was just named director of education at Experience Music Project in Seattle, but is also known by millions on YouTube as the keyboardist bandleader of Sonseed and their Christian ska song “Jesus is a friend of mine”). There’s a Chinese New Year song from 1946, a Felainspired version of “We Three kings,” a song in Ladino (the intersection of Spanish and Hebrew), “Silent Night” in the original German, as well as a verse in Arabic and another in English. The album ends with a samba parade of “Auld Lang Syne” with choruses in English, Arabic and French over the incredible percussion of the Lions of Batucada.” Lauderdale notes, “I love the holidays and all the music that goes with it. We strove to make an inclusive and non-denominational album that could be played anywhere in the world.”

To be fair, there is lots of decent Christmas music. Heck, I love Ray Charles and will listen to his Spirit of Christmas album now and then.


I have told my kids before that if I were exiled to that mythical Desert Island, forced to leave behind all else, I could probably be happy with just the music of J.S. Bach and the music of Bob Dylan. However -- I cannot recommend Dylan's Christmas In The Heart. I couldn't get past the Amazon lo-fi samples, but maybe I need to give it a proper hearing. Sometime. Judge for yourself.

Now that we are approaching our first holiday season as empty-nesters, things may abate a bit. Any recommendations or comments, relevant or not, would be welcomed. Only 37 shopping days left, you know ...
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  1. wgscott's Avatar
  2. wgscott's Avatar
  3. wgscott's Avatar
  4. barrows's Avatar
    Have not heard it... But I cannot imagine that Shelby Lynne's Christmas album (released last year) is bad... She has been on a roll lately...
  5. darascal's Avatar
    I'm no fan of xmas songs, but these are pretty good.

    Aimee Mann, One More Drifter in the Snow

    Music From the O.C. Mix 3: Have a Very Merry Chrismukkah

    Yeah, I know, the O.C? right? But the O.C. used a lot of songs from some pretty cool bands, including Sufjan Stevens, Elliott Smith and Radiohead. This album has songs from Low, Eels & Ron Sexsmith, among othes.

  6. beetlemania's Avatar
    I'm a huge fan of Bruce Cockburn, his "Christmas" album is my favorite to play during the holidays. I especially like his cover of "I Saw Three Ships" and "The Huron Carol".
  7. HerinDude's Avatar
    On CD recordings, Crystal Lewis has always had a quality sound. She has two Christmas CDs (available from iTunes too):

    This absolutely has a Jazz sound:

    This one has a more traditional sound:

    As to the empty nest and holidays: it is brutal the first year. My wife was miserable, and had no interest in celebrating or decorating.


  8. Gobbledigook's Avatar
    Is Sufjan Stevens.
  9. Sik_Lescinovid's Avatar
    Nils Frahm - Wintermusik

    Solo piano music which I think fits very well, as the title implies, to winter and Christmas times.
  10. AudioDoctor's Avatar
  11. AudioDoctor's Avatar
    I will try your suggestions and offer one of my own.

    Diana Krall has a Xmas album that I find tolerable.

  12. darascal's Avatar

    Just now Mogging this on my iPhone. I really like it, however, it's weird what I'm hearing: A huge amount of what I guess is tape hiss and a muted light thudding or tapping sound accompanying each keystroke. Sounds like a muted manual typewriter.

    On portions of some tracks, the tapping sound is heard by itself, not following the key strikes.

    Given, MOG on an iPhone is not the highest sound quality, but I don't think that's it - I've never heard something like this.

    Am I the only one who hears this? Is this intentional? Are the actually transfers from tape as the label name (Erased Tapes) might imply?


  13. Paul R's Avatar
    My favorite Christmas album for the past 36 years or so has been this:

    I still love Karen Carpenter's voice. What a loss!

  14. Taylor's Avatar
    So roughly anything goes, whether it represent cheap stuart mcLean a vinyl cafe christmas tickets the jewish, christian, islamic, kwanzaa, what on earth society.
  15. mftech's Avatar
    My suggestion:
  16. Statham's Avatar
    our kids were reared to respect others' cultural and religious traditions, partly because she just likes to have this stripes of fun. So almost anything goes, whether it represents the jewish, christian, islamic, kwanzaa, whatever traditions. Of course, that stipulation that I occasionally discovery lecturer that are festooned with garlands and ribbons and the like. happy christmas messages
  17. Synfreak's Avatar
    Bugge Wesseltoft

    it's snowing on my piano

    1997 ACT

    But it seems that it is no longer available ... , but maybe you will find it somewhere ...
  18. darascal's Avatar
    Just wondering if you saw my most re the Wintermusik album. Do you hear that thudding sound accompanying the piano & do you know what it is? I really like this album (only listened to in on MOG), but I don't want to buy it if it's heard on the actual CD.


  19. kesha's Avatar
    I am good listener of Justin Beiber music and i loved it to listened his song. the song of baby baby oo i really loved it. I am finding the Christmas quotes to adding the christmas card and also finding the tickets of justin beiber concerts.
  20. Brian A's Avatar
    Here are a few of my favorites:

    Messiah (excerpts) - George Frideric Handel

    My favorite is by John Eliot Gardiner / English Baroque Soloists

    Cantate Domino

    Oscars Motettkor Motet Choir et al

    and (I am serious):

    The Time-Life Treasury of Christmas

    A canon of classics. (The Harry Simeone Chorale version of "The Little Drummer Boy" blows me away every year.)
  21. bikemig's Avatar
    Only some xmas songs but Sting's If on a Winter's Night is seasonal and very, very good. It is also a welcome relief from the overdose of christmas music that the season brings around (so is a good Scotch).
  22. bikemig's Avatar
    Sting's If on a Winter's Night is seasonal and a welcome relief from the overdose of christmas music that seems to afflict this time of year (so is a good Scotch).
  23. drystream's Avatar
    Jon Anderson (of Yes), for you Prog fans.
  24. AudioDoctor's Avatar
    I offer you this...

  25. Kimo's Avatar

    Highly recommended surf/hot rod/fuzz guitar freakouts of holiday favorites.
  26. curmudgeon's Avatar
    J. S. Bach - Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248

    Done by many, haven't heard them all by a long shot; I like the Helmuth Rilling/Stuttgart Bach Collegium of about 10 years ago just fine ...
  27. curmudgeon's Avatar
    Yes, the Tom Waits is outstanding! Thanks for the reminder.
  28. Wiseman's Avatar
    A various artist disc including, Dexter Gordon, Wynton Marsalis & Mccoy Tyner among a few others

    The Marsalis quintet on we three kings is really quite something
  29. Paul R's Avatar
    I really love this album, and it is time to play it again. :) Thanks for the reminder!

  30. JimS's Avatar
    Since it wasn't mentioned yet, this was released last year and remains outstanding.

    Plus the price is right . . .
  31. RankStranger's Avatar
    Just had a listen over at NPR.

    Holy crap!

    Awesome... and I hate Xmas music.


  32. Jud's Avatar
    Many(!) years ago, I spent New Year's Eve at my brother's apartment in South Philly, a block from the Italian Market. After the party, I curled up to sleep (I thought) on a sofa. It was then, at 3 or 4 a.m., after the noise from my brother's party and others in the building had died down, that I heard oh-so-clearly Christmas with the Chipmunks.

    I got up and looked through the window across the street, to find Al Abruzzi's Christmas Store with two of those metal megaphone-style speakers mounted outside pointing straight back at me. The windows were dark, the door closed, and it was obvious no one was there. Al had just left his music on as a Christmas gift to the neighborhood I guess, and apparently it was one of those gifts that keeps on giving, right through New Year's. All morning: "Alvin! AAllvinnn! AAALLLVINNNN!" "Ooookayyy!" "Rudolf, the red-nosed reindeer...."
  33. Mpls's Avatar
    Very funky jazz. Lots of banjo, but not in the Burl Ives tradition!
  34. curmudgeon's Avatar
  35. curmudgeon's Avatar
  36. dointhefish's Avatar
    Every year around this time I tune in the Dysfunctional Holiday station on Slacker Radio. Given my distaste for xmas music in general, it's great to hear James Brown, Reverend Horton Heat, etc. giving the season the alternative spin it so badly needs.