Monday, November 28, 2011

5 Great Christmas Albums

So long, Thanksgiving. Welcome, Christmas!

To honor the season, I'd like to share some of my very favorite Christmas records.  Christmas music is inextricably woven into the fabric of the season, and I can get a warm glow just thinking about some of these. So light up your yule log, pour a cup of hot cocoa and crank up your HiFi. 

1. White Christmas. Bing Crosby.

To my mind, this is number one, the greatest Christmas album of ALL TIME. It has nothing to do with the film, White Christmas, but does contain that great, great, great song. It also has a song that, for a long time, was my personal favorite Christmas song, Mele Kalikimaka. In the mid-eighties I became enamored with the idea of moving to Hawaii and just figuring out a way to live and work there with no plan in advance other than wearing tropical print shirts and leading my friends in singalongs to the theme from Hawaii 5-0. It was that year that I also discovered this album. Shockingly, it was not one I grew up with. But I instantly recognized it for the classic it is, and, a couple of years later, ended up cruising gas stations and buying up every $3 copy of the cassette they had so I could give one to every one I knew as a Christmas present. I felt, at the time, that everyone should own a copy of this. I still feel that way.

2. A Jolly Christmas. Frank Sinatra. 

If you can't have Christmas without Bing Crosby, you can't have Bing without Frank. These are the guys who defined the Christmas sound, that big band plus sleigh bells swing that still rules the airwaves. This one is terrific, another combo of secular and sacred, with Frank at the top of his game. This came from the Capitol years, when Frank's voice and production team were absolutely without peer. While listening to this you can alternately dance and worship. What could be better?

3. That Holiday Feeling. Steve and Eydie.

My parents owned a 5 LP set called something like the Columbia Music Treasury of Christmas, and it contained two or three songs from this album, including That Holiday Feeling! which I really loved but seems to be unique to Steve and Eydie. A few years ago I picked up Steve and Eydie's Christmas record on CD and fell in love with all of it. They do fantastic - nearly definitive - versions of what I like to think of as the swinging bachelor Christmas songs. You know, the ones that are about how cold it is outside and wouldn't it be nice if you'd stay here in my apartment a little while longer, babe? Let It SnowBaby It's Cold OutsideThat Holiday Feeling. Oh yeah.

4. A Winter's Solstice III.

Windham Hill records put together this series of "new age" albums (there are at least 6 in the series so far) that give pleasant, atmospheric music that makes for soothing fireside stuff. Most of the selections in this series are more about creating a mood, about the winter season itself rather than specifically Christmas. But this volume has a lost of Christmas songs on it and a couple of them are, for me, masterful interpretations. John Gorka's version of Christmas Bells, for instance, was the first to really present to me the meaning and emotion of the song. I also really like Pierce Pettis' take on In the Bleak Midwinter and the delightful Trepak by Modern Mandolin Quartet. Another favorite here is Pavane by Liz Story, but not because of any Christmas associations. The tune is part of one of my absolute favorite pieces of classical music, the Capriol Suiteby Peter Warlock, and this version is moving and lovely.

5. A Christmas Festival. Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops.

I still remember seeing Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops on tour, and watching them on television, and, later, seeing them perform at the bandshell on the banks of the Charles River when John Williams had taken over as conductor. I also remember playing A Christmas Festival in high school band and the arrangement and orchestrations, as well as my part, are indelibly etched into my brain. This is probably the greatest orchestral Christmas album ever. If nothing, their version of Sleigh Ride is utterly definitive.


Bil Kerrigan said...

Very nice selections. I will have to check out the Steve and Edie and Windham Hill ones, which I haven't geard. I troll through the discount Christmas CDs at our lical Big Lots store every Christmas. One of my favorite fnds in there was "Christmas Remembered" by Banjomania for $1.99. Here's a link with the album cover:

That Neil Guy said...

Banjomania! Sweet! I'll check that out!