I'm sure every one of us has specific Christmas albums that the like to listen to. You know, ones that get you "into the Holiday Spirit". Perhaps these are albums from your early family Christmas memories. Maybe they're more recent ones, shared with you by a friend or spouse. But no matter where these favorite albums came from, every year you queue them up while you're decorating, shopping, or driving - just to get you "in the mood".
I confess that I have a few, and over they years they've meant different things to me. There are a few that are "must listen to" in order to get me into the Christmas Spirit. There are some that I was introduced to by my wife, or by friends, or discovered completely on my own. So, here are what I call my "Christmas Essentials" - the albums I listen to in order to feel "Christmas-y".
"Christmas Portrait", The Carpenters
My wife introduced me to this one, and with its wonderful arrangements by Richard Carpenter, and the soft and melodious vocals by both Richard and Karen Carpenter, this quickly became one of my "Must listen to". I have a "mix" on my MP3 player that starts with this. They cover the gamut of both sacred and secular, and do so with class and without it seeming over-produced. Of course, the fact that my mother-in-law was a backup singer for The Carpenters, and one of my wife's earliest memories was climbing onstage during a rehearsal, makes me just a bit biased. But even if my wife had no connection to this, the music is wonderful, and it really gets you "into the Spirit".
"A Charlie Brown Christmas", Vince Guaraldi Trio
I grew up in the 60's and the 70's, during the heyday of the "Christmas Specials" on CBS, NBC and ABC. I have a memory of having dinner at an IHOP in Glendale, California (where I grew up), and then rushing home to catch "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer". But like most people, it's the first of the "Peanuts" television specials that still delights me and makes me giggle. And the brilliance of having the jazz trio led by Vince Guaraldi, with all the wonderful compositions, like "Linus and Lucy", and "Christmastime is here", goes far to creating a light and joyous soundtrack, and brings us back to that simple message that Linus gives on the stage.
This album was given to me over 30 years ago by the baritone soloist at the church I was singing in a the time. At first I was not that enthused about the gift. But as I listened to the clear sounds of the boys singing in that vast cathedral, accompanied by the massive organ, I became transfixed. "Silent Night" opens the album, sung first in German, then English, and finally in French. When they recorded the album the must have had the microphones elsewhere in the cathedral, but not in front of the choir. The voices are clear, distant, mysterious. And the reverberation which lasts for several seconds, only enhances the very mystery of the Virgin Birth and God coming to us incarnate as a baby born in a stable.
"Christmas Songs", Diana Krall
From the moment the jazz guitar and double-bass start with the rif for "Jingle Bells", you're hooked. Diana Krall, the Canadian singer and piano player, gives you a wonderful assortment of Christmas standards and classics, mostly jazz-infused and sung as if you were in some upscale lounge at the Biltmore in downtown L.A. Krall doesn't throw in any sappy sentimentality into any of these - she's purely singing with that delicious smokey voice of hers, injecting humor into some of the songs, and touches of longing on others. It's worth getting the album for her "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" alone!
"Angels on High - a Robert Shaw Christmas", Robert Shaw Chamber Singers
I have been a choral singer for decades, but it was when I started listening to the choral music directed by the late Robert Shaw that I truly became a choral musician. During his long career as a choral director, Shaw released several albums of Christmas music, but this one stands out. With his own select Chamber Singers he released an album of various carols and anthems, done with his usual meticulous and precise choral musicianship. But it is his interpretation of the Britten "Ceremony of Carols" that stands out. The women are superb, the harpist up to the task of the difficult accompanying part, and his dedication to using Medieval English, takes this recording of the "Ceremony of Carols" to a level I'd never heard before - or since.
"White Christmas", Bing Crosby
Now, what would Christmas be without Bing Crosby, and the song he made famous in two movies, "White Christmas"? I have other Bing Crosby Christmas albums, and this one is more of what you'd call a "favorites", because it takes selections from those other albums. But on here you get not only the the title track, but his famous "I'll be Home for Christmas", as well as the rousing version of "Jingle Bells" with the Andrews Sisters. For any of you watch the classic "Christmas Story" when TBS plays it for 24 hours straight, you'll appreciate that several of the songs that we hear being played from the radio in that movie are from this album.
"O Come, All Ye Faithful", King's College Choir
I think we owe a debt of gratitude to the British for the more modern way of celebrating Christmas. After all, it was Charles Dickens and his "Christmas Carol" that reinvigorated the Christmas traditions that had been dormant in England under the Puritans, and it was the magnificent choirs of the stately and majestic British churches that gave us many of our most beloved Christmas carols. The grandest choir of all is King's College, which is in Cambridge. Every year they do a wonderful service of Lessons and Carols, sung by a choir made of boy sopranos, and men singing alto, tenor and bass. They always start the service with a boy singing "Once in Royal David's City" from the far end of the chapel, and that's how this CD starts. The wonderful arrangements, the clear, soaring tone, and the magnificent organ, make this a "must have" if you appreciate the English tradition.
"Rocky Mountain Christmas", John Denver
John Denver was known for his smooth vocals, and on this album, he had wonderful help by the great arranger, Lee Holdridge. His "Christmas Song" (AKA "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire"), "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and a fun song called "Please, Daddy...." are all enjoyable. But his interpretation of "O, Holy Night" accompanied by a string quartet and piano, still gives me chills. It is both grand, yet simple and elegant. And when he plays "Silent Night" with only the guitar, just as it was first performed, you truly feel like you've slowed down a bit, and are in the Christmas Spirit. This album was based on his 1976 Christmas special.
"Hodie", Ralph Vaughan Williams
Years ago I sat mesmerized while watching the wonderful St. Olaf Choirs singing "Ring Out Ye Crystal Spheres", which came from the Christmas oratorio, "Hodie", by the British composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams. I found the CD, which also had on it one of his other large choral and orchestral works for Christmas, "Fantasia on Christmas Carols". Both of these large-scale choral works are on my "must listen" to list, but also, someday, I hope to sing them as well. They show Vaughan Williams' wonderful orchestrations, his use of carols and folk-tunes, supporting his brilliant choral writing, and his sense of the mystery of the Nativity. Ironic that he was an agnostic.
I invite you to share with me, in the comments, some of your favorite Christmas albums, and why they mean something to you.