We have a strict rule: no playing of Christmas music until we’re driving back from my Aunt Carolyn’s Thanksgiving dinner. From then until the evening of December 25th, Christmas music plays pretty non-stop at home.
The music we listen to may be good only to our ears; we’ve had some of these CDs for so long that they’re old friends. It’s hard to hear them anew. Still — Christmas is a time for familiar, cozy comforts, and the music we enjoy reflects that. (Although streaming tons of new-to-us music off of Amazon Prime is tilting the balance these days…)
A Charlie Brown Christmas (Vince Guaraldi Trio, 1988) How can you not have this CD? A classic, of course, that stays listenable, always fresh, and with a children’s chorus that sound like real children. Love that. “Christmas is Coming” always gets my attention. This is one of the few CDs Liz and I both had in our collections when we merged households.
Nomad Christmas (Various Artists, 1997) I remember buying this as a cassette from a music store on Ninth Street in the late ’90s, I think. (Local bassist Robbie Link appears on it.) I love the more exotic and jazzy versions of some well-known carols, along with songs and melodies from other countries I’d not heard before. All instrumental, a great low-key sound when you’re decorating the tree. This was one of our first forays into “world music” for the holidays.
A Very Reggae Christmas (Kofi, 1994) I remember we bought this from the gone but not forgotten Carrboro branch of Nice Price Books (secondhand books and records). He surrounds familiar old melodies with heavy beats and exciting arrangements so that I hear them fresh every year. Kofi transforms two of my most hated Christmas songs — “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” — into music that I actually enjoy. And, God, he makes “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” sound like a true celebration of joy and not a prim, tasteful dirge.
Holiday Songs and Lullabies (Shawn Colvin, 1998) This was an impulse purchase while I waited in line at the gone but not forgotten CD Superstore at Brightleaf Square, and one of the best I ever made. There are familiar Christmas songs alongside ballads, folk songs, and lullabies — the cold night, the child in its crib — plus several carols that were unfamiliar to me, such as “Little Road to Bethlehem” and “Love Came Down at Christmas”. It’s a record for winter that makes you want to sit in a dark room, watch the lights glint on the tree, and listen to the understated arrangements and Colvin’s gentle voice.
Christmas Caravan (Squirrel Nut Zippers, 1998) The Zippers were a local band who flared brightly for a few years before burning out and disbanding. But not before making this CD, which we did not like at first, but that has grown on us over the years. (And isn’t Christmas music all about familiarity?) More than any other CD on this list, Christmas Caravan is an acquired taste — many of the songs are originals or tunes little known to me, Katherine Whalen’s vocals take getting used to, and Jimbo Mathus’ arrangements make each song so different the album as a whole lacks a unity. But tucked into this CD are some great one-of-a-kinds: “Christmas in Carolina,” “I’m Coming Home for Christmas,” “Hanging Up My Stockings,” and a kick-ass “Sleigh Ride.”
American Folk Songs for Christmas (Mike, Peggy, and Penny Seeger, 1989) We usually wait until we start our annual drive to Florida before listening to this 2-CD set. This is a respectful, lovely collection of folk and Appalachian hymns, carols, spirituals, shape-note, and songs clumped together to tell the Christmas story: the stars, the shepherds, the birth, the joy of Christmas day, and too the excitement the day brings to a poor household: jokey songs, counting songs, high spirits. The sound is of a family gathered with their instruments around the hearth — almost painfully spare and austere, and beautiful in its directness to the ear and heart.
The Bells of Dublin (The Chieftains, 1991) A great smorgasbord of traditional and British Christmas tunes, with really great guest turns: the McGarrigle Sisters on “Il Est Ne/Ca Berger” and Nanci Griffith on “The Wexford Carol.” But as comforting and charm-laden as Celtic-flavored Christmas music could be, the Chieftains keep their eyes on today and so the album layers in some tartness: Elvis Costello on “St. Stephen’s Day Murders” and my favorite, Jackson Browne’s “The Rebel Jesus.”
Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity (John Rutter, The Cambridge Singers, The London Sinfonia, 1987) — We have several of Rutter’s Christmas CDs, but this is the first I bought (thank you, CD Superstore) and the one I like best. As with all his productions, the sound is crystal clear, the choral singing full and lush, and Rutter’s arrangements restrained yet full of emotion. I like the selection of carols here, and the mood of it all — faithful, in all senses of that word.
In the Christmas Spirit (Booker T. & the MG’s, 2011) — If you are of an age to have heard the first airings of David Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries on NPR back in the late ’80s-early ’90s (produced by a young Ira Glass), then this music is what you heard in the background. Low-key, funky, and could have been recorded yesterday. It can play in eternal rotation.
A Putumayo World Christmas (Various Artists, 2000). As time goes by, I find myself favoring international holiday music over the American pop holiday standards. Part of it is the attraction of new sounds and songs, part of it the aliveness of other traditions. I always enjoy the Putumayo collections and this one is hot; I love every track on it. (The Putumayo’s Cajun Christmas CD? Not so much. Hardly at all, in fact.) I cite the year for this CD, as a later reissue removed some of the tracks that were my favorites. Amazon has several Putumayo Christmas collections, but this one looks to be out of print.
A String Quartet Christmas (Arturo Delmoni, et al., 2010) When I’m making sausage balls or Liz is decorating the tree, then what’s needed is some instrumental background music that sets a mood. This set of 3 CDs fits the bill. (They were originally released as individual CDs in the late ’90s under the title Rejoice!) These short string quartet arrangements of carols, hymns, and traditional melodies stick to the classic selections; no secular guff like “Frosty” or “Rudolph” here, thank Festivus.