After last week’s post on bad Christmas music, I figured I’d go ahead and write about my favorite music from the season. (Who knows…it might get me in the Christmas spirit…) Some of these are by not-so-well-known artists, so I’m including links where you can listen to them and hopefully make them your own favorites. And, of course, since one of my favorite things to do in the world is make lists, they’re in a countdown format. Here goes…
10. John Denver & The Muppets, A Christmas Together This record was ubiquitous in our stereo when I was growing up. It’s a nice blend of Muppet silliness and John Denver earnestness, and it holds up surprisingly well, considering it was made in 1979. A nice bit of nostalgia for me.
9. Bill Mallonee, Yonder Shines The Infant Light Something truly astounding, done in a way only Bill can. Yonder Shines… is a glorious song cycle presenting a uniquely beautiful perspective on the Christmas season. My favorite track is “Every Father Knows,” and I can close my eyes and just hear him singing and playing it live.
8. The Carpenters, Christmas Portrait Here’s another one that takes me back to my childhood. This album is a lovingly produced, traditional take on Christmas music, complete with orchestra, choir, and the Carpenters’ knack for perfect vocals and impeccable arrangements. Songs like “Merry Christmas, Darling” (which still makes my mom cry) and Karen’s voice (even on the songs celebrating Christ’s birth) add a touch of melancholy to the season.
7. John Denver, Rocky Mountain Christmas Yet another trip down memory lane. John Denver’s Christmas album is exactly what you’d expect from him (and that’s a compliment). This is a beautiful, timeless acoustic Christmas recording, complete with reverent hymns and beautiful originals; “A Baby Just Like You” and “Christmas For Cowboys” never get old. It must be a great album to make my Top Ten even though it contains one of my five examples of bad Christmas music…
6. Amy Grant, A Christmas Album This is the first Christmas album I made the choice to listen to, way back at age 11. The maturity of this record belies the fact that Amy was only 22 when she recorded it. Yes, some of it sounds a bit dated 25-plus years later (let’s face it…everything made in 1983 sounds dated), but the vast majority of it is timeless, powerful music for the season.
5. Over The Rhine, Snow Angels OTR’s second Christmas recording is a collection of low-key, poignant songs, made up of mostly originals, save for reworkings of “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” and “Jingle Bells.” Somewhat less traditional than The Darkest Night Of The Year, which you’ll read about later, Snow Angels draws on jazz and mid-20th century pop influences to create another masterpiece. (And I especially love the Charles M Schulz/Vince Guaraldi tribute piece “Goodbye Charles.”)
4. Peter Mayer, Stars & Promises Peter Mayer is the lead guitarist for Jimmy Buffet’s band, but his solo music is an entirely different affair. His first Christmas album contains a unique mix of traditional carols and beautiful originals spanning styles from pop to folk to jazz to world music. Originals like “This Christmas” and “Stars & Promises” hold up well alongside stirring renditions of classics like “Angels We Have Heard On High” and “Silent Night.”
3. Amy Grant, Home For Christmas Amy’s second Christmas album is a more traditional, timeless sounding recording than A Christmas Album, and her reliance on live orchestration creates a truly classic feel. Her renditions of songs like “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and “Winter Wonderland” feel like versions you’ve heard for longer than 17 years, but the finest moment on this record is the original “Breath Of Heaven (Mary’s Song),” a powerful examination of what Mary must have felt like to give birth to the baby who would become her Lord and Savior.
2. Vince Guaraldi Trio, A Charlie Brown Christmas For me the Christmas season just isn’t complete without watching A Charlie Brown Christmas (“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”), and that TV special’s elegant, smart soundtrack is a must-listen as well. Guaraldi and his trio create a cool jazz vibe that complements the Christmas season in its own individual way. I always feel just a little more classy when I listen to it.
1. Over The Rhine, The Darkest Night Of The Year My favorite Christmas album of all time is a mix of contradictions: at once both reverent and innovative, both traditional and cutting-edge. OTR’s first holiday recording is inspired by the candlelight Christmas services of childhood. Lovingly made, thoughtfully arranged versions of classic carols (two amazing and divergent takes on “Silent Night”) intertwine with impressive new songs, like the driving “Thank You My Angel”; instrumentals mix flawlessly with vocal pieces. Though each song is a gem on its own, the entire song cycle is truly stunning; it’s one of the few Christmas albums I can listen to throughout the year.
So there you go… I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you find yourself discovering one or more of these gems for the first time.