Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Christmas Music

When I was little, Christmas with Conniff, the 1959 LP by the Ray Conniff Singers, was the sound of Christmas. Each year, all through the late Sixties and early Seventies, we put it on the stereo while we were decorating the tree. I haven't heard it in years, but I'm sure that the first sprightly strains of "Jingle Bells" would put me right back in the living room of that house in Jacksonville, New York, where I lived through second grade—the prime Christmas years. Christmas with Conniff is definitely the best Christmas CD I don't currently own.

In my current Christmas music collection, the retro element is represented by two very fine CDs: Michael BublĂ©'s EP from a few years back, Let It Snow, and my eccentric favorite, The Jethro Tull Christmas Album. It's a compilation of freshly recorded Christmas tracks and outtakes from past Tull albums, and the flavor in general is reminiscent of Tull at the high point of their four decade career–the late-Seventies era of Minstrel in the Gallery, Songs from the Wood and Heavy Horses. Some of the tracks are jazzed-up acoustic versions of popular carols; others, like "Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow," sound like vintage Tull originals. Undead Ian Anderson still fronts the band with his flute and his unmistakable voice, and nine-hundred year old Martin Barre still shows off impressive chops on the guitars.

My most recent addition to the Christmas CD collection is A Cotswold Christmas, by the Abbey School Choir, Tewkesbury. I picked it up at the abbey shop on my first visit to my favorite English parish church, Tewkesbury Abbey. It's a very English set of Christmas music, beginning with the obligatory "Once in Royal David's City" in the David Willcocks arrangement. But the best Christmas CD in my current collection is An American Christmas, a 1993 release on Erato by the Boston Camerata under the direction of Joel Cohen. The disc features sacred harp tunes, folk hymns like "Wayfaring Stranger," early American hymns by the likes of William Billings, and later nineteenth-century revival hymns like "Jesus the Light of the World." While the Ray Conniff Singers perfectly capture the perky sound of Christmas in the late Fifties and Sixties, this CD captures the sound of a much older and more austere America—it's beautiful, haunting, and surprising.

6 comments:

Jim H. said...

My mom loved Ray Conniff!

For a wonderfully eccentric collection of Christmas tunes, see the blog Songs:Illinois and look for the recent post featuring the 2007 Christmas mix. My favorite is Niko Case's "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis," though John Prine's classic "Christmas in Prison" is still pretty good.

Bleeet said...

Jim, I'm pretty sure that's "Neko" Case, and that song is a Tom Waits cover, I believe.

My favorite Christmas album has to be The Chieftains Bells of Dublin.

Beautiful songs, mixed with folky stuff, all done with a Chieftains sense of carousing and fun. Some great special guests on the album too: Jackson Browne doing "The Rebel Jesus" - as anti-fundamentalist a Christian song as you're likely e'er to hear - Elvis Costello performs "St. Stephen's Day Murders", which, I was told, in the great pop tradition of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer", is based on a true incident. My wife and I like to sing some of it whenever the kids are within earshot. It keeps them on their toes.

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Rob Hardy said...

Brendon: I like the Bells of Dublin album, too. I especially like Ricky Lee Jones's version of "O Holy Night." There's a song a bit like the Elvis Costello song on the Tull Christmas Album. It's a New Year's song called "Last Man at the Party." You might like these lyrics:

"Stinky Joe from down the street
Fell right over his own three feet.
He's doubled up in the outside loo,
To taste again the devil's brew."

Penny said...

Before I read the new comments, I was all set to write about The Bells of Dublin, which has been my favorite Christmas album for quite a few years now.

I also very much enjoy two Christmas Around the Country CDs from NPR's Performance Today.

John Mutford said...

Jethro Tull Christmas? Not as crazy as the Spinal Tap Hannukah album, but pretty bizarre.

Lately I've been into the Blind Boys of Alabama Christmas songs. And Feist's "Lo, How A Rose E're Blooming".

Penny said...

Last night I did some baking and put on some Christmas music for the first time this season. I'd forgotten about one of my favorites -- American Folks Songs for Christmas, performed by members of the Seeger family (of whom Pete is the best known, though he does not appear here), with traditional instrumentation like dulcimer and banjo. The songs are from the book of the same name by their mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, who (as the liner notes say) spent much of her life making piano arrangements of folk songs, transcribing them and teaching them in schools. The songs in this large collection have a spare, honest appeal. Two discs contain 53 songs rooted in biblical tradition -- no Santa, Frosty, or "Silver Bells" here -- with a North American folk bent.

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