Sunday, December 1, 2013

Unique Christmas music you should add to your collection this year

"Saxophone on the radio/Recorded 40 years ago/All I ever get for Christmas is blue"

If you're anything like me, you enjoy the Christmas season and the feelings of faith, nostalgia, and celebration that accumulate in December. As far as music goes, I do enjoy the Christmas classics, in measure (I wear out a little on Sinatra, love him though I do). But we've made it a tradition to add some new music to our rotation every year. From the Classical to the Modern, Jazz to Indie Rock, here are some unique favorites of the things we've collected so far - check out the list and let me know what music you can't wait to pull out for the Christmas season! (*SPOILER* the best is last - don't miss it!)

Duke Ellington

Nutcracker Suite (1960)

Later in his career, legendary jazz composer Duke Ellington (in collaboration with the tragically under-credited Billy Strayhorn) arranged several suites from classical music for their jazz ensemble. Perhaps the most exciting is their swinging take on Tchaikovsky's Christmas ballet score. You'll probably recognize most of the themes right off the bat, but with some it might take a few moments. Notable standout tracks are the burlesque-y Sugar Rum Cherry (a grungy saxophone version of Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy) and the syncopated Chinoiserie (Chinese Dance). Where Tchaikovsky's score conjures up images of tutus and fairy tale rats, Ellington's take is a lush, swinging romp worthy of any Christmas party.

You can also check out the suite on this YouTube playlist, although you really should go get the recording for year-to-year use!

Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square with Sissel

Spirit of the Season (2007)

Find this on Amazon here

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is renowned for their yearly Christmas concerts, usually with a big-name guest star, which are recorded and released the following year. I can't claim to have kept up with them all, but of the ones I know their concert with Sissel stands out. The album features 16 tracks with a good blend of choir and solo numbers, and a few spectacular blended songs when the Norwegian soprano's ethereal voice soars over the choir. While some of the song choices are more familiar, others are new, less well-known or rare variants of old favorites. All the arrangements are fresh and sparkling with musical energy. The choir excels at Eric Whitacre's Lux aurumque, while Sissel is not to be missed on Gustav Holst's In the Bleak Midwinter or the lovely (ABBA song?!) Like an Angel Passing through My Room. 

J.S. Bach

Christmas Oratorio (1734)

Recorded by Bach Collegium Japan (1999, remastered 2012)

Handel's Messiah (1741) is understandably the go-to classical Christmas work of choice in the English-speaking world. However, Bach also left his mark on the genre with his massive Christmas Oratorio, written in six parts and meant to be sung on six different Sunday services celebrating Christmas. While the German text may render some of the meaning less clear, it nonetheless makes a great soundtrack to Sunday afternoons in December. The opening chorus of the first part and the opening sinfonia of the second are two particularly festive movements. I've long been a big fan of the Bach Collegium Japan's take on Bach's religious works, with their zealous dedication to period instruments and performance practices (plus their recording is a good deal in the link above), but there are any number of fine recordings available, as in the embedded video below.

Benjamin Britten

Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28 (1942) for treble voices and harp

20th century British composer Benjamin Britten wrote a lot of Christmas music, but the one that I hold dearest is his Ceremony of Carols. Its a delightful set, usually sung by children's choir, and accompanied by harp. My wife (a harpist) and I discussed the work in one of our very first conversations. Sprightly choral carols and tender solo songs are framed by the chant-like Procession/Recession and the meditative harp solo Interlude. After just one listen you'll get why this is some of the first Christmas music I dust off each year. Wolcum Yole! indeed. As another classical work, their are a number of fine recordings available, but the recording I first fell in love with is the all children's voices of the Westminster choir. The video below is the boys of the Christ Church Cathedral Choir Oxford.

Honorable mention goes to three other Christmas works by Britten:
A Boy Was Born (1933, revised 1955) for treble voices and choir
Christ's Nativity (1931) for unaccompanied chorus
St. Nicholas (1948) for tenor soloist, children's chorus, chorus, and orchestra

A Boy Was Born and Christ's Nativity are epic a capella choral works with numerous beautiful and festive moments, and St. Nicholas is a take on the (unintentionally hilarious and fictionalized) legends surrounding everyone's favorite saint with a belly like a bowl full of jelly. (Favorite lyric: "Saint Nicholas was born in answer to prayer, and leaping from his mother's womb he cried, 'God be glorified!'")

Over the Rhine

Snow Angels (2006)

I definitely saved the best for last. Of all the unique Christmas music I've come across over the years, Over the Rhine's Christmas album Snow Angels is the one that I think everybody should have in their collection. I don't know much about Over the Rhine's other music, but in this album vocalist Karen Bergquist and her multi-instrumentalist husband Linford Detweiler present a collection of mostly original Christmas songs that capture the wistfulness of the season in a charming way fit for our complex times. The album can be found on Amazon or bought on their website, where you can also listen to it in its entirety and browse the lyrics. Please do, and then buy it to have from year to year!

Darlin' (Christmas is Coming) and Here It Is deserve to be on the radio, the later with the ridiculously catchy chorus "I'm wrappin' up my love this Christmas, and here it is!" Others evoke more nostalgic types of Christmas music, like the bluesy All I Ever Get For Christmas Is Blue or the Vince Guaraldi piano solo tribute Goodbye Charles. I even love the sentimental White Horse and Snow Angel. Several of the songs are perfect for cold, romantic evenings in December, such as North Pole Man, Snowed In With You or One Olive Jingle. The first two are flirty tunes in the vein of Baby, It's Cold Outside and the later a slinky take on Jingle Bells. Several more spiritual/hopeful songs round out the album, the 'at-least-we-have-each-other' year-end anthem We're Gonna Pull Through, the soulful New Redemption Song and the breathtakingly lovely Little Town. Little Town takes the first verse of the classic O Little Town of Bethlehem, gives it a lilting new melody with some 'fa la las,' and adds two additional verses which are moving in their direct simplicity and relevance:

The lamplit streets of Bethlehem
We walk now through the night
There is no peace in Bethlehem
There is no peace in sight

The wounds of generations
Almost too deep to heal
Scar the timeworn miracle
And make it seem surreal

The baby in the manger
Grew to a man one day
And still we try to listen now
To what he had to say

Put up your swords forever
Forgive your enemies
Love your neighbor as yourself
Let your little children come to me

So, let me know what you think, and what Christmas music you can't go without!


Stacy J said...

I love The Forgotten Carols by Michael McLean, and the Christmas music by The Piano Guys. Thanks for sharing some great suggestion!

Scott Higginson said...

Manhattan Transfer Christmas record is my "go to" that let's me know it's really Christmastime at our house.