Yes, the weather’s done turned cold again, and as I write this I’m about to head out on the road on my annual Christmas tour, this year comprising ten concerts (or twelve, if you count the two that are each two shows in one day) ranging from Maryland to Florida. Which means, for me, it’s time to be listening to Christmas music to get me in the right headspace and give me ideas. I grew up in a home full of record albums (remember those? – oh, right, they’re coming back now, aren’t they), and this time of year there were plenty of Christmas albums to choose from. Most of which, admittedly, were kind of on the treacly side, but there were always a few good ones mixed in too…
As the years have gone by I’ve kept my eyes and ears open for Christmas albums that agreed with my particular musical tastes, and I’ve gradually acquired quite a collection, which among other things served me well providing inspiration and guidance in putting together my own holiday CDs, A Guitar for Christmas and Christmas Eve is Here. So whenever I’m asked what some of my favorites are, I always feel like asking how much time do you have? But if I absolutely had to narrow it down to a handful of Christmas albums I’d take to a desert island, my list might look something like this (this year, anyway; it shifts around slightly from year to year):
In no particular order:
J.S. Bach: Christmas Oratorio. Quite possibly my single favorite musical work ever. I’ve got two incredible recordings of it, one by the New London Consort conducted by Philip Pickett and the other by Collegium Vocale Ghent conducted by Philippe Herreweghe (both of which have Michael Chance as the countertenor soloist, interestingly enough), and I can’t decide between them so I’m taking them both. Is that cheating? Well, too bad. My desert island, my rules.
Al Petteway and Amy White, Winter Tidings. Two of my best friends and two of my favorite musicians. Nobody else blends Celtic, folk, classical, “new age” and original ideas on a roomful of acoustic instruments the way they do.
John Fahey, Christmas Guitar Volume One. The late pioneer of “American Primitive” fingerstyle guitar had his greatest success with his 1968 Christmas album The New Possibility, of which this is mostly a re-recording, but after much thought and comparison I have to say I like this version better. Way cool folk/bluesy solo guitar interpretations of favorite carols that are brilliant in their simplicity, concluding with a mysterious slide version of “Silent Night” straight out of the Mississippi delta swamps.
Steve Baughman, Old World Christmas. And while we’re on the subject of great solo guitar Christmas albums… Steve, of course, is another of my best friends and a longtime collaborator and partner in crime on the road, and I just love the way he plays the guitar, whether Christmas carols or anything else. So, an album of Steve playing Christmas carols – what’s not to like?
The Robert Shaw Chorale, Christmas Hymns and Carols, Volume One. One of my favorite Christmas albums growing up (I think my mom still has the scratchy, beat-up family vinyl copy). The standards, sung the way they should be by an impeccable a cappella chorus. Robert Shaw was in a class by himself as a choral director. This album actually exists in two incarnations, recorded in mono in 1946 and re-recorded in stereo in 1957, and after much hunting and some pure blind luck I finally tracked them both down on CD; the second one’s the better of the two but they’re both a joy. (And so is Songs of Angels by his later ensemble, the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers, which might be easier to find.)
Chip Davis Presents Renaissance Holiday. Chip Davis is the man behind Mannheim Steamroller, who have several fine (and mega-popular) Christmas albums to their credit, but to my mind this one blows even them away. I don’t think Davis himself actually did anything on this album other than bankroll it as executive producer, but it’s a gorgeous collection of Renaissance carols and dances played by a half-dozen world-class instrumental ensembles.
David Lanz, Christmas Eve. I had a couple of David Lanz’s CDs of soothing solo piano music when I came across this one, not even knowing it existed, so I took a chance on it and boy am I glad I did. Pretty much the perfect solo piano Christmas album.
George Winston, December. …unless you count this one. Not exactly a Christmas album per se and not intended as such (I don’t think), but it paints an unforgettable sonic picture of a winter midnight, has enough familiar carols to make it onto this list, and is a time-tested classic, whatever you call it. My admiration for how perfectly this album is constructed and performed just grows more and more over the years. (I especially like the 20th anniversary edition with two extra tracks at the end – normally I’m not a fan of adding bonus tracks to an existing album, but in this case they complete the original beautifully.)
There are plenty of other great Christmas albums that I also love that might not _quite_ make it onto the desert island this year (how does one celebrate Christmas on a desert island? Decorate the palm trees?) but will sure be coming with me out on the road: Surrounded by Angels and A Winter’s Night by Ensemble Galilei, Christmas Gifts by Jo Morrison, The Christmas Rose by Patrick Ball, Hammered Dulcimer Christmas by Joshua Messick, Evergreen by Butch Baldassari (RIP), Gifts by the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble, A Quiet Knowing Christmas by Jeff Johnson, Brian Dunning and John Fitzpatrick, The Gift and Comfort and Joy by Eric Tingstad and Nancy Rumbel, Wintersong by Paul Winter, A Windham Hill Christmas and A Windham Hill Christmas II (after that the series became somewhat more uneven but the first two are exquisite), Winterfall by Lee Spears and Donna Beck Michael, The Gift by Liz Story, Celtic Harp for Christmas by Lori Pappajohn, Colonial Christmas by Barry Philips and Friends…
Yep, there’s no need to settle for crap Christmas music – there’s plenty of good stuff out there.