Every year, from Black Friday to Boxing Day, I totally immerse myself in holiday music. I used to collect my own Christmas CDs, but once I got on board with Spotify I was able to start compiling a playlist which is, as I write this post, just shy of 8,500 songs and may likely hit 9,000 before the end of the season. Last weekend, I searched out and added all the new albums of holiday songs (or #holidaysongs, as I’ve tagged them on Twitter) and listened to them straight through once before adding them to the ongoing shuffle. These are the ones I thought were the best:
Nick Lowe, Quality Street: It opens with a rockabilly version of “Children, Go Where I Send Thee,” then quickly settles into a humorous but groovy tone with songs like “Christmas at the Airport,” “The North Pole Express,” and “Hooves on the Roof.” There’s some fantastic horn and organ riffs behind the guitars on Lowe’s “Silent Night,” for example, and though some critics have sensed a bit of ska in his cover of Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day,” it feels a little bit more late ’50s rock to me. Out of all the 2013 holiday albums, this might just be my favorite.
Elizabeth Mitchell, The Sounding Joy: A Smithsonian Folkways collection of “Christmas songs in and out of the Ruth Crawford Seeger songbook,” as it says on the cover. It starts out with Mitchell and a children’s chorus on a gorgeous a cappella plus hand claps version of “Oh, Mary and the Baby,” with just a bit of flute and percussion for the bridge, and then she brings acoustic guitar in for “Mary Had a Baby” that’s equally beautiful. So many great cuts here, but probably my favorites (after those two) are the deeply soulful “Mary Was the Queen of Galilee” with Gail Ann Dorsey and Joan Osborne and the closing track—a lively version of “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” that becomes a parade of guest stars.
Quire of Voyces, Christmas with the Quire of Voyces: This is a choir associated with Santa Barbara City College, and they’ve been recorded with a clear, beautiful sound. Some standout cuts for me included “The Cherry Tree Carol” and “In Judah’s Land,” but they’re all quite good; if you’re looking for a quiet, contemplative holiday record to play in the background, this is perfect.
The Christmas Revels, The Road to Compostela: This is also a classical Christmas album, but it’s as energetic as the Quire of Voyces record is contemplative. It’s primarily a tribute to the holiday music of Galicia, in northwest Spain, the endpoint of one of European Christianity’s most famous pilgrimage routes, the legendary burial site of Saint James the Apostle. So it’s a musical tradition that I’m completely unfamiliar with, but one that I’m having a great time discovering.
Brandon Heath, Christmas Is Here: “The Day After Thanksgiving” is a swingy number about how the holiday spirit encroaches on us a little too soon, and there’s also the amusing “Momma Wouldn’t Lie to Me.” The traditional carols tend to have sparser, acoustic arrangements—in particular, a really nice job on “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” which starts out slow and gradually becomes more upbeat, but never quite loses its plaintive edge. The “Oh Come All Ye Faithful/Angels We Have Heard on High” medley might be a bit over-produced for some folks’s taste, but it’s one of the few potentially false notes in a sweet album.
Jewel, Let It Snow: I started listening to this out of a sense of obligation, just to get through all the major new holiday records, but I wasn’t really expecting much, because I haven’t really paid attention to Jewel in at least 15 years. It turns out to be a solid country record with great production, and her voice is fantastic for the traditional carols, hitting just the right emotional registers throughout. I’m less enamored of the two original songs, “It’s Christmastime” and “Blue Crystal Glow,” but even they have their endearing aspects. And her version of the Latin hymn “Panis Angelicus” was a really wonderful surprise.
Honorable Mention: Francesca Battistelli’s Christmas Live in Nashville is a concert version of her excellent 2012 holiday album. I think it might actually be a DVD, but Spotify has the music up there as if it were a album, so I thought given how much I enjoyed this album last year I’d mention it now.
Of course, there’s plenty more records that have come out this year. Though there were individual tracks I enjoyed on the holiday CDs by artists like Tamar Braxton (“Merry Christmas, Darling”), Marvin Sapp (“Don’t Get It Twisted”), Susan Boyle (“The Little Drummer Boy”), and the Sidewalk Prophets (“What a Glorious Night”), the albums as a whole didn’t click for me. Then there’s a record like Trace Adkin’s Celtic-tinged The King’s Gift, which I’m still not sure how I feel about—although it’s fascinating enough that, over time, it may well become a favorite. And some, like Erasure’s Snow Globe, I’m just never likely to warm up to. Your mileage, of course, may vary; if you’re on Spotify, follow the playlist and pick out your own favorites!
6 December 2013 | listen to this |