Friday, December 5, 2008

Christmas Bells Are Ringing...

That title would refer to lyrics to a few songs. It can be reference to whatever you each would like.

So yes, as I said, now that Thanksgiving is over, my iPod is full to the brim with Christmas albums. Umm... I really like Christmas music. If you didn't know that about me, it's high time you did. Music in general has such power in many ways, and Christmas music especially. Now and then in July I get in this funk and the only thing for it is to listen to Linda's "O Holy Night" or Donny's "Mary, Did You Know?" or something. I'm especially into music that is unabashedly non-secular. Of course I love "Sleigh Ride" and "White Christmas" and such, but the ones that I love best are the ones that aren't afraid to call a spade a spade and celebrate Christmas for what it is. Interestingly, I'm willing to overlook a certain amount of the element of cheese when it comes to Christmas music (it kind of goes with the territory sometimes), but I also have my limits. For example, I realized that Dickens's A Christmas Carol has been made into at least four different versions of musical (including the Muppets' immortal offering), some of which have made the most of the source material, leading to an emotive, mixed list of storytelling songs, but some of which just mangled it. Also, I sometimes get the feeling that an artist or studio just throws a Christmas album together just to get it out there, without really caring if it's an actual quality album, which is sometimes quite obvious, and then kind of bothersome. Regardless, I usually will give most Christmas music a chance at least.

Now then, I was looking through my iTunes Christmas music playlist and I realized that I have upwards of 96+ albums of Christmas music (not to mention the singles and songs from shows and movies)... I mean, seriously... I'm a packrat. The good thing about it is how nicely they all fit right here on my hard drive and/or iPod, and I don't have to drag a big book of CDs around in the car and elsewhere like I used to.

And here are some random, unsolicited statistics about my Christmas music:

  • Favorite Christmas song: "O Holy Night" (despite its relative ubiquity... seems like everyone sings it), followed by "O Come, All Ye Faithful" (I also love Angels We Have Heard on High, for the "glorias", and "The First Noel", although it has some minor lyrical issues that are hard for me to get past).
  • New albums for this year: A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas (Kristin Chenoweth), A Christmas Celebration (Celtic Woman), White Christmas (Martina McBride), Joy to the World (Faith Hill) and Joy: A Holiday Collection (Jewel), Christmas Duets (Elvis Presley), Carol of the Bells (Emmy Rossum).
  • Number of Christmas songs in my iTunes: 1561.
  • How long it would take to listen to the entire collection straight through: 3 days, 18 hours, 17 minutes, 45 seconds.
  • Total computer space used to store said collection: 5.50 GB.
I know, I'm a little bit ridiculous about it. It just happened, okay??

And now, for those who are interested (and for the original purpose of this blogpost), I am going to outline my Top Ten Favorite Christmas Albums! I'll also include a brief review and my pick of the best track from each. While there are many that I like or love, there are a few that dominate the list. So, here they are!

10. This Christmas (98 Degrees, 1999)

Okay, don't judge me. I've had this CD for a long time, and it's just that good. They handle the sacred material considerably well, when you think about what they're usually singing about. The boys seem to be sincere with their handling of the pieces. Besides a kind of crappy album design (I mean, seriously, was that cover picture taken with someone's cell phone camera? And come on, Nick, everyone's smiling but you), the sound at least delivers.

Standout track: "Silent Night" (I really wish I could find a copy of it in the world without the sappy bass sending out a gooey Christmas message, but I still like how they pull out the last verse).

9. Barenaked for the Holidays (Barenaked Ladies, 2004)

So the crazy guys from Canada have a pretty interesting mix put together for their holiday album (and yes, I used the term "holiday" rather than "Christmas" for a reason... their album is decidedly mixed between songs about Christmas, Hannukah and even New Year's Day). True to BNL form, they are quirky and fun, and they don't try to take themselves too seriously, but they still manage to evoke some real emotion and even sing "Happy Birthday" to Jesus at the end of the final track. They also do a fun duet with fellow Canuck Michael Bublé.

Standout track: "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings" (duet with Sarah McLachlan) (It's a perfect blend of sacred and rock, and the medley goes really well together, even as a round in the final verse).

8. Christmas Portrait (The Carpenters, 1978)

So, apparently this can also be found in a two-disc set entitled "Christmas Collection" (disc one is "Christmas Portrait" and disc 2 is "An Old-Fashioned Christmas"), but in either case, the Christmas Portrait album is the best. Definitely a product of their time, The Carpenters are admittedly dated a little, but something about Karen's silken take on classic and new Christmas carols is kind of enchanting. They throw in some orchestral pieces and medleys for good measure, but whether for nostalgic purposes or just because you love her voice, it's a really nice album (despite her sometimes humorous chewing on the words).

Standout track: "Merry Christmas, Darling" (The ultimate in Christmas schmaltz, but still really touching. You know you love it, Chiv Keeb).

7. Home Alone (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, score by John Williams, 1990)

What could have ended up as a forgotten hack of a Christmas movie (as so many do) actually ends up now being rather an enduring, funny and touching film about the importance of family, and boasting a surprise score by the legendary John Williams. I hesitate to make bold statements, but I think some of the themes in this film are among his best.

Standout track: "Somewhere In My Memory" (A beautiful and soaring melody, which also serves as a musical cue to the film's emotional themes).

6. The Muppet Christmas Carol (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, 1992)

I've always loved the Muppets, and while I still think Muppet Treasure Island tops the list of funniest Muppet movies, The Muppet Christmas Carol gives it a total run for its money. Respectful of the source material, and yet genuinely funny, this film's soundtrack features songs performed by all the Muppet performers, as well as Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge. This is one of those versions of Dickens's Christmas story that actually does it justice. I'm pretty sure Charles would have approved of it.

Standout track: "Bless Us All" (Robin is touching as Tiny Tim, and you actually believe that Kermit and Miss Piggy are Bob and Emily Cratchitt, leading their children in an anthem of gratitude and praise).

5. Christmas At Home (Donny Osmond, 1998)

Although I'm a little disenchanted with the Osmonds of late, I can't disregard the joy this Christmas CD brings me. Donny has developed a fairly unique style, and I like to hear how he spins some of the well-known carols. He employs the help of his wife and kids for one track, and shows off his impressive range (with a few forgiveable howls).

Standout track: "Baby, What You Goin' to Be?" (I love how he mixes several tracks of his voice for a multi-layered and quite dramatic effect. Also, I've always kind of liked this song and I'm glad to hear a decent treatment of it. "Mary, Did You Know?" is also a nice selection, they're kind of companion pieces, asking questions to both mother and Child).

4. A Celebration of Christmas (The Combined Choirs and Orchestra of Brigham Young University, 1995)

Naturally, I'm drawn to the pristine, trained sound of the choirs of BYU, and this album has always been one of my favorites. While the sound quality of Tantara's releases is always curiously subpar (low volume levels... perhaps to do with the method of recording?), the content is always excellent. Featuring pieces by each of the four audition choirs at BYU, as well as the BYU Philharmonic Orchestra, BYU knows how to treat Christmas carols, and certainly aren't afraid to sing about, you know, Jesus.

Standout track: "Angels We Have Heard on High" (Having since become a staple of Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concerts, Mack Wilberg's arrangement was first gloriously displayed in the de Jong Concert Hall, featured here. It starts with a soprano solo and ends with a brilliant climax).

3. Spirit of the Season (Mormon Tabernacle Choir, featuring Sissel, 2007)

While many of the Choir's releases are noteworthy (I debated about Sing, Choirs of Angels! for a long time before settling on this one), I decided to settle on just one for my list. Last year's Christmas release, featuring guest soloist Sissel (Norweigan sensation, apparently), is a wonderful blend of classic and lesser-known carols, and in some ways a sort of departure from their traditional Christmas releases. The Choir deftly handles Eric Whitacre, sings in several languages, and Sissel's crystalline, soaring soprano is extremely easy on the ears.

Standout track: "Like an Angel Passing Through My Room" (Written by one of the songwriters from ABBA, this is a gorgeous, touching and haunting melody handled beautifully by Sissel. Easily one of my new favorite Christmas songs).

2. Noël (Josh Groban, 2007)

Yeah, I'm on the Josh Groban bandwagon, so sue me! His baritone is remarkable, and he always has an interesting array of selections on his recordings. Noël is a very consistent follow-up to his previous albums, maintaining the feeling and variety that he usually displays (singing in Latin, Spanish and French). He doesn't disappoint his fans with his Christmas release (finally!). He does throw us a few surprises though, featuring duets with some surprising guest artists (Faith Hill, Brian McKnight, guitarist Andy McKee and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir!), and even features what some would call a Thanksgiving carol. Everything about this album is noteworthy, so I'll just let it sing for itself.

Standout track: "Silent Night" (I can still remember driving up John Street in Appleton listening to this first track for the first time, hoping it would sound a certain way, and feeling chills when it sounded exactly as I hoped it would. Although I wish he had sung the lyrics for the other verses, rather than repeating the first verse's words for the last, the modulation and background choir positively sparkle).

1. Christmas Stays the Same (Linda Eder, 2000)

Sure, maybe this is a biased decision for number 1, since I consider Linda the finest vocalist, perhaps ever, but after eight years (which surprises me), this is still by far the most enduring Christmas CD I can think of. This pick might be confusing to some, since she's not all that well-known, but this is a total winner. It always seems fresh and new, and while she has total respect for traditional and sacred Christmas material, she throws out a couple new and outstanding pieces, and features the Broadway Gospel Choir on some tracks. She's just a brilliant performer, and if you get a chance to see her Christmas concert on DVD, you will be won over as well.

Standout track: "O Holy Night" (Yes, I think I can safely say hers is the best rendition I've heard. It's not perfect, and the choir could back down a tiny bit, but she builds perfectly and adds her personal flair to make it exciting and powerful).

Standout track 2 (that's right, she gets two): "Here Comes Santa Claus/Santa Claus is Coming to Town" (It's just... brilliant. I don't know how else to put it. A fun and sparkling medley, sprinked with familiar jazz and Broadway themes, she pulls out the stops for the finale).

And there you have it! The following earn honorable mentions, since I really wanted to include them:
  • A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas (Kristin Chenoweth, 2008): Kristin's first Christmas album, and although I wish there were a little more emphasis on Jesus, she has some really remarkable recordings on here. Standout tracks: "Born on Christmas Day" and "Sleep Well, Little Children/What a Wonderful World".
  • Let It Snow! (Michael Bublé, 2007): Mostly I included this because it's the Christmas CD that the perpetually flat (by thaaaat much) Harry Connick, Jr. could only dream of. It's been released in several formats, but most recently as a six-track EP, which is fun and festive. His voice is the perfect combination of the Rat Pack style and contemporary sensibility. Standout track: "Let It Snow" (Live).
  • Merry Christmas With Love (Clay Aiken, 2004): This album kind of falls in the category I cited above, seeming almost like they just cranked out a Christmas CD because they wanted Clay to have one in the stores that year. Despite this, Clay has some memorable moments on here. Standout track: "Hark the Herald Angels Sing/O Come All Ye Faithful".
  • A Christmas Together (John Denver and the Muppets, 1979): Seriously classic, and again with the Muppets. I mean, to hear them singing Silent Night in its original German?? Not to mention Piggy's peppy treatment of "Christmas is Coming" and the classic "Twelve Days of Christmas". Standout track: "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas".
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas (Danny Elfman, 1993): Although I have trouble classifying this as a full-on Christmas album, I think it definitely deserves mention. It had a huge impact on me when it was released, and it's the perfect soundtrack to listen to in the gap between Halloween and Christmas. Standout tracks: "What's This?" and "Sally's Song".
  • Any and all Mannheim Steamroller... That's right.
  • Don't let's forget Tchaikovsky's glorious The Nutcracker Suite and Handel's immortal Messiah!
  • Final honorable mention goes to Christmas J.A.M. You know who you are!!!
And for a final surprise, here are a few standout tracks from albums that generally haven't earned full mention:

"Rejoice" (Il Divo)
"Whence is that Goodly Fragrance Flowing" (Mormon Tabernacle Choir)
"Christmas Wrapping" (The Waitresses)
"Dream A Dream" (Charlotte Church)
"All I Want for Christmas is You" (Mariah Carey)
"Christmas is All Around" (Billy Mack)
"There Is a Star" (BYU Combined Choirs)
"All Is Well" (Clay Aiken)
"2000 Miles" (Coldplay)
"Christmas Lullaby" (Mannheim Steamroller)
"Where Are You, Christmas?" (Faith Hill)
"O Come All Ye Faithful" (Katherine McPhee)
"I Saw Three Ships" (Sufjan Stevens)
"Step Into Christmas" (Elton John)
"The Twelve Days of Christmas" (Relient K)

Well done if you made it through! Really, it's your own benefit if you did. I love how I had a top ten and then kind of like ten honorable mentions. Oh well, that's how I roll! Now let's feel that Christmas spirit! It's out there to be found and to be shared, even if some are trying to silence it.

Born is the King of Israel.


  1. I would like to know the percentage of your Christmas music I will be hearing in ## days. Just so I'm ready when the time comes.

    And what, no Nightmare Before Christmas? WITH?!

  2. Wups... well, there are reasons for that, but you make a good point. It's definitely worth a mention.

  3. Yeah, that's more like it, Graham cracker.

  4. Whew! Yeah, our IM didn't work the other night. We'll have to try again cause I really want to hear Kristen soon.

    Great list. That is a lot of work. Doesn't it feel good have it written down? I felt that way about the movies.

  5. It was really fun to read all your picks and why you like them. Thanks.

  6. How dare you! And what of "Christmas in Milwaukee"?! Have you no sentiment at all?

    Although I did notice you had Elton's "Step into Christmas". Good choice.

  7. Chiv Keeb, that's not an album, that's a mix!! Which includes many of the pieces I have listed here! This list is just for actual albums, or I would never have been able to narrow it all down to a top 10. Still, you remind me that "Christmas Wrapping" absolutely deserves mention...

    Goodness, how could I forget that mix? "What you got in that big burlap sack for me, a PRESANT??"

    I'm glad people are enjoying this list. Yes, it did take a long time to do, and yes, it does feel good to have it all down!

  8. Holy McMOLY! You've got a lot. We keep losing all our CDs, and we buy a bunch on itunes, don't put them on the ipod, our computer crashes, and voila. They are gone. Lame. I need some good stuff.

  9. Yay Christmas music! This post was perfect for giving me ideas for my pandora music list. I love the BNL album, and I grew up with the Carpenters and John Denver and the Muppets. So many good songs and albums on this list, and no mention of the song "Santa Baby" (I cannot begin to express how much I absolutely loathe that song). Good job!

  10. There are very few people who can get me to buy music unheard, and merely on their recommendation. I think you MIGHT be one of them. There are a few here I haven't heard.

    And just so everyone's clear? To sing All I Want for Christmas is You is the sole reason Mariah Carey was born upon this earth.

  11. 1,561 Christmas songs!!! Wow, there really ARE more than I thought. That's incredible.

    Em and I always laugh that Donny says "...marshmallows for shnoasting..."

  12. He DOES say that, and why?? Maybe it's an inside joke or something. But he only says it for the second verse. It is funny.

    And Kenna, I think you're right about Mariah Carey's purpose on the earth.

  13. What? No Robert Shaw Chorale?!

    (Hey, they're oldies but goodies. And I grew up on them, as did my mother.)

    Looking through my own trove, I'm realizing I seem to have a fondness for relatively spare carol arrangements. The aforementioned RSC (mostly a cappella arrangements), Renaissance Christmas music by an English group called Virelai, To Drive The Cold Winter Away by Loreena McKennitt, Cold Fusion by Utah group The Fiddlesticks, a smattering of New Agey Christmas stuff, some Big Echoey Cathedral-y Goodness by Anonymous 4, AND OF COURSE SISSEL! Her pure, sweet Norwegian version of "O Holy Night" would move the grossest sinner, I think.

  14. is it okay i if i'm laughing at all of your top 5? HA. sorry... you know how mean i am. fluffy choices drew, realllll fluffy. hehehe

  15. Well, GOSH, Lindsay, if songs that sing unashamedly and passionately of Christ's birth are "fluffy", I would hate to think what you would classify as non...

    But of course it's okay if you're laughing. There's no accounting for taste. ;)

    Good suggestions, TPK, I would like to get into some more of that stuff. There's a good collection of John Rutter Christmas music that's probably more that tone, subdued, choral, classic.

  16. You have so much Christmas music Drew. I am going to come over...tomorrow and you can share the goods.

  17. You have so much Christmas music Drew. I am going to come over...tomorrow and you can share the goods.

  18. yeah. ok. lots of arrangements of the same 100 Christmas songs and hymns. there are some pretty talented people out there.

  19. I know this comment is terribly late, but I only just had time to read your blog, and I just HAD to comment on what good taste you have in music. I found myself nodding in agreement as I scrolled down your list. I appreciate liking the same sort of music as someone else for once. I was especially surprised to see that you bought the Jewel Christmas CD. Bravo. I am a big fan of Jewel. And you know how I love Linda Eder. I could go on and on. As it is, I have gone on too long already. You're top notch. :)