From country to choral, these stocking-worthy Christmas CDs are worth a listen

by Gerry Grzyb, for The Post-Crescent of Appleton, WI (Dec. 16, 2001)

Sure, the Dow and the NASDAQ have been climbing recently, but the truly conservative investor will still want to put lots of money into CDs. Christmas CDs, that is. They'll bring you much more happiness than that worthless Enron stock. Here are the best holiday releases of this year:

Choral and Classical

It must be the year of the all-male choir, and I'm not talking about 'N Sync. Topping the list is "Christmas With Chanticleer", featuring the 12 tightly blended voices of one of the world's greatest vocal ensembles and guest soprano Dawn Upshaw (hey, how'd that girl get in here). The arrangements of familiar carols are fresh and the singing is as close to flawless as mortals get.

The Washington Men's Camerata has more than four times as many voices, providing the large college glee club sound on "Sing We Noel". Their program is varied, including a fine performance of Pinkham's increasingly popular Christmas Cantata. The Compline Choir of St. Mark's Cathedral in Seattle presents a series of excellent recordings spanning 30 years on "Carol of the Birds", with a skillful mix of music from many centuries ago and modern carol settings.

"He Comes To Us" is the name of the 2000 St. Olaf Christmas Festival recording. Most of the music will be unfamiliar to you, and the performances are of the high order expected from the students at this little Northfield, Minn., college. Best of all, for the first time two CDs are used (for little more that the price of one) in order to present the entire program. "A Scandinavian Christmas" sounds like it might also be a Minnesota product, but comes instead from Seattle's Choral Arts Northwest. The disc is laden with the harmonically rich choral writing of 20th century Scandinavia, which I find to be serenely beautiful.

The Northwest is also the source of the Opus 7 Vocal Ensemble's "O Rising Dawn", also heavy with music of the 20th century. The Great "O" Antiphons by John Muehleisen are at the center of the program, and provide a fine opportunity for this small choir to show its skill. If you need a good basic carol service, consider "Christmas at Trinity", with the Choir of Trinity Church, Wall Street, New York. All the profits of this recording made in a church not far from Ground Zero go to the Sept. 11 fund, and it is on the budget-priced Naxos label. From a different Trinity, Trinity Church in Boston, comes "A Choral Christmas" with strong singing and the typically excellent recording of the Dorian label.

New instrumental CDs are led by "A Very Classical Christmas" from the Sonos Handbell Ensemble. These ringers stunned a sold-out crowd at First English in Appleton a few years ago, and much of that program is on this disk. Selections from The Nutcracker, The Messiah, and assorted Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart are the offerings, but if that sounds too familiar, you have to hear what such music sounds like in the hands (literally) of a superb handbell group.

Christmas CDs featuring harp usually involve the folk or Celtic harps, so it was a pleasant change to hear the concert harps of the Tick Tock Harp Duo on their "Carols of the Winter Solstice". While the tunes are standard Yuletide fare, the arrangements were thoughtfully created to showcase the unusual sound of this Riverside, IL, twosome.

A concert harp is all that accompanies Jackson Berkey on "Harpsichord Carols". Berkey's harpsichord is heard on Mannheim Steamroller recordings, but the sound on his own disc is much leaner. There is a new Steamroller recording as well, "Christmas Extraordinaire", and it is very much like its predecessors, which means it too will sell record-setting numbers of copies.

Jazz and Blues

"A Wisconsin Christmas in Concert" has to top this year's seasonal CD list for jazz and blues fans. Recorded at Wausau's Grand Theater and Oshkosh's Grand Opera House in the late 1990s, it features local faves such as Janet Planet, Tom Theabo, Tom Washatka and more. Buy it not because you want to support area musicians, but because you need another really fine Christmas CD.

Two vocal discs deserve notice this year. "Max Jazz Holiday" has six vocalists singing very tasty renditions of Christmas standards. While the six are not famous (yet), that certainly can't be said of one of the great ladies on "A Nancy Wilson Christmas". She benefits from top-notch backing by the likes of flutist Herbie Mann, the New York Voices, and the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All Star Big Band.

Another pair of CDs comes from the growing Latin craze. "Playboy's Latin Jazz Christmas" is the jazzier of the two, with performances by such well-known Latin jazz heavies as Arturo Sandoval, Pete Escovedo, and Ed Calle. "It's A Cuban Christmas" is more traditionally dance-oriented. A variety of musicians also appear on it, and I particularly enjoyed Los Papines' version of "Little Drummer Boy". It seems somebody put some of that famous Cuban rum in his rum-pa-pum-pum!

"A Cathy Morris Christmas", by a fine electric violinist, has jazz and Latin elements and a whole lot else. It contains one of the most effective "O Come, O Come Emanuel" renditions I've ever heard, starting out very spacey but ending in an electric guitar and violin wailing rave.

The retro swing craze is now in decline, but I still liked Rhino's "Swingin' Christmas" collection, mostly composed of recordings by the biggest names (such as Armstrong and Prima) from the 1950s. The opposite of retro may be "Windy Christmas", from Chicago's Tatsu Aoki Quartet. It was created by dozens of producers working over the Internet, and has the most adventuresome takes of any of the CDs reviewed here.

Blues fans are surely aware of B.B. King's new Christmas CD, but they also ought to know about "Blue Xmas", a collection of Christmas tunes played as blues-flavored instrumentals by some of the biggest names in blues. No surprise that the Blue Christmas on this disc is likely the bluest you will ever hear.

Country and Folk

Dale Watson is from the honky-tonk tradition in country music. He wrote most of the songs on "Christmas Time In Texas", and while I think most country singers go astray when they try to pen Christmas tunes, Dale is at his best in his own material. Deana Carter is from the folk end of country. The title of her new CD "Father Christmas" might refer to the fact that the only accompaniments for her sweet voice are the guitars played by her Nashville studio musician dad. He plays somewhat in the manner of John Fahey, and his guitar and her voice go well together without in any sense blending.

Bluegrass is another root of the country music tree, and you'll not likely find a better bluegrass holiday CD than the all-instrumental "A Spectacular Bluegrass Christmas". "O Come All Ye Faithful" played breakdown style by the Nashville Superpickers is my favorite track. Roots are also above the surface on "Behold That Star! An American Song Quilt", described as "African-American and Anglo-American traditional songs, with string band and brass band music of the late 19th century" as performed by the Washington, D.C., cast of The Christmas Revels. Only some of the songs are Christmas tunes, but you couldn't ask for a better window on the sound of an America half as old as the one we know. "A Folk Song Christmas" on the American Melody label showcases the simple beauty of mountain-style arrangements of traditional Christmas tunes.

The Celtic Christmas boom is all but over, but one new release is a dandy. Entitled "Mittens for Christmas" and performed by the three men of Kirkmount, it has considerably more Celtic flavor than many other CDs that claimed to be Celtic.

On the highest bough of the traditional folk tree you would see Jeanie Fitchen's "A Folk Christmas". This disc has it all: Jeanie's way-above-average voice, varied arrangements that really hold your interest, excellent supporting musicians and a skillful recording. Margo Hennebach and Mark Saunders provide another fine folk recording under the title of "Comfort and Joy". Margo's voice put me in mind of Judy Collins, and Mark's guitar playing is perfectly suited to her.

Rock and Pop

"Sounds Like Christmas" by the mysterious December People is easily the most delightful rock CD this season. Smiles are sure to break out on boomer's faces as they hear "Carol of the Bells" sounding like it was being played by Yes, "I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day" sounding just like a Queen tune, and "Silent Night" sounding like a track from Dark Side of the Moon. If the Christmas party gets boring, put this on and see how fast people can guess which famous group is being imitated. But beware, the real Kansas is on here, too.

"A Holiday Feast Vol. 6" is the latest release from Washington's Hungry for Music association. Like the five preceding volumes, this one contains a wide array of great DC-area bands playing in an equally wide variety of rock, pop, and country music styles. You won't have heard of any of them, but nearly every one deserves a contract with some big record company. If you want a CD devoted to a particular style, check out the Alley Cats' "Streetcorner Carols" sung doo-wop style, or the re-release on a new label of the Wave Benders' "Surfin' Christmas". Post-boomer readers would probably like Rhino's "VH1 The Big 80s Christmas" compilation. All of the tunes by rock stars of that decade have been on CD before, but never so neatly collected onto one disc.

"Christmas In London" by the Stars of the London Stage sounds like one of those densely arranged big-chorus-and-orchestra recordings of the 1950s, and it is well done indeed. The Stars include five soloists from London's West End or opera, the fine Crouch End Festival Chorus, and The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra (I thought Prague was in ... oh, never mind). From our version of the West End, better known as Broadway, comes D.C. Anderson with "All Is Calm, All Is Bright". Anderson sings only a couple of traditional tunes, but I most enjoyed such unusual fare as "The UPS Bell Carol" and "Department Stores Mean Christmas To Me", a true New Yorker's answer to those Kinkade types who seem to think Christmas only really comes to glowing cottages in the woods.

I've got one really outstanding pop female vocalist CD to recommend, and it isn't Barbra's (she does not need my help!). Margaret Carlson has a truly beautiful voice, knows how to phrase in a lightly swinging way, and gets superb support from some uncredited musicians on her "This Christmas...My Favorite Things". Even with the hundreds of new Christmas CDs I audition between September and December, this one has received much time in the CD player.

Acoustic Instruments

This is the stuff I most want to hear while sitting transfixed by our sparkling tree on Christmas Eve. No words are needed, they're all in my head anyway. Bob Rafkin's "Six String Christmas" features clean and simple arrangements for Bob's guitar. Noel Lester, chair of the music department at Maryland's Hood College, fills his 78-minute "A Christmas Fantasy" with Jeanine Yeager's truly wonderful arrangements of 27 carols. They are much closer in feel to those of older pianists such as Roger Williams or Ferrante and Teicher than to the new age pianists. David Tolk's piano playing, supported by a tiny orchestra, is at the heart of his "Holiday". It lives up to the jacket claim of being "a peaceful collection of holiday carols", featuring some fine writing.

Copyright © 2001 by Gerry Grzyb
      (re-printed / installed at this site with permission from the author)

For more information, see the Dr. Gerry Grzyb's "The Christmas Show" page.