(Most of the CDs reviewed here can be obtained from Tower Records, Buy.com, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon. H&B Direct is a great source for classical and choral CDs, and Mainely A Cappella is a fine source for a cappella CDs. By clicking on the names of most of the CDs reviewed here, you will be taken to a website for that CD or its manufacturer.)
Christmas CDs ring in a musical seasonby firstname.lastname@example.org , for The Post-Crescent of Appleton, WI (Dec. 15, 2002)
For reasons mysterious, the number of new Christmas CDs is sharply down this year. One exception, however, is the heavenly host of new discs in the category most favored by angels.
For many years Linda and I have journeyed to the Twin Cities in early December to hear the sublime "Echoes of Christmas" concert by the Dale Warland Singers. As we raved about these concerts to friends and to readers of this annual column, we regretted that the two carols we heard there and loved most had never appeared on a DWS disc. And so we offered to provide some underwriting if those carols would be recorded-we are that much in love with them.
One is Sir Malcolm Sargents setting of "Silent Night", which doesn't even use most of the original words. It was the encore for every concert we attended, and it is a warm blanket of a carol that will envelop you with the peace of its beauty. The other is Jan Sandströms setting of "Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming", in which a single verse of the old German Carol is slowly sung against wordless ethereal harmonies that unfold like a rose.
Those two and nineteen other gems are found on Christmas with the Dale Warland Singers, and your choral Christmas tree doesn't have a star until you get this it. The group's singing always reminds me of a well-cut diamond; just as it has many facets but is still a single stone, here forty voices manage to sound like one voice with many faces.
That's only the top of the pile. Just below is "Andrew Carter's "Christmas Carols" by the Quire of London. Director Carter is a gifted arranger of traditional carols, but even better are those he composed afresh, such as "Sweet Was The Song" and "I Come From Highest Heaven". All are found on this York Ambisonic recording, which sounded especially fine on a 5.1 system.
Just as close to the top of the pile is Love Divine, Illumine Our Darkness, a recording of the 2001 St. Olaf Christmas Festival. This latest in a string of festival CDs shows anew why the New York Times called the concert one of the 10 Christmas events not to be missed. Most of the music is wonderfully unfamiliar, and the musicianship of these 500-plus college kids still knocks my Christmas stockings off.
Another institution of higher learning is the source of In Dulci Jubilo, featuring the 70 male voices of the Notre Dame Glee Club. Twenty mostly familiar carols are on the disc, including a fine singing of one that has become a must for all-male groups: Biebl's "Ave Maria".
The Sixteen already have a number of first-rate Christmas CDs to their credit. Their latest, Hodie, is devoted to the Christmas music of 20th century British composers. Hearing it all on one disc like this leaves no doubt that an amazing number of the most beautiful Christmas songs ever written came from these composers in the hundred years recently past.
The Cambridge Singers are another gem in the many-jeweled crown of British choral singing. The John Rutter Christmas Album is a compilation devoted to 25 pieces from just one 20th century English composertheir director. The disc leaves no doubt as to why Rutter is rightly called the most popular carol writer/arranger of the past few decades--you'll recognize much of it.
But if you're looking for much that you haven't heard before, check out Cantate Hodie, by the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh. Over half is devoted to world premiere recordings, with the rest given over to such delights as Craig Courtney's slightly wacky "Musicological Journey Through The Twelve Days of Christmas".
Two fine CDs by the St. Michael's Singers, Gloria and Coventry Carols, were recorded at Coventry Cathedral and are highly recommended. If that isn't enough English cathedral Christmas music, you'll also want Advent and Christmas at Portsmouth Cathedral and A Christmas Greeting by the Choir of St. David's Cathedral (does England have any churches that aren't cathedrals? does every saint have one?)
Holidays a cappella Live! by the 9 voices of Chicago a cappella straddles the line between big choruses and small vocal groups, not only in size but also in program. They bring off both Lauridisen's "O Magnum Mysterium" and Martin/Blane's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" with equal aplomb. The music leans toward the serious choral side, but there are also a handful of spirituals and five Chanukah songs.
ACAPPELLAThe acappella standout CD of this season is The Blender's When It Snows. This foursome has much more in common with groups like Take 6 than the acappella groups of the past (such as the Four Freshmen). Their arrangements are always innovative and their harmonies are Scrooge tight (pre-ghosts, that is). But forget all that--you just have to hear their "Sleigh Ride", where Santa takes off on Lou Reed's "Take A Walk on the Wild Side", complete with reindeer and elves singing "doot do-doot do-doot".
At the same high level is Flake by Four Shadow, a group a few inches closer to the doowop tradition. Highlights include a good swift kick to that crybaby Blue Christmas tune, and a surprisingly effective rendition of Biebl's "Ave Maria". Rockapella is much more squarely in the doowop camp, and their second holiday CD Comfort & Joy shows that harmonies around a streetcorner barrel fire are just as enjoyable as those heard in front of a mansions massive fireplace. Return 2 Zero also has a second holiday CD, entitled Snowflake, and they draw on both jazz and doowop acappella traditions to create their very enjoyable renditions of mostly familiar seasonal tunes.
JAZZLaid-back jazz holiday CDs are always as common as roofline icicle lights, and just as it's "seen one, seen 'em all" with those lights it's often "heard one, heard 'em all" with the CDs. There are two welcome exceptions this year. On Mistletoe Sax, backing from the Hawthorne String Quartet (all members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra) puts an extra-nice wreath around the Bruce Abbott and the North Star Jazz Ensemble. And this year's best Christmas Eve by the fireside disc is December, by contemporary jazz trumpeter Chris Botti. Botti has an eggnog-smooth tone and style that will remind older listeners of Chet Baker, and the arrangements are generally both innovative and enjoyable.
Boogie Woogie Christmas from the Brian Setzer Orchestra is at the other end of the energy spectrum. Here rock 'n' roll, big band jazz, and blues all collide before sliding down the chimney and onto your stereo. It's retro as can be--even retro sex kitten Ann-Marget shows up to sing "Baby, It's Cold Outside" with Brian. Trombonist Chris McDonald, who has been on literally hundreds of gospel and contemporary Christian recordings, leads his orchestra through a dozen great arrangements on Big Band Christmas Swing.
Steve Tyrell has also been in the music business a long time, but only recently as a performer. On This Time of Year he filters jazz, blues, and R&B influences through a voice that at times strongly reminded me of Dr. John (only without quite so much gris-gris). In short, this ain't your daddy's Perry Como.
While we're down in New Orleans, I have to mention Cajun Christmas, which features a quintet led by superb Cajun button accordionist Jo-El Sonnier. It is just the thing for two-steppin' and waltzin' at your next Yuletide fais do-do. More fun in a different country tradition is to be had on Uncorked by the Christmas Jug Band. They've been doing this sort of thing for a quarter-century, and came out of retirement for the new CD, which leads off with a more-naughty-than-nice "Santa Lost A Ho".
BLUEGRASSWhile there are several new CDs by country stars this Christmas (discs from Lee Ann Womack, Brooks & Dunn, Jo Dee Messina, and Alan Jackson are everywhere), a mini-wave of bluegrass recordings has also washed over the holiday music punchbowl. Patty Loveless' Blue Grass and White Snow has gotten most of the publicity. Even apart from the title, even a beginning musicologist wouldn't miss the vocal harmonizing, the instruments, and the fact that both "Christmas Times A-Comin'" and "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem" as evidence of the genre.
But don't miss three less heavily promoted bluegrass CDs. Christmas On The Mountain features some of the biggest stars of bluegrass past, including the Osbourne Brothers, Del McCoury, Mac Wiseman, and Doc Watson. Younger bluegrass stars do their part on O Christmas Tree, a fine new disc on the bluegrass-loving Rounder label. Finally there's Christmas Grass, on which guitarist Cody Kilby and bassist Darrin Vincent are joined by the likes of Allison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs, Ronnie McCoury, and Rhonda Vincent.
Of the modern country discs, I liked Messina's A Joyful Noise best, but you should know that there is very little "country" about it. Think of it instead as part of the long pop vocal tradition in Christmas music.
CELTICThe best new Celtic entry this year is A Midnight Clear, by Robin Bullock, Al Petteway, and Amy White--all well known to Celtic music fans. Unlike most Celtic holiday recordings, nearly all of the tunes here are familiar carols, but the arrangements are fresh and the Dorian recording is characteristically state of the art. In contrast, A Winter's Night by the Ensemble Galilei includes a wide range of tunes, carols, and dances, and it was recorded live in the Great Hall of St. John's College in Annapolis. The Ensemble also enjoys and deserves it's strong reputation, with the playing of fiddler Liz Knowles and harper Sue Richards being particularly noteworthy. O Tidings of Comfort and Joy by Kildare has a much more contemporary Celtic sound, at times sliding into out-and-out rock.
Not Celtic, but sharing much of the feel (and the fiddles), is The Loveliest Rose by the very popular traditional Norwegian group Bukkene Bruse (they were the official Olympic musicians in Lillehammer). This will be unfamiliar music for most people, but thankfully there is a link to the full Norwegian lyrics on the web! All folk music lovers and those who love the sound of music in the Christmas spirit should have this one.
ACOUSTICTwo discs top this category. A Windham Hill Christmas is from a label that has released numerous Christmas CDs over the past two decades. The talent and creativity of the wide array of musicians on this disc place it well above other new age acoustic offerings. And unlike previous recordings, virtually all of the songs are familiar ones.
The other CD, Wonderland: A Winter Solstice Celebration, is over on the folk or country side of the acoustic realm. The song selection is less traditional, beginning with Joni Mitchell's "River", and the performances of Rani Arbo, Erica Wheeler, Richard Shindell, and Louis Taylor are particular standouts.
Native American guitarist/flutist Bill Miller was born on the Stockbridge-Munsee reservation, studied at UW-La Crosse, and opened for Tori Amos. His CD A Sacred Gift was recorded in La Crosse, and features nine old and new Christmas tunes played and sung just as gently as one could ask. Guitarist Steve Glotzer shows all kinds of influences on the ten familiar carols of his Acoustic Christmas, although country does predominate.
Pianist Jim Wilson occupies an area between new age and smooth jazz in both playing and arranging. His My First Christmas With You is another worthy contender for CD player time after the presents are unwrapped and Christmas dinner is weighing heavily on the stomach. Lorie Line's Sharing the Season Volume 4, as anyone who saw her recent show at the PAC can attest, is NOT for that time. The arrangements were clearly created with the show in mind, and the result is a fine memento for those who saw it. But be advised that it is much different from the solo acoustic piano CD reviewed last year, which was a low-energy contemplative recording.
MIXED BAGThere have been many Hispanic Christmas recordings over the years ( Media Play is one of the few places where you'd find any around here), but often they are filled with ordinary pop arrangements of familiar tunes sung in Spanish. Hispanic Christmas by singer CC Couch and guitarist Teddy Irwin is a bit different, in part because it is just the two of them. Since someone else is credited with "pronunciation and accent" Couch may not even be a Spanish-speaking person. But the end result sounds fine, and Irwin's arrangements are unusually effective.
Broadway Cares Home For The Holidays is a compilation that benefits entertainers with AIDS, and there are stars all over it, beginning with Liza Minnelli. I don't like Broadway recordings in general because so often the performers feel they have to SING to hit those back rows, and it ends up more of a shout. Not here, though. Most of the arrangements and performances work very well indeed. For a taste of Hawaii in a mostly traditional pop set, try Sean Na'auao's A Kanaka Christmas, which is just the latest in an amazing number of Hawaiian Christmas CDs.
Sooner or later all music styles have their Christmas CDs, and the latest is the post-rave "chillout" music that grew out of both ambient and hip-hop genres. The style is applied to standard Christmas fare on The Reindeer Room, and the result is at least interesting and often very listenable. Another very unusual set of arrangements is heard on Cast in Bronze's second Christmas CD, The Bells of Christmas. Consider what the sound would be like if you dropped a carillon into the middle of Mannheim Steamroller, and youd get the idea.
If you need a couple of CDs to keep your preteens happy, try Jump5's All the Joy in the World or School's Out Christmas "by Today's Hottest Young Stars!". I'm assuming those discs will appeal to them, because they do darn little for me.
To hear selections from all of these CDs and more, just tune in! The 14th annual edition of my radio show will be broadcast by WRST-FM (90.3) in Oshkosh from 1 to 6 PM Dec. 16-24. On Saturday and Sunday Dec. 21 & 22, however, it will last an extra hour and originate from WLFM-FM (91.1) in Appleton so that more of this area's listeners can hear it. It will be simulcast on WRST those days, so you can drive clear down to Fond du Lac before losing the signal. The WLFM shows will present a condensed version of whats heard during the week in Oshkosh, and since I'm known for CD giveaways as well, I've saved some just for Appleton area listeners.
Copyright © 2002 by Gerry Grzyb
(re-printed / installed at this site with permission from the author)