(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. And feel free to e-mail me just click on my name if you need help.)
CHRISTMAS CD REVIEWby firstname.lastname@example.org ("Dr. Christmas")
Listening to "Holiday Classics Encore" by the Appleton North Choirs reminds me of unboxing ornaments to decorate the tree. The familiar ornaments here are tunes we know and love, in settings by some of the greatest choral arrangers. Others, like Stroopes "There Is No Rose" and Manuel's "Alleluia", are the new ornaments we found in that shop up north, or at the craft fair a few weeks ago. The singing of these young adults continues to delight me, and the disc is a fitting tribute to Jim Heiks, who has given us year after year of these concerts, but leaves next month for a position at Goshen College. You can buy it at North's office, or call North for a list of other locations. Now here are the best CDs I heard from that big world beyond the Fox Valley.
"Wolcum Yule" is a welcome change from the often-obscure "early music" championed by the women known as the Anonymous 4. With excellent accompaniment from harpist Andrew Lawrence-King, the quartet presents a program of traditional and contemporary carols from the British Isles. I most enjoyed the more recent pieces, such as Bennetts setting of "Balulalow", Davies new work about the wise men's journey, and an especially gentle arrangement of Tavener's "The Lamb".
If the Anonymous 4 are the bestselling female vocal ensemble, Chanticleer would certainly be the male equivalent. But if you like that group, you must hear The Gents, 15 men from the Netherlands whose "Follow That Star" is easily one of the best new holiday CDs of any genre. Their precise harmonies combine with innovative arrangements on everything from the 16th century's "Gaudete" to McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime", offering variety unmatched on anything else reviewed here.
St. Olaf alumni make up the entire roster of the Twin Cities chamber choir Magnum Chorum, so you know the singing will be first-rate on their "Wonder Tidings". It is the first disc Ive seen devoted entirely to the deeply spiritual Christmas music of gifted American composer Stephen Paulus.
Indiana's Pro Organo label has given us numerous Christmas CDs featuring the choirs and organs of American churches. The best of this year's offerings is "Ave Rex" by the Choirs of Christ and St. Luke's Episcopal in Norfolk. Highlights include Mathias's carol cycle that gave the CD its name, and a particularly beautiful organ meditation by Jean Langlais. Unusually effective organ accompaniment as well as several organ variations on familiar carols marks "Small Wonder", from St. Paul's, K Street in Washington. The organ stands alone by "Christmas Rediscovered", by John Walker at Pittsburgh's Shadyside Presbyterian. Easily the best Christmas organ CD in many a year, it is devoted to "oft-overlooked gems", from the serenity of Reger's "Ave Maria" and Barr's "Lullaby on Silent Night" to the exuberance of Chapman's "Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella".
"Palestrina" wrote some of the most glorious music associated with Christmas in the 16th century. A very full disc of that music, sung by the Choir of Westminster Cathedral , has been issued on the Hyperion label this year. In the next century, J.S. Bach wrote the four "Leipziger Weihnachtskantaten", performed on a new disc by the Collegium Vocale Gent under Philippe Herreweghe's direction, and the "Christmas Oratorio", from the Netherlands Bach Society. I'm not a Bach scholar, but I do know that these performers have received many accolades for their previous Bach performances. Moving forward in time brings us to "Nativity Christmas Music from Georgian England", by Psalmody and The Parley of Instruments, which succeeds in evoking the sounds of rural churches two centuries ago.
America's greatest contributions to the carol genre are without question those of Alfred Burt. "A Christmas Present From The Caroling Company" comes from a group of two dozen singers formed by his daughter Diane to continue the contribution. Their sound is reminiscent of the great jazz acappella vocal groups of decades ago, such as the Hi-Los. And speaking of descendents, there's "Christmas with the Von Trapp Children", from four great-grandchildren (ages 9 to 15) of the man made famous by The Sound of Music. You can hear and see them on Leno's show Christmas Night, or better yet, catch them in concert at the PAC on March 14.
Perhaps the continuing effect of "O Brother, Where Art Thou" explains why bluegrass CDs outnumber contemporary country discs this season. My favorite, but only by the width of a fiddle string, is "A Pinecastle Christmas Gatherin'", which has a delightful variety of tunes familiar and not, from the many artists associated with that label. Some of the most venerable names in bluegrass are associated with Rebel Records, and "Christmas In The Mountains" sounds closest to what bluegrass was like when that label was founded over four decades ago.
The Green Hill label is found mainly in gift shop counter displays, but has given us a long string of Christmas CDs so good that I can nearly recommend all of them. This year's five offerings include "Bluegrass Christmas" and "Christmas on the Mountain", two all-instrumental CDs produced by multi-instrumentalist Craig Duncan. I particularly liked the second one, because it employs autoharps and dulcimers that sound like Christmas decorations lookshiny bright. If youre a banjo fan, you'll want "Smoky Mountain Christmas" on the Rural Rhythm label, featuring Raymond Fairchild.
A double-neck guitjo is a highlight of "Joy To The World" by Acoustic Eidolon, a duo consisting of cellist Hannah Alkire and player of many strings Joe Scott. The guitjo is not a critter, but a guitar that looks like two conjoined guitars and sounds like heaven. The material is familiar, but the arrangements are fresh and often enchanting.
A CD by The New England Christmastide Musicians, first available 18 years ago, was one of those that stimulated me to begin my radio show in 1989, showcasing Christmas recordings that weren't -- and still aren't -- heard on other stations. It is the bestselling CD (300,000 copies) on the North Star label, which -- like Green Hill -- has issued many fine Christmas CDs not available in record shops. This year's releases include "New England Yuletide", another disc full of delightful arrangements of familiar tunes played on folk instruments, and "Glad Tidings" by the Parallel String Band, which leans a bit more toward both bluegrass and Celtic styles.
After many fine volumes of A Very Special Christmas, which were pop/rock collections that raised money for the Special Olympics, we now have "A Very Special Acoustic Christmas". Here you'll find big names in bluegrass and country -- Reba, Willie, Wynonna, Alison, and many more -- and there is tremendous variety and musical creativity on this CD. My own favorites include Willie's rendition of "Please Come Home For Christmas", Marty Stuart's "Even Santa Claus Gets The Blues", and Alan Jackson's "Just Put A Ribbon In Your Hair".
I've never heard a Suzy Bogguss CD all the way through before, but after hearing hern "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", I don't understand why she isn't as popular as some other country singers of her gender. I just really liked having her voice around me, singing mostly secular Christmas tunes, as I strung the lights on our trees.
Kathy Mattea will bring her Christmas show to Oshkosh's Grand Opera House about the time this column appears. Her first Christmas CD was one of the two or three best country Christmas CDs ever, and while her new effort, "Joy For Christmas Day", is not quite as immediately appealing, it is still well above other country recordings. In contrast to most of them, this disc is solidly spiritual, and full of many unfamiliar songs well worth discovering. (one of the best is "Straw Against The Chill").
Barbara Cook was the original Marian the Librarian on Broadway back in 1957, and much of her "Count Your Blessings" has the feel of that era, with pop orchestra backing typical of the time. Cook's voice betrays her age at times, but the personality she still puts into her singing more than compensates on this disc of familiar holiday tunes. Still, I preferred "Holiday Pops" by Peter Nero and the Philly Pops as an example of the mid-20th century easy listening Christmas genre, although recorded just two years ago. Nero's jazz inflected piano playing and orchestral arrangements are the star here, but the vocalist on five of the tracks is none other than Ann Hampton Callaway, who had her own fine holiday CD a few years ago.
"Songs of the Season" comes from Dobie Gray, another blast from the past, whose first big hit ("The In Crowd") charted in 1965. The 7 originals and 7 traditional Christmas tunes are enjoyable, but not particularly memorable.
I don't know how to describe "Of A Child: Season of Grace" by vocalist Kathleen Kelley and instrumentalist/arranger Cathleen Wong, except to say it is one of those rare recordings that has real magic in it. Part of it is Wong's spare but very effective arrangements, part of it is Kelley's unaffected yet beautiful voice, part of it is even in the sequencing of the mostly familiar carols. It simply works, and is unlike anything else you'll hear.
"Quintessence Goes Christmas", by Germany's Quintessence Saxophone Quintet, is both the most interesting and enjoyable jazz holiday CD of the year. Even without a rhythm section, these guys swing like crazy and blend like the creamiest eggnog on their renditions of mostly classical Christmas music. "Gumbo Christmas" by The Dixieland Ramblers is also great fun, and true to the title, the music is jazz with all the influences that characterize New Orleans. The group even includes members of the venerable Dukes of Dixieland, and an executive VP of G. Leblanc wailing away on a Leblanc Opus clarinet.
Eric Reed, one of the most creative young jazz pianists, claims his "Merry Magic" CD is the least Christmas-y you'll hear. Indeed, it is a jazz CD before it is a Christmas CD, with Eric using Christmas tunes the way jazz musicians use standards in generalas frameworks for swinging improvisations. "Peace Round", from the very popular contemporary jazz group The Yellowjackets, is less successful. While it makes for fine background music, it is only a cut or two above the many anonymous contemporary jazz yuletide CDs -- perhaps because that species of jazz doesn't have much room for creativity.
Background music of the type that some call "lounge" is the mark of three CDs on the Shout! Factory label: "Yulesville", "Under The Mistletoe", and "Cool December". While most of the singers and performers are really big jazz and pop names from the middle of the last century, these discs aren't meant for critical scrutiny. But put 'em on at a party, or while you and your sweetie are snuggling by the tree, and you'll find that there is a definite time and place for this music. You would find the same use for "Christmas By Candlelight", featuring Denis Solee's tenor sax backed with lush orchestrations from Jeff Steinberg's orchestra.
I expected some real swinging from Rhoda Scott's "The Hammond Organ of Christmas", but the disc simply does not deliver. Much of the playing is so straightforward as to be boring, and it was the one CD I had the hardest time sitting through this season.
Both of the following CDs rank very high on my list this year, but Santa will mark me down as "naughty" for putting them in the same paragraph. "Genuine Houserockin' Christmas" is a compilation of new blues, soul, and zydeco from a sleighful of excellent musicians on the Alligator label. Many of the lyrics have enough double entendres and sly suggestions that this CD should be at least R rated. Going from profane to sacred, Great Joy: A Gospel Christmas by Michael McElroy and the Broadway Inspirational Voices features the kind of gospel I like best: a big, swaying, clapping mass choir singing its lungs out. You'll need it after all that naughtiness!
On Christmas Eve, both on my radio show and at home, I like to get down to the stuff that cuts through any stress -- solo piano or solo guitar. Four keyboard discs will get playing time this year, including David Nevue's "O Come Emmanuel", Richard Carr's "Crystalline Christmas", and Zola Van's "Carol-A Christmas Journey". At the top of the pile is John Coates' "Candlelight Christmas", which has the best arrangements, the lightest touch, and the greatest peace.
The lone guitar recording this season is Michael Ryan's "A Classical Guitar Christmas", with mostly straightforward readings of familiar tunes. Highlights include a "Spanish" setting of "Silent Night", and the spare beauty of "Pie Jesu", with effective wordless backing from the Citrus Singers.
Years ago you thought you experienced "diversity" in Christmas music when your local choir had a section called "Christmas Around The World" in their holiday concert. But no matter where the songs came from, the choir still sounded pretty much like your standard Anglo-Saxon Christmas ensemble. That certainly can't be said of the performances of the wide variety of musicians on "Christmas Around The World", the third such disc from Putumayo World Music. Although most of the music comes from places close to the U.S., each track sounds different from every other.
"Reindeer Room II" follows up last year's release of electronic "chill" music, and even includes a bonus yule log DVD. "A Santa Cause: Its A Punk Rock Christmas" also features various bands, although at the much louder end of the rock-based music spectrum. If you can actually chill to it, you need to see about a change in your prescriptions.
My prescription is that you tune in to my radio program (WRST, 90.3, 1-6 PM Dec. 19-23, and 1-4 PM Dec. 24) to hear selections from all of these and dozens more new Christmas CDs. You can also view this review, complete with clickable links to most of the record companies involved, at www.postcrescent.com (clicking this paper copy probably won't accomplish anything useful).
[Webmaster's note: The Post-Crescent deleted the article from their site.]
Copyright © 2003 by Gerry Grzyb
(re-printed / installed at this site with permission from the author)