‘Tis the season of top ten-ten lists, so I thought I would offer one on my favorite Christmas music. I have way more Christmas music than anybody should rightfully have, and the more stuffy side of me doesn’t quite approve of a lot of it. Nonetheless for most of my adult life I have been collecting it and playing it, changing with the technologies over the years.
The first Christmas album I really knew was Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, still one of the best selling albums of all time. I knew my mom liked Bing Crosby, so one day when I was maybe ten I cajoled my father into buying it during a grocery shopping trip to the Safeway.
That was the only Christmas album my family owned, and I can still sing every song on it from memory, including the exotic ones like “Christmas in Killarney”and “Mele Kalikimaka.” And you’ve got to love the Andrew’s Sisters!
Later my own tastes evolved more to classical, and my personal first album was Handel’s Messiah, on vinyl. The version was by the Robert Shaw Chorale, and it was just selections rather than the whole work. From a lifetime of choral singing I now know every phrase of this grand piece, and Christmas is not complete without listening to the Advent and Christmas portions of it. I have two more great recordings, an early-instrument one with John Eliot Gardner on Philips, also on vinyl, and a CD with George Solti and the Chicago Symphony on the London label with Kiri te Kanawa. I love them all.
I have quite of lot of early and Reniassance Christmas music, with lots of Gabrielli horn concerti. I have American folk Christmas albums and German Christmas albums.
J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is right up there in the pantheon, and I have a terrific vinyl version on Angel with the King’s College Choir, St Martin’s in the Fields, with Philip Ledger, conducting and a stellar lineup of soloists: Elling Ameling, Janet Baker, Robert Tear, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. That one gets a seasonal hearing, too.
A little later in my ministry I started collecting more popular seasonal music. First there was George Winston’s December for solo piano. Then, we were given the original A Winter’s Solstice from Windham Hill by good friends, and that was the beginning of a long collection of pretty much everything Windham Hill has come out with, including the haunting Celtic Christmas series. This was also about when I started putting together atmospheric compilations to listen to while sitting by the fire.
But I enjoy choral music as well. I have the normal anglophile’s love for the sound of choristers, and this makes me nostalgic for my time in Oxford and Cambridge. So the choir of King’s College has to be on the list, although St John’s at Cambridge, and the choirs of the colleges at Christ Church, New College and Magdalen at Oxford would do just as well.
So here is my somewhat arbitrary top ten albums and top ten singles:
My Top Ten Albums (in no particular order)
- Yo Yo Ma, Songs of Joy and Peace
- Handel’s Messiah
- J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio
- Sara McLaughlin, Wintersong
- Chris Botti, December
- Emmy Lou Harris, Light of the Stable
- James Taylor at Christmas
- Diane Krall, Christmas Songs
- Choir of King’s College Cambridge, O Come all ye Faithful (This is under-volumned, sadly)
- Bing Crosby, White Christmas
Top Ten Singles (in no particular order)
- Bing Crosby, “White Christmas”
- Sara McLaughlin, “River” ( a great cover of a Joni Mitchell classic.)
- John Gorka, “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day”
- Diana Krall, “Count Your Blessings”
- James Taylor, “Some Children See Him” (an Andy Williams’ favorite from my childhood)
- Yo-Yo Ma with Alison Kraus, “The Wexford Carol”
- Turtle Island Band, “Veni Emmanuel”
- William Ackerman, “Yazala Abanbuti”
- Liz Story, “Il es ne le divin enfant/Immaculate Mary”
- George Winston, “Walking in the Air” (from the film “the Snowman” and the album Forest)