My Top Christmas Albums
* This was originally written in 2013.
Now that everyone knows how I feel about Christmas music, I’ll now punish you with my Top 10 list of non-cheesy Christmas albums!
10. “Striking 12” by Groovelily. Okay, so this isn’t technically a Christmas album, but it is a holiday album, specifically New Year’s. This band is a theatrical/pop/rock trio (for lack of a better term), consisting of electric violin, keyboards, and drums. All three members share lead vocal chores, to great effect.
This live recording is a modern adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl” that is at times poignant, beautiful, and hilarious. My favorites include the haunting “It’s Coming Down,” which I used to listen to in our apartment in Kiev while watching the snow fall on winter evenings. Very cozy. I also love “Give the Drummer Some” (of course) and “Screwed Up People Make Great Art,” the title of which speaks for itself.
9. “Merry Christmas” by Mariah Carey. I can’t believe I’m putting this on here, but it’s to appease the popsters out there. If you have to listen to an album of pop Christmas music, this is the one. The reverent “Jesus Born on this Day” and “Joy to the World,” which combines the Christmas carol with the “Jeremiah was a bullfrog” to great effect, are the highlights for me.
8. “Heaven and Nature Swing” by Phil Driscoll. In case you don’t know, the best kind of Christmas music is jazzy, and this big band record is chock full of wonderful arrangements by Ralph Carmichael. Phil Driscoll is a singer and trumpet player. He can play trumpet very high and loud, but he’s not a jazz player. Also, thanks to the magic of multi-track recording, Phil is the entire trumpet section, which is weird. Still, it’s a great album, especially the extended jams on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”
7. “A Very Veggie Christmas” by the Veggie Tales crew. I’ve listened to this at least 18,000 times (thanks to my kids) and have every word memorized. It’s kind of like a TV show without visuals. Bob the Tomato is hosting a Christmas party at his house, and we get to listen in. Like most Veggies Tales stuff, it’s very funny and cute. While in Poland last year, we ate as many of the foods as possible from the “Twelve Days of Christmas” (eight Polish Christmas dishes) from this recording. Our favorite was kielbasa.
6. “Timeless Christmas” by Denver & the Mile High Orchestra. This is a mini-big band led by another singing trumpet player. I really like this band when they’re swinging, but they can’t seem to decide whether to be jazzy or to be a rock band with horns. Anyway, there are some wonderful versions of Christmas classics (including the second-best version ever of “Little Drummer Boy” ever—the best is in my #1) along with some great originals.
5. “A Christmas Festival” by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. My family had a record of this when I was growing up, and it reminds me of my childhood. I remember the cover had Mr. Fiedler dressed as Santa and holding a large sack of toys that I thought looked pretty cool. This is classy stuff!
4. “Christmastime” by Michael W. Smith. This one’s for Kendra, but I have to admit, as another “poppy” Christmas album, this is pretty good. He’s got a wide variety of material, and it has kind of a timeless quality, as opposed to flavor-of-the-month-type stuff.
3. “Chestnuts Roastin’” by Nat “King” Cole. This set of songs has been released under various names over the years, but this is the version I have. We also had a record of this growing up (under a different name), and I can picture my mom decorating the living room with this playing, so there’s a real sentimental value here. And of course, it’s the definitive version of Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” that you’ve all heard a million times.
2. “When My Heart Finds Christmas” by Harry Connick, Jr. So far HC has released three Christmas albums, but this is the first and (in my opinion) best. It has some of the hippest swinging tunes you’ll hear on a Christmas record, along with some reverent orchestral stuff and, of course, New Orleans-inspired jams. Harry wrote several tunes, all of which are good enough to be added to the Christmas canon.
The album ends with Frank Loesser’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” which HC does perfectly. The problem with this song is that in the show where it originally appeared, it was sung in early spring, and the singer was hoping for a long-term relationship. Just some useless trivial for you.
1. “Oy to the World!” by the Klezmonauts. If the very idea of a Klezmer Christmas album isn’t funny enough for you, then you have no sense of humor. In case you don’t know, Klezmer is Jewish music (think “Fiddler on the Roof”). About ten years ago Kendra and I were driving around the Twin Cities doing Christmas shopping, and the Klexmonauts’ version of “Jingle Bells” came on the radio. We contacted the jazz station to ask who it was, because we were laughing out loud. Imagine that tune in a minor key, complete with a lady singing in German and a violin that at one point quotes “Rhapsody in Blue” and you might get a bit of a picture of this album.
Earlier I mentioned “Little Drummer Boy,” and this features a Klezmer/rock/surf version with some killer drum breaks. It’s a very short album, which is okay, because as cool and fun as it is, the songs all start to sound the same in short order. At any rate, this is the hippest Christmas album of all time.
There you have it! I have to give honorable mention to Natalie Cole, the Vince Guaraldi Trio (Charlie Brown), Bing Crosby, and the Concordia College Percussion Ensemble, all of whom have awesome Christmas recordings. We also own “A Toolbox Christmas,” which utilizes tools musically, which is kinda cool. Sadly, we also have “The Jingle Cats,” which consists of meows recorded in various pitches and played back to the melody of Christmas carols. It’s as horrendous as it sounds. The perfect gift for your enemies this Christmas!
Excuse me while I go listen to these (except for the Jingle Cats), and Merry Christmas!
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