December 4, 2008

Power Caroling 2008

If The Beehive has a Ghost of Christmas Past, it's a post from December 2005 that begins to reappear unbidden in our blog stats every December when longtime readers once again dig it up from the archives: Power Caroling, Or Our Top 10 Desert Island Christmas Albums.

I loaded all that lovely music into our disc changer last weekend, and oh! mercy! me! I'm dazzled all over again. What glorious stuff! So now that I'm feeling all sparkly and inspired to spread the joy, I decided to revise and expand that old Power Carolling ghost of a post.

First, Two Foregone Conclusions:
1) That any worthy Christmas CD collection begins with a foundation of Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Julie Andrews, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Toss in The Andrews Sisters, The Mills Brothers, and Peter, Paul and Mary, and baby, you've got the cultural nostalgia angle pretty well covered.

2) That you've already got the all-time number one disc you simply must have for atmospheric glorification: The Messiah by Handel. (That links to a blog post about our two favorite recordings of it.)

So okay. Now we're ready. Drumroll, please. Without further ado, here are the Top Twelve Christmas Albums We At the Beehive Wish Everybody Everywhere Could Hear.

1. Christmas Celtic Sojourn (various artists). The rough beauty of this odd gem grows on you. The atmosphere is like a village gathering in a Great Hall with everyone pitching in to celebrate Christ's birth, each in their own lovely, human, quirky way. At times they sound like a half-wild lot of simple sinners in a country pub somewhere happily singing their hearts out for the joy of being redeemed. Which is essentially what I am, minus the pub. Don't miss The Wexford Lullaby on this one -- the harmony work is sheer art. Puts a lump in my throat.

2. Angels' Glory with Kathleen Battle and Christopher Parkening. Ahhh. No rough beauty here; this defines sublime. Sometimes when La Battle is wafting through the speakers, I realize I've been standing riveted to the floor for countless minutes, stilled by her utterly perfect voice. And once your ears develop a craving for Parkening's classical guitar, you'll want his other albums for family dinnertimes and quiet evenings reading by the fire. Perfection. Both Battle and Parkening are believers, which is just the cherry on top for me.

3. Next, Jessye Norman. A force of nature, this woman! Christmastide (left), which I've had for 21 years and never ever tire of, has been re-issued in a two-disc set with her second Christmas album (right). Glee! Before you die, you must hear Jessye sing "In the Bleak Midwinter" and "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." Promise me you will. When Miss Jessye belts out "Rejoice! Rejoice!" believe me, you get with it and rejoice!

4. Songs of Joy & Peace... Yo-Yo Ma's gift to the world, that's what this is. Yo-Yo is much beloved by the finest musicians alive today, and he charmed a bunch of them into playing with him on this album: Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, Allison Kraus, Natalie MacMaster, James Taylor, Diana Krall, Dave Brubeck, Chris Botti and more... This is one of the best albums recorded in the last decade, Christmas or otherwise. Check Youtube for a sample.

5. Comfort & Joy -- another round of spirited jubilation from the Christmas Celtic Sojourn folks. There are songs here that make me feel like I'm full of joy bubbles, and then there are others, notably the endearing "Shepherds Arise" and the majestic "Noelenn Brehed," that are so unpretentiously beautiful that sometimes they make everything around me look all blurry for a minute or two.

6. Scottish Christmas by Bonnie Rideout, a master Scottish fiddler, with Maggie Sansone on dulcimer. Also features Eric Rigler, the bagpiper for Braveheart, on several types of pipes. This is Scottish Christmas at its best.

(If you know any children who don't have Rideout's album "Gi'me Elbow Room: Songs from a Scottish Childhood," make haste to give them a copy for Christmas! It's wonderful. We've worn out two copies.)

7. Carols from the Old and New Worlds -- Theatre of Voices singing a capella with Paul Hillier directing. This is poetry come alive. Sacred Harp, folk, choral and ensemble works by songwriters ranging from Jeremiah Ingalls to King Henry VIII to Handel. Such a feast of rich lyrics and harmony! If you really want something unique, there is nothing else on this list remotely like this one. I love to listen to this one during breakfast and late at night.

8. Ancient Noels by Maggie Sansone (see #6) and the Ensemble Galilei. Unlike anything you'll ever hear coming through department store speakers, that's for sure. These are truly ancient noels. Gorgeous.

9. And now for something completely different: The Hampton String Quartet. Twenty years ago, this alternative classical string quartet (yes, you read that right) began transforming classic rock songs into Baroque style. Amazing. On my way home from work one evening in the 80's, I heard them on NPR playing Christmas songs a la Baroque, and I drove straight to the CD store to buy "What if Mozart Wrote Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas?" It was instantly my fave. Long out of print, HSQ albums have sold for big wads of dinero, but I've never let go of mine. The CD pictured is "HSQ Does Christmas (again)" - a digitally remastered reissue. MP3 download at Amazon.

10. The Holly & The Ivy by John Rutter with the Clare College Choir in Cambridge, England. This is choral bliss, a classic recorded thirty years ago which is still selling well. This is the album that made people take notice of John Rutter's incredible choral talents. I would buy this just for Gabriel's Message, but I love the whole album. We always play this one on Christmas Eve night.

11. Nine Lessons and Carols by King's College Choir, Cambridge University. You could call this Anglophile Christmas 101! Played on the radio on Christmas Eve for decades, this live recording of an Anglican Christmas Eve service in England features lush choral selections (lots of bell-toned boy sopranos here!) interspersed with lessons (scripture readings and prayers) that weave the strands of the Christmas story into a lovely, meditative, glorious event. I like to listen to the whole service on Christmas Eve morning while I cook.


12. James Taylor at Christmas. Yay! Need I say more?

UPDATE: As it turns out, I got Comfort & Joy and Christmas Celtic Sojourn backwards (easy to do as they are similar), which, being interpreted, meaneth that Comfort & Joy should have been the one of those two which tied for the number one spot... but it's such a close call that I'm not going to bother moving them around!



Purring Piggy said...

Our library has all of these except 7+11 so we will try them all out! We have very little in the way of Christmas music and each year I try to buy a few new things. Thank you SO much for sharing!

Lok said...

::sniff sniff:: Poor Tchaikovsky didn't rate the list. ::sniff:: But it's NUTcracker. It just *has* to be on the list. Ohhhh.......... (imitating Poodle's whine that she hopes will one day change my mind when she uses it).

Anonymous said...

I'll have to read this through more carefully later. For now I can't take my eyes off of Jessye Norman's amazing hair transformation from old album to new. Kuddos to her new hairdresser!

Anonymous said...

Oh, I so love Christmas music, but I have to say that I am also surprised that Tchaikovsky isn't up there. And where's The Messiah, Mannheim Steamroller or Transiberian Orchestra? You do have some albums up there that look interesting. I'll have to check them out.

By the way, before I forget, there's a little something for you on my blog, should you choose to come over and have a peek.

Sebastian said...

What an outstanding post. I'm headed to a giant used bookstore today and I'm going to have to write out your list to take a long for the cd section.
I keep noticing Maggie Sansone in music listings lately. I remember listening and watching her play at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, oh, about 20 years ago. I had no idea that she had become such a big thing. The tape I bought from her is one of the only tapes that I still own (having purged others in favor of digital)

Leslie Noelani Laurio said...

So many of these look familiar - because, in the years since you first posted your list, we've slowly been adding to our collection, using your list as a suggested guide. We've listened to samples at and ended up purchasing a lot of them. Except the James Taylor. That was an impulse purchase for me last year - I'm surprised to see it listed here, though!