Two years ago, I put out a series of reviews of Christmas CDs, one a day for about a week, focusing on CDs that weren’t the usual Jingle Bells/White Christmas fare. While I’m not in a position time- or inclination-wise to repeat that feat this year, I thought I’d throw out a couple of pointers to some interesting holiday tunes I’ve found this year.
First, thanks go to Hooblogger and friend Zalm, who has been doing some really intense Christmas music posts this year: a series of posts on songs of hope, peace, and joy, with love yet to come, and a pair of iTunes mixes for the season. Thanks to his posts, I was encouraged to go back and revisit the Christmas album that the Blind Boys of Alabama put out a few years ago, which has some extremely cool moments.
Second, as I noted earlier, there is some humor in having a holiday that is protean enough to embrace the concepts of peace, redemption, hope… and “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’.” Holiday collections that reflect the latter side of Christmas include the Alligator Records Christmas Collection, with some really great blues, Cajun, and R&B tracks; the killer Stax/Volt compilation It’s Christmas Time Again, with contributions from the Staple Singers, the Emotions, and the inimitable Isaac Hayes; and even Yule Be Miserable, a Verve compilation that features Ella Fitzgerald’s sassy “Santa Claus Got Stuck (In My Chimney).”
For slightly classier Santa-flavored music, there’s the album that Phil Spector masterminded, A Christmas Gift to You From Phil Spector. Featuring the debut of the classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” (later memorably covered by U2 on the first Very Special Christmas compilation), this is a spectacular slice of the 1960s sound in the service of the season, featuring the signature Phil Spector girl groups and Wall of Sound. Too bad about that trial, which compels me to note that the spoken word outro from Phil at the end over “Silent Night” now sounds far creepier than originally intended.
And if, like me, your Christmas isn’t complete without a big slice of early music, you could do far worse than to seek out A Medieval Christmas, a slightly obscure but highly worthwhile album by the New York Ensemble for Early Music under the direction of Frederick Renz. A heady brew of chant, early polyphony, and instrumental tunes, the album brings some medieval boisterousness as well as meditative grace to the season.