Happy Holidays!!!! Tis the time of year for lists and year-end reviews, and certainly there are a few more coming on this site in the next few weeks. Sadly, most of my favorite local musicians and bands don’t have Christmas albums up on spotify, so I’ll have to get back to writing about them after tonight. But, tonight as promised is a 20 song list of great Christmas music. Considering how many decades of music I have to pull from, 20 songs is nothing, a tiny drop in the bucket of great holiday music, even just considering the stuff on spotify. Even if we are not all terribly religious, our society still pours our hearts and souls into making beautiful music and traditions around the Christmas season. So, I hope you enjoy this brief list of great holiday songs. My choices were a bit arbitrary, so if I left out your favorite version of a particular carol, it’s probably due to space constraints. Still, these are in my opinion some of the best versions of these songs.
1. “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”- Celtic Thunder (Celtic Thunder Christmas): I was feeling more like doing a Grinch version of Christmas this year, when I started trying to make my song list this week, so of course as a Thunderhead, the best way to start out this list is with a nice dose of Celtic Thunder. Not only is this a nicely sung pair of classic carols, but for all of us who have seen the DVD version or the youtube video of these songs from Celtic Thunder this is one of the cheeriest ways to start a playlist. It’s hard not to be in the Christmas spirit after hearing this stuff.
2. “Petit Papa Noel”- Josh Groban (Noel): Just in case the lads of Celtic Thunder weren’t enough, I made sure to include something from Josh Groban too. I love that Josh included a few songs I was less familiar with on his Christmas album, because the more Christmas songs I know, the more I can show off at choir rehearsals. 🙂
3. “The Coventry Carol”- Hayley Westenra (Winter Magic): A carol which highlights one of the most gruesome, horrific episodes of the Christmas story, that bit about King Herod slaughtering all the babies, in an attempt at ridding himself of the threat the baby Jesus represented. I’ve sung it in choirs where it seemed a lot cheerier than its lyrics would suggest it ought to be. Hayley Westenra’s version captures nicely the beauty and tragedy of this carol.
4. “Trad/ Arr Hebert, S.: Away In the Manger”- Katherine Jenkins (This Is Christmas): Earlier this week I had the pleasure of watching a holiday concert that Colm Keegan was singing in, at the St. Anne’s church in Shankill, which is in Dublin. Have I mentioned enough how cool the Internet is? I wish I could have been in Ireland this week, but watching this choral concert from my own living room was pretty fantastic. One of my favorite songs from their show was actually not one Colm sang a solo for; I really enjoyed their rendition of ‘Away in the Manger’. Without seeing the sheet music or hearing their concert again, I can’t be sure that this is anything like the arrangement of ‘Away in the Manger’ performed at the St. Anne’s Shankill holiday concert this past week. I’m pretty sure though that it is a similar arrangement, and in any case this is how I like to sing this song. The lass singing this one at the Shankill concert was not, of course, Katherine Jenkins, but she had a voice just about as lovely.
5. “The 12 Days of Christmas”- Straight No Chaser (Christmas Cheers ): Lest we forget, the holidays are supposed to be fun, and this version of ’12 Days of Christmas’ is what happens to holiday songs when you try to stuff too much cheer into a single song. It’s great, and if you only have time to check out one holiday song this is the one off my list to try first. I would love to sing this arrangement some day in a choir, but I’m sure it would be a tough piece to learn, at least to make it sound this easy.
6. “Silent Night”- Stevie Nicks (A Very Special Christmas): I absolutely love Celtic Thunder’s recording of this song, and there are several others just about as amazing. But, for me, this is always going to be the gold standard for ‘Silent Night’.I’m not sure, even if Ryan Kelly and Keith Harkin sang the whole song in duet, if it would be possible to record a version of this song I would prefer over this classic version.
7. “Somerset Wassail”- The King’s Singers (The Most Beautiful Christmas Songs, Vol. 1 ): A solid recording of one of my favorite caroling songs. We sang a similar ‘wassail’ song this year in our choir holiday concerts, but this one’s more fun to sing, especially with the staggered round-style arrangement these guys do. You can imagine these guys decked out in their festive scarves and top hats, singing from door to door with snow swirling down around them. I’ve heard that wassail is actually rather nasty stuff, so maybe a nice champagne, hard cider or buttered rum would be a better theme for future Christmas carols, but I suppose maybe singing joyous songs about wassail made it easier for folks to trick themselves into enjoying the stuff when nothing better was available.
8. “Belleau Wood”- Peter Corry (My Christmas): I always think for the first few bars of this song that I am listening to Celtic Thunder, maybe one of Paul’s songs, or maybe Emmet’s. Of course, Peter Corry was never in Celtic Thunder, but I’d bet any song he sings could be a good fit for Paul Byrom and Emmet Cahill, maybe Colm Keegan as well. They each have a different voice, and different ways of interpreting the emotions and shape of their songs, but all these fellows have equally lovely voices. ‘Belleau Wood’ is similar to the Celtic Thunder song ‘Christmas, 1915’, and both tell the story of the ‘Christmas truce’. My sister was astonished when she was at her military training this past month that this was in fact a real event- it sounds like something out of a cheesy war-time drama, really- but, yes, there really was a moment during WWI when the Christmas spirit trumped the war and all its violence.
9. “Don Oiche Ud I mBeithil(That Night in Bethlehem)”- Celtic Woman ( A Christmas Celebration ): I probably scared off a few Celtic Woman fans a few months back when I was grumbling about how this group is all about fairy princesses. I really do prefer the gals who grace the stage of Celtic Thunder every so often, because they do make the Celtic Woman ‘ladies’ seem a bit spineless by comparison. But, there is a place for fairy princesses, and the women who perform in this group are still amazing singers, and far from spineless. Having watched the way my friend’s jaw dropped as she watched Laura Durrant, the gal who plays cello for Celtic Thunder, as she set aside her cello to dance, and then a short while later to play the drums, I suspect I am not alone in admiring the image of women Celtic Thunder creates. Still, until I have actually seen a whole Celtic Woman concert in person, I have to grant that these ladies may paint an equally attractive image. In any case, their rendition of this already beautiful Irish carol is magnificent.
10. “Cherry Tree Carol”- Sting (If On a Winter’s Night) : I vacillated between this track and the Peter, Paul & Mary version of this song. Both are among my favorite holiday tracks, so most likely next year’s lists will include Peter, Paul & Mary instead. I like that this carol acknowledges the discomfort Joseph felt at being the husband, but not the father, of Mary’s child. It puts a much more human slant on the Holy Family, a human drama that makes the whole story a lot more interesting.
11. “What Child Is This/ The Holly and the Ivy”- Bing Crosby (Bing Crosby- Christmas Classics): I steered towards medleys a bit more this week, in part to include more of my favorite carols than 20 songs would otherwise allow. This one is certainly a classic. I always hear Bing’s voice in my head in this arrangement for ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, even after having learned a somewhat different arrangement for choir this year. This guy is the only singer to appear explicitly twice in this list, a well-deserved honor considering his career and his status in the history of pop vocal music.
12. “Stop the Cavalry”- Jona Lewie (Die Ultimative Chartshow- Christmas Songs): I love this song. Not only does it annoy my sister enough that I can scare her out of the living room by playing it, but it really is one of my favorite Christmas songs of all time. This is one of those songs which was not originally intended to be released as a holiday song, but it is set at Christmastime, so by default it becomes a Christmas song. I understand why my sister hates it, sort of- when we worked at a retail store, it was on the overhead music mix, which looped every few hours, nonstop, all day. A few all-day shifts and most of us hated most of the songs on that playlist. But for me, this was an exception- I’d never heard it before working at that store, and I’ve loved it ever since.
13. “A Mighty Fortress/ Angels We Have Heard on High”- Amy Grant (A Christmas Album): This holiday album was one I grew up listening to and singing along with. Probably a lot of whatever vocal technique I had as a kid came from trying to sing the songs on this album the way Amy Grant sings them. And, as a kid, I was most definitely still a soprano. I still love singing along to these songs now, but it takes a bit of warming up to convince my alto voice that it wants to sing as high as Amy Grant’s higher notes. Her more recent Christmas album is good, too, but it just doesn’t sound the same if these songs are not in this order, and I really like some of the tracks that got left off of her more recent collection(which to its credit does have more songs).
14. “O Come O Come Emmanuel”- Javier Mendoza (Navidad) : While still joyful enough where the lyrics warrant it, this song is a lot more pensive and complex than the usual renditions I hear lately. Javier Mendoza is from Spain, so he draws from a different set of sounds and imagery, and it seems to make for a different flavor of ‘Christmas’ just in general. It certainly makes an interesting contrast with the next track on my list.
15. “Christmas in Killarney”- Irish Rovers (Chronicles) : Another of my absolute favorites, this track is one that stays on my playlists long after the holidays have passed, and I find myself whistling it throughout the year. It’s the sort of song that belongs in a festive holiday party with dancing and good food and drink, so I always feel more lonesome hearing it while I’m holed up alone in my apartment with my cat, but oh well. It’s a great song, and the Irish Rovers’ version has yet to be beat.
16. “Fum, Fum, Fum”- Cap Pela (Per Nadal ): Sadly, we skipped this song when caroling this year- for some reason most of the choir had never heard, let alone sung this one before. I was shocked. Well, maybe not shocked, but it would have been a fun song to sing again in an ensemble. Last time I sang it on a stage I was in elementary school. It never sounded like this, though. Cap Pela is from Catalonia, a very cool region in Spain. Hopefully they are gaining a decent following locally so they can expand outside Spain and Western Europe, because it would be great to have this group on our radio stations in the US. At the moment, their webpage (in Catalan) is about the best way to find this group’s albums, though itunes seems to be a reliable enough source for purchasing downloads of their songs.
17. “A La Nanita Nana”- Aliqua (All I Want ) : We sang this one in elementary school, too, actually, in the same concert as we did “Fum, Fum, Fum.” This recording is of course much better, sung by an 8-part women’s ensemble. Aliqua is another very cool group that will no doubt turn up again in non-Christmas lists later. Their holiday music on this album is all excellent, so while I discovered them while looking for my favorite version of this song, I almost went with several of their other songs instead.
18. “Little Drummer Boy/ Peace on Earth”- Bing Crosby, David Bowie (NOW That’s What I Call Christmas!) : I still wish “Wash Our Socks for Christmas” was on spotify, but in its absence, this song, specifically the Bing Crosby & David Bowie duet version, is a fitting substitute, a classic that will hopefully still be on holiday compilation albums centuries from now. The ‘NOW’ albums all have pretty decent song selection, by the way. I try to steer clear of these sorts of collections most of the time, since there is an art to crafting great albums that these jumbles of songs misses. Still, for holiday music these collections are often a great way to have all the best holiday tunes without also buying a few dozen mediocre renditions of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and O Christmas Tree.
19. “The Sussex Carol”- Aled Jones (Aled’s Christmas Gift) : This is one of those carols most of my friends have never heard before. It lends itself well to bagpipe and pennywhistle accompaniment, and I can easily imagine traveling minstrels singing this one in the great halls of the drafty Welsh castles where my ancestors lived centuries ago. I’m not so sure I want to move back into those castles- I’m not a fan of feeling cold and damp all winter- but otherwise it makes for a nice fantasy.
20. “The Gartan Mother’s Lullaby”- Jenifer Thyssen & Darrel Mayers (Dusk Is Drawn (Folk Lullabies From Around the World)) : This last albums is actually not a holiday album, but the song appears on various holiday albums and holiday concert programs. When I was researching my favorite Irish lullaby, ‘Seoithin Seo-ho’, this other lullaby caught my attention because it sounds just a bit similar. Since when I started out I only had the tune to my beloved lullaby, with no title and not enough knowledge of Irish to pick out any of the words, I got to where I was pretty obsessed for a while with bits of the tune. I have no idea if ‘Gartan Mother’s Lullaby’ is closely related, though I suspect it might at least share a similar origin, both songs are lovely.