'Tis The Music For The Season

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Don ye now your gay apparel, because the holiday season is upon us and you're going to have to listen to at least some holiday-themed music over the next six weeks whether you want to, like it, or not. So we figure you might as well spend your time listening to the good and avoiding the bad. That's why, for the past 11 years, we've gone to the trouble of listening to the most recently released batch of holiday albums and painstakingly compiling our thoughts on them. A little holiday music is good to have around just in case you decide to throw a little party or gathering, or a bunch of creepy relatives show up for an unannounced yuletide visit. And some of this stuff really ain't that bad!

Various Artists Maybe This Christmas Tree (Nettwerk)

Frankly, John Lennon and Yoko Ono's “Happy Xmas” annoys me more than most holiday music, but Polyphonic Spree's spirited version here is nearly enjoyable, which is more than can be said for the rest of the songs on the disc. Nothing says “I'll probably kill myself over the holidays” like renditions of carols by Death Cab for Cutie (“Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home”)), Pedro the Lion (“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”) and Lisa Loeb (the worst version of “Jingle Bells” ever, even worse than the one by those fucking dogs). 'Course, if you are planning on killing yourself … (MH)

Andy Williams The Christmas Album/Merry Christmas (Columbia Legacy)

I'd rather listen to Andy Williams croon the songs of the yuletide season than just about any other male singer, dead or alive. These two CDs, part of Columbia Legacy's “Essential Holiday Classics” series, are pretty much all you're ever gonna need as long as you've got copies of Ella Fitzgerald's Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, Etta James' 12 Songs of Christmas and James Brown's Santa's Got a Brand New Bag. In total, there are two dozen classics here, every single one of them a definitive version. You can't go wrong with Andy. (MH)

Ray Conniff Here We Come A-Caroling (Columbia Legacy)

Ugh. These are the kinds of overwrought arrangements that your comfortably drunk grandfather will no doubt appreciate as he nods off on the couch while the kiddies fight over brand new plastic toys. Everyone else will just wish they could go to bed and perhaps never wake up. Reverent, bland and freaking boring … much like a church service. (MH)

Frank Sinatra Christmas Songs (Columbia Legacy)

Not bad for the most overrated, mob-connected prick of a lounge singer in American history. That's right, I can't stand Frank Sinatra and I don't believe the hype, even during the holidays. Gimme Bing Crosby or Andy Williams any day of the year. The biggest problem with this collection is that all of its 15 arrangements are executed at lullaby pace, which makes them tiresome to listen to. Add to that the ubiquitous presence of the harp, and you've got a record that'll make you happy Christmas comes but once a year. (MH)

The Manhattan Transfer The Christmas Album (Columbia Legacy)

This one's for fans of the Manhattan Transfer's other-than-holiday music only. Despite exceptional voices and magical harmonies, the vocal group's cabaret prowess doesn't shine through on this album of Christmas classics. In fact, most of the songs sound downright tepid. One notable exception is the medley including “Happy Holiday” and “The Holiday Season,” a jazzed little number that makes trudging through most of the rest of the album almost worthwhile. (MH)

Kitka Wintersongs (Diaphonica)

This one's the best of the bunch of new and rereleased holiday music this year. Kitka, the renowned all female Balkan octet present here a vivid collection of both Christmas and pre-Christian solstice songs from the Macedonian, Bulgarian and other Eastern European traditions. Without exception, the songs are intense and moving in mysterious ways that most holiday music—especially those elevator-ready carols—simply isn't. All the spirituality, none of the cheese. And even better, Kitka will perform at Popejoy Hall on Dec. 17. Preview forthcoming. This album will make a fine gift for the world music lover on your list, and you might want an extra copy for yourself. (MH)

John Bayless Christmas Rhapsody (Koch)

Pianist John Bayless has assembled a huge discography of piano arrangements of everything from Puccini to the Beatles. At last turning his attention to Christmas, he provides colorful, virtually symphonic treatments of everyone's best-loved Christmas melodies. Thanks to impeccable taste, positive spirits and infectious wit, Bayless' renditions combine uncommon beauty with heartfelt love for the season. A total winner. (JS)

Beth Anderson Swales and Angels (New World)

How New York composer Anderson, ensconced across from the Brooklyn Museum, manages to capture the hometown, country air of the Kentucky swales (a meadow or marsh in which a lot of plants grow together) of her youth underscores the inexplicable miracle of composing genius. March Swale could easily be a holiday tune, its gentle, comforting nature beautifully conveyed by Belgium's Rubio String Quartet. Contemporary music specialist Joseph Kubera and the Quartet play Anderson's Piano Concerto, with others joining in to perform repertoire heard on her much lauded all-Anderson Weill Recital Hall concert. Anderson's simple, unpretentious music, timeless in its warmth and decidedly understated modernity, is as perfectly suited for Christmas as for the first buds of spring or the colorful burst of a fall landscape. (JS)

Choir of King's College Cambridge/The Boys of King's College Choir, Cambridge Best Loved Christmas Carols/Heavenly Voices (EMI)

You can't get much closer to the greatness of English choral singing than the 550-plus year old choir of King's College, Cambridge. Since 1928, the choir has been broadcasting its annual Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on the BBC. Here, on two CDs, you'll find standout renditions virtually every traditional carol you can name, a few with soloists. The CD transfers (especially on the second disc) fail to capture the beauty of the original analog recordings (1964-1979), but it won't matter a bit if you play this disc in the background as you gather round the proverbial or metaphoric fire for eggnog. For an even finer taste of what the choir's boys can do under director Stephen Cleobury, turn to the new, beautifully recorded Heavenly Voices' program of sacred (if not necessarily Christmas) music by Franck, Mendelssohn, Verdi, Fauré, Schubert, Ireland and the like. (JS)

Yellowjackets Peace Round, A Christmas Celebration (Heads Up)

With two Grammy-nominated albums to their credit, jazz ensemble Yellowjackets switches from contributing to other Christmas albums to producing a winning one of their own. Featuring keyboardist and founding member Russell Ferrante, plus others on sax, bass and drums, these mild performances have a delightful, homey feel that welcomes the nicest time of the year. Enjoy the imaginative, spacey intro to Joseph Mohr's arrangement of “Silent Night,” and the mellowness of it all. (JS)


If you think Bach's music can't be lively and joyful, check this out. Harmonia Mundi has rereleased René Jacob's well-recorded performance of the six cantatas that comprise Bach's Christmas Oratorio in a 120-page deluxe edition complete with gorgeous illustrations, translations and erudite commentary. The superb singing features Andreas Scholl as a shining Evangelist, plus star turns from Dorothea Röschmann (now at the Met), Werner Güra and Klaus Häger. This wonderful performance deserves a place on your shelf. (JS)

Polyphony A Christmas Present From Polyphony (Hyperion Noel)

Assembled from many of their eleven beautifully-recorded CDs, Stephen Layton's Gramophone Award-winning choir delivers virtually symphonic, perfectly balanced a cappella renditions of mostly contemporary fare. Arvo Pärt's “Magnificat” is as gorgeous as the sound of the sopranos throughout. The two pieces by John Rutter receive wonderful support from the City of London Sinfonia. Layton's skill in bringing out key voices is second to none. This must-hear disc includes a heavenly preview of the group's forthcoming disc of Morten Lauridsen's Lux aeterna. (JS)

Various Artists Christmas Regrooved (Koch)

What a kick! The subtitle, “Holiday classics—reimagined, remixed and regrooved by some of the most influential artists of the electronic music world” hardly prepares you for the fun of Christmas Regrooved. It's bright, all right, but the highs on some of these tracks literally jump out with fun as these mixes convert Santa's chimney into a post-psychedelic disco dance palace equipped with every strobe light, hip-hop, platter-spinning effect imaginable. Joseph Jaime, EROS, Jay Atwood, Domingues & Ives, and Mystic Quintet are among the nine artists who together contribute 14 fabulous tracks. Get this disc. (JS)

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