Christmas Music Discoveries

Let’s take as a given that the essentials of any Christmas music collection are Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald, maybe Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Vince Guaraldi. You add in some Mariah Carey and you’ve basically got an FM radio station’s all-Christmas-all-December playlist. And, in all honesty, all the Christmas music you need. I mean, if a musician releases a Christmas album that’s not at least as good as these albums, the album isn’t really all that necessary.[fn1]

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And yet. Every now and then, I hear a Christmas album that does something new. Yesterday, for example, I heard Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O. And then I listened to it again. And a third time.[fn2] 

The album isn’t really new—it was released in 2010. But it’s new to me. And it is a stunning Christmas album, a jazz trio sans piano that largely eschews jingle bells and other traditional signifiers of Christmas music in favor of melodic left turns, walls of sound, and unexpected but fortunate improvisational choices. It doesn’t hurt, either, that the musicians are clearly having a blast, and the songs are, as often as not, hilarious.

In listening, it helps to already be familiar with the melodies. It’s not that they’re missing or disguised, but this is definitely free jazz. And free jazz is not our traditional language of Christmas. But there’s no reason it shouldn’t be.

The album isn’t on Spotify, but you can hear the Tree-O’s version of “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch” here, and they play an NPR Tiny Desk Concert here. (I’m sad I can’t link to their version of “Mele Kalikimaka,” my favorite song on the album.)

So that’s my 2015 Christmas album discovery; what new (to you, at least) Christmas music have you been listening to this December?

[fn1] Cf. Jeffrey Steingarten, It Must’ve Been Something I Ate, discussing barely-edible chocolate chip cookies: “And yet the dilemma is so easily solved that it hardly deserves the name of dilemma. All you need do is go to the supermarket, wheel your cart to the Nestle Toll House Semi-Sweet Morsels aisle, grab hold of a happy yellow bag of Nestle Toll House Semi-Sweet Morsels, and let the recipe printed on the back—nearly unchanged for the past 68 years—guide the rest of your shopping and baking experience. Et viola—a perfectly nice chocolate-chip cookie, especially if you go light on the flour. Then how is it possible for anybody to bake an inferior specimen? That’s my point.”

[fn2] I should note that Matt Wilson’s 2014 album Gathering Call made my top-5-of-2014 list.

Comments

  1. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Bad Religion’s Christmas album from last year — really well done if you’re interested in punk covers of classic Christmas carols:

    For a taste, in case you’re intimidated by the idea of a BR Christmas album, here’s Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel:

    BR has traditionally done Christmas stuff but until this album you’ve had to get to it on bootlegs of live shows.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Here in Chicago WLIT FM goes to an all Christmas music format in mid-November. As a fan of Christmas music I often listen to it, but I swear, it seems like they only have about 20 songs they play over and over again in heavy rotation (that’s an exaggeration, but not a big one). I wish they would be more adventurous and banch out to music beyond their top-40 aesthetic.

  3. Kevin, that’s absolutely not an exaggeration. My kids love WLIT in November when we’re in the car (and I enjoy it, too), and they can sing along to all 20, but it’s not an adventurous rotation. The furthest it goes is probably Mariah Carey; I don’t think I’ve even heard Ella singing.

    Thanks, John!

  4. Also, a classic around our house for more than a decade has been Putumayo’s Christmas Around the World with a number of delightful takes on the traditional carols:

    http://www.allmusic.com/album/putumayo-presents-christmas-around-the-world-mw0000041511

    Ranging from Louisiana Creole to Cuban to Cowboy, there’s a lot of fun variety.

    Here’s an example of Oh Come All Ye Faithful from the album:

    And here’s nice, simple guitar offering of What Child Is This from the album:

  5. The Other Clark says:

    Your absolutism reveals your lack of culture, Mr. Brunson. The classic Christmas albums from the vinyl era are Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Album” and the Carpenter’s “A Christmas Portrait.”

    Mariah Carey? Really? the best Christmas album of the digital era is Michael Buble’s “Christmas.” Or for traditionalists, Josh Groban or Andrea Bocelli.

    My favorite “undiscovered gem” is a Christmas album released in the mid-1960s by a group called the New Christy Minstrels. Think Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, and the Seekers combined as a single group, singing mostly original religious-themed carols. Maybe it’s because I grew up listening to it, but for me it’s like comfort food for my ears.

  6. The Other Clark, I’ve heard some Christmas stuff from Michael Buble; what I’ve heard doesn’t add anything to the various crooners (though I’ll certainly give you Nat King Cole), and I really, really hated the production on his songs. Maybe he’s better than what I heard, but that struck me as squarely in the inessential camp.

    I will look for the New Christy Minstrels, though—anything that can be compared to the Kingston Trio at the very least has my attention.

  7. Jackson Browne’s “Rebel Jesus” is a fantastic Christmas song. But I want some input here from Rebecca J. and Susan M (because Mariah Carey? Really?).

    I will put in a plug for Trans-Siberian Orchestra (both their original stuff and their remakes). Good live Christmas shows, three Christmas albums, and the kind of rock music that a brave classic rock station might play. And their music stays away from the commercial side of Christmas–no reindeer or Santa, just family, love, and Jesus.

    Also, California Guitar Trio has a fun instrumental Christmas album–and a third of the trio is from SLC, so there’s that.

  8. Sam, another thing we do at ours is stream German Christmas music internet radio stations. If you do that, you’ll hear a ton of stuff that you might not have heard before.

  9. Tim and Clark, FWIW, I said that the four classics and Mariah Carey would give you an all-Christmas-all-the-time radio station’s playlist (and, given her airtime, I’m clearly right).

    That said, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is a perfectly fine Christmas song, and, AFAIK, the only new Christmas song of the last ~20 years that seems to be becoming a classic.

    Should it? If not, you need to propose the new songs/albums that should supplant it.

  10. Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24 is the obvious Christmas song of the last 20 years or so that’s a classic. Originally released as part of Savatage’s “Dead Winter Dead,” it first started getting a little bit of airplay exactly 20 years ago, and was re-released with Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s first album in 1996. It’s now played regularly on all sorts of radio stations, from the lightest pop/soft rock stations to classic rock stations to hard rock stations. And it continues to get regular airtime during the Christmas season, and TSO continues to play it live in front of hundreds of thousands of people every Christmas season.

  11. Okay, but we’re losing the thread: the Mariah Carey thing isn’t the point here, because we all know it. Ditto TSO. I’m interested in what people have heard for the first time in the last year or so. Which doesn’t mean it has to be new—Matt Wilson’s album is half a decade old now—but it has to be new to you. So I can’t imagine a way in which TSO, Mariah Carey, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, or Vince Guaraldi (or, for that matter, John Denver and the Muppets) could qualify for inclusion.

    Bad Religion, otoh, seems to meet the post’s criteria nicely.

  12. Johnny Cash.
    (mic drop, exit stage left)

  13. The standard at our house is Brave Combo’s “It’s Christmas, man!” Especially the “Santa’s Polka”

  14. Some great picks so far. I am partial to the Blind Boys of Alabama

  15. blueskyehigh says:

    I would highly recommend The Lower Lights. I just really love their sound.

  16. Yeah, Lower Lights do good Christmas songs.

  17. I discovered this last year:

    But pretty much we have a chanticleer/Canadian brass/Mannheim going for the season.

  18. “The album isn’t on Spotify, but you can hear …”

    The album is on Apple Music.

  19. TSO live is the ultimate Christmas experience. Even better than being in the manger. I’ve told my wife, “some day when I run the church we will have TSO perform in the conference center every year.”

  20. “A Dave Brubeck Christmas”

    Dexter Gordon Quartet – “The Christmas Song”

  21. probably dates me but I always liked the Mannheim Steamroller Christmas Albums.

  22. Essential = Nat King Cole Christmas Album

  23. Thanks for the suggestions everyone. Once more, though: I’m not interest in best. I’m interested in best recent discovery. For most, it’s hard to include Nat Cole or Manheim Steamroller in that second category.

    And the difference matters.

  24. Christmas in the right places means a Salvation Army brass band brightly noodling through essential Christmas carols. And if you want to properly capture that experience professionally recorded then Christmas with the Canadian Brass and the Great Organ of St Patrick’s Cathedral does an excellent job of capturing that mood. I recently discovered this after a previous CD of Canadian Brass music was destroyed by an overly helpful toddler.

  25. Low. Christmas. Great album.

  26. Antonio Parr says:

    December in Vermont, by Diane Zeigler.
    Christmas to Remember, by Amy Grant – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Br1ykpj0SFM.

  27. Brazilian Christmas, by Lori Mechem. Not groundbreaking but the bossa nova vibe soothes, somewhat redolent of Guaraldi in that sense.

    Second nomination: Celtic Christmas music, generally. I’m not somehow who rocks out to Celtic music at any other time of year, but the holiday combination seems to work.

  28. John Mansfield says:

    For new, I get a lot of pleasure out of the Killers annual Christmas songs.

  29. Sam, how dare you include a great jazz album that isn’t on Spotify. (I think Spotify’s Jazz selection seems to be the most lacking. I can’t find Oscar Peterson’s or Dave Brubeck’s or Duke Ellington’s…GRRRRR

  30. You all are so sophisticated and knowledgeable that I hesitate to say anything (not a joke), but I can report that the Pentatonix’ “That’s Christmas To Me” which came out last year got enough plays last year, and enough already this year, that it has a place in our ‘probably permanent’ rotation.

  31. If you are interested in something a bit more highbrow, check out “A Steinway Christmas Album.” http://www.amazon.com/Steinway-Christmas-Album-Jeffrey-Biegel/dp/B005GL89OM/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1450240905&sr=1-1&keywords=a+steinway+christmas+album

    Not surprisingly, this is strictly piano music. But the arrangement of “Sleigh Ride” is the best I’ve ever heard, and Max Reger’s interpretation of “Silent Night” is simply sublime. Also, Percy Grainger’s arrangement of “A Sussex Mummers’ Carol” (which I will be playing in church) has some of the richest harmonies you will ever hear. And on the lighter side, I’ll bet none of you has ever heard “Christmas is Coming (and the Geese are Getting Fat).”

    Ho, ho, ho.

  32. +1 for the New Christy Minstrels. I must have worn out those records on my grandmother’s turntable as a child.

  33. The Civil Wars “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g356nWqiikI) and “Tracks in the Snow” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btZQN3wuMRI).

  34. Ditto for the Canadian Brass, so evocative of Christmas in the city. Also perfect music for holiday baking or a dinner party.

  35. I <3 BR. Thanks john f.

  36. Did we really make it this far down the comments without anyone mentioning Sufjan’s ten Christmas albums?

    I guess maybe they’re not new and so everyone already knows them. But his O Holy Night is probably my favorite ever.

    Also, the Rosie Thomas album is fantastic, with lots of good non-traditional arrangements. Not on Spotify, but mostly floating around on YouTube (and for purchase, of course).

  37. There’s a Weezer Christmas album, not essential but a lot of fun. More important are the Sufjan Stevens Christmas eps, which are gorgeous.

  38. If you’re not familiar with the New Christy Minstrels (I was subjected to my parent’s records), you might know the parody neuftet, the New Main Street Singers. Same diff.

  39. What about Bare Naked Ladies Christmas Album – my teenage kids love it https://youtu.be/_J5xiTl4esA

  40. One I’ve stumbled onto recently and enjoyed is the Piano Guys’ “A Family Christmas.”

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00EJYGL8S?keywords=piano%20guys&qid=1450676995&ref_=sr_1_6&sr=8-6

  41. David Bazan (formerly of Pedro the Lion) told me his long-awaited Christmas album should be out by next season. I hope so! His cover of Low’s song about the magi is outstanding. My favorite new Christmas song discovery of recent vintage.