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My perfect Christmas album. December 29, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I love Christmas music. (Though even Ben is starting to turn a little green when I reach for yet another CD, now that we’ve heard it nonstop since the first Sunday of Advent.) We have an extensive Christmas CD collection, and try to add at least one new CD every year (usually that “one” mysteriously multiplies into two or even three). But of course, no single CD is perfect; they all manage to leave out some of our favorites, or throw in songs we despise. And of course, some interpretations are better than others.

This morning, I found myself wondering what I’d include if I could compile my own all-time favorite Christmas CD. Given that there are probably 65,000* Christmas CDs/albums already, with more coming out each year, there are obviously plenty of songs and versions I’ve missed. (Our collection only extends to 27 CDs… so far.) For now, however, here are my choices, in no particular order, except for the first and last:

O Come, O Come Emmanuel. This Advent song expresses our longing for the Lord, and is beautiful, rousing, and singable (three great virtues, in my view). The only recorded version I have is by the Carpenters, and much as I love their Christmas CD, I don’t think they do this one justice. But at least they included it.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. My favorite secular Christmas song. I have several favorite versions, including Amy Grant’s, Karen Carpenter’s, and Bing Crosby’s. Hang your shining star upon the highest bough!

White Christmas. I hate the snow but love the song. There are many great versions of this one, but I’d have to go with Bing Crosby’s, since he’s the man who made the song an enduring Christmas favorite. He recorded several variations; I love the one where he whistles.

Do You Hear What I Hear? Susan Boyle’s duet with Amber Stassi reminds me how much I enjoy this delightful carol.

The Little Drummer Boy. This is one of those Christmas songs you either love or hate, and I happen to love it. Ellen Reid of the Crash Test Dummies does a great rendition, as do Josh Groban and Charlotte Church.

Toyland. To me, this is the “Over the Rainbow” of Christmas songs. It brings the magic of Christmas alive for children, transporting them to a safe, soothing world of wonder and delight. (Unlike, say, the scary, unfathomable “Nutcracker Suite,” which all children are supposed to love. Ha!) Sadly, OFB and I have no recording of this at all; my memory of it is as a Christmas lullaby, sung by my beloved mama.

Silver Bells. Unlike “Jingle Bells,” which we enjoy (as long as it’s not rushed through) but don’t love, “Silver Bells” is one of our favorites. We don’t have nearly as many versions as we’d like, so we’re guessing it tends to be overlooked, but we do have nice interpretations by Bing Crosby (aka Der Bingle) and Karen Carpenter.

Coventry Carol (Lully, Lullay). This beloved 16th-century lullaby to the Christ Child sweetly captures the tenderness of the Virgin’s (and every mother’s) love for her child. Chanticleer sings it as it would have been performed at the time it was written, and Charlotte Church sings a lovely rendition. 

Baby, It’s Cold Outside. James Taylor and Natalie Cole’s riff on this classic may be the most enjoyable—and certainly the most adorable—Christmas song ever. They’re perfect together! Listening to the byplay between them on this song makes OFB laugh out loud every time.

Cold December Night. This song by Michael Buble totally captivated me. It’s so bouncy and upbeat I dare you not to sing along! Thanks, Michael, for adding to our Christmas canon!

What Child Is This? It may strike some as blasphemous that this beautiful hymn is sung to the tune of “Greensleeves,” supposedly composed by King Henry VIII for his lady-love, Anne Boleyn. But we think it’s a great use of a good tune. Josh Groban and Charlotte Church both sing this beautifully, and Andrea Bocelli does a beautiful duet of it with Mary J. Blige.

O Holy Night. Susan Boyle gives a rousing rendition of this beloved carol, and it soars in Charlotte Church’s rendition.

The Huron Carol. I have two favorite versions of this exquisite Native American interpretation of the first Christmas, written by St. Jean de Brebeuf, Patron Saint of Canada, to a traditional Huron melody: Rob Yoder’s on “An Evening of Christmas Music with Daybreak and Friends” and Ellen Reid’s on the Crash Test Dummies’ “Jingle All the Way.” Both have such beautiful voices, I can’t help wishing I could hear them perform the carol together.

Silent Night. Another favorite with many superb versions, the first Christmas carol I ever performed solo. (It may also have been the last.) If I could only choose one, it’s hard to resist Andrea Bocelli’s gorgeous voice on this one.

Sound of the Tambourine. I wish this joyous Christmas song by Emily Cole (also on the Daybreak CD) were better known; to hear it is to love it, and to want to sing it every Christmas.

Once in Royal David’s City. This is a favorite English carol that I think is too seldom heard outside Britain and the Anglican/Episcopal communion. Both the original hymn (if you haven’t heard it, check out the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge’s traditional version) and Ian Anderson’s classic Jethro Tull modernization (“A Christmas Song”) are favorites here.

Gabriel’s Message. This is another traditional British carol, and a majestic one, but it’s so little known outside Britain that we’d never even heard it until we stumbled on wonderful versions by Sting and by Charlotte Church. Well worth discovering! 

Soul Cake. Speaking of Sting, his rousing interpretation of an original song by Peter, Paul and Mary beats “Here We Come a Wassailing” by a mile. Fun and irresistible! But do try to resist the urge to start knocking on all the neighbors’ doors requesting cake, drink, and money. They’re just not used to that.

The Wexford Carol. If you haven’t heard this traditional Irish carol, please try to find it. It will make your heart soar! Celtic Woman’s rendition on “A Christmas Celebration” is ethereal, and we love Loreena McKennitt’s version, too.

Carol of the Bells. Here’s another carol I seldom hear, but I love it because of the beautiful tune (originally a Ukrainian celebration of the arrival of the new year). We only have two versions, a suitably upbeat one by Celtic Woman and a nice instrumental by the Carpenters.

Ring Out Solstice Bells. Ian Anderson’s celebration of the winter solstice may not bring to mind Druids and Stonehenge, but it definitely takes you back. If you haven’t discovered “The Jethro Tull Christmas Album,” check it out; it’s full of great music. Like the Crash Test Dummies’ “Jingle All the Way…” and Sting’s “If on a Winter’s Night…,” it might not be the first Christmas album that springs to mind, but all three are wonderful, if unconventional. (Tull’s is a rousing good time, Sting’s is sometimes dark and morbid, and Crash Test Dummies’ ranges from stunning to downright scary, as in Brad Roberts’ version of “Jingle Bells.” Priceless!) 

O Come All Ye Faithful. A rousing rallying cry to the faithful on Christmas Day. We can never resist its heart-lifting tones, or resist singing along. As with most of the great hymns, there are many beautiful renditions, so I’ll just mention that Josh Groban’s is one of our favorites.

Ave Maria. There are many gorgeous versions of this quintessential hymn of the Annunciation. But I think most beautiful of all—most beautiful of all the songs of Christmas—is Charlotte Church’s performance of the “Ave Maria in A Minor” by Giulio Caccini on “Voice of an Angel.” You don’t want to know how often I’ve tried to sing it myself (when, of course, OFB was out)! Our poor pets are probably suicidal.

Feliz Navidad. My favorite version of this delightfully upbeat carol (so far) is Michael Buble’s duet with Thalia. Another one you just can’t resist joining in on!

The Fallow Way. This is not a Christmas but a winter song, which celebrates the gifts of winter, yet prepares us for the blessings of the coming spring. Written and performed by Judy Collins, it is my favorite of all her songs, and believe me, it has plenty of competition. She invites us to rest in the stillness of the season, while, like the black earth, dreaming of violets. As “Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel” seems to me to be the perfect beginning to a Christmas album, “The Fallow Way” seems to me the perfect ending.

There! I’ve sifted and sorted, and come up with the Christmas album I wish I had. The one that, if I could just sing well enough, I wish I’d made. What’s yours?

            ‘Til next time,

                         Silence

* This is just a guess; I tried, but failed, to find the actual number of Christmas albums.

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Ben Picks Ten: Christmas Carols December 14, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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What are your favorite Christmas carols? If you could only pick ten, what would they be? Our friend Ben was pondering this last night as Silence Dogood and I listened to some of our large assortment of beloved Christmas CDs. Deciding to rise to the challenge, I’ve compiled my top ten here, in no particular order. Feel free to take me to task for leaving out your favorites!

1. Gabriel’s Message. Perhaps Silence and our friend Ben fell so hard for this because, not being English, we’d never heard it until we heard Sting perform it on a CD of unfortunately dubious origin. But what a stunning account of the Annunciation! You can hear an older Sting sing it on his “If on a Winter’s Night…” CD (missing an octave or so, but still compelling), or Charlotte Church’s gorgeous version on her “Dream a Dream” CD.

2. The Little Drummer Boy. Call us sentimentalists, but we never tire of listening to our many versions of this. Our friend Ben suspects that Silence has never yet heard it without shedding a few tears.

3. Silent Night. The first song Silence ever performed solo before a group. Even lovelier in French. We once attended a performance where the audience was invited to sing along in any language they chose, and we heard many a voice raised in the original German as well as English and our French. We know of no other Christmas song that succeeds so well in capturing the Gospel of Luke’s account. 

4. Adeste Fidelis (O Come All Ye Faithful). Squeak and squawk though one might on the high passages, who can resist lifting up their voices when this majestic hymn is sung? 

5. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. We love this hearty injunction to ‘let nothing us dismay.’ It seems to bring Scrooge and company, blazing fireplaces, and opulent Victorian Christmas scenes into our living room, warming us with its Christmas cheer. 

6. Joy to the World. In the season of joy, this glorious call to proclaim the birth of Christ is irresistible. Another hymn that’s not easy to sing, but we always sing it, anyway. 

7. The Cherry Tree Carol. We love this simple early English carol about Joseph’s all-too-human reaction when he discovers that his fiancee is carrying someone else’s child, and how he discovers Whose child it is.

8. The Huron Carol (‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime). We were enchanted by this Native American version of the Nativity the first time we heard Rob Yoder, who has a magnificent voice, sing it on the “An Evening of Christmas Music with Daybreak and Friends” CD. Ellen Reid of the Crash Test Dummies also sings a lovely version on their “Jingle All the Way…” CD. We trust our Canadian friends won’t be surprised by its inclusion.

9. Once in Royal David’s City. Our friend Ben has always loved this traditional British carol, set in “a lowly cattle shed.” And Silence and I also love Ian Anderson’s modernization of it on “The Jethro Tull Christmas Album” CD.

10. Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel. Okay, technically, this is an Advent rather than a Christmas hymn. But it’s so stirring, such a perfect prelude to the Christmas season, I can’t imagine making a list without it.

And the bonus:

11. Angels We Have Heard on High. Musicians through the ages have given their very best to Christmas music, which is why a list like this is so hard to narrow down. And here is yet another breathtaking paean to the birth of Christ that makes the heart soar, even as we falter when trying to hit the high notes on the “Glorias.” But of course it doesn’t stop us.

Obviously, this list omits many of our favorite hymns and carols, such as the lovely “Coventry Carol (Lully Lullay),” “Carol of the Bells,” “O Holy Night,” “What Child Is This,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “The First Noel,” “Good King Wenceslaus,” “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and, of course, the gorgeous “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and beloved “Ave Maria.” But our friend Ben could only pick ten (plus one)! Maybe I’ll post about those next Christmas, since there happen to be ten of them.

You’ll note that many of our all-time sentimental favorites are missing, for the same reason. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are especially partial to “White Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (especially Josh Groban’s interpretation on his “Noel” CD), and “Silver Bells.”

Honorable mention must also go to some original modern songs of surpassing loveliness, including Ian Anderson’s “Ring Out Solstice Bells” from “The Jethro Tull Christmas Album,”  Amy Grant’s “Breath of Heaven/Mary’s Song” from her “Home for Christmas” CD, and Emily Cole’s “Sound of the Tambourine” from “An Evening of Christmas Music with Daybreak and Friends.”  And of course the raucous and wonderful “Soul Cake” on Sting’s “If on a Winter’s Night…” CD.

So, there’s our friend Ben’s list. (And yes, I cheated by sticking all that other stuff on at the end. But watcha gonna do?! There are just too many good ones.) Your turn to share your lists!

Which Christmas song do you hate most? December 18, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Sheesh. The other night, I had one of my favorite Christmas CDs playing in the background while our friend Rudy was here for supper. “No!!! You have to turn that off!” he suddenly shouted. “I hate “The Little Drummer Boy”!!!”

Say what?! I love “The Little Drummer Boy.” I cry every time I hear it, to the point where I can’t even sing along.

Wake-up call: We all have Christmas music we love, and Christmas music we hate, and we all have our reasons. I can’t endure falsetto, so Alvin and the Chipmunks is enough to make me leave a store on the spot. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and “Here Comes Santa Claus” are also hard to take. And I hate Disneyesque songs like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman,” but then, I hate Disney, period. No surprises there. And let’s not even start on barked or meowed carols, please. Save them for the torture chamber.

Mind you, I don’t hate all Hollywood Christmas music. I enjoy hearing “White Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Jingle Bells,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Silver Bells,” and the like. Josh Groban’s version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is perhaps the most moving Christmas song I’ve ever heard, including, as it does, voice-overs from male and female soldiers who miss their families and most definitely won’t be home for Christmas. 

But I do love the classics: “Silent Night” in any language; the great hymns of the Church, “Ave Maria,” “Panis Angelicus,” and “Adeste Fidelis” (“Oh Come, All Ye Faithful”) sung reverently at this season; “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,”  “Joy to the World,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “What Child Is This?”, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “We Three Kings,” and other classic carols. I can even endure the “falalalala” of the otherwise delightful “Deck the Halls,” as long as I don’t have to sing along.*

And I love the ancient folk carols that have come down to us: “The Holly and the Ivy,” “The Huron Carol,” “Gabriel’s Message,” “The Cherry Tree Carol,” “The Coventry Carol,” “In the Bleak Midwinter,” “I Wonder as I Wander,” and “Good King Wenceslas,” among so many others.

There are many, many more that I love. Many that I’d as soon not hear. And many that I hate.

How about you?

               ‘Til next time,

                             Silence

* Forgot to state the obvious: I hate singing nonsense syllables. But at least there’s one consolation: Every time I hear “falala” or whatever, I immediately get a mental picture of “Blackadder’s Christmas Carol,” in which the Tubby Boys are singing a carol outside Ebenezer Blackadder’s door with the chorus “piggywiggywiggywiggywoo.”

The best Christmas music. December 10, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben is a sentimentalist at heart, and I love playing Christmas carols pretty much nonstop throughout December. (Luckily, Silence Dogood shares this taste, and none of our animals know how to object, so we assume they enjoy our Christmas CDs, too.) But it’s one thing to enjoy carols and hymns, and quite another to want to be subjected to Alvin and the Chipmunks, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, or the dog-barking Christmas carols. Spare us, please.

Our friend Ben wrote a post last December listing our all-time favorite Christmas CDs, “Ben Picks Ten: Christmas Music,” and I have little reason to change my choices this year, so by all means search for this post on our search bar and stock up on any CDs that sound appealing.

We were, however, able to acquire one coveted CD after I wrote that post, and of course have been loving it. We’ve been fans of the Crash Test Dummies since “MmmmMmmmMmmmMmmm” and “The Superman Song,” and their Christmas CD, “Jingle All the Way…,” was high on our must-get list. Unfortunately, its price was something over $200, a rare collectible. Damn.

Then, suddenly, Amazon was offering an imported version for a few bucks. We snapped it up. And did it ever live up to its reviews! Our friend Ben says: Check it out! (But mind you, we are talking about the Crash Test Dummies here. Interspersed with beautiful renditions of traditional carols are Brad Roberts’ warped but highly entertaining takes on “White Christmas ” and “Jingle Bells.” So don’t expect 100% sweetness and light!)

And don’t forget the other CDs I’ve recommended. Make the season bright! And by all means, let me know if I’ve left one of your faves off the list. We’re always on the lookout for great Christmas music!

Ben Picks Ten: Christmas Albums December 5, 2008

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‘Tis the season for Christmas music. But that’s “music,” not “muzak,” please! The saccharine drivel pouring out of sound systems in stores across the country is enough to drive anyone to do his or her Christmas shopping online. So this year, our friend Ben, with some input from the irrepressible Silence Dogood, has picked out the top ten Christmas CDs from our extensive collection to help put you in the Christmas spirit.

If I’ve missed your favorite, please let me know what it is. We might want to make it part of our permanent collection! Unless, of course, it’s Alvin and the Chipmunks or anything else in an ear-shattering falsetto, or or one of those tiresome albums by people who sing in a sickening fakey voice that just screams “I hate these stupid songs, but I’ll do anything for money.” Spare us, please.

Without more ado:

1. The Jethro Tull Christmas Album. No, I’m not kidding. We happen to love Ian Anderson’s music, but even those who don’t will love this album. Don’t take my word for it—read the reviews on Amazon. It is fabulous! Our friend Ben has heard that the Crash Test Dummies produced an incredible Christmas album, too, but apparently it’s now a collector’s item and we haven’t been able to find it. Oops, I should add that one of the most amazing renditions of a Christmas carol I’ve ever heard was on a Sting album called “Rarities” that I bought years ago and subsequently suspected was a bootleg of god-knows-what. But to hear Sting’s rendition of “Gabriel’s Message” is an experience you’ll never forget.

2. Noel by Josh Groban. Josh Groban has a beautiful voice, and he puts it to good use on this album of Christmas classics. Most touching is “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” featuring voice-overs by soldiers in Iraq. It still brings tears to our eyes every time we hear it. Silence notes that the photo of Josh on the cover isn’t hard on the eyes, either. 

3. Mistletoe and Wine by Mediaeval Babes. A lush and lovely collection of mediaeval carols from “The Holly and the Ivy” to “The Coventry Carol.” Go Babes! This album proves that at least there was something good about the Middle Ages!

4. An Evening of Christmas Music with Daybreak and Friends. Daybreak’s Rob Yoder has a gorgeous operatic voice, and he and his family and friends have put together a marvelous album of little-known (to us, anyway) Christmas carols from around the world and from ancient times to the present, as well as beloved carols like “Carol of the Bells,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “What Child Is This?” and “Good King Wenceslaus.” We especially love Emily Cole’s “Sound of the Tambourine,” and we promise you that Rob’s amazing vocals will send a shiver down your spine.

5. Dream a Dream by Charlotte Church. We loved Charlotte Church’s debut album, “Voice of an Angel,” and her Christmas album lives up to its predecessor. There may be a contemporary female singer with a more beautiful voice, but we’ve yet to hear her. A luscious collection of traditional carols. Find it, buy it, ’nuff said.

6. Carpenters Christmas Collection. Our friend Ben thought The Carpenters were rather sickening back in the day. Brother and sister singing love songs? Eeeewww!!! But Karen Carpenter’s clear voice is perfect for this two-disc, 30-song collection of Christmas favorites. Get over who’s singing and just enjoy the music.

7. On Christmas Night by Cherish the Ladies. A lovely collection of Christmas carols with a Gaelic lilt  from a wonderful Irish group. If you love Celtic music, you’ll love this album!

8. Midnight Clear by Andreas Vollenweider featuring Carly Simon. Our friend Ben admits that I’ve loved Andreas Vollenweider’s incredible harp music from the first time I ever heard it. This album, with Carly Simon contributing vocals on four of the carols, proves that his exceptional talent hasn’t dimmed with time. A must-have.

9. Home for Christmas by Amy Grant. Our friend Ben loves Amy Grant, a fellow Nashvillian, anyway, and she certainly doesn’t disappoint with this collection of Christmas songs, carols, and hymns. It’s delightful! I’ve heard that Amy has a new Christmas album that should be in stores now, but haven’t yet been able to find it. (Help me, Santa!) I suspect it might make it to my top ten next year!

10. The Very Best of Celtic Christmas. Can you tell that our friend Ben and Silence love Celtic music? This Windham Hill collection presents a range of Celtic musicians and groups, including the incomparable Kevin Burke and Micheal O Domhnaill, Donal Lunny, Maighread Ni Dhomnaill, Phil Cunningham, Johnny Cunningham, James Galway, Nightnoise, and Altan, performing Celtic Christmas fare and classics like “The Wexford Carol,” “Lully Lullay,” and the breathtakingly lovely “Flow Gently Sweet Afton.”

And the bonus:

11. Bing Crosby: The Voice of Christmas. Our friend Ben’s grandparents simply adored “Der Bingle,” but admittedly, I kind of missed the point. It’s never too late to learn, however, and this two-disc, 44-song collection presents Bing’s best-loved classics, including, of course, “White Christmas,” “Happy Holiday,” “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” and one of our friend Ben’s sentimental favorites, “Silver Bells.”

Honorable mention:

Best Loved Christmas Carols by the Choir of King’s College Cambridge. A luscious two-CD compendium of traditional hymns and carols done in the Choir of King’s College’s inimitable style.

Christmas with Chanticleer. The mediaeval group performs the first Christmas music. 

Christmas Around the World. Another great Putumayo collection.