The holidays are filled with music. Some is sublime – transformative, even; some is awful (Dominick the Donkey, anyone?) So instead of my Christmas list, I offer you my Christmas playlist: the songs that make my days merry and bright.
10. “It Snowed” (Meaghan Smith): This little gem was a freebie with the iTunes Holiday Sampler a couple of years ago. I’d never heard the song or the singer before, but the combination of the swinging band and sweet, sing-songy tune made me a fan. The song captures the wonder of an overnight snowfall with childlike playfulness, but Smith’s grownup delivery winks at adult listeners, too. (YouTube link)
9. “Feliz Navidad” (A GRP Christmas): This Latin instrumental features a funky piano introduction that snags the listener’s attention. The rhythm section gets it grooving, and the power horns turn it into a party. José Feliciano it’s not; put it on when you want to boogie. (Audio sample, choose #1)
8. “’Zat You, Santa Claus?” (Louis Armstrong): Never have I heard this on the radio, and it’s a shame. Satchmo’s trademark growl is perfectly suited to this tongue-in-cheek song about things going bump in the night on Christmas Eve. (YouTube link)
7. “Glory to God” (Handel): From his masterwork oratorio, Messiah, this chorus transports the listener to the shepherds’ fields on the first Christmas Eve, as the story is told in the Gospel of Luke. It’s sheer genius, starting softly, as from a distance. It gets louder as the angels approach, and when the choir of heavenly hosts is upon you, the full chorus thunders with majesty and glory. Then, just as suddenly, the vision fades, escorted out by a lively string section, which plays progressively softer until twinkling out at the double bar. Fabulous, awe-inspiring music. (YouTube link; includes introductory recitative)
6. “Everlasting Fruitcake” (John Riggio): This is a kids’ song I ran across last year, when I was teaching music at . I’m not generally a country music fan, but this twangy tune captures the ongoing dilemma of fruitcake recipients everywhere. It’s good, clean, knee-slappin’ fun. (Audio link)
5. “Stille Nacht” (Franz Gruber): As “Silent Night,” it is among the most beloved of carols in English, but the original German paints such a lovely, intimate scene:
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Silent night, holy night
All is sleeping, alone watches
Only the close, most holy couple.
Sweet boy with curly hair,
Sleep in heavenly peace!
4. “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming” (Praetorius): The German (Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen) is lovely for this, too, but I like this one more for the music than the words. German Renaissance composer Praetorius’ harmonization is what makes this for me, especially on “it came a flow’ret bright,” when the ascending line on “bright” sounds like a flower springing up from the earth. (YouTube link)
3. John Denver and the Muppets’ “A Christmas Together” album: Yes, the whole album. The Muppets are hot once again with a feature film in theaters this year, but before they took Manhattan, and before John Denver’s voice was forever silenced, there was this gift of Christmas songs both silly and sentimental. My choir-directing ability, for better or for worse, is forever connected to Miss Piggy’s cueing during the “Christmas is Coming” round (“NOW!”) (YouTube link)
2. “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” (Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band): His voice sounds like a laryngitic bullfrog with constipation, but nothing takes me back to my teenage Christmases like the jingle bells and the authentic-sounding “Ho-ho-hos” at the end. Clarence, I hope you finally got your new saxophone, wherever you are. (YouTube link)
1. “Ding-dong merrily on high” (Cambridge Singers): This old French dance tune with English Christmas words is remarkable for its Latin refrain (Gloria in excelsis Deo.) The genius of the Cambridge Singers’ recording is how the shaping of phrases makes this choral piece sound like church bells, ringing through villages and bouncing off surrounding hills. It makes me happy every time I hear it. (Audio sample link; choose #21)
That’s my abbreviated Christmas playlist: some popular music, some classical, some peaceful, some festive. Merry listening!