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Twelve True Christmas Albums

nativity-rembrandt

A Rembrandt sketch of the Nativity of Christ

Yes I know, it’s audacious of me to proclaim that I know ‘True Christmas Albums’. And yet when I scan for ‘Christmas Albums’ through the usual digital means 99% of the time what is found are anything but actual music about Christmas. Most of what is considered to be the top, the best, the greatest Christmas songs and albums of ‘all time’, the lists made by magazines, and YouTubers and the clickbaiters, even the ‘Christ-centered’ pablum, is predominantly just commercial holiday music. There is almost a conspiracy to keep anyone searching for real Christmas music from ever finding it. And rarely has a genre been so loaded with pure unadulterated crap as what is called ‘Christmas Music’. And so much continues to made year after year that it gags the gullet as if someone had jammed a fat red and white candy cane down your overstuffed larynx and then asked ‘What do you think of Christmas now?’ In fact so much cheesy, tawdry, over produced sentimental holiday (Is it really a holy day when you play this aural dung?) music has been made since the mid-point of the 20th Century that anti-Christmas music now exists as a separate micro-genre within this holiday fetish as a reaction against the infestation. And yet what does that accomplish? It’s really just the same thing for nihilists and cynics. And what good does it do to add cynicism to the commercial terror?

War on Christmas? Talk about coming late to the party? Christmas as a public festival was over by the time Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer was accepted as a holiday ditty having anything to do with the event called Christmas. Christmas as Christmas was through when it was seen a fun children’s day complete with  ‘Baby Jesus’ and cute little elves as Santa’s helpers helping to prepare for the balancing of the books of would eventually become a murderous Black Friday. Christmas now is a time to watch fantasy movies. Yes Christmas means Willie Wonka and Disney flicks. When it was discovered back in the 90’s that several Asian countries had mixed up the Christian imagery with the fantastic, as in Mary, Joseph, sweet little ‘Baby Jesus’ and the Seven Dwarves or, more tellingly, a Crucified Santa Claus, they weren’t getting it wrong. That is what we were selling. And so we have people who no longer recognize real Christmas carols and consider Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer to be a classic.

The foamy tide of ‘classic holiday albums’, I forbear to list them, is endless. They drone on and on in the background of retail establishments fed by satellite radio. They poison the air. They drain the life from anything resembling a festivity. And I include the many worthy rock and pop albums (I own many of them.) that clog the lists of the demiurges who find the tabulation of media favorites their last moral refuge. But rarely is an album of true Christmas music mentioned in any of these neurotically calculated lists.

And since for years I have helped supply my friends with the real thing I have decided to at least make one list that few people will ever read. I toss the meat out to the internet dogs. It is nearly Christmastime after all. Time even the dogs ate well. So here’s the Christmas T-bone steak Fido.

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This list is not in ascending or descending order. The music is not necessarily easy to find. I will not be including lots of links or videos. You’ll need to hunt them down for yourself. If you find the standard pop/rock/jazz holiday music to be filled with enough good cheer and nostalgia to warm your heart during the Christmas season you probably won’t find these albums very clever or interesting. However if Christmas as either the old European winter festival (notice I did not say ‘pagan’, an overused poorly understood word) and/or as the Christian remembrance of Christ’s birth is meaningful to you, then I suspect these albums and the music contained therein will help you to find something extra at Christmastime.

The Twelve Albums

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christmas-with-robert-wagner-chorale
Christmas with Roger Wagner Chorale

This is basically the definition of a classic Christmas album. Choirs and classical orchestra. No extra production mojo. No extra electronic cinnamon and nutmeg. Just the classics done purely. Just Christmas and the real thing. This was made in the 60s. It hasn’t aged at all because it is timeless. Their version of O Come O Come Emmanuel is the gold standard along with the rest of this album.

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ritornello-czech-christmasJesličky, staré nové písničky (also called Old Czech Carols) – Ritornello
Okay now it’s time to get seriously obscure. Ritornello is a Czech group who recreate Baroque era folk dances and celebrations. And this is one of my eternal favorites. Period. I found it when I first showed up at Prague in December 2000 surprised by actually finding myself in Prague to begin with. I had come looking for puppets and then as I entered the Old Town Square, my first evening there, as the winter market was open and I had no idea where I was, I looked around at the spires lit up in the night winter skies then suddenly I realized that I was actually in PRAGUE!!! And for me this music sums up my Prague perfectly. Jovial, serious, antique, mysterious European Christmas. The instrumentation is sheer perfection. Not a sentimental note to found. The singing is in Czech and sometimes Latin. The music is gutsy not flabby. It makes one want to ring in the season with a hefty glass of pivo. How ironic that one of the most sincere Christian Christmas albums on earth would come from the most atheist land imaginable. But it makes perfect sense to me. Jan Hus would understand.

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Christmas From a Golden Age – Various Opera Singerschristmas-from-a-golden-age
This is the true spirit of Christmas as seen through the angel throngs of 78rpm scratches, digitally restored, of various opera singers from the first half of the 20th Century. Some of these songs just sound creaky. But most of them sound utterly haunted in the Dickensian sense by the Ghost of Christmas Past. The Coventry Carol by Elisabeth Schumann is absolutely chilling. And Cantique De Noel (The original French version of O Holy Night) by Georges Thill is reverentially majestic.

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thesecondnowell
John Roberts and Tony Barrand – The Second Nowell
This is the second of three ‘Nowell’ albums from these Christmas jesters. They are all excellent, but this one gets to the point for me. With rollicking accordion, reedy voices, hail and hardy harmonies and true Christmas mirth these Englishmen marooned in the colonies deliver the groceries. Whether sharing out the spare ribs of the highly symbolic wren or restoring the dance to the old time Christmas carol there isn’t a false moment. And it’s a recording you want to crank up and sing along with at the top of your lungs. You only think you know the old carols. Rediscover Christmas here!

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A Medieval Christmas – Boston Camerataa-medieval-christmas-boston-camerata
And excellent demonstration of why Christmas, properly celebrated, is actually our portion of the Middle Ages still surviving. While stately, and profound, there is joy to spare with authentic Medieval instrumentation. It’s also a much needed respite from the 21st Century.

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traditional-and-modern-carols-paul-hillier
Traditional and Modern Carols – Paul Hillier
Another great choral album. This would be more obscurely researched than the Roger Wagner album with an emphasis upon antique Americana as well as an assembly of classics. This Is Jesus’ Birthday opens the album and is as far from a contemporary notion of singing Happy Birthday to Jesus as you can imagine. It’s all very well done.

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The Christmas Story – The Waverly Consortwaverly-consort-presents-the-christmas-story_9563331
Another Medieval Christmas album, but this time things get much more serious as the Waverly Consort  interprets the Christmas story in it’s entirety complete with horns announcing the angel Gabriel and ending with a ferocious dance piece for the Massacre of the Innocents. Excellent, profound, thrilling music all round.

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noe%cc%88ls-celtiques-ensemble-choral-du-bout-du-mondeNoëls Celtiques – Ensemble Choral du Bout du Monde
A exquisitely beautiful album of choral music from the mysteriously named Ensemble Choral du Bout du Monde (Choral Ensemble from the End of the World). This Celtic Christmas album has the lilt, bagpipes and tunes of the Celts. While also being filled with the organ and breathtaking choral approach of the French. Truly sublime.

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nautrei-siam-tres-bomians-mont-joia-noe%cc%88ls-provenc%cc%a7auxMont-Joia: Noëls Provençaux, Nautrei Siam Tres Bomians
Meanwhile down in the lower regions of France in another zone where the older language struggles to be heard this folk revival group from the 80s provides darker rhythmic minor keys, yet no less joyous, as a trio of gentlemen strum and and harmonize their way to Noël bliss. There is another Provencal Christmas album of more recent vintage with many of the same songs which is also worthy. La Bela Naissença – Les noels Provencaux (Christmas carols from Provence). It’ll do in a pinch.

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to-drive-the-cold-winter-away-st-georges-canzonaTo Drive The Cold Winter Away – St. George’s Canzona
Here’s an interesting and truly recondite work. And one of my favorites. Here the old Baroque European winter festival mingles with the Christian story perfectly in Chestertonian fashion. The mixture of Playford dances with seasonal cheer is sheer perfection. I am captivated utterly by their version of the Playford dance The Dressed Ship. But the entirety of this is merry and festive in the deepest sense.

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noel-we-sing-boston-camerataNoel We Sing – Boston Camerata
This is the Boston Camerata’s English and early American Christmas album. It’s just as researched and just as authentic. I like it even better than the Medieval Christmas. Highly recommended.

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the-new-possibility-john-faheys-guitar-soli-christmas-album

The New Possibility – John Fahey’s Guitar Soli Christmas Album
And finally the closest I’m going to get to pop music… which is to say not at all. This is psychedelic folk guitarist John Fahey’s 1968 version of Christmas classics and obscurities. It’s ‘simple’ guitar music without echoey production values or anything else to clutter up his strangely sincere version of these old carols. He later rerecorded these in the 80s. He probably needed the money. The two Christmas albums from that period are good. But this version is much quirkier and ‘simple’ in the best sense.

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A few more:

To Wish You A Merry Christmas – Harry Belafonte
No this is as close to pop as I get. There is something very real in Harry’s folk pop Caribbean Christmas music. He manages to find the heart of it even through the RCA production line.

A Renaissance Christmas –  Boston Camerata
See Medieval Christmas above and add the word Renaissance.

A Baroque Christmas-  Boston Camerata
See Medieval Christmas above and add the word Baroque.

The Christmas Revels – John Langstaff & Co.
This is a classic which later became the Revels industry. This is close in spirit to the Roberts/Barrand Nowell albums mentioned above. But you can tell it’s a show, where Roberts, Barrand and company sound like they are actually celebrating Christmas. And later that aspect of the performances and albums would stand out more and more. Nevertheless you can always find a few gems here and there.

Angels and Kings – The Mediaeval Baebes
There are two wintry themed Mediaeval Baebes albums, the other is Mistletoe and Wine. And there are some real gems on them. The only problem I occasionally have with them is that they do like to conflate the modern interpretation of paganism onto the older Christian past. But then again maybe turnabout is fair play since that is the opposite of what the Christians did… except they did it genuine old school paganism, which was a much different beast than what we imagine in our fantasy worlds today. Nevertheless their Gaudette is amazing, especially the first version on Mistletoe and Wine. But for a more purely Christmas album go with Angels and Kings.

Handel’s Messiah – Robert Shaw Chorale
The first version of Messiah that I know to bring to life the older, smaller, quicker, livelier Baroque version back to the present. I hesitate to call this a Christmas album though, since fully half of it has nothing to do with Christmastime. But the part that does? Are you noticing a Baroque trend anywhere here? It’s no accident.

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So that’s it. Look for any of these if you want to get closer to the spirit of Christmas.

And if you don’t? Might I recommend A Mutated Christmas, Christmas at Luke’s Sex Shop or anything that’s really well produced in the last 30 years.

Get away from the noise
Have a meaningful Christmas
Byrne Power
Haines, Alaska
12/4/2016

(We’ll get back to Georgia very soon.)

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