Over the years, I’ve scrambled to think of ways to write about Christmas music.
Overrated, Underrated, Unfairly Neglected, Ten Best, 12 Worst, Pop, Classical – I’ve just about used up journalism’s standard-issue bag of Devices We Use for Recurring Yearly Phenomena.
This year, at the suggestion of a colleague, I’m going to think slightly outside the bag and simply offer this: my personal list of favorites.
No apologies or disclaimers. No rankings.
This is just the music I turn to, and return to, each year in order to summon the Christmas “feeling.”
The items are, I promise, in no particular order.
"Mary’s Boy Child"
The '70s disco-ized treatment by Boney M. has now just about crowded out all others, but for you younger listeners, check out Harry Belafonte’s original 1957 version. (Aside: Someone once asked the folksinger Odetta what Belafonte’s dazzling early success was all about. Her reply: “Child, did you ever get a good look at the man?”)
"For Unto Us a Child is Born"
I am as pleased as the next man to listen to Handel’s “Messiah” in its entirety, but the truth is that there are sections I like a lot better than others. This chorus has always represented to me the essence of the piece: spirited, joyous, musically ingenious.
The great Donny Hathaway, doing a tune of his own creation, now a classic and a yearly reminder of what might have been.
"This Little Babe"
This is one of the 12 segments of Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols.” I guess I could have simply named the whole work (it’s only about 20 minutes long) but in true mixtape tradition, I put forward this one section, with its minor-key suggestions of the struggle between Good vs. Evil – unexpected in a Christmas context -- and most of all its brilliant, almost hallucinogenic contrapuntal wizardry.
A sweet traditional Mexican carol, found on many compilations.
What can I say? It just isn’t Christmas for me until, one cold December day, preferably in the midst of a flurry of random car-radio station surfing, I suddenly hear Elvis intone that a capella cold opening: “I-I’ll Have a Blue…..”.
"Cantate de Noel" (Christmas Cantata)
This is a short kind of mini-oratorio for chorus, orchestra, and baritone soloist by the 20th century Swiss-French composer Arthur Honegger (1892-1955). It’s a luminous piece, but for some reason almost nobody seems to know it. In a lifetime of attending concerts, I’ve heard it performed live exactly once. (Kudos, David Spicer, and the musical forces at First Church of Christ, Wethersfield.)
"I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"
This 1952 novelty tune, so plainly irritating to many, had never made much of an impression on me until the writer Annie Dillard -- then a faculty member at Wesleyan University (and a person whose musical tastes were fervent but unpredictable) -- told me she thought it might be just about the prettiest tune ever written. I have since come to agree with her.
"Amahl and the Night Visitors"
There’s now almost a Currier and Ives quaintness to the realization that a substantial one-act opera used to be broadcast live on network TV every Christmas day, beginning in 1951 and continuing into the '60s.
"What Strangers Are These?"
I didn’t know this beautiful Scottish carol until, maybe 20 years ago or so, I first heard it on a CD called Candlelight Carols that I had received as a gift. The disc was recorded in, and features the mighty choir of, Trinity Church in Boston. It quickly became a favorite, and I guess today if I were allowed only one desert island disc of Christmas carols, this -- partly on the strength of “What Strangers…” -- would be it.
"Mary Had a Baby"
This African American call-and-response gospel-inflected tune seems to have murky origins, but it’s now squarely in the public domain. The version I like best is one sung by the incomparable (in her pre-troubled prime) Kathleen Battle, in a now out-of-print CD with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Fortunately there’s also a great Battle performance on YouTube.
"Santa Go Straight to the Ghetto"
I saw an interview once with James Brown in which he said he conceived of this song as a reminder of his own difficult childhood, when “sometimes Santa Claus would forget to come to our house.”
"What Are Your Doing New Year’s Eve?"
Ella, of course, owns the definitive reading. (This song is yet another gem from the endlessly inventive Frank Loesser, who, in the aftermath of an unpleasant divorce, was known to refer to his ex-wife as “the evil of two Loessers.”)
"Merry Christmas, Darling"
I feel like I’ve reached an age where I don’t have to defend my true, if selective, appreciation of the Carpenters. Poor Karen is at her demure, buttery-alto best here, and the production values of the recording are astounding, especially considering it’s almost 40 years old.
That master tunesmith Victor Herbert, at his lilting, sentimental best.
"Holy Infant’s Lullaby"
A lovely and underappreciated little miniature from the American composer Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008), who is overdue for reconsideration.
Steve Metcalf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.