By Heidi Busse - OSV Newsweekly, 12/18/2011
There is nothing in the world so much like prayer as music is. — William P. Merrill
Music is powerful, especially Christmas music. It has the power to take us out of the moment and transport us to another time and place. Whether at Mass or at home, the music of the season can fill us with joy or nostalgia, melancholy or peace.
St. Francis of Assisi was the first to harness the power of Christmas music. In the 13th century, St. Francis tried to highlight the birth of Christ by transforming it into a live theatrical event. He prepared Nativity pageants with hay and animals, and, for the first time, live music. He encouraged narrative songs about the birth of Jesus be sung in the audiences’ native language, turning Christmas music into an opportunity for both reverence and celebration.
Today’s Christmas music runs the gamut from secular pop to traditional carols and hymns. Below is a list of some of the best and brightest Christmas albums, as well as some of OSV staff members’ personal favorites.
Simple and relaxing
“A Charlie Brown Christmas,” by Vince Guaraldi Trio
Consistently rated as one of the best Christmas albums ever, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” has been called “pure holiday magic.” With the spirit of the Peanuts gang, these simple yet festive piano tunes are the perfect addition to a day of baking, wrapping or celebrating with friends and family. One reviewer raves: “this is the most beautiful, relaxing Christmas music you’ll ever hear.”
“Music of Christmas,” by Percy Faith and his Orchestra
If you like traditional Christmas music that stands the test of time, you will love the rich orchestral sounds of Percy Faith. With beautiful renditions of “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” this album is filled with easy-listening songs that convey the true meaning of Christmas.
“The Ultimate Relaxation Christmas Album”
When the hustle and bustle of the season gets to be too much, unwind with this compilation of traditional Christmas music. This instrumental album is the perfect backdrop for a quiet evening by the fire or a few moments of prayer. It is also a sweet way to fall asleep during these hectic weeks.
“The Nat King Cole Christmas Album”
Nat King Cole’s silky voice has become synonymous with classic Christmas music. This is one of Cole’s best works with songs such as “A Cradle in Bethlehem” and “The Little Christmas Tree” that you won’t hear anywhere else. His spirit is alive and well in this timeless album.
This album is sure to liven up any Christmas gathering and the songs are infinitely sing-able in the car, at home or anywhere the spirit moves you. Filled with traditional carols and hymns, (“I Believe,” “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” “It Is No Secret What God Can Do”) Elvis’ Christmas album is a stirring reminder of the real reason for the season. The king of rock ’n’ roll has stood the test of time and his music is as moving today as it was when first released.
“The Gift,” by Kenny Rogers
Finally, a Christmas album filled with songs about Jesus! This special compilation includes original and lesser-known Christmas music centered on the gift of Christ. Although Kenny Rogers is one of the great country music giants of our time, this album does not have an overly country-music vibe. The overall spirit is warm and welcoming. Sung with Wynonna Judd, “Mary Did You Know” is a beautiful retelling of the Annunciation. What a gift indeed!
“In The Spirit: Sacred Music for Christmas,” by Jessye Norman
One of the greatest operatic voices of our day, Norman’s album is sure to raise your Christmas spirit to new heights this season. You can almost hear the angels join in this beautiful choir! The songs are a mix of traditional and nontraditional sacred music. This album is a perfect gift for opera lovers and for anyone who is looking to elevate their spirit at Christmas time.
“The Best of Amy Grant: The Christmas Collection,” by Amy Grant
An instant classic, this collection still resonates as Amy Grant’s most compelling Christmas album. Grant’s commitment to a more spiritual approach to music comes through in her crisp, clean vocals mixed with a rich orchestra or simple guitar. This music is not intrusive or overly distracting. This is a great album for Christmas gatherings or a family sing-along.
“Christmas ... From the Realms of Glory,” by Bebo Norman
If you’re looking for music that fits the season of Advent while gently leading into Christmas, this is it. Songs such as “Come and Worship,” “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” and “Mary’s Prayer,” remind us that this is the season of preparation for the One who is to come. Unlike some of the over-produced Christmas albums released today, Norman keeps it simple with stunning vocals and a beautiful, reverent tone.
“Christmas Offerings,” by Third Day
Third Day’s southern rock musical style is highlighted in this album of traditional, religious carols. Many of the songs have been reworked with a fresh, unexpected arrangement that still somehow feels familiar. This album is an inspirational collection of Christmas music for Christian music fans who like contemporary rock.
“Noels Celtiques: Celtic Christmas Music from Brittany”
A treat for Celtic music lovers, this album feels at once ancient and modern. Filled with the sounds of the bagpipe, flute, guitar and organ, “Noels Celtiques” reflects the hauntingly beautiful sound of the music of Brittany. It has been called “quite simply the loveliest music ever recorded.” If you’re new to Celtic music, this offering is a wonderful way to start listening.
“The Bells of Dublin,” by The Chieftains
For a contemporary approach to Celtic Christmas music, look no further than The Chieftains. On “The Bells of Dublin,” they do an exceptional job of teaming up with rockers such as Jackson Browne and Elvis Costello, as well as folk singer Nanci Griffith and more. Their expertise on Irish instruments is front and center along with excellent vocal performances. The jigs and reels make you want to get up and dance, even if you’re not of Irish descent.
Festive and Fresh
“Songs for Christmas,” by Sufjan Stevens
Stevens is a songwriter, photographer, biographer and more. This 5-CD set includes poems, photos, and loads of beautiful music. His style of quiet vocals mixed with folksy guitar and piano are sure to bring a fresh sound to your Christmas season. He writes that the Christmas story is about love, and on that note, he proclaims that these songs prompt “a transformation of the heart.” Indeed they do.
“When My Heart Finds Christmas,” by Harry Connick Jr.
In the spirit of 1940s big band jazz, Harry Connick Jr. offers up this snappy Christmas album with a spiritual touch. His rendition of “Ave Maria” and the joyful gospel hymn, “I Pray on Christmas” are sure to inspire dancing and praise. This, Connick’s first Christmas album, is his best, with a perfect blend of original songs and swinging standards. As one reviewer notes, “This album twinkles and shines!”
“Have Yourself a Jazzy Little Christmas,” by Various Artists
An eclectic mix of both vocal and instrumental jazz, there’s something for everyone on this great Christmas album. From the smooth pure voice of Ella Fitzgerald singing “The Secret of Christmas” to Dinah Washington’s soul-stirring rendition of “Silent Night,” the vocals are crisp and classic. For instrumental jazz lovers, Jimmy Smith’s “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is filled with soaring trumpet solos and snappy improvisation. “Have Yourself a Jazzy Little Christmas” is the perfect gift for jazz lovers and a great way to add some swing to your Christmas spirit.
Heidi Busse writes from Minnesota.
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