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Pentatonix performs for a Christmas TV special in 2016. From left, Kevin “K.O.” Olusola, Mitch Grassi, Kirstin Maldonado, Scott Hoying and Avi Kaplan. Photo by Tyler Golden/NBC

The holiday music you actually want to listen to

Christmas tunes gets a bad rap, often for good reason. But done right, it can be joyful, soaring, even ethereal

By Paul Knowles

Maybe it’s Last Christmas by George Michael. Or Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. It’s broadcast throughout the mall, even in early November, and some folks are smiling and humming along, while others are wincing in psychic pain.

There seem to be as many opinions about Christmas music as there are truly execrable Christmas recordings. Virtually every musician who has ever lived appears to have produced a Christmas-themed album. While some of these efforts are bona fide musical products that mean something to the musicians, others are crass money grabs. You have to appreciate the fictional pop music veteran Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) in Love Actually, who argued, “Wouldn’t it be great if number 1 [on the charts] this Christmas wasn’t some smug teenager, but an old ex-heroin addict searching for a comeback at any price? . . . So if you believe in Father Christmas, children, like your Uncle Billy does, buy my festering turd of a record.”

The truth is that some Christmas albums that seem to be cash grabs turn out to be very popular, even beloved. Bing Crosby’s Christmas music — including the quintessential White Christmas — might fall into that category. And some that almost surely qualify as “crass” share the contradictory distinction of being among both the top-selling and the worst-reviewed Christmas albums: Justin Bieber’s Under the Mistletoe and Kenny G’s Miracles: The Holiday Album, for example.

Love it or hate it, seasonal music is hard to avoid this time of year, thanks to the “all Christmas, all the time” mantra of shopping centres and radio stations. But overkill aside, there are some musical gems to be discovered, whether they celebrate a religious Christmas or simply revel in the joy of the holiday. While many of my favourite Christmas albums go back decades, there are a number of unexpectedly great recent releases out there, including recordings by the American a cappella group Pentatonix and Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan.

For me, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the astonishing, assumption-smashing work Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration. Created by Quincy Jones, Mervyn Warren and an all-star ensemble in 1992, it will either appal or entrance you with its pop-music take on the 18th-century choral classic by George Frideric Handel. I especially love Every Valley Shall Be Exalted, which starts with the familiar orchestral introduction and the first two words of the solo — and then rips into funk. Oh Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion is a gorgeous piece featuring Stevie Wonder and the gospel group Take 6. The 16-song recording concludes with the iconic Hallelujah! chorus sung by a choir of greats, including Gladys Knight and Andraé Crouch.

There are also some praise-worthy Canadian recordings. Released in 1995, An Oscar Peterson Christmas puts a perfectly jazzy spin on the holidays. The arrangement of White Christmas redeems the commonplace from its familiarity, and flugelhorn player Jack Schantz gives new life to Away in a Manger.

A more recent recording is Ken Whiteley’s The Light of Christmas, a collection of original songs from 2012. Whiteley surrounds himself with superb musicians, many of whom happen to share his surname. Especially good are O Lord, I Wonder and Hallelujah, a Child Is Born.

This holiday season, expect to hear a lot of Pentatonix. The four-man, one-woman vocal group has dominated the market over the last three years with its albums That’s Christmas to Me and Pentatonix Christmas, and just released a deluxe version of the latter.

Formed in 2011 to compete in the NBC program The Sing-Off, Pentatonix took the show’s top prize and has gone on to win three Grammy awards. (Founding member Avi Kaplan stepped aside earlier this year and has been replaced by Matt Sallee on the current holiday tour.) Some of the group’s non-seasonal music has also drawn a lot of attention — covers of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, for example.

But the group’s best work can be found on That’s Christmas to Me. The album’s first track, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, opens with a traditional arrangement before bursting into a rockin’ second verse anchored by the beat-boxing of Kevin Olusola — the only “instrumentation” Pentatonix uses. I like the cleverly interwoven mashup of Winter Wonderland and Don’t Worry Be Happy, and the way the singers transform their voices into instruments to perform Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Not everything is a winner — the title song, That’s Christmas to Me, is just a pleasant compilation of Christmas clichés. But Silent Night is ethereal and reverent, a genuine lullaby. And Mary, Did You Know? — that modern classic by Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene — is terrific, the best version since Lowry sang lead on the Gaither Vocal Band’s Still the Greatest Story Ever Told.

Perhaps the best Christmas present in the past year or so is Sarah McLachlan’s Wonderland. While the Grammy and Juno award-winning musician now makes her home on the West Coast, she grew up in Halifax, and her work is consistently underpinned by Maritime musicality.

The 11 songs on Wonderland are all well-known seasonal works, some secular, some religious, all sung beautifully by McLachlan. Her vocal confidence is evident — she doesn’t chase the songs out of some musical memory of how they were done by Nat King Cole or Rosemary Clooney, but makes them her own. In the Canadian hymn Huron Carol, her light, lilting voice offers a dramatic contrast to the staccato direction of the orchestra. And Go Tell It on the Mountain is made very special indeed as she is joined by Emmylou Harris and Martha Wainwright.

When I saw that O Holy Night was the final track on the recording, I confess I shuddered a bit. I’ve heard astonishing versions of this song and cringe-worthy efforts. The vocal power the piece demands didn’t fit my memory of Sarah McLachlan songs — but I was so, so wrong. Again, she made this classic her own — light, soaring, shining and perfect.

Paul Knowles is a writer in New Hamburg, Ont.

This story originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of The Observer with the title "Sing, choirs of angels." 

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