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