My Christmas record collection is probably more haphazard than most because I get sent a lot of promotional review copies. But yours too, I imagine, consists largely of accumulated random acquisitions, some you've had since you were a kid. If you want to fill in the gaps in your collection, here's my list of nominations of must-have music—or, as I like to call it, the canon. The canon demands authenticity: "White Christmas," "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and "The Christmas Song" must be sung by Bing Crosby, Gene Autry, and Nat King Cole, respectively—no substitutions allowed. All three of these versions can be found on Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits, 1935-54 (WEA/Atlantic/Rhino, $9.97). Crosby and Autry are also present on Chicken Soup for the Soul—Christmas (Rhino, $11.99), a smarmy title for a fantastic collection that also includes Mahalia Jackson's stunning "Silent Night." Crosby, Autry, and Cole all have at least one Christmas album of their own, of course, including their respective greatest hits (Crosby on Laserlight, $5.97; Autry on Sony/Columbia, $9.97; Cole on EMD/Capitol, $16.97).
If you're under 40, you'll certainly need Vince Guaraldi's jazz soundtrack for the 1965 TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy, $15.97). For Gen-Xers, this music's practically encoded on our DNA. As Christmas traditions go, I'd sooner not exchange gifts than miss this show, which annually reduces me to a puddle. Boomers will want John & Yoko's holiday anthem "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)." If the idealism doesn't get you (as a Nader supporter, I realize idealism is highly unpopular this season), then the soaring tunes and the sonic head rush of the overdubbed guitar choir will. The single's been anthologized a number of times, but you may as well get it on the classic 1975 Lennon collection Shaved Fish (EMD/Capitol, $16.97). By the way, this song also appears on the brand-new CD The Three Tenors Christmas (what do you mean, which three tenors?) in a garish, leaden, and altogether hideous version. A slightly older generation may require that goofy Alvin and the Chipmunks Christmas waltz to make their holiday complete—find it on Dr. Demento's The Greatest Christmas Novelty CD of All Time (WEA/ Atlantic/Rhino, $17.97). The other indispensable item on this CD is the classic high-kitsch barking dogs performance of "Jingle Bells." (You know you want it.) Do NOT confuse this CD with the good Doctor's unlistenable Holidays in Dementia, trust me.
For those two pillars of the classical Christmas repertory, The Nutcracker and Messiah, the choices are many. For any Tchaikovsky, especially the ballets, the Philadelphia Orchestra's recordings are a safe bet; under Eugene Ormandy, their celebrated "jewels-on-purple-velvet" sound reached a peak of opulence. All the numbers from the Suite, plus the best of the rest of the score, are on their Sony Classics CD ($9.97). The Philly sound's about as far from period-instrument austerity as you can get, but their recording of Messiah excerpts has always been a favorite—and on CD, it's a bargain, a full 75 minutes' worth for $7.99 (Sony Classics). Or try Leonard Bernstein's sampler of 11 Messiah highlights with the New York Philharmonic (Sony Classics, $9.97). The Schwann record catalog lists 39 recordings of the complete Messiah, about half of which are recorded by early-music ensembles. Here you're on your own: At two to two-and-a-half hours each, you can't seriously expect me to comparison shop them all for you, can you?
The best collection of "classical" carols (meaning, roughly, religious rather than secular ones) is the one Luciano Pavarotti recorded in 1976, O Holy Night (UNI/London classics, $16.97). He's in peak voice here, and the music—the title carol by Adolphe Adam and other arias by Schubert, Gounod, Bizet, and others—is the loveliest that the holiday has inspired. This CD features almost exactly the same program as that TV special that's been a PBS stalwart for years. Generally broadcast late on Christmas Eve, Pavarotti's performance was often the accompaniment to our family's post- present cooling-down time (the Borcherts have always been Eve-openers, not morning-openers), and his "Ave Maria" still conjures a perfectly preserved memory of curling up in new robes and new pajamas, sampling new books, mug of eggnog at hand.
MUSIC BUFFS' CHRISTMAS BETS
Eric Banks, director of the Esoterics:
I like to steer clear of carols—too many years of playing the church organ as a kid, I guess. I do have a couple of favorite Advent or Nativity choral works: Benjamin Britten's "A Boy Was Born" and Hugo Distler's Die Weihnachtsgeschichte (The Christmas History). . . . I also wish someone would bother to put together the entire Weihnachts-Oratorium of Bach, instead of the incessant holiday iterations of Messiah and Carmina Burana.
Dave Beck, principal cellist of the Bellevue Philharmonic and afternoon arts host and producer at KUOW:
With apologies to my friends in other sections of the orchestra, this cellist especially loves the sound of brass at holiday time. One of my favorite recordings, first encountered in my parents' record collection in the '60s, was a collaboration among brass players of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Boston Symphony, and New York Philharmonic on the old Columbia classical label. The playing by these "Big 5" orchestra musicians was stellar, as were the arrangements and recording quality. I rediscovered the album in the mid-'80s via a well-worn vinyl copy from my days as a classical DJ at KUOW. The highlight of the record for me was an imaginative, fun, and brilliantly played arrangement of "The Twelve Days of Christmas."
Chris DeLaurenti, sonic provocateur and host of KSER's The Sonar Map:
My atheistic Christmas is not complete without hearing Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" and Igor Stravinsky's Movements for Piano and Orchestra. I love "Sleigh Ride" in any rendition, vocal or instrumental. Much like the immortal theme to "The Price Is Right," "Sleigh Ride" is supremely flexible music. The sprightly tempo and chirping chorus beg to be transformed into a stomping anthem for a bloodthirsty throng of latter-day Aztecs (such as those grunting rip-off versions of Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part 2" at WWF matches) or sung as a heartbroken ballad by the invariably silver-braceleted folkie or congealed into a Muzaked morass—all of which would still delight the ear. I discovered my other essential holiday music, Stravinsky's Movements, during a bleak winter 10 years ago. Movements, which baffled the audience at its premiere in 1960, startles, glitters, and flickers with diaphanous instrumental textures.
James McQuillen, music critic of The Oregonian:
Much as pride of profession compels me to recommend some obscure collection of early polyphony, I have to admit that my favorite Christmas CD (the only one I own, in fact) is Ki ho'alu Christmas (Dancing Cat Records). There's no kind of music that expresses ease and amiability better than ki ho'alu (slack key), the distinctive Hawaiian guitar sound that evolved from the music played by early Portuguese paniolo (cowboys); it's the perfect antidote to the myriad stresses of the holiday season. The tracks on Ki ho'alu Christmas range from traditional carols to instrumental arrangements of Hawaiian hymns to postwar kitsch ("Mele Kalikimaka," sung in a velvety bass by slack key master Cyril Pahinui, the Barry White of the Islands). It's not a perfect album—it includes "Winter Wonderland," which is unbearably annoying no matter how you play it—but it's still an unusual and intriguing collection that can transport you to a world where the people and the breezes are warm and the holidays are a time of celebration rather than frustration. Mele Kalikimaka, Hau'oli Hanuka, and Hau'oli Makahiki Hou (Happy New Year).
Scott Warrender, director of the Washingtonians! and composer of Das Barbec:
When I was a kid, I thought that anything played on a harpsichord was written by Mozart. Mozart was a verb. One could "Mozart" any song ever written. I guess that's why, for far too many years, I gave him credit for such holiday favorites as "Deck the Halls" and "Jingle Bell Rock." It wasn't my fault: I blame our set of Firestone Christmas Albums—you know, the ones you got at the gas station, free with every fill-up? Each year a new edition would appear in the window of Phillips 66, featuring every star who was any star: Bob Goulet, Doris Day, Dean Martin—you know, the biggies—singing "Ave Maria" with a light samba beat or "O Come All Ye Faithful" accompanied by a roller-rink organ and a big, vibrato-y choir. If my family had dragged me to a Messiah sing-along or a real Mozart program, I might have turned out differently. But my childhood Christmases consisted of six people in a tiny house in Eastgate, two dogs, four cats, and always some version of a rodent in a smelly aquarium. There were old paperbacks, spray-painted gold and folded to look like bells; tuna-Velveeta fondues; meatballs made with "good ground chuck" (as my mom loved to remind us); and cotton-ball snowflakes in all the windows. All of this, of course, was underscored by our Firestone collection and the Ray Conniff singers, who crammed into our little home in Eastgate, helping make our holidays warm and happy, singing the classics: "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and "The Little Drummer Boy"—you know, the ones by Mozart.
Gavin Borchert is a contributing writer at Seattle Weekly.