Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Christmas Music, Old and New

Thanksgiving Eve is when I traditionally begin listening to Christmas music. I like to put on some of my old favorites while I'm chopping up onions and celery and bread for the stuffing, and baking pumpkin pie, and picking out my serving dishes, and setting the table. There's something wonderfully festive about preparing for company and listening to the same holiday music I've listened to and loved for years. But over the past few holiday seasons, I've discovered some wonderful new versions of some of my favorite classic Christmas songs, and I'd like to share them with you.

If you love Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," try listening to Michael Buble's funky version:

Based on The Drifters' 1954 arrangement, Buble adds jazzy rhythms, backup singers doot-dooting 50s harmonies, and Shania Twain chiming in with a delightfully retro falsetto verse and some lovely harmonies.

If you love Nat King Cole's recording of Mel Torme's classic "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)," check out Andrea Bocelli and Natalie Cole's live concert recording from 2009.

Their styles and voices blend surprisingly well, and the combination of piano and orchestral accompaniment is beautifully balanced to swell where it should and let the voices shine where they should.

The Carpenters' beloved 1978 Christmas album, "A Christmas Portrait," includes many favorites, but Karen Carpenter's rich, mellow voice is at its best in "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." For a very different sound, listen to Sam Smith's haunting 2014 recording.

From the a cappella opening strains through the addition of a simple piano accompaniment, Smith moves from a very straight, note-for-note verse into playing around with the rhythm and the melody, yet keeping the original beauty and simplicity of the piece. Smith's rough, almost croaky voice is a huge contrast to Carpenter's caramel-smooth contralto, but it works.

Any of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s remembers the annual Andy Williams Christmas specials (oh, those sweaters!), which always included favorites like Williams' "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," with a full chorus "aaaahing" and "ding donging" in the background. For a perfectly harmonized a cappella version of this classic, look to the Pentatonix's 2014 recording.
The rich bass singing lead, another walking bassline underneath the melody, the boppy harmonies, the swinging beatboxing in the'll find yourself waltzing around the room while you listen.

Gene Autry's "Here Comes Santa Claus" with its muted trumpet and jingle bells is another classic that's been re-recorded by many artists, including Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby. If you're willing to open your mind to a VERY different version, the mashup of "Here Comes Santa Claus" with "Winter Wonderland" performed by Snoop Dogg, Anna Kendrick, and the cast of Pitch Perfect 2 is quite a twist on the original.
Snoop (Or should I call him Dogg? Not sure if it's a first and last name or a single name like Cher or Madonna) has a surprisingly mellow and pleasant voice, and Kendrick's clear, light soprano blends well with it. The funky electronic rhythms in the background will have you bopping along. This version may not be for haters of hip hop and rap (of which I am generally one), but give it a try. You might find you like it!

Speaking of duets, one of my all-time favorite Christmas duets is, of course, "Baby, It's Cold Outside." There were no less than FIVE versions recorded in 1949 alone, including Dinah Shore and Buddy Clark, Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams (!), and Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan, but probably the most familiar version is Dean Martin's 1959 recording with the Andrews Sisters. If you'd prefer an updated (and slightly sanitized) version, you'll love Idina Menzel and Michael Buble's 2014 recording.
Be sure to watch the sweet video that accompanies this recording. The little boy and girl are beyond adorable and the lip-synching is beautifully done. And you can't go wrong with the stunning voices of Menzel and Buble, two powerhouses whose voices reinforce each other instead of battling. Just charming.

Another Bing Crosby favorite is "I'll Be Home for Christmas," also recorded by Frank Sinatra (among countless others). Contrast their traditional, full orchestra and chorus recordings with Kelly Clarkson's 2011 version.
Clarkson's sweet, clear voice is backed by a jazz trio of piano, drums, and trumpet. She moves to a plaintive, scooping wail in the last verse that just gives me chillbumps. This recording makes me want to sit down with a glass of wine and look over family albums of Christmas photos from years gone by.

The Boston Pops performing Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" is always part of Christmas in my house, although others may prefer Johnny Mathis' 1958 recording. Blending the best of both of these versions is Harry Connick Jr.'s 1993 version.

The jazzy orchestra is reminiscent of the Pops' recording, and Connick's smooth as silk vocals play with the rhythm and the tune more than Mathis' measured, light crooning. Another version that will keep your toes tapping while you're gift wrapping!

Many classic Christmas songs from the 1950s and 1960s were performed by chorales like the Harry Simeone Chorale, Mitch Miller, and Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. Among the most well-known Christmas songs in that style was Simeone's "Little Drummer Boy". For a funky instrumental recording, you can't go wrong with Mannheim Steamroller's 1988 arrangement.

Combine orchestral tracks with unusual percussion, lots of synthesizers, funky rhythms, and a video that's kind of a trippy riff on the Nutcracker, and you get Mannheim's version of "Little Drummer Boy."

And one bonus track that's my new favorite this Christmas: "Mary Did You Know?" was written in 1991 by Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene, and was recorded by various artists throughout the 90s, 00s,  and teens, but really only became mainstream when the Pentatonix released a recording in 2014. If you love that version, you HAVE to listen to this year's recording of Mark Lowry singing the lead backed by the incredible vocal pyrotechnics of Voctave.

If the soaring soprano sailing above all the rich harmonies doesn't bring tears to your eyes, then you have a cold, cold heart. I could listen to this recording over and over all Christmas season and I'll still cry every time. Listen to it. TRUST ME.

Happy Thanksgiving, and Merry Early Christmas!

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