Friday, November 23, 2007

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

I've never been the biggest fan of Thanksgiving - too many memories of hectic travel, a seriously overrated menu, ridiculous shopping rituals, no presents, etc. But, I'm not against being thankful, and what I'm most thankful for about Thanksgiving is that its passing means it's time to break out the Christmas tunes. Yes, it's that magical time of year when the likes of Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis, Maurice Chevalier, Percy Faith and John Denver become part of the family, even though they know I'll want nothing to do with them on Dec. 26. [UPDATE: How could I have left The New Christy Minstrels off that list?]

Most of these ne'er-do-wells get in the door because they were prominently featured on the many Goodyear "Great Songs of Christmas" records that my family wore out when I was growing up. I lovingly transferred about eight of those LPs to CDs a few years back, and even the crackling of the old, scratched surfaces is comforting. John Denver actually makes it in by way of the improbably perfect Christmas album he made with the Muppets. ("A Baby Just Like You" kills me every time.)

But, definitely, my all-time favorite album of the season is the John Rutter/Cambridge Singers' Christmas Night. It's notable for having almost none of the most famous carols, but just about every track is a jewel, and the singing is painfully beautiful. Say what you will about Rutter, he knows how to handle this rep; the few selections of his own works also find him at his best as a composer, which is to say they are simple and direct. OK, "Candlelight Carol" is borderline, especially when a few of those easy-listening flute lines float by. By the by, if you've never heard Michael Crawford and Neil Diamond cover that song, then click their names and run for cover. I think those snippets are punishment enough for Rutter's flirtations with the easy side of the street.

Anyway, he redeems himself over and over again with the disc at hand, and the best of the best is the performance of Patrick Hadley's "I Sing of a Maiden." If you don't know it, those three minutes alone are worth the price of the disc - or certainly of the $0.99 download from Amazon. (Quick Note: I've been a big iTunes Store user, but I can't think of any reason to download anything from iTunes that's also on Amazon. Let's see: higher quality files, no annoying DRM copy-protection, and seamless integration with iTunes, at least on my computer. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out.)

So, to review: Rutter's Christmas Night is a must-hear; Andy Williams has a month to croon about what he hears, sees, and knows; Michael Crawford and Neil Diamond (!) are only welcome for tiny doses of comic relief. Oh yeah, and the Charlie Brown Christmas album rules, but everyone knows that.

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