So this is Christmas, or at least that's what retail establishments have been telling us since September. Or perhaps well before that. It would seem that the Christmas season now lasts for an indefinite span, eclipsing other holidays - like Thanksgiving, Halloween, and even the 4th of July - in the crass calendar of cynical secular marketing. Is it any wonder that "Santa" is an anagram for "Satan"?
I jest. No sense in bringing up Christian hagiography or demonology when referring to a holiday grafted onto the pagan celebration of Yule and other ancient Winter Solstice feasts (by Pope Julius I, who decided on 12/25 just to mess up a good pagan party). So whether you enjoy the sacred or profane, a pagan wassail (wæs hæl, in Anglo-Saxon literally "good health") or a Christian carol (from Old French carole, a circle dance or rondel, originally derived from the Latin choraula), we can all appreciate some good music. Hey, even an old heathen like myself appreciates a bit of the Christmas spirit!
But I shall eschew the season's bleatings and historical context for a more traditional take on Christmas music. This is the third annual Holiday Special article I have offered, the first being 'Tis The Season: Great Christmas & Winter Rock Songs, and the second The Worst Christmas Songs of All Time. For this year's extravaganza, I've chosen 33 carols and compositions (plus bonus tracks) that evoke the spirit of earlier times, whether that be the medieval and renaissance, the Elizabethan and Victorian, or early 20th century sacred and secular seasonal music. No, it's not all lutes and dulcimers, silly, but a goodly sprinkling of various and sundry interpretations from modern musicians and singers.
So whether you're in the mood for a sing-along with some Benedictine monks on a Gregorian chant (practice your Latin!), or you've always wanted to sing castrato in an all-male choir, there's a wide range of stylings to choose from here: everything from a jazz-infused, swinging orchestral arrangement by Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, to some great a capella singing from Steeleye Span and Great Big Sea, to a bluegrass-tinged carol from Alison Krauss, to extraordinary instrumental pieces by Bela Fleck and Chris Thile. But for the moment, let us talk less and listen more....
Albion Dance Band
On Christmas Night All Christians Sing (The Sussex Carol)
This band, alternatively known as The Albion Country Band, The Albion Dance Band and The Albion Band, was led by bassist Ashley Hutchings and was made up of a hodgepodge of British folk-rockers, with many members of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span filtering through at one time or another. They also played an electric version of The Wassail Song.
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson swings into Christmas with an orchestra that actually seems to be having a good time.
Agincourt Carol/La Route au Beziers
British folk legends Maddy Prior and June Tabor are the Silly Sisters. Written in the 15th century, the "Agincourt Carol" is a triumphal hymn of thanks for Henry V's stunning victory over the numerically superior French at Agincourt. "Deo gratias Anglia redde pro victoria!" translates to "England, give thanks to God for victory!"
Deep Purple's Ritchie Blackmore and his latest incarnation as medieval troubadour channels Mason William's "Classical Gas" as much as he does the Tudor air "Greensleeves".
A different interpretation of "Greensleeves" with the very nontraditional Jeff Beck offering a very traditional acoustic take of the melody.
The Baltimore Consort
Wait! I know what you're thinking: another damn version of Greensleeves? WTF! Believe me, this is very different from the previous two, almost a different composition and melody, adapted from an English Renaissance model by The Baltimore Consort, an ensemble specializing in music from the Elizabethan Age. Trust me on this one.
Alison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma
The Wexford Carol
A traditional Irish carol from Wexford County. Dating back to the 12th century, it is one of the oldest carols known in Europe.
Great Big Sea
The Seven Joys of Mary
My favorite band from Newfoundland! Alright, I don't know any other bands of Newfies, but if I did, I doubt they'd be as great as Great Big Sea.
We Three Kings
It's a musical battle between Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Mannheim Steamroller to see which band can release the most Christmas albums. Here is an excellent version of "We Three Kings" by Mannheim.
The Boar's Head Carol
A 15th century English carol based on the ancient tradition of sacrificing a boar at the Yuletide feast, and the head served on a silver platter with an apple in its mouth. Previous to that they would sacrifice a boor, like dreary uncle Aethelred the Besotted, who would yearly vomit mead onto the feast, but the practice was frowned upon by the Catholic Church.
Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos
Missa de Angelis
I would say that I'm getting downright medieval on you here, but parts of this Gregorian chant date to the 15th and 16th century. So, I guess I am going for baroque here and saying it's rococo and roll.
The guitarist extraordinaire's one-man extravaganza of Christmas snippets. Also, one of the best versions of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlmen was performed by Keaggy and Kim Hill.
Composed in the 16th century, this sacred carol in exultant Latin was actually a "hit" for Steeleye Span in 1973, reaching #14 on the UK charts. Would that more such songs would chart. Here is a poorer recording but with a Latin/English translation (in case you need a refresher: amo, amas, amat).
The Punch Brothers
Brandenburg Concerto No. 3
No, it technically is not Christmas music, but it is Bach, dammit! And The Punch Brothers, fronted by mandolin master Chris Thile, offer an amazing version of this timeless piece. For some reason, Bach puts me in a Christmas mood. So here's Chris Thile playing a solo version of Bach's E Major Prelude. What that guy can do with a pick!
The Chieftains and Nolwenn Monjarret
A Breton Carol
Yes, this is actually sung in Breton, the ancient language of Brittany, more akin to Welsh than French.
Elvis Costello and The Chieftains
St. Stephen's Day Murders
Okay, this one isn't traditional, it was written by Elvis and Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains, but the Costello's lyrics are absolutely hilarious. And it does have the compositional qualities of an earlier epoch, don't you think?
An "aubade" is a song that accompanies or evokes daybreak - a serenade to dawn, as it were. And what a composition Shadowfax has laid before us for Christmas morning! Great with coffee whilst the piles of discarded gift wrapping crinkle and rustle beneath your feet.
Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle
"Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabelle" is a carol from Provence first published in the 1550s. Ms. McKennit does a fine instrumental adaptation.
Sting updates a 13th century Basque carol from his excellent Christmas album If on a Winter's Night (this being the live version).
Gábor Ugrin · Miklós Szabó · Győr Girl's Choir
Missa De Beata Virgine
The choir sing Giovanni Palestrina's magnificent 16th century composition. It is 40 minutes long, so I hope you've brought a boxed lunch. One of the leaders of "The Roman School", Palestrina's works are often seen as the apotheosis of late Renaissance polyphony.
Carol of the Bells
From Late Renaissance to later rock and roll, we cater to all kinds here. This stirring piece of metal by TSO is my favorite rendering of this carol, which is also one of the newer pieces in this article, composed by Mykola Leontovych in 1904, but based on earlier Ukrainian folk chants.
A larkish run through the traditional carols "The Holly and the Ivy" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" by Tull.
Lonesome Christmas Blues
Blind Arthur Blake's version of "Lonesome Christmas Blues" was recorded in 1929, and the blues can be just as traditional as European musical forms. Ya'll just go at it with a different groove.
Christmas Morning Blues
This trad blues tune circa 1928 features the songstress Victoria Spivey, who worked with such blues and jazz greats as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Louis Armstrong, Lonnie Johnson and Clarence Williams.She even recorded with a young up-and-coming folk performer named Bob Dylan!
Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring
An exquisite acoustic rendition of J.S. Bach's enduring masterpiece.
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
An interesting folk version by Cockburn of the song composed in 1850 by Richard Storrs Willis around a poem written by Edmund Sears. Some brilliant guitar work.
Iesus Ahatonnia/The Huron Carol
A melancholy carol written early in the 1600s by the Jesuit Fr. Jean de Brebeuf, using the aboriginal Huron language. It is purportedly Canada's first indigenous Christmas hymn. Father Jean was martyred at the hands of the Iroquois Confederacy, who ceremoniously burnt him at the stake. Obviously, they didn't much care for Christmas carols.
Holly, Ivy and Rose
An ingenious and beautiful mix of the carols "The Holly and the Ivy" and "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" by the eccentric and ebullient Tori Amos.
The First Noel, Oh Come Let Us Adore Him, Jesus Joy of Man's Desiring, Bach 147 cantata, Joy to the World
Banjoist extraordinaire Bela Fleck jams on a series of carols. You'll never think of the banjo in the same way once you've heard Fleck play.
In the Bleak Midwinter
British folk legend Bert Jansch plays an acoustic guitar adaptation of the poem Christina Rossetti wrote circa 1872.
California Guitar Trio
Perhaps the the most intricate version of the simple "Jingle Bells" tune ever attempted.
Silent Night/Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis
The song "Silent Night" is, of course, traditional and hopeful, but the Waits' tune "Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis" is more like how many desperate folks spend their Christmas. It would do us all well to have a moment of sober reflection during this season of making merry and overspending to remember how fortunate we are, and to remember those who are less fortunate. It doesn't matter whether or not you believe the babe born in Nazareth two-thousand years ago was the savior, because beyond the celestial choruses and divine gift-wrapping his words still hold universal Truths and his actions on earth remain a guide to selflessness and mercy. What an excellent time of the year to put those words into action, and not merely offer lip service.
The Coventry Carol
Perhaps the best rendition of a Christmas Carol found on the wildly popular A Very Special Christmas, Vol.1 (1987) which featured a thoroughly 80s hodgepodge of new wavers, punks, hair bands and pretenders (literally, Chrissy Hynde and band sang on it). The Alison Moyet version of this 12th Century carol breathes a bit of noir into a decidedly savage story, the slaying by King Herod of all infants in Bethlehem after the birth of Christ. But hey, what better way than infanticide to say Merry Christmas!