Music for wonderful Christmas time
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Welcome to the 2,373rd annual installment of our holiday music survey, filled with goodies for the good, the bad, and the naughty. All albums were auditioned in file format, with high-resolution noted. Most of these albums are also available on streaming platforms, with Tidal, Qobuz, and Amazon Music HD your best options for full CD quality and hi-rez.
Diana Ross: Wonderful Christmas Time (Universal) First issued in 1994, 35 years after The Supremes released their only Christmas LP, "Wonderful Christmas Time" was remixed and is now available in vinyl and download formats. The post-Supremes, sanitized Ross sings well, but her highly produced arrangements have about as much soul as Wonder Bread. Hearing Ross sing Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed" leaves me wanting the original. The London Symphony Orchestra accompanies five of the 20 tracks; thanks to its potent message, "Someday at Christmas" is one of the best.
Gothic Voices: Nowell synge we bothe al and som (Linn/hi-rez) This lovely stocking-stuffer abounds with late medieval English carols, chant, mono- and polyphonic songs and motets for Advent and Christmas. Gothic Voices, the top-flight, four-member a cappella medieval ensemble, sings wonderfully 30 years into their career. Selections by Johns Dunstable and Cooke and Leonel Power share the honors with Anon. and his kin.
Handel Messiah: La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Le Concert des Nations, Jordi Savall (Alia Vox/hi-rez) The great Jordi Savall has finally gifted us with his high-rez period-instrument version of Handel's "Messiah." Recorded live in the Chapelle Royale du Château Versailles, Savall's "Messiah" declares its pedigree with tenor Nicholas Mulroy's authentic-style embellishments. Lord knows, we have "Messiahs" with more mellifluous tenors and countertenors, but soprano Rachel Redmond sounds lovely, and baritone Matthias Winckhler is quite fine. The 22-voiced choir is superb, and percussion and trumpets in the Hallelujah Chorus are tops.
Putamayo Presents Blues Christmas (Putamayo) Anthology specialist Putamayo goes all out with Christmas-themed blues selections from Charles Brown, Kenny Neal, Nathan & the Zydeco Cha, Mel Brown, and more. For people singing about sad, sad Christmas, these singers make upbeat sounds. There's not a single female soloist to be heard, but you can probably find them on Putamayo's New Orleans, Latin and French Christmas collections.
Christmas: The Gesualdo Six, Owain Park (Hyperion/hi-rez) Exquisite a cappella renditions performed by the beautifully-voiced men of Gesualdo Six. Recorded in Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, the program focuses on the birth of Christ. We begin with Philip Lawson's excellent arrangement of "Veni Emmanuel" before skipping between Thomas Tallis (b. 1505) and Cheryl Frances-Hoad (b. 1980). Highly recommended.
Hanukkah+: Various Artists (Reference/Universal) Anyone expecting a traditional Hanukkah album will be taken aback by this pop-oriented collection from singers who include Jack Black, Adam Green, Yo La Tengo, The Flaming Lips, and Loudon Wainwright III. The tracks ride roughshod over lounge music, retro, and country/western. The collection, available on vinyl as well as CD, includes a Passover Bonus that someone, somewhere won't want to pass over. Did I really hear the line, "Unlike Yom Kippur, where you zip up your zipper?"
Christmas with True Concord: Carols in the American Voice (Reference/hi-rez) Arizona's Grammy Award-nominated True Concord Voices & Orchestra of Arizona, directed by Eric Holtan, give us 17 English-language Christmas selections. This collection is perfect for anyone seeking a handsomely voiced assortment of familiar titles: Stephen Paulus' arrangement of "Silent Night" and Robert Shaw's take on "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming."
Santa Claus Is Coming to Town: New Orleans Jazz Band of Cologne (hi-rez) No, you're not going blind. With New Orleans in danger of obliteration by hurricanes, German residents of Cologne have stepped in to keep its tradition alive. Performing live in a most unlikely setting, Bad Homburg Castle, the ensemble has an absolute ball. What Cologne-born Beethoven might have thought about the New Orleans Jazz Band of Cologne is unknown, but their music is a blast.
Two to avoid: Dallas String Quartet: A Very Merry Christmas Ugh. Awful sound and cheesy melodies. Joe Stilgoe's Christmas Album Welcome to a second-rate Sinatra trying to sound way cooler than he really is.