Music/Popular Culture

This year’s new Christmas albums

Rather than re-do a cornucopia of posts on how much Christmas music is out there, and how much I like a lot of it, this year I’ll just review the albums I picked up to add to the mindnumbingly-growing collection of Christmas music that clutters up the flat. This way I only have to do one post, rather than 21, which did get a bit tedious, I admit. Feel free to refer to last year’s list if you’re interested in delving further. Anyway, we have a couple of treats this year—out of seven albums I picked up, one is superb, and the rest range from “pretty good” to “OK, I listed to that, but I may not listen to it again.” Which isn’t bad for seven albums picked on a variety of bases, ranging from ecstatic reviews that turned out to be all wet, to personal preference for the groups in question.

Topping the list is the new Christmas album by Anonymous 4, one of the more widely followed classical vocal groups, who have sold seventy zillion albums of chants over the past two decades. Many of these earlier albums were Christmas-oriented, but their most outright Christmas album up to this year, Wolcum Yule, mostly British and Celtic carols from the 17th century, I actually didn’t care for all that much. Whatever the reason—a mismatch between vocal styles and the song selection, or what—the album just didn’t work very well. It needed more oomph, not something this group is known for. I’m happy to say that the new one—The Cherry Tree—is a considerable improvement, and survives multiple listening quite well, largely because the song selection is a better fit with the group’s elegant style. It’s more of a mix—there are a bunch of 14th and 15th century chants and early songs, mixed in with more recent efforts, and by and large they all work. Like the previous effort, the songs mostly come from English sources, or else from America—but of course, these came from somewhere else first, in this case mostly England. Not everything works—The Cherry Tree Carol sounds a bit too country-ish for my taste—but this is a small quibble in light of the quality of performance that dominates the album. If we assigned stars, this would get five. If you only get one new album this year, this is the one to get.

The other choral album we picked up was Stile Antico’s Puer natus est, a collection of Christmas works by Tudor composers in England. These are all superb works, many of which have been covered by other groups, and it’s not clear that Stile Antico actually brings anything new to the plate here in terms of performance—although the program order is close to perfect. This is a group I have come to admire over the past several years—they’re young, and their other albums are superb, especially Music for Compline and Song of Songs. For all the technical precision that the group brings (and they sing without a conductor), for some reason Puer natus est is a bit flat. I suspect in part this comes from the rather muddy recording Harmonia Mundi has made here—it’s not nearly as clear and bright as their usual product. The balance is fine—but the quality of the individual parts sometimes gets lost. This is unfortunate, because one of the factors that makes Stile Antico interesting, in addition to the stunningly beautiful voices they bring, is their willingness to bring more inflection than other groups to the music they sing—as opposed to, say, The Tallis Scholars, who pretty much sing everything the same way. But much of that seems to be lost in this recording, sadly. So a “pretty good” for this one—the music is lovely, especially Thomas Tallis’s seven part Christmas Mass, and Robert White’s Magnificat. And the liner notes by Matthew O’Donovan are fantastic. I should note that the reviews for this disc are uniformly ecstatic, so you don’t necessarily need to take my word for anything.

Moving on to another genre entirely, we picked up a couple of new English folk Christmas albums. Well, not new, since some have been around for a while, and we’re just getting to them. Readers of last year’s posts will recall some harsh commentary on the Celtic Christmas boondoggle, and I pulled out my copy of the Windham Hill Celtic Christmas the other night for a listen, and remembered why I said everything that I said. The new English albums this year—An English Folk Christmas, by some interesting people (more below), and two Christmas albums by Coope, Boyes and Simpson. These are all straight ahead Christmas folk songs, many of which go back generations and even centuries. A major difference between the CBS albums and the first one is that CBS invariably sing a capella—no instruments of any kind. The produces an occasionally harsh and raucous sound that needs some getting used to at times, because they don’t really modulate much at all. It’s just three guys getting up and singing flat out. But the harmonies are gorgeous, and the spirit is great. They’ve been doing this for nearly two decades now, and boy do they know what they’re doing. The two I picked up—A Garland of Carols, from 1998, and Voices at the Door: Midwinter Songs and Carols, from 2006, will wake you up, and make you want to go grab a pint and keep dancing. This is not gentle, melodic singing—it’s what you would likely hear if three good voices started singing in a pub.

A similar anarchic spirit pervades An English Folk Christmas. This has one singer—Ian Giles—and a superb instrumental group consisting of Jon Boden and John Spiers (who have toured as a duo for years, and more recently founded Bellowhead, a folk-based big band), and Giles Lewin. A pretty first string line-up. This was actually released several years ago, back when they were all younger. It has the same spirit as the CBS albums—straight-up singing, and simple instrumental arrangements, to let the power of the songs themselves come through. These are mostly traditional carols here—the album opens with Good King Wenceslaus, for example—mixed up with a smattering of some purely English carols. Great fun, goes well with a pint, and if it’s not quite up there with The Albion Christmas Band, what is?

Then, sadly, on to the other two–or the first one, anyway. I had high hopes for both of these, having been released by two pretty highly acclaimed female singer-songwriters, Tori Amos and Thea Gilmore (who is probably not very well known in the US, but these things happen). Both put out Christmas albums in 2009, but I didn’t get around to them until this year. And both received ecstatic reviews, all over the place. It’s hard to find a negative review of the Amos album, for example—I looked. Well, you can find a couple of one-star reviews on Amazon, but that’s hardly unusual. Which just goes to show that reviewers can delude themselves mightily. Amos’s Midwinter Graces is in the style of many of her recent albums. So, full disclosure—I liked Amos’s first album quite a lot, but, you know, that was a while ago, and now I’m not exactly a fan. And this album points up the reasons—the overwrought songwriting, the overwrought arrangements, the ridiculous CD cover, adorned with Amos descending, angel-like, presumably, from the sky, golly, with an angel next to her. It’s hard, I admit, to tell whether this is supposed to be a goof. But listening to the arrangements, and the singing, I’m fully sympathetic to the Amazon reviewer who couldn’t listen to the whole album. (Like me, a fan of her early work only.) Soporific is the word that comes to mind, and that’s not a word one would associate with Amos’s early stuff. Actually, one of the reasons I bought the album was because I thought she was doing The Roche’s Star of Wonder—but it’s not, it’s her own song. Fool me once etc.

Gilmore’s Strange Communion is a considerably better–in fact, very good–effort, and I would recommend it to all the disappointed Amos fans as an example of what a songwriter can do when they mean it. Actually, I’d give the points to Gilmore anyway, since the cover art is quite lovely, with not a picture of Gilmore in sight. It’s not perfect, by any means—there are one or two draggy pieces, and one of the songs, Yoko Ono’s Listen to the Snow (which seems to be everyone’s favorite song on the album) immediately conjured up images of Listen to the Flower People, from Spinal Tap. I couldn’t help it. But overall it’s a significant effort—it’s hard to write a new Christmas song that actually is different, given that everyone tries to do it. The last really good new one, I would submit, was in fact the The Roche’s Star of Wonder. Gilmour has a couple here that could turn into old chestnuts at some point, particularly “That’ll be Christmas”—we’ll see. I’ll be listening to it a lot more than the Amos, that’s for sure. The opener—Sol Invictus, a winter chant, sung a capella with a background choir—is a stunner. And a number of the songs are more pagan-influenced than Christmas-oriented, but that just fits nicely into the old English pagan tradition of celebrating winter as the harbinger of Spring. I’m cool with that. If not perfect, Gilmore’s Strange Communion is at least interesting, and bears repeated listening, which is a lot more than you can say, sadly, about Amos’s effort.

So, another year, another couple of good albums. Really, you never know with these things. I’m still listening to all my favorites—Christmas music time around here runs from Thanksgiving through Twelfth Night, so there’s plenty of time. We were off to a concert of Christmas music last night, in fact–Jonathan Cohen’s annual Christmas sing-along, without which the Christmas season would not be complete.

And on a related note, some fans of the final post from last year’s series (Number 21) have posted a message, that I will pass on in its entirety for those who are interested (without any comment one way or the other, since I haven’t heard it yet, but it’s a nice gesture):

My sister Sue (affectionately called Sooz) and I compiled our own version of A Nonesuch Christmas from MP3s — we call it A NanSooz Christmas. I’ll be happy to send our Windows Media Player playlist to anyone who requests it via email. Then you’ll have all the artist/album information you need to find and purchase the MP3s online, and burn your own CD.

BTW, there are a couple of extra Daniel Speer fanfares on our version — they were too good not to include.
Best to all,
Nancy Peress

And a Merry Christmas to all!

Categories: Music/Popular Culture