As a musician, the one thing that sets my nerves on edge during the holiday season is the seemingly endless loop of canned music played in most public places. There are days when I grit my teeth and think, “If I hear the Johnny Mathis recording of ‘Sleigh Ride’ just once more…” The trouble is, most commercial playlists are curated to be safe and uncontroversial, but end up being boring, bland and mind-numbingly repetitive. My musical training and tastes run the gamut from classical to popular, so this “Top 10” list does, too. Happy listening!
by Benjamin Britten
This is a suite of 11 pieces for treble choir and harp. The texts come from old English poems. The combined sound of the high voices, harp and odd (yet familiar) Middle English language is absolutely haunting.
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside”
by Frank Loesser
Frank Loesser was not yet famous for writing “Guys & Dolls” when he composed this witty duet, which he used to sing with his wife at holiday parties. Over the past 72 years, it hasn’t lost a bit of appeal, and two of my favorite versions are by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, and the one that appears on Nnenna Freelon’s “Christmas” album, where her vocal partner is also the bandleader, John Brown. For extra giggles, check out the version performed by Miss Piggy and Rudolf Nureyev!
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”
by Hugh Martin
The classic movie “Meet Me in St. Louis” is justifiably famous for its wonderful music, and to me this song is the standout. Once again, it’s a song that’s been recorded hundreds of times, but to my mind nothing will ever touch the quivering simplicity of the original, sung by a young (only 22!) Judy Garland to her heartbroken little sister in the movie, Margaret O’Brien.
by James Lord Pierpont
You will win at “Holiday Trivia” by knowing that (A) “Jingle Bells” was actually written by someone and isn’t just a “traditional” tune, and (B) it was also the first song broadcast from space (in 1965, performed by the crew of Gemini 6). Because I was raised on Sinatra recordings,I’ve always had a fondness for his version, which appears on “A Jolly Christmas.” Yes, there’s a rather cheesy chorus that sings along with him, but the arrangement is very clever and, of course, it is Frank.
by the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra (after Tchaikovsky)
Even a great work like “The Nutcracker” can get old after the 1000th go-round. So if you’ve heard the standard version once too often, listen to Tchaikovsky’s immortal ballet music as reinterpreted by this virtuosic Klezmer sextet (clarinet, trombone, tuba, accordion, banjo and drums).
“Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol”
by Jule Styne (music) and Bob Merrill (lyrics)
It’s the Dickens story that never grows old, because it’s got good guys, bad guys, pathos, ghosts, a setting in old London and redemption at the end. The version starring Michael Caine and The Muppets has the best visuals, but I think the music from this very basic cartoon with Mr. Magoo as Scrooge is far superior. Perhaps that’s because Styne and Merrill went on to international fame when they created “Funny Girl” in 1964.
“Twisted Christmas,” “More Twisted Christmas” and “Chipmunks Roasting on an Open Fire”
by Bob Rivers
Musical parodies have a long history, and the best of them can leave you weeping with laughter. This Christmas trilogy of CDs includes “Wreck the Malls,” “It’s the Most Fattening Time of the Year” and many others to lighten your spirits after too much holiday mayhem.
by various artists
If you just want great background music while you cook, wrap, entertain or relax, this is the perfect compilation. I’ve owned it for years and never tire of the easy interpretations. My favorite cuts are “Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming” by the brilliant composer/pianist Dave Grusin and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” by that master of the soprano sax, Kenny G.
Soundtrack to “The Snowman”
by Howard Blake
“The Snowman” is a famous children’s picture book published in 1978. It tells the story of a boy, the snowman he creates and the magical journey they take together one night to visit Father Christmas. A movie adaptation by the BBC in 1982 features a luscious, atmospheric score to go with the wordless animation. In fact, it was nominated for the Best Animated Short Film Oscar that year. Relaxing, gorgeous and evocative.
“The Wexford Carol”
sung by Julie Andrews
The star of Broadway’s “My Fair Lady” and “Camelot” and Hollywood’s “Mary Poppins” was at the height of her fame when she recorded this traditional Irish carol for an album put out by the Firestone Company for its employees and customers. Her clear, expressive, bell-like voice is perfectly complemented by the lush orchestration and the medieval feel of the old carol.