By the time you read this column, you might already be burned out on Christmas music, and we’re just now actually getting into the season! And that’s a shame because Christmas music can get us as much into the spirit as the colorful lights and decorations, Advent wreaths and calendars, and, of course, cookies.
If you’re looking to give your ears a rest from the Christmas standards played on the radio but are still hungry for sounds of the season, here’s a list to help you along.
George Winston: December
For a quiet, pensive start to your Advent, take a listen to master pianist George Winston’s 1982 album December. Part Christmas music, part ode to the stark beauty of winter, December brings a nice balance to the more festive tunes of the season with a healthy dose of introspection. Winston opts for restraint and simplicity in his delivery, allowing the beauty of the melodies to blossom in their own space. His “Variations on the Kanon by Pachelbel” is a stellar example of Winston’s inimitable style.
Lo-fi rockers from Duluth, Minnesota, originally released this mini album in 1999 as a gift to fans attending their concerts. Now available on CD, vinyl, and streaming, Christmas features five originals and three covers, including a spectacular and haunting take on “Little Drummer Boy.”
Cavernous drums and a droning organ are the backdrop for the vocal duet of Low’s husband and wife songwriters, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. Another highlight on this short but memorable album is the opener, “Just Like Christmas,” which is about as upbeat as you’ll ever hear this typically low-key group.
Johnny Cash: The Christmas Spirit
Although he had a reputation for being an outlaw and was known as the Man in Black, Johnny Cash’s devout faith was always deeply connected to his music. The Christmas Spirit (1963) shows a softer and more playful side to the country legend. In his version of “Silent Night,” Cash sings in a hushed tone, almost as if he is there with the baby Jesus in the manger, singing the newborn a lullaby.
Various Artists: A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector
Rounding out this list is legendary (and now infamous) producer Phil Spector’s 1963 Christmas album, which features multiple numbers from Darlene Love, the Ronettes, and the Crystals. Just how good is this set of holiday tunes? Brian Wilson, the songwriting genius behind the Beach Boys, called it his favorite album of all time, placing the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at number two. It’s also included in Robert Dimery’s book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. From beginning to end, the album simply brims with an unabashed and sincere Christmas joy, propelled by rock ’n’ roll energy and Spector’s Wall of Sound production.