Christmas Music and the Soundtrack of Your Life

Everyone’s life has a soundtrack. It’s what you listen to when you’re gearing up to clean the house on a Saturday morning or go for a drive.  It’s the album you play when you’re walking to work, making out or doing the dishes. It’s the singing in church, chanting in prayer, drumming in celebration, tolling bells in reverie.

If we are lucky, music surrounds us. If we lack the sound of music, we are deprived.

When I was a university student living on Portugal Cove Road in Newfoundland for some reason there was a period of time when the stereo was upstairs in the living room. It usually resided downstairs in the so-called rec (wreck?) room, which Dad built when we got too loud and loutish to be around regular people.

But when the stereo was in the living room, my older brother started a tradition of playing a kick-off song to get us going in the morning while we were waiting to head out to class, or wherever, for the day.

The kick-off selection might be anything. Matty Groves by Fairport Convention. I Can See for Miles by The Who. Dear Mr. Fantasy by Traffic. And it was always played very loud. Five minutes of Gatorade before Gatorade was born.

When I got to choose, I picked, more often than not, Racing in the Street by Bruce Springsteen. I loved the haunting piano and the yearning lyrics:

For all the shut down strangers and hot rod angels/Rumbling through this promised land/Tonight my baby and me, we’re gonna ride to the sea/And wash these sins off our hands.

But there was a bonus. My mother liked the song. She’d smile a little when she heard the opening piano chords. Lord knows why. Maybe she liked the piano. Maybe she felt yearning too. Maybe it wasn’t Court of the Crimson King. Maybe because our front yard was filled with cars and trucks, she identified with the opening lyrics:

I got a sixty-nine Chevy with a 396/Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor/ She’s waiting tonight down in the parking lot/ Outside the Seven-Eleven store

But because she liked it, it gave me more motivation to play it as the day’s kick-off song. And starting your day with the metaphor of racing in the street makes sense in a way, even now.

It’s a funny thing how certain pieces of music stake out a place in your heart that way. Because years later, about seven years later, in fact, when I received the news, by telephone, that my mother had died earlier in the evening, I remember my arms and hands hanging heavy and limp at my sides when I put down the phone. I think I was in shock, but I remember quite deliberately walking over to the stereo, taking out Darkness on the Edge of Town and playing Racing in the Street. Over and over and over again. Whatever it was about that song, it conjured up the memory of Mom’s little smile. And, now of course, it had the added yearning for her presence that I’d no longer feel in person.

Tonight, tonight the strip’s just right/I want to blow ’em all out of their seats/Calling out around the world, we’re going racin’ in the street.

All this personal revelation to show how deeply felt the connection to our music is, and to help me set up a few thoughts on the seasonal music we choose to surround to ourselves with at Christmas.

That is to say, just to be clear, not the music that surrounds us in the elevator, on the radio, through department stores PA systems starting from mid-November—the Christmas songs that serve to irritate at best.

What I’m talking about is the music we decide to put on when we are home together with our family or just by ourselves at this time of year. When the dust settles, the gifts bought, we start eating good food and drinking fun drinks.   What music do we decide to play to mark the magnificence of a holiday occasion that has the power for one evening and one day to quiet the busiest of cities?

There is whole canon of beautiful Christmas music to choose from: from the sacred to jazz, blues, Motown, country. And some of this stuff is really good. Tremendously good, in fact.

Your might have favourites. I’d love to hear about them if you do. Or you might not partake in the Christmas music bonanza at all. Either way here are a few of mine that will be played over the next week. And they’ll be played most joyously by me at this time of the year when we can celebrate light over darkness, good over evil and love over loneliness.

Here are my Top Ten Christmas Album picks:

220px-the_bells_of_dublin

#1 – The Chieftains, The Bells of Dublin

This one is the first one played and signifies the beginning of the season. With The Wren In The Furze, The Boar’s Head Carol and O The Holly She Bears A Berry, sung by Paddy Moloney, you’ve got your kick-off taken care of.

 

#charlie-brown2 – Vince Guaraldi Trio, A Charlie Brown’s Christmas
There’s not much to say about this one, except it is the soundtrack to the most popular Christmas animated movie in the history of humankind, which was released in 1964. If you are wondering what to put on, it will never let you down, and you can hear something to love about it with every listen. Vince Guaraldi was a great musician and the soundtrack of this movie is a major factor in its continued resonance.

 

sumi-jo-christmas#3 Sumi Jo – The Christmas Album

According to Wikipedia, Sumi Jo is a “Grammy Award-winning South Korean lyric coloratura soprano known for her interpretations of the bel canto repertoire.” She is effing incredible in my books. I saw her perform at Massey Hall and was entranced. This album could be a nice gateway into her other music. Her Exsultate, jubilate here is exquisite in the extreme. And she sings the lovely carol I wonder as I wander with divine simplicity. (In my original draft of this list I actually had this album at #7, but moved it up to #3 because Sumi Jo has the potential to bring five minutes of rapture into your life.)

a_very_special_christmas-1a_very_special_christmas_2a_very_special_christmas_3

 

 

 

 

 

#4 #5 #6 – A Very Special Christmas, I (1987), 2 (1992), 3 (1997)

When the first of these Christmas compilation albums was released in 1987 on behalf of the Special Olympics, it heralded a new era of rockers (and others) doing versions of Christmas classics. Number 1, with the red cover, blasted onto our consciousness with The Pointer Sisters doing a very danceable Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Springsteen’s Merry Christmas, Baby is grand as is Run-DMC doing Christmas in Hollis. Very Special Christmas 2, with a green cover, features the swingingest version of Jingle Bell Rock I’ve ever heard and I didn’t even like this song, before Randy Travis took this turn with it. Nancy and Ann Wilson’s take on Blue Christmas will make you say Elvis Who. Sinéad O’Connor singing I Believe in You is a tour de force. Very Special Christmas 3, with a gold cover, is worth the price of admission for the Smashing Pumpkins’ Christmas Time and Patti Smith doing We Three Kings. But there are a few duds on these albums too, including Michael Bolton’s White Christmas and, sadly, Aretha Franklin’s version of O Christmas Tree is frightful, which only goes to show she’s human.

noteworthy-christmas#7 – A Noteworthy Christmas

This album was conceived as a fundraiser for Frontier College, a literacy organization with ties across the country, in the early 1990s. It features some of the country’s best choirs: from Vancouver Children’s Choir doing Sound of the Trumpet to the Chor Leoni Men’s Choir doing a suitably robust version of Gaudete. This is hard to find now and is selling on Amazon for $45.

 

david-willcocks#8 – David Willcocks: Bach Choir, The World Of Christmas Carols

Sir David Willcocks passed away in 2015 aged 95. A comment on his obituary in The Telegraph called him the most influential choirmaster of his generation. He spent 17 years as director of music at King’s College, Cambridge, and 38 years in charge of the Bach Choir. This recording is what you’d expect from a dedicated choirmaster like Willcocks. His Sussex Carol is bouncy, bright and beautiful. In Dulci Jubilo is melodic and precise. The whole album … well… it sings.

yule-be-swinging#9 – Yule B’ Swingin’

Released in 1998, the one is for people who may feel they’ve been born into the wrong era. Louis Prima starts things out with What Will Santa Claus Say When He Finds Everybody Swinging? Louis Armstrong & The Commanders follows it with Cool Yule. Then The Glenn Miller Band does its take on Jingle Bells. Nancy Wilson treats us to a thirsty, craving version of What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? (How under rated is Nancy Wilson? So very.)

al_di_meola_winter_lights#10 – Al Di Meola, Winter Nights

American jazz musician, Al Di Meola, released this album in 1999. It’s an incredible piece of work and although it contains a few traditional Christmas songs like Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, he covers Scarborough Fair and Greensleeves with crisp, Latin-infused, wintery guitar and maracas. It’s a bit of a masterpiece and great to listen to at night.

Now, there you have it. Your Working Girl’s top ten Christmas albums.

Merry Christmas, dearest Gentle Readers. I think you are great.

YWG

Author Photo 01 Sandy Tam PhotographyGail Picco is a strategist and nonprofit executive who has worked in the charity sector for 25 years, most of which as President of Gail Picco Associates. Prior to establishing Gail Picco Associates, she spent eight years working in a shelter for assaulted women and children. She is the author of What the Enemy Thinks, a recent novel set in the nonprofit sector, of Your Working Girl, a blog of memoir and commentary on politics, charity and popular culture, and writes a regular column for Hilborn Charity News. She is a Principal with The Osborne Group in Toronto and Chair of the Regent Park Film Festival.

 

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