Front-liners in the battle against the so-called "War on Christmas" would probably have my head for my use of "Holiday" over "Christmas," except that I intentionally lump music during this time of year into a well-rounded category that includes Christmas and what can only be described as Solstice (or freezing bloody cold) music. I haven't checked lately, but "Frosty" and "Jingle Bells" don't mention Christmas, and the latter was actually written for Thanksgiving!
I'm not a music critic, and we don't own a huge collection of holiday music, but I know what I like and what I don't like:
- Traditional music done in non-traditional arrangements, but not so bizarre that you wouldn't play it with company around. M-Pact's version of the "Little Drummer Boy" on their "Carol Commission" album is a perfect example of "Wow, this is a cool arrangement!"
- Artists who just mail in a Christmas album should be forced to listen to the Chipmunks on a loop. Clay Aiken's, although wildly popular and well-reviewed, was simply an exercise in rehashing the standards with nothing more than Clay's unique vocal styling. (Besides, the CD is DRM-locked!) Raul Malo came dangerously close with his Amazon exclusive CD this year, and N-Sync's "Home for Christmas" was banned from my stereo shortly after it arrived.
- New-Age renditions (Windham Hill and Narada) of traditional music is always a winner for me, but again, it has to be pleasing to hear when company is over.
- "Raffi's Christmas Album" - A kid's album? Absolutely. Part of the joy of this time of year is children's wonder as we've brainwashed them into the Legend of Santa. This album has it all: accompanying children's voices, great tunes, and a happy but reflective tone. "Must Be Santa" always makes me chuckle, "Petit Papa Noel" and "Old Toy Trains" (a Roger Miller classic which is sadly overlooked) will flood anyone with nostalgia of Christmas' long ago.
- "Christmas Island" by Jimmy Buffett, one of the most under-appreciated artists of the last twenty years. As usual, you should have a tropical drink in your hand when listening, and there's nothing too serious here, although his version of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" comes across with more sincerity than most artists'. "A Sailor's Christmas" and "Mele Kalikimaka" should be standards.
- "Have Yourself a Tractor's Christmas" was an instant classic when it came out, primarily due to their self-cover with "Santa Claus Is Comin' (In a Boogie Woogie Choo-Choo Train)." But the recurring theme of the holidays viewed by those who are down, out, and alone (but still hope for better days) resonates with "Shelter," "Christmas is Comin'," "Baby Wanna Be By You," and the fine finale, "Silent Night, Christmas Blue." After all, we've all had a Christmas when we were stuck somewhere away from where we wanted to be?
- "December" by George Winston. The perfect album for listening to on a cold, dreary day.
- "A Winter's Solstice: Windham Hill Artists," the original, is apparently out of print, but it lacks the overstretching of the genre by the later installments in the series.