More Essential Tracks of Christmas: “Emmanuel/Little Town/Christmas Hymn,” by Amy Grant

So last year I did this thing called “The Twelve Essential Tracks of Christmas,” and people seemed to like it, so I thought I’d add a few more every year. I can’t guarantee there won’t be fewer than or more than twelve more, hence the open-ended title. Anyway, these are more tunes without which my Christmas still really isn’t complete. They were brutally cut out of the final edit for The Twelve. So, consider this the expanded edition.

This installment might be considered cheating, because it’s a threefer. From Amy Grant’s first Christmas album (simply titled A Christmas Album), these three songs are strung together in a continuous sequence: Michael W. Smith’s hit “Emmanuel,” a different take on “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and a joint collab between him and Amy on a modern “Christmas Hymn.” The editing is so seamless, and all three so good, that I thought, heck, why not just find the gapless version on Youtube, feature that and call it a day? My personal favorite is “Christmas Hymn.” It’s an underrated, beautifully written classic not unlike something the Gettys might craft today.

A note on “Emmanuel”: Every single year we pull this one out, my family and I can’t help noticing its rather embarrassing (awesome? embarrassingly awesome?) similarity to the soundtrack for Ladyhawke. We couldn’t get through a workout to it yesterday without adding a running commentary of quotes from the movie. And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, neither you nor your parents grew up in the 80s. Or if you did, this essential piece of 80s pop culture somehow flew (*cough*) under your radar. Here, let me fix that for you…

Have some more 80s kitsch lurking in the attic of your memory that you can’t quite identify? Call now at 1-800-PLACETHATSYNTH. That’s 1-800-PLACETHATSYNTH. Our operators solemnly swear to spin nothing but Mannheim Steamroller for your Muzak-listening pleasure while on coffee break.


The Twelve Essential Tracks of Christmas, Day 12: Haven of Rest Quartet’s “As With Gladness”

First, my inner Anglican has to apologize—technically this final track is not a Christmas song but an Epiphany song. However, I’ve attempted to appease my Anglican spirit by pushing this to the very end of my series, looking forward to Epiphany as we say goodbye to Christmas.

Many of you are probably unfamiliar with this hymn, but you’re no doubt quite familiar with another carol written by the same author, William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898). It was he who gave us the classic “What Child Is This?” Interestingly, I read that he wrote many of his hymns confined to his bed as a young man with a near-fatal illness. “What Child Is This” came from that period. This song came from an even earlier period of illness, when he was only 22. Strange to think that we could have been brother and sister. It certainly goes to show how the quality of writing in the younger generation has declined down through the years. Just take a look at the last verse:

Holy Jesus, every day

Keep us in the narrow way.

And when earthly things are past,

Bring our ransomed souls at last

Where they need no star to guide,

Where no clouds thy glory hide.

You might recognize the melody. It was written a few decades before Dix by Konrad Kocher and is better known as the tune to “For the Beauty of the Earth.”

This recording by the Haven of Rest Quartet is the only professional “artist cut” of the hymn that I know of (i.e., besides faceless chorale singers). It’s very hard to find, so I put it onto my Youtube channel. The quality could be better, but the arrangement shines through despite the graininess. The album it comes from (Sounds of Christmas) is one of my all-time favorite Christmas records, and I think you’ll see why I consider this track essential. Trivia tidbit: Long-time member and arranger Walt Harrah sings the tenor solo. Harrah is the writer of the David Phelps sugar stick “No More Night.”

Enjoy, and thanks for coming along on this series with me!

The Twelve Essential Tracks of Christmas, Day 11: David Phelps’ “O Holy Night”

It’s the penultimate day of our series, and I have saved the best for near-last! “O Holy Night” is quite possibly my favorite Christmas carol, but it’s hard to do it justice. On the one hand, it really needs the no-holds-barred, all stops pulled out treatment. On the other hand, singers with the technical  chops to get it done vocally are tempted to lapse into mere vocal showboating (paging Mariah Carey, Mariah Carey).

In my opinion, David Phelps’s version walks that fine line perfectly, resulting in a recording that is definitely a must for any Christmas collection. Anthony Burger on piano is certainly an added benefit. Without further ado, I present…

David Phelps’s “O Holy Night”

The Twelve Essential Tracks of Christmas, Day 10: Mannheim Steamroller’s “Silent Night”

Mannheim Steamroller’s last entry in this series was their rockin’ “Good King Wenceslas.” But Mannheim Steamroller can do much more than just rock out. This closer from their debut album is far and away their best mellow cut. The background “oooohs” are clear and unpretentious behind the haunting opening bars on piano. Then around 2:00 is where the arrangement really transcends, at the entry of the violin. The rest is pure magic, with dry ice at the end to remind us that yes, this is still the 80s.

The Twelve Essential Tracks of Christmas, Day 9: Take 6’s “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”

Happy New Year Everybody! We are starting to wrap up (har-har) our Twelve Essential Tracks of Christmas, with yet a third men’s acappella entry. Clearly I am partial to men’s acappella singing! However, the styles of acappella have definitely not been the same. Day 1 was pop acappella in the tradition of the Nylons, Day 7 was classical acappella, and today I’m featuring jazz acappella. And when it comes to jazz acappella, critical consensus seems to be that all other groups must bow before Take 6. Now, I have to confess that I sometimes find their arrangements overly busy, which can distract from whatever song they’re performing. However, their rendition of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is tastefully simple and lush. There are still some frighteningly complex jazz chords in there, but the spirit of the carol is preserved with love. A must for any Christmas collection:

The Twelve Essential Tracks of Christmas, Day 8: Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops’ “Sleigh Ride”

Minus the cloying lyrics, the melody of “Sleigh Ride” is allowed to soar free and take on a life of its own in this definitive arrangement by Arthur Fiedler. While the pitch-perfection of the studio track may be the absolute best take, I also love to watch the orchestra at work in this clip. John Williams conducting doesn’t hurt either! Enjoy. Oh yes, and Happy New Year!

Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops’ “Sleigh Ride”

The Twelve Essential Tracks of Christmas, Day 7: “Lo, How a Rose”

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

For this selection, I was torn between two stirring acappella performances of the Michael Praetorious arrangement for this German carol. One is by an authentic Austrian quartet called Schnittpunktvokal:

The other is by the British quartet The King’s Singers. The startling purity of of David Hurley’s counter-tenor instantly leapt out and caught my attention in this version:

I couldn’t decide. So, naturally, I consulted Terry Franklin. Meanwhile, knowing that the German text has many variants and a bajillion verses to choose from, I compared rough translations of both texts used, which aren’t quite alike. Read on to find out which version I ultimately chose and why… Continue reading “The Twelve Essential Tracks of Christmas, Day 7: “Lo, How a Rose””

The Twelve Essential Tracks of Christmas, Day 5: Bing Crosby & the Andrews Sisters’ “Jingle Bells”

This track is one of my earliest memories of jazz music. The close harmonies and shimmering big band sound slipped comfortably into my toddler ears and have never gone away since. I still regard it as a model of the class and polish that epitomized jazz playing and singing. Later attempts to mimic this style have never measured up to the real thing. Where Buble and the Puppini Sisters come off smarmy and contrived, Crosby and the Andrews Sisters exude that natural, artless grace which separates a musician of his time from one merely copying what’s gone before. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s…

Bing Crosby & the Andrews Sisters’ “Jingle Bells”

The Twelve Essential Tracks of Christmas, Day 4: Matthew Ward’s “What Child Is This”

Note: I’ve noticed views are down for this series, possibly because it’s Christmas but possibly because readers might understandably feel like all they need is to find the song for themselves somewhere else. However, I’m going to be providing commentary and extra tidbits on some of these tracks, so pay attention! In particular, I’ll tease you with a promise of some performance analysis by Terry Franklin. On which day? You’ll have to wait and see.

When I first discovered that Matthew Ward had done this song, I did a happy dance. Truly, it’s difficult to do a bad version of such a great carol, but Ward does have a habit of putting lesser singers in the shade. 50-some at the time of this recording, his voice amazingly hasn’t aged a day. No further introduction is needed. Enjoy…

Matthew Ward’s “What Child is This”

The Twelve Essential Tracks of Christmas, Day 3: Mannheim Steamroller’s “Good King Wenceslas”

Happy St. Stephen’s Day, and Day 3 of our 12 Essential Tracks of Christmas! Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without this next group. Today we are climbing into our Delorean and going back to the 1984 debut of (drum roll) Mannheim Steamroller! Although they gradually ran out of, er, steam and became essentially a parody of themselves, Mannheim Steamroller Christmas remains a classic. Truth be told, I could have put half of that album into the essentials kit, but I didn’t want the list to slant too heavily towards one artist. However, this group is still the only one who will be featured twice. They had several hot contenders, but their “Good King Wenceslas” is unquestionably a must. Cranking this at full blast in a loop while doing dorky dance moves around the CD player has become something of a tradition in my family. That’s just a sign of how timeless it is. Or maybe it’s just a sign of how weird my family is. Anyhoo, here is…

Mannheim Steamroller’s “Good King Wenceslas”