It's Hard To Be Merry When My Ears Are Bleeding

By Betsy Bradford

Ah, Christmas. That magical time of year when we deck our halls, revel in the company of the people we love most, and assault our eardrums with the worst music known to mankind. You can scarcely go out in public without being bombarded by out of tune children's choirs massacring a favorite carol or Mannheim Steamroller's latest yuletide desecration. If typical Christmas music doesn't encourage you to keep a pair of earplugs in your pocket, I don't know what will.

People, it doesn't have to be this way! In fact, if you know where to look, listening to Christmas music can actually enhance your holiday celebrations. Good holiday music (yes, Virginia, it does exist) will mix tradition with new sounds, will capture the mood of the season, and will make the perfect complement to any holiday celebration. In case you don't know where to start, here are a few of my favorites (with links to the CDs or MP3s on Amazon):

Christmas and A Fresh Aire Christmas by Mannheim Steamroller

Maybe I'm starting here because I feel guilty about that desecration comment. While Mannheim Steamroller has been phoning it in for years, these two albums are worthy of a spot on anyone's holiday shelf. Mannheim Steamroller's strength has always been their blending of contemporary and classical music, and in Christmas and A Fresh Aire Christmas, Mannheim Steamroller skillfully navigates both ends of this spectrum. I defy anyone to say that Good King Wenceslas doesn't rock! But then you get the mellifluous brass quintet on Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming, or a recorder consort on God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, which then transitions into a modern, up-tempo arrangement of the same song. If you're only acquainted with later Steamroller albums, you owe it to yourself to check these two out.

A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio

If you don't already know this album, shame on you! I have heard it so many times it could almost fade into the background if it weren't so gosh-darned good.

A Charlie Brown Christmas was the first television appearance of the Peanuts gang, accompanied by music from the Vince Guaraldi Trio, including the famous Linus and Lucy. There isn't a single bad track on this album, and for so many of us, it conjures childhood memories. If you don't own this album, go buy it. Now.

Yulestride by Butch Thompson

Admittedly, this is a weird one. I would advise listening to it before you buy it, but you just might like it. Butch Thompson is a ragtime and jazz pianist and formerly a regular on A Prairie Home Companion. As the title implies, this is an album of Christmas music played in the "stride" style, a style of jazz piano with an emphasis on the bass line while making use of virtuosic piano techniques, including a wide pitch range and complex polyrhythms.

This album is Fats Waller meets the baby Jesus, and what a happy meeting it is! If you feel that your standard Christmas songs are hackneyed and over-done, check out this album. It will breathe new life into Deck the Halls and The First Noel. Whether you love it or hate it, I can guarantee that it's like nothing you've heard before.

Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity by John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers

In all likelihood, if you know John Rutter, right now you're imagining something bombastic, tacky, or maybe both. You're not wrong, dear readers, but rest assured that none of those tracks are on this album. In fact, Rutter composed only three of the 22 tracks on this album. The album as a whole showcases many traditional but lesser known carols, such as The Cherry Carol or Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day, predominantly a cappella. The few original compositions on the album, such as Rutter’s Christmas Night, are simple with gentle string orchestrations. As a result, this album nullifies some of Rutter’s more earsplitting work and reminds listeners why we liked Christmas music to begin with.

New Age Christmas Music: Christmas by Philip Aaberg and The Gift by Liz Story

These albums are holiday staples for me. Both albums are primarily solo piano music (some of Liz Story's tracks include double bass), both are performed by pianists affiliated with Windham Hill, and both present a mix of traditional and unusual or original Christmas music in a refreshing and highly listenable manner.

I am well aware that there are many detractors of New Age music. All too often, audiophiles dismiss the genre as muzak or wallpaper music. My counter-argument: don't you sometimes need music that fades quietly into the background? Aren't there times that you'd rather have music that enhances your mood, rather than defining it or detracting from it? Christmas and The Gift both capture the quiet, reflective aspects of the season, making ideal background music that runs counter to the louder, in-your-face holiday music that has become all too common.

Both Aaberg and Story perform some well-known Christmas tunes, such as I Saw Three Ships or Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Aaberg adds some of his own compositions, such as Montana Sleighride, and Story showcases some lesser known tunes, including Pange Lingua and We'll Dress This House. The arrangements are deceptively simple, boasting complex harmonies and counterpoint, while remaining unimposing. Both records make a welcome inclusion to anyone's holiday celebrations.

Before you reach for Raffi or Sinatra again this holiday, I encourage you to explore other options, such as the albums listed above. All are available through Amazon and iTunes, so you can listen to samples before purchasing.

I believe that Christmas music should enhance the season and help your celebration, not make you beg for mercy and count the days until the season ends. Look around. You might be surprised by what you find.