’Tis the season of, among other things, year-end best lists. Best books of the year, best recordings of the year, best tweets … no, please, not that. Enjoy those listicles all you like, but face it: Before we get to 2019, all of us are going to have to survive the holidays, and that means listening to music. Lots of seasonally appropriate music. “Little Drummer Boy,” anyone? I didn’t think so. That’s why this year, instead of compiling a list of my favorite new releases timed to come out between Christmas and New Year’s, I decided instead to spread what I hope is a modicum of cheer by recommending some holiday music.
Since we are all streaming these days, and pretty much everything is available that way, there’s just no excuse for replaying Burl Ives. What follows are a handful of recommendations of things that will get you through the season without either offending the guests — you’ll not find any novelties here, such as “Christmas in Jail” or “Back Door Santa.” What you will find is the kind of music that will keep you and your family and friends cozy and warm, and without having to argue about the appropriateness of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in the #MeToo era.
Recomposed by Peter Gregson: Bach – The Cello Suites (Deutsche Grammophon)
British cellist/composer Gregson had the audacity to take the Bach cello suites apart and then put them back together in these extraordinary, fascinating, listenable, and yes, even largely faithful versions for the venerable Deutsche Grammophon label. The result is striking — familiar and novel, featuring sections with as many as six cellos and others with various subtle synthesized (gasp!) supporting harmonic elements. It’s not switched on, nor was it meant to be. It is perfectly suited to the long evenings of winter solstice, so long as there are no cellists about to cry foul.
Avi Avital: Vivaldi (Deutsche Grammophon)
The Four Seasons are, by definition, always “in season,” right? Yet wait until you hear the version offered on this album by virtuoso mandolinist Avi Avital. The shape of the mandolin’s plucked note, radically different from that of the violin, gives a fresh piquancy to this sometimes overly familiar work, and Avital’s evident feeling for the structure as a whole allows it to hang together beautifully. Listening to this over the course of a leisurely holiday morning will renew your enthusiasm for music we all think we know and perhaps extend your interest into other aspects of the fabulous and considerable output of Vivaldi, who was much more than a man for four seasons.
Eric Clapton: Happy Xmas (Surf Dog)
This new record of holiday songs from Eric Clapton is his first venture into Xmas territory, and it’s excellent. He tackles mostly familiar Christmas songs without dredging up any of the really objectionable ones, and he gives them a bluesy makeover that’s at once comforting and invigorating. Some people have registered their dismay at the five-minute EDM version of “Jingle Bells” that Clapton includes as a tribute to Avicii, the young deejay who took his own life earlier this year, but I expect that a lot more people will really like it, especially after their second or third eggnog. Congratulations to Clapton for making a perfect soundtrack for any holiday party.
The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles Limited Edition Box Set (ECM)
You can’t stream this 21-CD set on Spotify, but it would make a great gift to find under the tree for any adventurous music lover who still reveres the fine art of exquisite compilation packaging. The set includes all the albums the group recorded for ECM, plus releases by Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy, Roscoe Mitchell’s Note Factory, and many other lineups. It covers the years 1978-2015 and comes with a magnificent 300-page booklet. For those who know and love the Art Ensemble’s work, it’s both a trip down memory lane and a comprehensive road map of the many other streets, avenues, and alleyways these massively influential musicians traveled on their journey.