Christmas music has always been my favorite thing about Christmas.
Hearing "Silver Bells" while scanning the radio or "Silent Night" while walking around a retail store is a gentle reminder that family time is near, and that always brings me a sense of peace that few other things can.
The history of Christmas music stretches back to the Dark Ages of history.
St. Francis of Assici transcribed them into common vernacular. The traditions of caroling comes from the 14th-century practice of wassailing, in which people traveled from house to house, singing and performing circle dances. The great composers Handel and Bach composed their own tributes to the holidays.
Today there have never been more options for Yuletide listening, including popular favorites from the Beach Boys, Run DMC, Bing Crosby and Burl Ives.
Below are some of my favorite holidays tunes that bring joy to my life.
Mannheim Steamroller -- A Fresh Aire Christmas
It all started with Mannheim Steamroller's rendition of "Carol of the Bells" for me. The triumphant trumpets and quick pace had me entranced as a child. Also hearing traditional Christmas music with synthesizer flourishes added a whole level of magic to the season.
It showed me that Christmas music can be whatever we make it, that it means different things to many people, and that with time, tradition changes. The clear crisp horn sounds throughout, however, maintain a foot firmly in tradition.
Also worth looking into is their driving rendition of "Deck the Halls." Also check out "Silent Night." Both of those songs are on their first album, simply titled "Christmas."
Trans-Siberian Orchestra -- Christmas Eve and Other Stories
This may have been the first album on which I was ordered to turn the volume down. When I was 9 years old and still very much in the spirit of the holidays I would blast this as the family went to setting out the decorations around the house.
My father would turn the stereo down, and as I went back to gather more garland I would sneak the volume back up a couple of decibels. That battle over Christmas music volume will always be one of my fondest memories of setting out the decorations.
Some of the standouts from the album are a Christmas medley titled "A Mad Russian's Christmas" and "The Prince of Peace." This album makes a case for rock drums and metal guitar having a permanent place in orchestras around the world. The drive and electricity they add amp up traditional tunes with energy.
Vienna Boys' Choir -- The Definitive Christmas Album
The timelessness of The Vienna Boys' Choir is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this Christmas album. Traditional horn and string ensembles accompany the choir, which has been active in one form or another in Austria since 1498.
Listening to "Hallelujah," "The First Noel" and "Hark, The Herald Angels Sing!" reminds you how eternal these songs are. They are carols people throughout Europe traveled from miles away to hear at Mass throughout the centuries.
At times, Mozart, Schubert, Bruckner and Salieri would compose songs for the choir to sing. Truly, an understated and fitting tribute to the season.
Sufjan Stevens -- Silver & Gold
This is the first Christmas music that I ever found and claimed for myself. Sufjan is known for incorporating Christian themes into his often hushed variety of indie rock, but hearing him sing Christmas standards in a folk style, with his whispery vocals and deeply earnest tone resparked a dedication to the spirit of the holiday during my teen years. He also wrote many Christmas songs of
his own, creating his own quirky songs about Christmas unicorns and dancing like elves. The five-disc box set, comprised of five Christmas EPs released between 2006 and 2010, touches on themes of family, loss, redemption, faith and friendship. The styles range from traditional to an odd, spacey version of "I'll Be Home For Christmas." Other standouts include "Barcelona (You Must Be a Christmas Tree)," "Lumberjack Christmas/No One Can Save You from Christmases Past" and "Do You Hear What I Hear?" This is a truly modern and one-of-a-kind Christmas album with plenty of tradition to anchor it to the season.
The Oh Hellos -- The Oh Hellos' Family Christmas Album
A new addition to the Christmas song tradition, this short album includes four original compositions that at times pay tribute to and incorporate classic songs. Opener "Rejoice! Rejoice!" starts as a pensive meditation on "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" before erupting near the end in a bombastic bridge about King Herod, before leading into a hummed rendition of "Hark, The Herald Angels Sing!"
Extensive use of harmonies, banjo, violin, plucked guitar and accordion give the sound of this brief album a primitive, Americana-like feel. Another track, "Begin and Never Cease," combines "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks" with various other carols in a roots-rock style that will appeal to any fan or Mumford and Sons or Of Monsters and Men.
A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector -- Various Artists
A classic collection of secular Christmas standards given Phil Spector's then-innovative Wall of Sounds treatment. The dense and warm production and driving percussion of "Frosty the Snowman" and performed by The Ronettes adds urgency, punch and soul to an otherwise simple children's song.
The Ronettes also pull off a classic orchestral pop rendition of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." The lush strings and deep, reedy bass tones are classic Spector and a clear influence on Brian Wilson, who has called this album his favorite of all time.
Darline Love's impassioned vocals on "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" create a soul Christmas classic that manages to capture the joy and sadness of having someone during the holidays, but being apart from them. The bright chimes and tinkling bells add a since of drama to the whole composition. Her version of "Winter Wonderland," with its catchy harmony and galloping woodblock flawlessly evokes images of winter.
A Motown Christmas (1999) - Various Artists
This compilation kicks off with the Jackson 5's rollicking funky version of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" with little Michael's voice as clear and innocent as ever. Hearing the lyrics sung with the excitement of a child and the energy of funk makes for a truly unique take on the song.
The Supremes version of "My Favorite Things" contains a jazzy optimism about the season with a swinging vibraphone part and a magnificent performance by a in-her-prime Diana Ross. Their rendition of "Silver Bells" later on the album is also noteworthy.
The real standout for me is Marvin Gaye's "I Want To Come Home For Christmas." A song sung passionately from the point of view of a prisoner of war who longs to know how his family is doing on Christmas. The thought of a grown man longing to see Santa Claus and hear "Jingle Bells" emphasizes the importance of spending time with family during the holidays. It reminds us to remember the season's message of peace.
Vince Guaraldi Trio -- A Charlie Brown Christmas
Yet another essential expansion of Christmas music's constraints. Hearing the classic "Christmastime is Here" automatically takes me back to a younger age, sitting on the floor in my livingroom watching the annual "A Charlie Brown Christmas" special on television, my Grandmother quietly reading on the couch behind me.
Personal connections aside, the slow shuffle pacing of "Christmastime is Here" and the trailing piano makes for the perfect song for anyone who sometimes feels melancholic during the holidays. After all, Christmas often marks the end of the year and notes a time of reflection.
Guaraldi's take on "O Tannenbaum" starts slow but then opens into a world of jazz riffing that's a pleasant addition to a traditional carol. Allowing jazz to redefine these songs in the moment they were recorded allowed contemporary and future artists to make their own changes and impressions. His version of "Greensleeves" also is a standout.
Nate Thurman, a page designer and copy editor for the Sun Herald, writes occasional pieces on pop culture.