The holiday season is here again, and it is by turns a happy, hectic, and occasionally humdrum occasion — humdrum (not just for Scrooge) undoubtedly because variety is sometimes lacking. To be sure, there’s something to be said for putting up age-worn decorations, or for dutifully tuning in to an annual showing of “Home Alone.” What better time for tradition than the holidays? But every so often, a little change is in order, too. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the songs that accompany the holiday cheer. The same playlist of songs by the same crooning artists, played on the radio over and over again. Yet there’s much more to ring in the holidays –– take instrumental holiday music, which in its wordless wonder is usually lost amid giants like Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby. So here are five instrumental holiday albums that promise a little variety this season.
5. “A Dave Brubeck Christmas” (1996)
Famed jazz pianist Dave Brubeck’s solo album is the epitome of cool jazz. It’s relaxed and unornamented. Upbeat speeds and showy improvisations are nowhere to be found. Instead, Brubeck’s arrangements are measured and, in their own way, imaginative. Brubeck experiments with intricate rhythms and colorfully warm harmonies, which he pairs with an understated playing style. His rendition of “The Christmas Song,” for example, is stirring and sensitive. The result is easy and calming listening for a cold winter day.
4. “Christmas with the Vienna Boys Choir” (2009)
Technically, this is not instrumental, but let’s count choral music anyway. The renowned Vienna Boys Choir provides a more old fashioned holiday experience. There’s “Deck the Halls” and “The Little Drummer Boy,” but the rest are mostly traditional carols. “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” (Silent Night), “Adeste Fideles” (O Come, All Ye Faithful), and many others are rendered in pitch-perfect, four-part harmony. A mix of old and new, this time-tested chorus takes listeners on a stroll through tradition to today.
3. “Joy to the World” (1992)
Leave it to John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra to ring in the holidays with a soaring array of Christmas favorites. This album is filled with modern classics and more obscure numbers, all played with the grandeur of a classical orchestra and John Williams’s characteristic cinematic flair. “White Christmas” starts intimately and ends in triumphant celebration. The classic “Sleigh Ride” (fun fact: composed by Leroy Anderson ’29) exudes a childlike glee. Williams’s own “Somewhere in my Memory” (from “Home Alone”) sparkles with warmth. In sum, “comfort and joy” is in abundance with Williams and the Boston Pops.
2. Duke Ellington’s “The Nutcracker Suite” (1960)
Tchaikovsky’s beloved ballet is a holiday staple across the world. Less so is jazz legend Duke Ellington’s take on it, but perhaps it should be. Ellington preserves Tchaikovsky’s sonorous melodies, but he isn’t afraid to re-envision them to his liking. Indeed, Ellington’s arrangements are swinging studies in musical individuality and harmonic creativity. In “Overture” or “Danse of the Floreadores” (his take on “Waltz of the Flowers”), Ellington plays with the rhythm and adds jazz-stapled harmonies. What results is an irresistible, distinctly American homage to a Russian holiday classic.
1. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965)
Parts of this album are definitely not obscure –– “Linus and Lucy” and “Christmastime is Here” are holiday staples –– but the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s whole album is worth a listen. From the swinging march of “My Little Drum” (a take on “Little Drummer Boy“) to the carefree fun of “Skating,” to the wistfulness of “The Christmas Song,” Guaraldi brings Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, and all the rest to life. What’s more, he evokes a wealth of feelings that encompass the very spirit of the holidays. For listeners, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” will induce a dreamy reminisce to the simple nostalgic story of its namesake and to real, or imagined, days of yore.
—Staff writer Alexander W. Tam can be reached at email@example.com.