A High Dynamic Range Christmas Playlist
[Guest Post by Allan Folz]
For this Christmas I'd like to share with Archimago and readers the albums that have become a large part of our family's holiday tradition.
In the old days, when all our music was on CD's I'd load up the 5 disc changer with these albums the Sunday after Thanksgiving and they were almost the only holiday music we'd have for the next month. Streaming wasn't a thing in the early Internet years. You listened to the albums you had and you liked them.
I bought all but one of these CD's more than 20 years ago and got them largely by (some really good!) luck of the draw. For the longest while I thought they were my favorites because they were such a constant part of our lives from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Later, after I learned about dynamic range I realized it made perfect sense that they were my favorites.
After getting more deeply involved in the hobby I discovered that all my favorite albums had a high dynamic range. This was interesting to me because I had formed my opinion on my favorite albums long before I'd learned about album dynamic range. Only after looking at the dynamic range of my favorite albums did I realize that almost always the common element was a high dynamic range. The corollary also held true. The albums I bought that were disappointing once I got them home and had a few listens had a low dynamic range.
This gave me an idea for an objective comparison. Christmas songs are standards and everyone sings the same ones, albeit with differences in instrumentation and musical style. In a way, Christmas albums are like one-design sailboat racing. It’s not about the songs themselves, it's about the performance of the songs. Our enjoyment comes directly from the vocalist and musicians (obviously) and the producer (not so obviously). I am pleased to share my list of Christmas favorites. I've found them to be well-produced and objectively of a better-than-typical dynamic range. I hope maybe they will give you some fresh ideas for holiday music this season.
DR album avg, track min & max: 12 (10-14)
The album itself is probably first on anyone's list of Christmas albums and needs no introduction. There are a few versions that have been released over the years and obsessive types will probably want to do their own research. Maybe someone can talk JoshM into doing a TBVO of this album for Audiophilestyle.
Aaron Neville's Soulful Christmas
DR album avg, track min & max: 12 (11-14)
My wife and I danced to the Neville Brothers' Take Me To Heart from their album Family Groove at our wedding. So, picking up Aaron Neville's Christmas album seemed like a necessary thing to do. This has 11 tracks that are a nice mix of traditional standards and a little bit of New Orleans soul and Zydeco cross-over. My favorite example of each would be O Holy Night and Louisiana Christmas Day. Of course every track features Aaron Neville's smooth falsetto coming through front and center. His voice is the star of the album and the producer does nothing to get in the way of it.
DR album avg, track min & max: 9 (7-13)
This might be our family's favorite holiday album. The DR numbers are unremarkable and if that's all you knew about the album you'd probably decide to skip it. However, Jewel's voice has an airy, angelic quality on this album that is given full rein on the recordings. The album was released in 1999. While that was maybe not the popular peak of her career, it was certainly within her performance peak and I believe it shows most of all on the Ave Maria track. Other beautiful songs are O Holy Night, Silent Night, and less common Face of Love. When I originally had the idea for comparing the DR's of a bunch of Christmas albums I thought this was going to be the leader of the bunch. This is a great reminder that numbers don't always capture the whole story.
DR album avg, track min & max: 13 (11-16)
This album draws heavily from Handel's Messiah and features many famous operatic singers doing Christmas classics. There are two Ave Marias and two Hallelujahs. What's not to like? Pavarotti singing O Holy Night is magnificent. Even lay people will appreciate his virtuosity. My personal favorite is track 8. The Choir of St. Paul's Cathedral sings See the Conquering Hero Comes with a moving organ accompaniment. 3:55 was not long enough. This track was one where you are left wishing for those 8 and 12 minute movements. I could not pick just one favorite album, but if somehow I could only listen to one album for Christmas season, this one would be my choice.
DR album avg, track min & max: 11 (5-16)
Based on the copyright on the CD pressing, this is a compilation of original recordings from 1972, 1976, and 1979. The recordings were remastered wonderfully and don't give any indication of being from another era of music production. On the other hand, this should not be entirely surprising. The 1970's were the peak of analog recording technology. If the masters were archived properly they absolutely should sound as good as (or better) new.
This album features Mario Lanza, Marian Anderson, Placido Domingo, The Vienna Boys Choir, and the Royal Philharmonic and Chorus. Like the Ave Maria album, this album consists of famous operatic singers doing many popular Christmas songs in a classical style. I find it a more interesting change from typical pop-standards. My favorites here are Placido Domingo singing Panis Angelicus and Mario Lanza singing I Saw Three Ships. The latter makes me think of Charles Dickens' England and a time before technology with more human contact and relationships. This album features the Royal Philharmonic's version of the Hallelujah! chorus from Handel's Messiah. Imagine producing a Christmas album without the Hallelujah!
DR album avg, track min & max: 10 (8-12)
This is a relatively new addition to our Christmas collection. It was released in 2010, which was when I purchased it. Pink Martini is a Portland original that gained considerable international exposure and acclaim since their founding in 1994. Like all their albums, Joy is an eclectic mix with a number of Christmas and seasonal classics from around the world. It has a warm, jazz club aesthetic that does equally well sipping wine next to a glowing fire or hosting a dinner party with a house full of friends and family. My favorite track here is the finale, Aulde Lang Syne. Their rendition is a samba parade with choruses in English, Arabic, and French.
If you have family favorites with exceptional dynamic range, or a unique style or unusual instrumentation let us know in the comments. I love hearing new renditions of old favorites and streaming services today mean these are almost always available to give an immediate listen.
Merry Christmas to Archimago and all of us in fellowship of love of music and truth in advertising.
Thank you Allan for sharing a part of your life and family tradition with us! "Take Me To Heart" is a really sweet song, man. Merry Christmas and may your home always be warm and be blessed with beautifully recorded music as these.
It's amazing how another year has passed. It literally felt like only a couple months ago that we spoke about a list like this... In the blink of an eye, it has indeed been another year!
Every year since 1996, I've brought out Amy Grant's Home For Christmas (DR12 avg, 10-14 range). That year, I was stationed at a rural hospital placement during the "rotating internship" part of medical training and for the first time in my life did not see family during the holiday period. It's amazing in times of solitude, how songs are able to speak deeply. "Grown-Up Christmas List" will always remind me of that year... And of course a reminder that there are much much more meaningful things in this world than just the toys.
Friends, even if this Christmas and New Years are ones of solitude, have a peaceful, loving, restful, safe, Merry Christmas and Happy 2021...