Music: Favorite Celtic and Irish Christmas CDs

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How It’s New York: New York is Christmas town in December, what with the tree at Rockefeller Center and the beautiful shop windows on Fifth Avenue (there was a line just to see them in front of Saks last week!). And music is everywhere.

How It’s Irish: Some of these CDs are from Irish artists, and many include traditional carols that are Celtic. And of course, some of these Irish artists live in NYC.

There are new Celtic/Irish and every other kind of Christmas CDs issued every year. It’s beautiful music, so why not?
These are some of my perennial favorites, in no particular order.  And only some: there are some terrific CDs not on this list because I had to stop somewhere, but special mention to Mary Coogan and Liam Tiernan,  who have beautiful Christmas CDs, as well as Moya Brennan and…

These discs sound great in the winter, of course, but I love the sound of them in July when they bring a welcome  breath of sparkly cold (iPod shuffle can sometimes pleasantly surprise you!). 

1.A Winter Talisman  Johnny Cunningham and Susan McKeown with Aidan Brennan
14 tracks, 2001.
This CD is a lovely blend of trad music and poetry, some delivered by the late great fiddler Johnny Cunningham (once of Silly Wizard). Susan McKeown lends her voice to this. There is truly a talismanic, warming feeling about it.
My favorite tracks:
Langóli (Waterford song)
Auld Lang Syne.. you’ll never hear a more straightforward, more satisfying version of Robbie Burns’ song. And when you think it’s over, there’s a pause and then a string repetition. Gorgeous.
A Christmas Childhood” by Patrick Kavanagh
as read by Johnny. Lovely.

2. All on a Christmas Morning – Celtic Christmas Celebration  Aengus  (consisting of Jimmy Keane and Robbie O’Connell, with special guests including Kathleen Keane, Dennis Cahill, Liz Carroll, Click Horning)
15 tracks, 1987.
Simple, and lovely. My picks:
Three Kings by Robbie O’Connell.You’ll be singing the chorus by the end, too.
Christmas in the Trenches by John McCutcheon, a song about Christmas in WWI and an unexpected truce, and Drive the Cold Winter Away, a trad song sung sweetly by Robbie.

3.The Christmas Revels: In Celebration of the Winter Solstice  dir. by John Langstaff
30 tracks, 1987 (I think).
If you’ve never seen the Revels, you’re so missing out! This festive show includes sword dance, mummers, carols, and all things Christmasy from a mainly English past (although occasionally it is set in other places too). John Langstaff’s bold and commanding voice on the narrative sections as well as on songs gives a flavor of the show.

I love: hearty Wassail Carol
Lord of the Dance, to the tune of Simple Gifts, a rousing story of Jesus as the Lord of the Dance
Nova! Nova!, with bells, a medieval carol that sounds like snow.

4 and 5.  Two from Cherish the Ladies I won’t be without: A Star in the EastA
13 tracks, 2010 and On Christmas Night, 10 tracks, 2004.
So Joyous: A Dash for the Presents/Joy to the World/Parnell’s March and
Rise Up Shepherd and Follow-Joanie Madden sings on that one! Michelle Burke is the vocalist otherwise.

Of On Christmas Night I especially love: The Castle of Dromore (an Irish baby would yawn and say, ‘yes, I’m sleepy’) and The Distressed Soldier/Angels We Have Heard on High/The Fairy Reel. Heidi Talbot is the vocalist.

6. Together for Christmas: A Contemporary Celtic Christmas Collection 
15 tracks, 2012. This CD produced by promoter Anita Daly really is a delight: read our review here! It’s a lovely combination of trad, rock and roll, pop and reflective, from such talents as Damien Dempsy, Ashley Davis, Larry Kirwan, The High Kings and more.
My faves: Happy Christmas, John Munnelly (we included this on Podcast #24)… an infectious tune that also tells the story of Baby Jesus. Instant classic.
Walking in the Air, Emma Kate Tobia, clear as a winter night.
Whiskey for Christmas, Kyf Brewer of Barleyjuice, gravelly and bluesy and makes me laugh.

7An Irish Christmas: A Music Solstice Celebration  with Mick Moloney, Athena Tergis and Special Guests, Live from Irish Arts Center
15 tracks, 2011.  I really adore this CD– check out our InteReview here, and Mick on the podcast here. This is a terrific live CD, with the occasional cough and all the real excitement you can find in the concerts, which have been going on since 2008. Last year we wrote:
Doing the concerts at Irish Arts Center lifts Mick up.

“The stage and the front row are about three feet from each other and after awhile it feels like no stage at all; it’s like a big old kitchen.” 

It’s a nice place to be. And the album takes you there. My top tracks: The Wren Song, Trip to Athlone medley (complete with  Niall O’Leary’s dancing feet), Breaking Up Christmas, an Old-Time track led by fiddler Rhys Jones, Miss Fogarty’s Christmas Cake.

8. Songs of the Celtic Winter, Ashley Davis.
10 tracks, 2011. Therese Cox reviewed Ashley in concert last year at Joe’s Pub, and found the evening a sustained journey into a beautiful netherworld of plaintive verses and haunting choruses…
This atmospheric CD features Ashley’s beautiful voice, with Cormac De Barra’s harp, and some other friends including Joanie Madden. It all blends smoothly, but if I have to choose: Nollaig Moon; The Silence of Snow.

9. Song of SolsticeCeltic music for midwinter, Jennifer Cutting’s OCEAN Orchestra.  With John Roberts on concertina, Myron Bretholz on bodhrán, and the chorus of men from the Washington Revels.
  12 tracks, 2011.
This unusual CD draws on pagan and Yule imagery, mostly English, with  bagpipes and electronics, recorders and harps, and resonant voices. One of the nicest versions of In the Bleak Midwinter, with words by Christina Rosetti, tune by Gustav Holst, you’re likely to find. Other faves include Fall, Leaves, Fall, with words by Emily Bronte and tune by Jennifer Cutting, an almost spooky song about loving the change from Autumn to Winter, and the traditional English song Time to Remember the Poor. Curl up with Hans Christian Anderson’s “Snow Queen” and drift away.

10.  An Appalachian Christmas, Mark O’Connor
with special guests including James Taylor, Renee Fleming and Alison Krauss.
16 tracks, 2011.
Many Scotch-Irish ended up in Appalachia, and the Irish and old-time connection is unmissable. Mick Moloney lectures on it and will do another “Celtic Appalachia” concert at Symphony Space in March.
On this lovely CD, virtuoso fiddler Mark O’Connor interprets the music with sensitivity and aplomb
My top pics: Now It Belongs to You, with Steven Wariner, Carol of the Bells, The Cherry Tree Carol

This should get you through at least a few logs on the fire. Happy holidays!

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