Music For The Winter Solstice

I do NOT recommend that you watch this video:

Seriously, don’t watch it. It will ruin your day. I only include it to demonstrate what I think is the absolute worst example of an awful genre, the pop Christmas song. Every year, more and more artists get the idea that they can make a quick buck or two by dressing up some old Christmas songs with the newest synthesizers and putting out a “holiday disc.” In this case, McCartney didn’t need to draw from the canon of existing carols; he wrote it himself. More’s the shame. This truly sounds like it’s ideal for a preschool.

I’m given to understand, however, that my opinion is not universal. According to Wikipedia, McCartney makes $400,000 a year from royalties on this song alone. It also says that “McCartney has since gone on to state that he is now embarrassed about this record,” which can give us all a little hope in this season of despair. The guy who wrote Let It Be and Yesterday should be embarrassed about this.

Unfortunately, many, many other artists are apparently reaching for those same holiday dollars, to the point where it becomes difficult to <!–more …Keep reading–> go to a store in December—heck, November now—without being assaulted by hyper-commercial pablum. In St. Louis, where there are few good radio stations to begin with, two stations switched over to all-holiday-all-the-time the day after Halloween. At the grocery store last night, two workers were grumbling, guessing between each how many more times they’d have to hear “Feliz Navidad” before their shift was over.

All of this is a shame, because there’s some truly beautiful Christmas music out there. I’m definitely not the most Christian person you know, but I do truly love a great deal of quality Christmas music. But when I hear the pop-muzak garbage that gets thrown around these days, it makes me want to hibernate until Mardi Gras.

My solution: a retreat. Some quiet time each day devoted to music recorded in the true spirit of the season.

December is always a month that is pregnant with emotion, if you’ll pardon the pun. It’s the deepest, darkest month, and it deserves music that we can take seriously. It’s time to put away the guitars—at least the electric ones—and the drums, and pull out the pianos. And, yes, the violins and cellos.

The music I have sought refuge in the most over the last couple of decades is the aptly named “Winter’s Solstice” series from the late, great Windham Hill Records, which put out a lot of finely crafted “new age” music in the 1980s and 1990s. The label put out the first one, called just “A Winter’s Solstice,” in 1990; it was a collection of Christmas-related pieces in quiet, stark arrangements, often with just one or two instruments. The mood was often haunting, sometimes joyful, but never commercial. Christmas as it should be, as far as I’m concerned. Here is Amazon’s preview widget for the album; check out, in particular,  Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, Engravings and A Tale of Two Cities.

(I wish there were a better way to play music on this blog; for this post in particular, it would be nice to be able to stream some of these pieces in the background, rather than resorting to clunky Amazon previews or even clunkier youtube videos. If anyone knows of a better way, please let me know.)

A year later, A Winter’s Solstice II was released, using the same formula, with a bit more of a classical emphasis. My favorites (this might be the best CD of the series, in my opinion) include The Gift, Bring Me Back A Song, Medieval Memory II, and By The Fireside.

Volumes III and IV of the series didn’t reach the same lofty heights as the first two, I thought. No. 3 suffered by the inclusion of a couple of vocal tracks, while No. 4 leaned a little to far toward the light, commercial realm. Both are strictly IMHO, of course; Amazon’s reviewers were unanimous in their praise for IV, for example.

Until I started writing this, I didn’t even realize there was a sixth CD in the series; the last one I have is No. 5. (By the time you read this, there will be a copy of No. 6 with my name on it, destined for my mailbox.) But No. 5 brought the series back to the level of the first and second offerings. Try O Come Little Children, Poli’ahu – The Snow Goddess Of Mauna Kea, and, quite possibly my favorite piece from the whole series, My Heart Is Always Moving.

(Edit: At this point in the original post, I had a link to a YouTube video of A Tale Of Two Cities from the first Winter’s Solstice CD. Sadly, that video has been removed from YouTube, I guess because of copyright problems. If I can figure out another way to put music into this blog, even short clips, I’ll come back and update this again in the future.)


4 thoughts on “Music For The Winter Solstice

  1. i am glad ypu enjoy the windham hill xmas music. its good to enjoy stuff. i will say however that you comment to put the guitars any for december is CRAZY! Run Run Rudolph by Chuck Berry ( and the Stoness). Blue Christmas by Elvis (and the Vinyl Junkies). Santa Claus is Coming to Town by Bruce Springsteen (and the E Street Band). Why these are a few of my favorite things… WITH GUITAR! (Subtle Joe Strummer reference intended)

    Also… I think you were being a little hard on Macca. Yes the above song is awful. Yes the music video is truly wretched. But even though he makes a lot of cash on it every year, i dont think he did it for the money. I think when they were recording it an he played those notes on that synth they thought it was a really cool sound. They were wrong, And when he wrote the lyrics i am sure he was trying to be warm and happy and invoke all those great christmas feelings instead f being just plain old cheesy. Sometimes we make art or cook meals or write emails we layer regret. Thats life. We cant be perfect all time. Not even Paul McCartney.

    Have a wonderful christmas time.

    love to the family

  2. Hey John, thanks for the Christmas Music thoughts. McCartney quite often needed Lennons sense of music direction to moderate his uber-pop tendencies. Note Lennon tribute to the season, War is Over. A bit more edgy that McCartney’s synth sacharine I know that you’re really pumped about the old Alvin and the Chipmunks hatchet-job version of their “Holiday” muzak. Going to Pere Marquette this year? I’m opting out due to insufficient testicular fortitude. Merry Christmas to you and your fam.

  3. Pingback: Shoulblog Turns Two! | Shoulblog

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