Inspired by reader KitWistar, here's a short list of must-have Christmas music:
1) George Frideric Handel/Messiah/Christopher Hogwood/Academy of Ancient Music. Yes, only a third of the best known oratorio is about the birth of Christ; so what? This recording employs instruments and a version of the work that may be unfamiliar. But it's better.
2) Robert Shaw/Songs of Angels - Christmas Hymns and Carols: Justly famous for years worth of Christmas choral albums, this is one of Shaw's last Xmas recordings--so is digital.
3) J.S. Bach/Christmas Oratorio/Academy of St. Martins in the Fields/Kings College Cambridge/Elly Ameling/Janet Baker/Robert Tear/Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Here I depart from KitWistar's recommendation as to the orchestra--though keeping the bass soloist. And a second, overlapping suggestion: the remastered set of Bach "Sacred Masterpieces" Karl Richter/Munich Bach Orchestra, which includes his Christmas Oratorio, the St. Matthew Passion, the Mass in B Minor, the Magnificat and the St. John Passion.
4) Gregorio Allegri/Miserere mei Deus/Tallis Scholars. Yes, this setting of Psalm 51 nominally is an Easter work. But the four- and five-part a Capella choral harmony is astoundingly lush. And its history arguably is better--for at least a century, the Pope limited performances to the Sistine Chapel; copying the score was punishable by excommunication, effectively hiding Allegri from humanity. Until, the story goes, a 12 year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart -- touring Rome in the Spring of 1770 -- heard a performance, and promptly transcribed it from memory. I must have five recordings of this piece (which originally called for castrato, and now substitutes a boy soprano)--including an instrumental version by The Canadian Brass.
5) John Rutter/City of London Sinfonia/Cambridge Singers/Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity. Rutter is the best living Christmas carol composer and conductor, with more than a dozen great Christmas albums. But this is the pick of the litter.
6) The Roches/We Three Kings. Is it folk or a joke? One either loves this album or hates it--I'm in the first category.
7) Aaron Neville/Soulful Christmas. One of the great R&B voices does Christmas perfectly.
8) George Winston/December: Piano Solos. Christmas "new age" style.
Look Ma, no "Nutcracker." Compare to Kit's recommendations.