Knox County Public Library has hundreds of compact discs of winter holiday music. But as you may have already learned the hard way, most of them are checked out just now, raising spirits yonder. Don’t despair. The library’s Music Online database has an even larger selection. And unlike some of our other. And unlike some of our other digital collections, Music Online is not limited by licensing, so you won’t need to wait or reserve anything. Music Online may be your best value for instant gratification this holiday season.
I’ll recommend that you search and explore. Be bold. If that sounds too much like holiday homework, I’ll spot you these places to begin. Handy algorithms will help you pursue new titles aligned with those you hear and like. You can find Music Online at knoxlib.org/explore-collection/e-media; first-time users will need to register and login. (If you view the online version of this column, recommended titles—and a playlist I put together just for you—will have links to assist.)
Blues, Blues, Christmas
Rocking the blues for Christmas may strike you as counterintuitive, but I will advise that Titus Turner, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Half-Pint Jackson, Butterbeans and Susie, or any of the other performers and preachers on this three-hour throwdown are likely to change your way of thinking. The Document Records label, based in Austria, has long been the premier archival label for early 20th-century American blues. If blues is your thing, you’ve probably seen the other choice Document CD titles we keep on the shelves. The variety contained here plays like a short-course survey in music made by black Americans between 1925 and 1955. There’s big-band swing, hot jazz, Delta moaning, and a bunch of the guitar- or piano-driven straight-up dance music that primed the planet for rock ’n’ roll. I mentioned in a previous column that Alexander Street, the publisher of our Music Online database, was created to support academic research. From the playlist for this title (like many others), you can view and download a PDF of the 20-page booklet that accompanies the retail version, plush with details about the songs, personnel, and recording sessions. I apologize for not tipping you to this in time for you to hijack the office Christmas party, but there’s always next year.
The Czech Chamber Soloists and Czech Philharmonic Choir conducted by Petr Fiala
This is an album of terrific festive choir music, alternating between 19th-century Czech traditional material and contemporary compositions in the same style. If you’re familiar with the music of Leoš Janáček, it should be easy for you to imagine. Janáček shares roots with this choir from Brünn, where he spent his formative years. The mood and sounds vary ecstatically from rapturous full chorus to male and female soloists to recitative.
While we’re on the subject of esoteric music, don’t be fooled by my shameless use or misuse of a vocabulary that I understand only superficially. I make use of KCPL’s online Oxford Encyclopedia of Music, and I invite you to do the same and even bookmark it. It’s a fantastic resource to track down anything from mere facts to future favorites—be they hillbilly music or avant-whatever.
Tennessee Tech Trombone Choir
Tennessee Tech Tuba Ensemble
Granted, bass-clef brass is not for everybody. But fine instrumental music ought to be. So much of the holiday music you’ll hear this season is dominated by post-prime pop vocalists. Even if the accompanists are decent, they rarely have an opportunity to demonstrate the fact. These talented young people seem to be having the time of their lives working out on this familiar music. The tempos and range of sounds—especially on Christmas Tubas—is impressive and unexpected. Earbudding Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad” on tubas and euphoniums playing call-and-response allows you to be sly and ironic and yet sincere on so many clever levels.
Bells and Winter Festivals of Greek Macedonia
I have been listening closely to this library for many years, and this collection of field recordings from the winter holidays of 2000 and 2001 is one of the most fascinating things I’ve come across. Folklorist Steven Feld captured these sounds—ranging from belled goats being herded up-mountain to revelers, wearing perhaps the same bells, getting a second wind after midnight on New Year’s Eve—to accompany a book of photographs. KCPL does not appear to have that book, but the PDF liner notes are richly illustrated and transporting. The sounds of these villages—parades, conversations in many languages, footfalls aplenty, doors opening and closing, animals everywhere, and of course the bells from the title—are evocative and real. Listen, then imagine field recordings of your own party-hopping this week. Headphones recommended if you have a dog in the house.
Shelf Life explores new and timely entries from the Knox County Public Library’s collection of movies and music.
Chris Barrett's Shelf Life alerts readers to new arrivals at the Lawson McGhee Library's stellar Sights and Sounds collection, along with recommendations and reminders of staples worthy of revisiting. He is a former Metro Pulse staff writer who’s now a senior assistant at the Knox County Public Library.
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