The first has to be the Chieftains' Bells of Dublin, for the sheer joy and celebration of Christmas. It includes traditional carols, familiar and unfamiliar; some great Irish dance music; and a list of guest artists that includes Elvis Costello, the McGarrigle sisters and Jackson Browne, among others. Great fun!
Rockapella is one of my favourites (or five of my favourites?) anytime,
and their two Christmas CDs are no exception. The first, Rockapella
Christmas, comprises great arrangements of modern Christmas songs,
including "Silver Bells," Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts
roasting on an open fire...") and a reworking of the Mills Brothers' hit,
"Glow Worm/It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas." The second,
Comfort and Joy, is more of the same (by popular demand of their fans), and
includes a rollicking "Jingle Bell Rock." Both CDS also include new Christmas songs by Scott Leonard. All of Rockapella's albums carry the following statement: "This is a contemporary a capella recording; all sounds on these tracks were produced by the voices and appendages of Rockapella."
For more tradtional Christmas music, you can't beat English cathedral choirs. Some of the best recordings are the old Musical Heritage Society CDS, if you can get hold of them: A Festival of Lessons and Carols from King's (King's College, Cambridge University), is a wondrous version of the traditional Anglican Service of Nine Lessons. Also by the King's College Choir are Christmas Collection and O Come All Ye Faithful, both with lush and glorious performances of traditional Christmas carols.
Something a little different, you say? What about Elizabethan Christmas Anthems, by Red Byrd and the Rose Consort of Viols? Then there's Christmas Guitar, carols arranged for guitar and played by Stephen Siktberg-- great background music for Christmas dinner or opening presents. (Both also Musical Heritage Society.) Another good, softly softly playing CD is The Christmas Harp, featuring Andrea Vigh, Deborah Sipkat and Marion Hofmann. Pieces by Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart and Pescetti are delicately ethereal on this album. For livelier, but very mellow, renderings of Baroque and Classical Christmas music, there's Christmas Brass, by the Galliard Brass Ensemble.
Finally, there's Chant Noel, by the now famous Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, who made church music all the rage in the 1990s. There is something mesmerizing about Gregorian chant, and these chants for the Christmas season are no exception. I often play them to lull me to sleep!