Amazon is once more sponsoring its 25 Days of Free, for a new free holiday mp3 every day in December through Christmas. They vary in style and quality, so read reviews if you're a beggar who's also a chooser. When it's free, I tend to download first and ask questions later.
You can also run a search for "free Christmas music" and come across whole downloadable sampler albums. Here are a few with decent reviews:
- The Incredible Singing Christmas Tree (children's)
- Sugo Music Free Holiday Sampler
- Chacra World Music Holiday Sampler
- Acorn Music Free Holiday Sampler
- Nettwerk Holiday Sampler 2010
- X5 Free Sampler - A Classical Holiday
- X5 Free Sampler - Christmas Holiday
- Believe In Christmas - Holiday Sampler
- The Bell Medley (single)
- Christmas Anthem (single)
- Nail Winter Sampler 2010
If you like the sound of a free album, look down under "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" for other ideas. Some of them aren't holiday-specific, but that doesn't matter in the long run.
iTunes Store MP3sIf you're an iTunes user, the iTunes Store also regularly has free downloads available. Not all of them are holiday-themed, but some are right now. Scroll to the bottom where it says "Free On iTunes."
Pandora radio stations
I'm loving Pandora again this year for making custom holiday mix stations (available to U.S. listeners only for royalty reasons). So far, I have two stations — one that's more mellow, and one that's more varied and includes songs that all my family members like.
To get your personalized holiday station started on Pandora, click on "Create a New Station" and enter an artist you like who has a holiday album (or the album itself or a song from it). Make sure you scroll down to click on the entry that says "(Holiday)" after the artist's name, e.g. "Over the Rhine (Holiday)." That way, it should give you just holiday music that's like the artist or album you put in. Once you've created your station, you can click on "Options" to rename it (e.g., "Upbeat Holiday"), and "Add Variety" is perfect for adding in other musicians and styles you're interested in hearing. Then click "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" as Pandora plays songs for you; this feedback will let the system know what to offer you in the future.
Here are a few more Pandora tips. I've had problems when I've agreed to Pandora's suggestions for similar artists — and then realized I've added non-holiday music to my music station. Even if you like the songs, be ruthless about thumbs-downing any non-holiday music if you want to keep your station purely holiday. But see below for more information about thumbs-down limits. You can also go in to "Options" --> "Edit Station Details" to permanently delete seed songs or inaccurate thumbs-up/thumbs-down ratings.
With the free account, you need to interact at least once an hour or it turns off. This is pretty easy to do. Just "thumbs up" the songs you like. Be a little more cautious about using the "thumbs down" for songs you don't like — definitely do it (so you don't have to hear songs and styles you don't want!), but be aware that you get only six max an hour and twelve max a day. This includes skipping a song by pushing the forward arrow. To conserve your thumbs-downs/skips, you can let a song play out before selecting "thumbs down." I'll do that if I don't particularly dislike the song but feel like it doesn't fit the style of station I'm trying to build, such as non-holiday songs on a holiday channel.
You also get only 40 hours free listening per month — which is hard to reach unless you repeatedly forget you have Pandora on, unheard, in the background. So, when you're done listening, hit "pause" or close the window entirely. You can see how many hours you have left by clicking "Account" next to your login address at the top of your listening window.
You can play your Pandora station for other listeners by hooking up some external speakers to your computer. This could be nice for a holiday party, even though there are occasional ads.
I've also downloaded the free Pandora app for my smart phone that links to your online account. I can then plug my phone into my car's speakers and listen as we drive. It's like having my own holiday radio station playing all the songs I like! There are just a couple issues with listening in the car and/or on the phone app:
- First of all, it's too dangerous to be using the thumbs-up and thumbs-down actions while you're driving. But you'll be tempted. Oh, so sorely tempted. Resist.
- Secondly, the app is more limited than the regular online version. You can't rate songs that have stopped playing, whereas online you can scroll back through recently played songs to work your magic. For the safety reasons I referenced above, having this feature would be really nice for the smart phone app, because you could then do all your rating after you'd parked. I also don't see any way to add variety, which bothered me when I had just created a new station and it kept playing a very limited selection of songs. So I recommend getting your stations well established at home before taking them on the road.
Favorite holiday albumsHere's a selection of some of the holiday music I've discovered recently or loved for years. First I'll share my thoughts on how to access said music in a frugal manner:
- Check your library to see if the CD is available. Unfortunately, at this point in the game, most holiday albums will be checked out throughout the Christmas season. Do not despair. Get in line, and be cheerful when your album gets into your hands in January (or March, or whenever everyone else gives up). Copy the songs you like to a special holiday folder on your computer, and enjoy having new music ready to go for the next season! If your library does not carry a particular favorite, this is also the time to put in a purchase suggestion. Check the FAQs on your library's site or ask a librarian how to do this.
- See if family members or friends have albums to loan you. Often they'll want to share, especially if you suggest a (temporary or permanent) swap of both your favorites.
- Look for online deals for mp3 downloads. Sometimes you'll get lucky and can find something completely free. We scored some last Christmas off Amazon, but I forget what the occasion was; it might have been a reward for spending a certain amount, and I don't know if they'll repeat it. I like checking RetailMeNot for current coupon codes and whether they're working for people.
- If you must spend money, it's almost always cheaper to download the album as an mp3 bundle than to purchase the CD (plus pay shipping) or buy all the mp3s individually. You can also preview the songs (such as on the Amazon album page or at the artist's site) to see if you even like the whole album or just want a couple of the songs.
- Particularly for smaller artists, don't count it a defeat to spend money on good music. If you can afford it, think of it as a donation to the cause of art. Artists might receive more of the proceeds if you order directly from their sites, so check the prices and deals there as well. If you want to send a CD as a gift, just so you know, Amazon has extended the Free Super Saver Shipping deadline for U.S. Christmas delivery to Sunday, December 19.
New & sweet
- Allison Crowe: Tidings, which you can listen to for free at the artist's site (discovered last year via Common Places).
- Mindy Smith: My Holiday, a little bit country and a lot folk.
- Sixpence None the Richer: The Dawn of Grace, and the soloist Leigh Nash's album, Wishing For This. Leigh Nash's voice is a love-it/hate-it proposition. I think it's quirky-charming. You can download the single "Silent Night" for free to see what you think.
- Over the Rhine: Darkest Night of the Year and Snow Angels. You can stream quite a number of songs for free on the band's site; scroll down to the Record Player.
- City on a Hill: It's Christmas Time, a variety of Christian artists singing thoughtful songs.
- Jewel: Joy: A Holiday Collection — Her voice is so beautiful on this album. You can hear her classical training shining through.
- Rebecca St. James: Christmas. This one's a little more rocking than most of my Christmas albums.
- Barlowgirl: Home for Christmas, because I'm a fan of harmony.
- Barenaked Ladies: Barenaked for the Holidays, with a version of "Jingle Bells" that never fails to crack me up.
- Sara Groves: O Holy Night — you can download a free single, "Toy Packaging."
- Sarah McLachlan: Wintersong
- Corinne May: The Gift
- This Warm December: A Brushfire Holiday Vol. 1
- Rosie Thomas: A Very Rosie Christmas (A plus: I don't think the baby on the cover's actually nursing, but the woman's holding him in a breastfeeding position, which makes me smile)
- Nicole C. Mullen: Christmas in Black & White, soulful.
- Shawn Colvin: Holiday Songs And Lullabies, perfect for a silent night for your babes.
- Jaci Velasquez: Christmas, a fun one.
- Straight No Chaser: Holiday Spirits, if you're an a capella fan like I am.
- Sufjan Stevens: Songs for Christmas, and you can get free tunes at his site.
- Mary Chapin Carpenter: Come Darkness Come Light: Twelve Songs of Christmas, warm and melodic.
- Susie Tallman: A Child's Christmas, Holiday Songs & Carols, for the kids.
- Michael Card: The Promise, quiet and devotional.
- Melissa Etheridge: A New Thought For Christmas
Old & loved
- Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity, my favorite John Rutter album. Great for atmospheric choral background music at a Christmas party, fyi.
- Anonymous 4: Wolcum Yule: Celtic and British Songs and Carols — despite the group's somewhat edgy sounding name, this is an a capella women's quartet that sings very old-time songs, often in old-time languages. Breathtakingly gorgeous.
- First Call: Beyond December — this one's kind of hard to find, but I'm always surprised more people don't love it. Maybe it's because there was kind of a scandal with the group, yadda yadda, and one of the trio left soon after, but I love the blending of voices and the unique holiday songs. The song "Carol" makes me very happy and I wish I could sing it at church with my parents some year, but I have had no luck finding the sheet music anywhere. Oh, wait, I see the songbook on Amazon now — for $64.40 used. Heh heh. No.
- Loreena McKennitt: A Winter Garden: Five Songs for the Season, To Drive the Cold Winter Away, and Midwinter Night's Dream, haunting and evocative.
- Amy Grant: The first Christmas album I ever owned (on cassette tape!) was the aptly named A Christmas Album, and Amy just keeps popping out pleasant holiday albums with a mix of familiar tunes and a few touching additions. At last count, here are the other options: Home for Christmas, Christmas to Remember, and The Christmas Collection (a greatest-hits album and might be a good place to start, but contains some new songs as well).
- Peter, Paul & Mary: Holiday Celebration — the definition of a fun Christmas album.
- A Prairie Home Christmas: With Garrison Keillor & Hundreds of Friends & Acquaintances — my mom's going to be so psyched I included this.
- Barbra Streisand: A Christmas Album, because it brings back good memories of listening to the record (yes, record!!!), because it also has a great version of "Jingle Bells," and because my mom says you always need at least one Christmas album by a Jew! I've decided that's an ecumenical truth I can get behind.
What are your favorite holiday albums — or ways to score good deals on them?
though not, surprisingly, Pandora links,
despite the big smoochy-smooch I gave them.
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