O Come, All Ye Curious…

A personal ‘Best of’ of festive music, scholarship and other readings

Over on Twitter, I created a little thread (in a bout of festive procrastination) of some of my favourite (academic) books of the year, spiced up with my best-loved jazzy interpretations of various Christmas songs. It was a fun way to waste some time and might be helpful for those of you who are still in need of some X-mas shopping inspiration or would like to get into a festive mood.

Ready to start? Here we go…

1. A particular gem: This 1953 live recording of Chet Baker and Stan Gets in Los Angeles where they play an uptempo bop version of “Winter Wonderland”

2. There have been many great recordings of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” but my all-time favourite is this version by Cécile McLorin Salvant featuring Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Centre orchestra. If her voice doesn’t make you well up, nothing will.

3. “O Come All Ye Faithful”, for once not sung by a choir. Instead, you get jazz pianist Joey Alexander who was 15 at the time this was recorded. How one can have so much talent at such a young age eludes me. Then again, I don’t really care. The result is magnificent.

4. An all-time classic: Bill Evan’s playing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”. Enough said.

5. White Christmas, Take I: A very traditional interpretation by Swedish soprano Jeanette Köhn and the WDR Orchestra. Tops Barbara Streisand in my opinion (*ducks and runs for cover*).

6. White Christmas, Take II: For a really funky version look no further than Sharon Jones (sadly deceased) and the Dap-Kings

7. No Christmas playlist could do without a little Bach. So here we have a stellar recording of the Christmas Oratorio by the Sächsische Staatskapelle under Christian Thielemann which is just sublime.

8. While Thieleman’s version of the “Oratorio” is great, my secret favourite is the “flatshare edition” recorded with an iPhone by a group of music students in Leipzig in 2011…in their living room. The lights go off in between and of course, there’s beer (at 7:51). The best bit is at around 9:43.

9. Come for the crazy album cover, stay for Ella Fitzgerald’s eternal voice. Her version of “Jingle Bells” is a joy to behold. She shifts through all those keys as if they weren’t even there.

10. Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is one of the nicest Christmas albums. Personal favourites: “Skating” and “The Christmas Song”. I have heard some people dismiss this as easy listening which I find unfair. It takes great accomplishment to sound so effortless.

11. And the last piece of music: “It’s Snowing on My Piano” by Norwegian pianist Bugge Wesseltoft. Just a grand piano and nothing else. Best enjoyed on a quiet day in absolute silence. Luckily, the whole album is available for free on YouTube.

1. Highly recommended these days: Cynthia Miller-Idriss’s “The Extreme Gone Mainstream” which focuses on the links between fashion, symbolism and far-right subculture among German youths. If you want an answer to why sociology matters, here it is.

2. “Death” by Julian Barnes which I read over the summer is a short but hefty book. Barnes ponders how we relate to death and our own mortality in particular. It’s bleak, it’s witty, it’s sad and (at times) even funny. But most importantly, it’s beautiful writing.

3. For those of you who have seen “Chernobyl” but would like to read the perhaps most rigorous account of the tradegy, this book by Harvard historian Serhii Plokhii is for you. Both moving and rigorously researched, its 430ish pages read like a thriller.

4. More great sociology: Robert Wuthnow’s “The Left Behind” which builds on 8 years of interviews in small-town America. Main argument: rural Americans are less concerned about economic issues and more about Washington threatening the social fabric of small towns and causing a “moral decline”. Want to understand how Trump happened? Here you go.

5. “The $12 Million Stuffed Shark” by Don Thompson . This one is a bit older but despite the slightly childish cover it’s an excellent introduction to how the modern art world works, including the economics behind it.

6. For once, a book related to my research: With “Automating the News” Nick Diakopoulos has written an excellent introduction to the automation of the news industry and the role of algorithms in modern media organisations. One of the journalism studies books of the year.

7. If you still haven’t stomached Brexit and why/how it happened, “Heroic Failure. Brexit and the Politics of Pain” is a good place to start Almost ruthless clairvoyance is one of the hallmarks of Fintan O’Toole’s writing and I mean it as the greatest possible compliment.

8. A fairly recent publication and while a bit clunkily/clumsily written, Robert Shiller makes some good points in “Narrative Economics” about the state of modern economics research and its lack of interest in narratives and their impact on people’s expectations and economic decisions.

9. Another book I very much enjoyed this year: Nathan Jurgenson’s “The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media” where he makes some bold theoretical reflections on how the social photo has remade our world. Also, the cover is 🔥🔥🔥

10. The final book on this list: Rachel Sherman’s “Uneasy Street”, her study of how the rich think (and what they fear). She doesn’t cast any judgment but leaves it to the reader to do so. Her writing is lucid and compelling. One of my highlights.

That’s it from me for now. Perhaps I’ll add some more as I go along. In the meantime, I wish you all…

See you in 2020.

Felix Simon is a Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar at the Oxford Internet Institute where he is researching AI in journalism and the news industry. He works as a research assistant at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and as a journalist. His tweets can be found under @_Felix Simon_.

Journalist & Researcher. DPhil student Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. Research Assistant Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.