Deck the Halls with Xmas CDs
A few classics that are still on heavy rotation at my house
One of the things I always ask myself about any Christmas album is what might I be doing when I hear this music? Am I sipping a cocktail at a dark wood bar decorated with fragrant pine swag awaiting the arrival of a dinner companion? Am I shopping, or helping someone else shop, left to watch the bags while dresses are tried and discarded? At a holiday party? Work get together? Or am I alone late at night, admiring the tree and feeling grateful?
If I can't put the scenario with the music, or the scenario envisioned is a nightmarish one, I begin to suspect that the album in question is not one for me. For many years I received piles of Christmas promotional CDs in the mail. One by one they trooped through my CD player and I'd give some impressions. There are, of course, bad Christmas albums, starting with those that seem to be executed as a necessary exercise or for the mere purpose of extracting a few more coins from starry holiday-eyed fans. But, hey, one person's Christmas gold is another's overheated leftovers and bad jumpers. My reviews generally tended towards the 'nice selection of songs' and 'original arrangements' type. Once in a while, one of these new releases would stick, and I'd still have it in my collection a couple years later. Mostly, though, they floated on by, like sugarplums that would be forgotten by mid-January.
I thought I'd throw together a little holiday musical favorites roundup since I'm listening to some of these things right about now anyway.
Peace Round/The Yellowjackets This showed up in my mailbox in 2003, a pretty busy year for holiday releases if memory serves. It's not unlike some other smooth jazz styled Christmas records you may have heard, but there are elements that have kept this disc in my collection and in heavy rotation come December. The arrangements, most of which are handled by sax and woodwind player Bob Mintzer, don't go out of their way to defy expectations, but they have a nice solid swing to them and both Mintzer and keyboardist Russell Ferrante put forth some nice solos. Standout tracks include a smoky turn on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," a Coltrane-ized "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," a saxophone/piano duet on "Winter Wonderland" and the closer, the Joe Zawinul/Miles Davis inspired "In a Silent Night." The real killer track, though, is the title track, a modal jazz exploration of an old English canon. Beautiful and deeply spiritual, it really makes this disc stand out.
Of Kings and Angels/Mediaeval Baebes This 2013 release is not one that I reviewed, but it is one that I enjoy deeply each holiday season. As a longstanding fan of Katherine Blake's rotating mediaeval, all-female vocal collective, I am very susceptible to a little Olde English, but I'm not really all that heavy into Gregorian chanting (no matter how much the in crowd say it's hip). This album really fills the bill, providing simple but effective arrangements of well known carols like "I Saw Three Ships," "We Three Kings," "Away In a Manger," and "Silent Night" alongside less well-known fare as "The Coventry Carol," "In the Bleak Midwinter," "There Is No Rose of Swych Vertu," and "Gaudete." Two of the very best performances are of "The Holly and the Ivy" and "Good King Wenceslas" (a personal favorite) performed with mediaeval instrumental accompaniment. One of the things that makes the Mediaeval Baebes so listenable is the obvious joy they take in this music--they take it seriously, but they treat it as living music rather than a museum piece.
Christmas Portrait/The Carpenters Released in 1978, this was the next to last studio record that The Carpenters would complete during Karen's lifetime. It's far from a traditional holiday release, a collection of popular holiday songs punctuated by a few more obscure ones. Christmas Portrait is like a seventies holiday special soundtrack without the bad jokes and heartfelt speeches (in fact it was also a holiday TV special). Instead there are elaborate arrangements of holiday songs, Christmas medleys, and instrumental tracks seamlessly woven together with a group of vocal numbers featuring Karen Carpenter's achingly warm voice. Richard picked all of the songs and split his arranging duties with Basie associate Billy May (who served as musical director for the television special) and Peter Knight, known widely for his arrangements on The Moody Blues album "Days of Future Passed." Karen does her thing on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "Christmas Waltz," "Sleigh Ride," and more. She made "Home For the Holidays" one of my favorite holiday songs, but it's gotta be her rendition. And of course there's "Merry Christmas Darling," a song she had recorded in 1970, but she redid the vocals here, sounding more relaxed and sending the song into the Christmas canon.
Aaron Neville's Soulful Christmas/Aaron Neville Aaron Neville is one of the most expressive and clear-toned singers to emerge from New Orleans in the second half of the twentieth century. This record, released in the holiday season of 1993, satisfies the need for a single CD that includes traditional Christmas songs done well, the requisite ballads, and some soulful numbers and up-tempo burners that don't sound corny or destroy the mood. Neville brings the soul with his gorgeous rendition of Charles Brown's "Please Come Home For Christmas," a swinging "Such a Night" with Christmas lyrics, and the Cajun spiced "Louisiana Christmas Day."
Merry Christmas Baby/Various Aritsts Subtitled "Romance and Reindeer at Capitol" it's a great collection of music from Capitol's pre-rock heyday in the the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Perfect down to its Madmen retro cheescake cover, it features things you know well, like Nat Cole's "Christmas Song" and Johnny Mercer's "Winter Wonderland" as well as less familiar, torchy numbers ("The Christmas Spell" by Peggy Lee or June Christy's haunting "Ring a Merry Bell"), left field stuff ("Christmas Island"), and melancholy ballads like Glen Campbell's rendition of "I'll Be Home For Christmas." A time capsule, to be sure, but worth the trip.
A Gift to Remember: Christmas 1994 Neiman Marcus promotional CD featuring a dozen tasteful Christmas songs done by classic artists like Bing Crosby, Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin, and Lou Rawls. The highlight, for me, is the rendition of "Sleigh Ride" by piano duo Ferrante & Teicher. Back when I was seven or eight years old, a young music freak taking piano lessons, these guys were like rock stars to me. They were two Julliard students who began a nightclub act together and soon moved up to playing concert halls accompanied by full orchestras. Their repertoire consisted mostly of classical adaptations, movie themes, and popular songs. At the time I discovered them they were riding the charts with a recording of the theme from 'Midnight Cowboy.' They ended up retiring in 1989, one living in Long Boat Key, the other in Siesta Key, and they passed away in 2008 and 2009, within a year of each other. Perhaps they merit a future article (Editor--please throw this on the bullet journal list, will ya?). Anyway, their treatment of "Sleigh Ride" is pretty much unparalleled.
A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector/Various Artists I won't bog this down except to say that Phil Spector was a monstrous example of ego, guns, and the American dream run amok, which landed him in prison, where he died. That is fact. It is also fact that he participated in producing recordings whose cultural significance is beyond refutation, so let's talk about the performers on this record, all of whom were acts produced by Spector. The stars here are The Ronettes, led by Ronnie Spector, and Darlene Love. And let's get one thing very clear here: Darlene Love is the Queen of Christmas as long as she is drawing breath. Mariah Carey can lobby all she wants and she can sing "All I Want For Christmas Is You" until she's blue in the face, but she will never, EVER be Queen of Christmas while Darlene Love is alive. In fact, Mariah's hot Xmas gold song is cribbed in style, from the songwriting to the production to lil' Mimi's vocals, from this Phil Spector Christmas album and from Darlene Love in particular.
Darlene sings "White Christmas," bringing the hip breakdown to the song Der Bingle made famous, "A Marshmallow World," "Winter Wonderland," and the most street corner-styled Christmas song to come out of the rock era, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." That last song is Darlene's "All I Want For Christmas" and she appeared annually on Late Night with David Letterman until the show went off the air. She later provided the vocals for the Robert Smigel claymation video to the song "Christmastime For the Jews" that first aired on SNL. I adore Ronnie Spector, and she gives me the goods on her rendition of "Sleigh Ride" (yes, better than Ferrante and Teicher), but it's Darlene who proves herself the undisputed Queen of Christmas. Sorry, Mariah!
So there it is, a short list of Christmas records that I would rather not live without. It's nice to hear some new renditions of holiday songs from hear to year, but if I had nothing but these records to listen to for Christmas, I'd be just fine.
Back in 2019, I did a list of my favorite Xmas songs, In Ten Tracks style. Be sure to check it out along with a YouTube video playlist of the songs.
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So, that’s that. I have not traditionally written a ton during the month of December, meaning that New Directions in Music will close, or operate at a low hum, until the New Year strikes.
But I do want to take a moment to thank everyone who has subscribed to New Directions in Music, and to everyone who continues to take the time to read my assorted box of chocolates here. It takes time to research and write these angled views of slightly off-kilter music of the twentieth century, a process that is not well supported by today’s hyperactive media, which is more akin to an arm of the marketing department than any kind of arbiter of taste or history. I feel like there is a small but committed group of music writers writing on Substack, and that means there is a small but committed group of music readers as well, and that feels good. Writers write their best when they are writing about topics that they are deeply invested in, and this platform also allows us to be close to our readers. We write it, you read it in your email or on the Substack app.
I know your time is valuable and that there is a ton of content screaming for your attention, and so I appreciate your investment of time and thought. Wishing you and yours a warm, safe, peaceful holiday season and countdown to the new year.
Dexter Gordon, Tommy Flanagan, Larry Ridley, Allen Dawson/”The Christmas Song”