33 1/3 Holiday Albums You Better Have…Or Else
Deck the halls: Music critic J Matthew Cobb exposes 33 (and one) holiday albums you should be rockin’ around the Christmas tree
Every year at Christmastime, you can always count on the resurrection of the holiday albums to get you into the festive mood. Some abhor it completely while the patience of others is usually vexed with the robotic playlists penetrating through Muzak speakers. But you can usually count on the silent nights of Nat “King” Cole or Bing Crosby to help create the magic of the holiday. Strangely, the holiday albums of the 21st century face a horrible situation of sounding authentic since so many of these records are trying to surpass the greatness of the perfected holiday LP concept originally culled by jazz greats. No wonder many rock acts avoided the recurring temptation of cooking holiday albums. It didn’t stop them from trying – tracks like Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” John Lennon’s “Xmas Is Over” and Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run,” live forever on compilations. But since the 33 1/3 cylinder was introduced to the public in 1949, holiday albums have remained a proud token in households. Its evolution goes beyond its jazz roots and has proven to be just as profitable to most musical genres, including country, folk, disco, classical, gospel and even hip-hop. Still, finding the best of the best of these albums are a bit of challenge, especially when you consider the high volume of holiday discs produced and re-produced year after year. This “best-of” list containing some of the finer holiday albums released helps eliminate the “bah, humbug” of endless vinyl searching and instantly brings on the “ho ho ho.” So go ‘head and buckle up – we’re gliding along with a song of a wintry fairy land.
A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra
Ol’ Blue Eyes never dashed through the show when he tackled the songs of the holiday season. A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra isn’t Sinatra’s finest hour. Actually, it should’ve been titled Blue Eyes on Blue Christmas. Although he doesn’t sing the classic Elvis tune here, the somber mode on the album starts to shine on his mild rendition of “The Christmas Song.” But “The Christmas Waltz” and his take on “Jingle Bells” – thanks to Gordon Jenkins’ perky “J-I-N-G-L-E bells” arrangement and the jolly chorus by the Ralph Brewster Singers – brings in some good cheer. He also sings a few Christmas hymns on the album’s second half – something that might’ve served as some holy olive branch during his Rat Pack heyday. Nothing aboard here trumps the festive sounds delivered by Nat Cole, nor does he come close to touching Andy Williams, but hearing Sinatra’s cool, calm and collected vocals hardly disappoints.
Undisputed king of the Hammond B-3, Jimmy Smith takes on Christmas with the same gumption displayed on his fiery Blue Note and Verve secular presentations. Christmas Cookin’, a revised reissue of Christmas ’64, happens to be the only holiday album recorded during his entire career, and may have been an obligatory effort constructed by Smith’s label. Despite the stronghold of being true to traditional holiday music decorum, Creed Taylor’s stellar production and the big band swing arrangements of Smith, Al Cohn and Billy Byers allows Smith to be Smith. He transforms “The Christmas Song” into a flirtatious Count Basie movement, while “Jingle Bells” morphs into a Billy Preston teaser. No one should snooze on the ambient preludes of “We Three Kings (Of Orient Are).” It eventually evolves into a lounge jazz special, but the intros and outros of the song possess the same readiness that makes perfect motion picture theme music.
At the height of the disco boom, everything popular was being parodied into a Studio 54 cash cow. Star Wars, Sesame Street, even Broadway tunes. In the world of Christmas music, the Salsoul Orchestra – defected mercenaries coming from Gamble & Huff’s Sigma Sound institution – triumphed the loudest with Christmas Jollies, an infectious holiday card full of boogie fever. With the Sweethearts of Sigma on background vocals and Vincent Montana, Jr. behind the orchestra’s baton, the album marches through two non-stop medleys of Christmas carols that play like Donna Summer epics. Thankfully, “The Little Drummer Boy,” “Sleigh Ride,” the O’Jays’ soul of “Merry Christmas All” and the leftover disco juice heard on “Christmas Time” even out the edges.
Home for Christmas
By 1992, Christian singer-turned-pop star Amy Grant had taken the Billboard charts by storm with “Baby Baby.” A holiday album ensued, putting the singer back into more comfortable territory. Home for Christmas feels like a return to home, even while she teases holiday ditties like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” For the most part, it’s a proper return to the altar (“Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song,” “Emmanuel, God With Us”). Still, Grant – high on her pop status – offers a sexy take on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and her spin on Natalie Cole’s “My Grown-Up Christmas List” that raises the album’s profile.
Operatic pop star Josh Groban pairs up with behind-the-scenes superstar David Foster for a well-balanced holiday album that certainly satisfies his base (see “Thankful”), while also adding new converts. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is laden with real-time voice mail that packs on the melancholy tears, almost becoming some artsy package of emotion. He is surrounded by Catholic choruses on “Ave Maria” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” He also opens up to world music, bringing in Celtic vibes (“The Little Drummer Boy”) and French hymns (“Petit Papa Noël”), even playing with acoustic folk (“The Christmas Song”). It’s a delicate scrapbook of Christmas goodies for those hungry for the perfect calm.