33 1/3 Holiday Albums You Better Have…Or Else

Posted December 2, 2012 by J Matthew Cobb in Features



Various Artists
Now That’s What I Call Christmas
(Universal, 2001)

The first of the Now! holiday albums gets things moving in the right direction. Each release since then, including the country and CCM-inspirational offshoots, has been hoping to match the greatness of this double-disc wonder. The disc is injected with the finest Muzak holiday offerings including the family favorites (Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You,” Big Crosby’s “White Christmas,” Johnny Mathis’s “Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock,” Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”) and more revered modern tunes by Springsteen, McCartney and the Beach Boys.



Johnny Mathis
Gold: 50th Anniversary Christmas Celebration
(Columbia, 2006)

“The first Christmas album was the most fun I ever had in my life,” Mathis said in the liner notes of his Gold: 50th Anniversary Christmas Celebration. The charming crooner with the irresistible vibrato struck Christmas gold when he first recorded his first full-length holiday album in 1958 with Perry Faith and his orchestra. Since then, Mathis has recorded five holiday efforts and has appeared on dozens of Christmas compilations, extending his yuletide jollies for a succulent double-disc tribute. Luckily, Gold gathers the best of those years, including his 1986 masterful rendition of “It’s the Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” his jolly wintery medley with Bette Midler (“You’re the king of Christmas,” Miss M chants) and five tracks from his highly sought out holiday debut.



The Carpenters
Christmas Portrait
(A&M, 1978)

You know when your album is destined to be some relic of Christmas’s past when your cover art is highly reminiscent of Norman Rockwell’s work. Inside, the album quickly satisfies with Take 6-esque harmonies (“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”), easy pop listening (“Merry Christmas Darling”), Southern spice (“Home for the Holidays”), string-laden disco-pop (“Sleigh Ride”) and feel-good medleys. Both Karen and Richard Carpenter are split apart on most of the tracks, but are equally showcased. By far one of their finest albums, despite the “only pull out at Christmastime” label.



Annie Lennox
A Christmas Cornucopia
Island, 2010)

On Cornucopia, Annie Lennox is totally surrounded by spiritual overtones, angelic choruses (mostly hers) and a bevy of centuries-old Celtic carols. It’s the kind of musical tapestry that feels befitting before sainthood. She marvelously executes “Angels From the Realms of Glory” with “Angels We Have Heard on High” and a haunting reprise. Lennox even silences Christmas cynics with the charity single “Universal Child,” sings of God’s praises on “The Holly and the Ivy” and offers a stunning acapella introit on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Pretty impressive for an agonistic.



Various Artists
Christmas in Soulsville/It’s Christmas Time Again
(Stax, 2007, 1990)

Stax Records released a delightful set of holiday records prior to 1969 (Carla Thomas’s “Gee Whiz (It’s Christmas),” Otis Redding’s “White Christmas,” “Merry Christmas, Baby”), but those songs have been locked away in Warner Bros. vaults due to that nasty 1968 divorce from Atlantic. 2007’s Christmas in Soulsville tries to perfect the playlist of 1990’s It’s Christmas Time Again by adding new alternative takes of Redding’s “Merry Christmas, Baby” and Booker T & the M.G.’s robustly funky “Winter Wonderland.” Of course, the Emotions whips out their solemn ballad “What Do the Lonely Do at Christmas?,” the Staples’ bring Jesus back to the forefront (“Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas?”), Isaac Hayes pours the hot buttered soul on his original “The Mistletoe and Me” and Albert King impresses with his adult fun on “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’.” Despite the absence of a few Stax favorites due to all the red tape, the best of their holiday treats surfaces here.



Bing Crosby
Merry Christmas/White Christmas
(Decca, 1942)

Originally assembled on five 78’s in 1945, Bing Crosby’s Merry Christmas started the whole Christmas album franchise. Prior to its arrival as a 12-inch long-player in 1955, it had been manufactured and distributed an astounding four times. Although many of the early recordings have been beaten profusely by Father Time, particularly the renderings of “Adeste Fideles” and “Faith of Our Fathers” sounding like near-perfect vinyl rips, Crosby’s hot cocoa vocals are left unfazed. “White Christmas” is the album’s centerpiece, but his heart-tugging performances on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Silent Night” are definitely recommended. On certain tracks, Crosby’s voice is surrounded by good company. Thanks to the inclusion of the Andrews Sisters, the Hawaiian-spiked “Mele Kalikimaka” and “Jingle Bells” merit multiple listens. It explains why many of the existing 78’s aren’t even playable.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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