december 2012
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You know somethin', sweetheart? Christmas is, well, it's about the best time of the whole year. You walk down the streets, even for weeks before Christmas comes, and there's lights hanging up, green ones, and red ones, sometimes there's snow. And everybody's hustling some place. But they don't hustle around Christmas time like they usually do. Y'know, they're a little more friendlier; they bump into you, they laugh and say 'Pardon me' and 'Merry Christmas.' Especially when it gets real close to Christmas night. Everybody's walkin' home, you can hardly hear a sound. Bells are ringin', kids are singin', snow is comin' down. And boy what a pleasure it is to think that you got some place to go to, and the place that you're going to has somebody in it that you really love...someone you're nuts about. Merry Christmas.’

(Ralph Kramden reflecting on the Yuletide, from The Honeymooners' Christmas episode, ‘‘Twas The Night Before Christmas,’’ December 24, 1955)

 

‘Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,’ cried the phantom, ‘not to know, that ages of incessant labour by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed! Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness! Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life's opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!’

‘But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,’ faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

‘Business!’ cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. ‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’

(Charles Dickens, ‘A Christmas Carol,’ published on December 19, 1843; the above scene is from the 1984 made-for-television adaptation directed by Clive Donner and starring George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge. Frank Finlay has a star turn as Marley’s ghost giving Scrooge what-for.)

LOUIS ARMSTRONG reads 'THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS'

Recorded on February 26, 1971, in Armstrong’s home, this recording, Pops's last, was distributed as a single by the Lorillard Company. Two weeks after this session he had another heart attack and was in intensive care until May 5, when he insisted on going home. On July 5 he announced he was ready to perform again and requested his band convene for rehearsal. He passed away at 5:30 the next morning, July 6, 1971. This clip also includes the single’s B side, a live version of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

AMAZING PEACE--A CHRISTMAS POEM
By Maya Angelou

Read by the poet at the lighting of the National Christmas Tree at the White House on December 1, 2005, Maya Angelou’s celebration of the ‘Glad Season’ is a radiant affirmation of the goodness of life and a beautiful holiday gift for people of all faiths.

THE ORIGIN OF SANTA CLAUS
The modern Santa can best be described as the creative offspring of innumerable artists and cultures, which each put their own spin on a real-life person, St. Nicholas of Myra. Plus: A Bit O’ Tree Trivia.

FRANK SINATRA: THE YULETIDE REPORT FROM THE CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD
By David McGee

Bing Crosby popularized secular Christmas music, and then some, with his 1942 (later re-recorded in 1947 in the version most often heard today) recording of Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas.’ But it was Frank Sinatra who made an art form of Christmas music, sacred and secular alike. The producers-arrangers-conductors who helped him shape this art, and what he brought to it on his own, are the subjects of this definitive appraisal of the Sinatra Christmas outpourings.

SUBLIME AND SWINGIN’
By David McGee

VINCE GUARALDI’s score for A Charlie Brown Christmas endures as a masterpiece within a masterpiece. Here’s how it all came to be.

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CHRISTMAS PICKS 2013

LEROY ANDERSON & JOHN FAHEY AT CHRISTMAS—A new John Fahey volume from Fantasy, Christmas Guitar Soli, spurs an update of our previously published review of A Leroy Anderson Christmas and the Rhino two-fer of Fahey’s pair of Christmas album recorded for his own Takoma label, The New Possibility: John Fahey’s Guitar Soli Christmas Album & Christmas with John Fahey, Vol. II.

MARY J. BLIGE, A MARY CHRISTMASThe millions of fans that have been buying Mary J. Blige’s albums since her 1992 debut haven’t been buying her celebrity; they’re moved by a voice with deep roots in classic soul, gospel and R&B and the intense personal commitment she makes to her lyrics. These attributes are in abundant evidence on A Mary Christmas, which is nothing less than far and away the best new Christmas album of a strong 2013 season.

BLUES, BLUES CHRISTMAS VOL. 3, et al.A new volume of Document’s invaluable Blues, Blues Christmas anthology joins its preceding volumes and Legacy Recordings’ 2012 release, Death Might Be Your Santa Claus, in conjuring a Yuletide of many hues beyond the blue.

 

GLEN CAMPBELL, THAT CHRISTMAS FEELINGFinally, a domestic CD reissue of Glen Campbell’s 1968 Al De Lory-produced (-arranged-conducted) That Christmas Feeling. Two bonus tracks from a 1969 multi-artist Yule anthology have been added to the original album’s 11 tracks to add even more luster to this most heartfelt, soulful addition to the Christmas album canon. Thus a classic restored.

CANADIAN BRASS, CHRISTMASTIME IS HERE--With a discography of more than 100 albums to its credit, Canadian Brass has proven it is never at a loss for clever concepts in delivering music from across the ages in a different fashion. The quintet’s latest holiday album, Christmas Time is Here, is a fine example of this ethos at work as the beloved quintet honors the music of animated Yule specials (notably Vince Guaraldi’s score for A Charlie Brown Christmas) and the arrangements of former Brass members Luther Henderson and Brandon Ridenour.

JOHNNY CASH: CLASSIC CHRISTMAS ALBUM-- For all his well-publicized spiritual backsliding, Johnny Cash was a man strong in his Christian faith, and Christmas offered him an opportunity to express that faith most devoutly. Many of the songs featured here reference the Christ child’s birth and the hope of redemption and salvation He offered, as well as His legacy of love. In short, family and faith are the major themes here, so if you’re looking for something ornery, better take it on down the line.

NNENNA FREELON & THE JOHN BROWN BIG BAND, Christmas-- This tasty jazz Christmas offering from Cambridge, Massachusetts, native Nnenna Freelon finds the six-time Grammy nominee (whose artistry extends to producing, arranging and composing) teaming up with Duke University’s jazz program director John Brown and his John Brown Big Band for some lively (and contemplative as well) tours of familiar Yuletide fare while also bringing a Christmas flair to a couple of other usually-non-seasonal tunes. In style and spirit Christmas honors Ella Fitzgerald’s wonderful secular seasonal album with her music director Frank DeVol, Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas.

DAVID IAN, Vintage Christmas Wonderland-- As a followup to his acclaimed 2011 Vintage Christmas full-length album, jazz pianist-guitarist-arranger David Ian follows a similar template with much the same cast, pares the set list down to five tunes--three sacred, two secular--and comes up with an unqualified gem.

GEORGE JONES & TAMMY WYNETTE: CLASSIC CHRISTMAS ALBUM-- Give compilation producer Gregg Geller credit for bringing a sense of humor to the task of compiling tracks for the George Jones & Tammy Wynette Classic Christmas Album entry. Granted, he didn’t have a Sinatra-like wealth of holiday outpourings from which to choose, so maybe it’s not so surprising that, apart from the traditional favorites here, the album breaks down to Possum taking the lead on songs despairing of the holidays bringing anything but misery and Tammy balancing the scales with positive, upbeat or inspirational forecasts.

GLADYS KNIGHT & THE PIPS: CLASSIC CHRISTMAS ALBUM-- Alternately earnest and spirited, and exceedingly well produced, the Classic Christmas Album entry from Gladys Knight & The Pips plays it a bit safer than most of the albums in this series but it has moments, more than a few, to remember.

NICK LOWE, QUALITY STREET: A SEASONAL SELECTION FOR ALL THE FAMILY Nick Lowe might not immediately spring to mind as an artist you’d expect to find releasing a Christmas album—he can, after all, come off as curmudgeonly and unsentimental, much closer in spirit to Ebenezer Scrooge than to Bob Cratchit. But when his new label home, Yep Roc, suggested a holiday project, he took it under advisement and shortly thereafter bought in. The result, Quality Street, fulfills his vision, and comes complete with a subtitle that might strike some fans as being quintessentially snarky in a Nick Lowe kind of way but is in fact completely sincere. He keeps Christmas well.

MARTINA MCBRIDE: CLASSIC CHRISTMAS ALBUMWith cuts drawn largely from her truly classic White Christmas album of 1998, Martina McBride’s entry in Legacy’s Classic Christmas Album series also features her posthumous duets with Dean Martin and Elvis Presley (and both are pretty good, in fact) and serves as the next installment of her ongoing dialogue with Christmas—and a fairly scintillating one it is, at that.

MARIA MULDAUR, CHRISTMAS AT THE OASIS-- Initially available only at her live dates, then offered only on her website, Maria Muldaur’s Christmas the Oasis (recorded in 2010 at San Francisco’s now-defunct Rrazz Room) is now available on Amazon as a manufactured-on-demand CD-R—whatever it takes to get it into wider circulation, because it’s one grand, swinging affair, as rollicking a Yuletide celebration as one could ask, with our gal cutting loose in splendid, attitudinous voice throughout and a powerhouse band kicking it behind her on some vintage holiday fare, including three chestnuts most associated with Louis Armstrong, as well as some evergreens from some of the female blues singers of yore she admires so much.

MINDY SMITH, Snowed InIn 2007 Mindy Smith released one of that year’s finest Christmas albums in My Holiday. Six years later she’s in the spirit again, albeit in EP mode, on this delectable five-song missive titled Snowed In. It’s another seasonal winner for Ms. Smith, whose plaintive voice and sheer conviction is nothing short of captivating

BARBRA STREISAND: CLASSIC CHRISTMAS ALBUM-- When it came time to compile a setlist for Barbra Streisand’s Classic Christmas Album entry, producers Didier C. Deutsch, Jeffrey James and Tim Sturges probably couldn’t believe they were getting paid for this task. Babs has but two Christmas albums in her catalog, separated by 34 years’ time, but in their combined 23 tracks the discs offer a bounty that must have made the producer team giddy. This is Streisand at her apex in recordings made almost three-and-a-half decades apart. Make no mistake--she’s the classic here, and a classy one at that.

ANDY WILLIAMS: CLASSIC CHRISTMAS ALBUM — Let it be said that the late Andy Williams knew how to keep Christmas well. The man recorded no less than eight Yule albums, three of which provide the bulk of the material for this Classic Christmas Album release. Given that most of the tracks fall in that period when Williams was not only hot on the charts but also hosting his own wildly popular TV variety show, he’s in peak vocal form here. It’s a most wonderful time, this album.

THE STORIES BEHIND THE CHRISTMAS SONGS

NEW!
CONVENTRY CAROL & THE SLAUGHTER OF THE INNOCENTS

The origin of the haunting carol is traced to King Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents as described in the Gospel of St. Matthew 2: 16-18.

NEW!
THE MURKY ORIGINS & EVERLASTING LIFE OF ‘JINGLE BELLS’

When James Lord Pierpont of Medford, Massachusetts, sat down at the piano in Simpson’s Tavern—a boardinghouse that owned the town’s only piano—and wrote a song he titled “One Horse Open Sleigh” in 1850, he wasn’t intending to give the world a jolly Christmas carol; in fact, in an undocumented but thus far irrefutable claim, scholars agree that the song was penned as a Thanksgiving treat for Pierpont’s father’s Sunday School class.

NEW!
‘IT MUST HAVE BEEN THE MISTLETOE’: THE SEASONAL STANDARD NO ONE WANTED

After Justin Wilde and his songwriting partner Doug Konecky had finished composing ‘It Must Have Been the Mistletoe,’ their dream of contributing a classic seasonal standard to the Christmas celebration met harsh reality: it was pitched and turned down some 376 times. Then Barbara Mandrell (above) recorded it, and lo, dreams did come true.

‘DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR?’: A CHRISTMAS CLASSIC FOR A NUCLEAR ARMAGEDDON
“Do You Hear What I Hear?”, one of the few Christmas songs written after 1960 to become a true seasonal standard on a par with classics such as “White Christmas,” was the product of an interfaith couple’s mutual concern for the fate of the world during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. That listeners and critics often missed its true intent was an oversight that gnawed at the songwriters.

HOW WENCESLAS BECAME THE GOOD KING
‘Good King Wenceslas’ tells a story of Good King Wenceslas braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (the second day of Christmas, December 26). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king's footprints, step for step, through the deep snow. The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (907–935). Writing circa 1119, Cosmas of Prague describes the King’s transformative experience, exactly how he earned his regency and how he became the subject of a beloved Christmas carol written in 1835 by English hymn writer John Mason Neal and his music editor, Thomas Helmore.

TALES OF TWO CAROLS: 'ANGELS WE HAVE HEARD ON HIGH' and 'IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER'
The history of two beloved Yuletide carols, ‘Angels We Have Heard On High,’ which has its origins in 18th Century France, and ‘In The Bleak Midwinter,’ based on a Christina Rossetti poem written before 1872, published in 1904 and set to Gustva Holst’s ‘Cranham’ in 1906.

THE STORY OF ‘SILENT NIGHT’
By Dr. David Nelson

The words for the Christmas carol we know as "Silent Night" were first set down on paper in 1816 in the tiny Alpine village of Mariapfarr, Austria, by Fr. Joseph Mohr. Two years later, music was added by Franz Xaver Guber and the song was performed for the first time in the Alpine village of Oberndorf, Austria, on Christmas Day, 1818. The fame of this composition spread throughout the world and 181 years later, people are still touched by both the simplicity and the strength of its message. In a five-part opus, Dr. David Nelson recounts the fascinating history behind the creation of ‘Silent Night’ and also uncovers Franz Gruber’s personal statement explaining the song’s origins.

RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER: ‘YOU’LL GO DOWN IN HISTORY’—AND HOW
You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen… But do you know the real-life tragedy that spurred ROBERT MAY(above) to write a poem for his four-year-old daughter that became a cultural and multimedia phenomenon, especially after his brother-in-law JOHNNY MARKS turned it into a song? Rudolph, with his nose so bright, takes flight.

*‘I HEARD THE BELLS ON CHRISTMAS DAY’
‘HOW INEXPRESSIBLY SAD ARE ALL HOLIDAYS’ describes how HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW
, reeling from the death of his wife by fire and the wounding of his son in the Civil War, composed a poem in which its author's doubt of God's existence is expunged by the message pealing from Yuletide bells. Herewith the true story of the events animating Longfellow's agonizing verses and the text of the complete poem, including two stanzas directly referencing the horrors of the Civil War that were omitted in 1872 when John Baptiste Calkin arranged Longfellow's verses into the seasonal classic expressing the triumph of good over evil in the world, 'I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day.'

MARVIN GAYE SINGS A CHRISTMAS SONG
by Forest Hairston

Songwriter FOREST HAIRSTON and his friend Marvin Gaye are credited as co-writers of ‘I Want To Come Home For Christmas,’ a song Gaye recorded in 1972 around the time he was working on his Trouble Man album. The song was supposed to be released as a Tamla single that year, but was withheld and did not see the light of day until 1990’s four-CD box set, The Marvin Gaye Collection. How the song came to be, what Marvin did with it, and its bittersweet aftermath are the focus of Hairston’s warm reminiscence.

CHRISTMAS REFLECTIONS

WHAT CHRISTMAS IS AS WE GROW OLDER
By Charles Dickens

Time was, with most of us, when Christmas Day, encircling all our limited world like a magic ring, left nothing out for us to miss or seek; bound together all our home enjoyments, affections, and hopes; grouped everything and every one around the Christmas fire; and made the little picture shining in our bright young eyes complete.

And is our life here, at the best, so constituted that, pausing as we advance at such a noticeable milestone in the track as this great birthday, we look back on the things that never were, as naturally and full as gravely as on the things that have been and are gone, or have been and still are? If it be so, and so it seems to be, must we come to the conclusion that life is little better than a dream, and little worth the loves and strivings that we crowd into it?

YES, VIRGINIA, THERE IS A SANTA CLAUS
In the September 21, 1897 edition of the New York Sun, editor FRANCIS PHARCELLUS CHURCH responded to eight-year-old VIRGINIA O’HANLON’s query ‘Is there a Santa Claus’ with what became the most famous newspaper editorial in American history. Herein the complete Church response plus additional background on the dramatis personae, with illustrations and a video of the elderly Virginia O’Hanlon reading Mr. Church’s response to her query to a group of children.

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VIDEO FILE

MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM WALT DISNEY

FIVE 20th CENTURY ANIMATED YULETIDE CLASSICS
Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, Chip ‘n’ Dale, Pluto, Scrooge McDuck--the whole gang and more is here in a quintet of wonderful animated Christmas tales. The feature attractions are: Once Upon a Wintertime’ (1948, with the singing voice of FRANCES LANGFORD); ‘Santa’s Workshop’ (a 1932 Silly Symphony featuring FRANZ SCHUBERT’s ‘March Militaire’ on the soundtrack; ‘The Night Before Christmas,’ the 1933 sequel to ‘Santa’s Workshop’; ‘On Ice’ (1935, featuring Mickey in his early incarnation when he still had a tail; plus an excerpt from The Small One, the Disney Studio’s 1978 animated tale (based on a children’s book by Charles Tazewell) of a boy who sells his old donkey to a man who needs it to carry his wife to Bethlehem.

Christmas Fiction

*PAPA PANOV'S SPECIAL DAY
By Leo Tolstoy

Old Papa Panov, the village shoemaker, stepped outside his shop to take one last look around. The sounds of happiness, the bright lights and the faint but delicious smells of Christmas cooking reminded him of past Christmas times when his wife had still been alive and his own children little. Now they had gone. His usually cheerful face, with the little laughter wrinkles behind the round steel spectacles, looked sad now. But he went back indoors with a firm step, put up the shutters and set a pot of coffee to heat on the charcoal stove. Then, with a sigh, he settled in his big armchair.

*THE SNOWDROP
By Hans Christian Andersen

It was winter-time; the air was cold, the wind was sharp, but within the closed doors it was warm and comfortable, and within the closed door lay the flower; it lay in the bulb under the snow-covered earth.

One day rain fell. The drops penetrated through the snowy covering down into the earth, and touched the flower-bulb, and talked of the bright world above. Soon the Sunbeam pierced its way through the snow to the root, and within the root there was a stirring.

"Come in," said the flower.

CHRISTMAS IN VERSE

Seven touching poems about Christmas and not a one of them ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’! Our featured Yuletide poets are: ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON, BEN JONSON, WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, CHRISTINA GEORGINA ROSSETTI, GEORGE WITHER, HENRY VAUGHAN and WALTER SCOTT. Accompanying music by ALFRED DELLER (performing an adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘Heigh Ho, The Holly’ titled ‘Hey, Ho, The Wind and The Rain’); the CHOIR OF KING’S COLLEGE CAMBRIDGE, ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’; and FRANK SINATRA waxing poetic on ‘An Old-Fashioned Christmas,’ by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen.

THE GOSPEL SET

*'GLORY, GLORY TO THE NEW BORN KING'
Gospel at Christmastime
By Bob Marovich

When did the tradition of gospel artists recording Christmas carols begin? One is inclined to answer that Mahalia Jackson set the standard in 1950 with her Apollo recording of "Silent Night," but the tradition goes back much further, more than two decades before the release of Mahalia's disc. In truth, Christmas recordings by African American sacred artists predate gospel by several years. Our gospel editor Bob Marovich, of the Black Gospel Blog, takes a look at the history of Christmas-oriented gospel music in America.

*In THE TWELVE CLASSIC GOSPEL SONGS OF CHRISTMAS, Bob Marovich selects his favorite dozen Yuletide gospel songs.

CHRISTMAS CLASSICS ON DVD

*‘GOD FORGIVE ME FOR THE TIME I’VE WASTED’
In Clive Donner’s 1984 TV adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, GEORGE C. SCOTT offers a definitive Ebenezer Scrooge in a production solid from beginning to end, with an evocative score by the brothers Bicat.

*FROM THE INKWELL: AN ANIMATED CHRISTMAS:Reviews of four essential animated Christmas shorts: A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, Disney Animation 7: Mickey’s Christmas Carol, The Snowman(above)

CHRISTMAS ESSENTIALS

By David McGee (unless otherwise noted)

tony bennetCLASSIC BENNETT, CLASSIC CHRISTMAS: The Season Brings Out The Best In Tony
Eighty-six years old as of August 3, and still swinging and crooning with impeccable stylishness and über-coolness, TONY BENNETT is making a run at his buddy Frank Sinatra’s heretofore-unchallenged supremacy in both the quantity and the quality of Christmas recordings in their respective catalogues. This year’s brings a splendid new anthology of the classic crooner’s Yuletide outpourings, The Classic Christmas Album, which we consider along with a seasonal classic of a different name, 1968’s reissued Snowfall.

bubleMICHAEL BUBLÉ, Christmas--Winning takes on familiar fare; a sense of history informing some of the tunes; empathetic duet partners; and thoroughly engaged vocalizing, not perfect but perfect in its intent and evincing in its many moods a sensitivity to seasonal textures: the Canadian crooner’s Christmas was Number One for a reason.

celtsTHE CELTS, Christmas With The Celts--Conceptually taut and flawlessly executed with all hearts on deck, Christmas With the Celts at times stretches the boundaries of seasonal music but never loses sight of seasonal verities. It will endure.

 

DALLAS WIND SYMPHONY, Horns for the Holidays-- If you are a lover of Christmas music—carols, popular songs, and all manner of medleys and clever arrangements of such—and you miss this extraordinary recording by the first-rate Dallas Wind Symphony, then your holiday listening stands to be just a bit more dull, less festive, and more ordinary than it could have been. This is a terrific program, in exemplary sound, that not only celebrates the Christmas music tradition but exemplifies the best of the wind ensemble genre.

skaggsIF IT’S CHRISTMAS, IT MUST BE THE SKAGGS FAMILY, TWICE OVER
Seven years after the release of the first Skaggs Family Christmas album, a tasty collection of a dozen sacred and secular carols, the whole clan returned last year with Volume Two of A Skaggs Family Christmas, an impressive triple-gatefold package containing a 10-song CD of studio and live performances plus an accompanying two hour-twenty minute DVD of the entire Skaggs Family Christmas Show, recorded live in Nashville.

gatheringTHE GATHERING--It has a certain magic about it, this music, in the seeming ease of its instrumental virtuosity coupled to a spirit of friendship and common cause—there is not a moment on The Gathering that doesn’t sound free and impassioned, musicians having a great time playing with each other and giving their hearts to the task at hand. A memorable Christmas moment by way of the gathered artistry of Laurelyn Dossett; the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens; the John Hartford and Nashville Bluegrass Bands’ Mike Compton; multi-instrumentalist Joe Newberry; and double-bassist Jason Sypher.

anonymous 4CHRISTMAS IN ANTIQUITY, EXQUISITELY RENDERED
As related by THE BALTIMORE CONSORT in Bright Day Star, and ANONYMOUS 4 in Wolcum Yule.

 

mandy barnettMANDY BARNETT, Winter Wonderland--Despite a boatload of critical acclaim over the years, the expected breakthrough commercial smash has eluded Mandy Barnett. It’s unlikely a Christmas album will do what her two studio albums from the ‘90s could not do, but if one could, Winter Wonderland would be it. It is, quite simply, a virtuoso performance of sensitive, nuanced vocalizing, as good as it gets, in service and bringing fresh energy to a clutch of beloved seasonal standards.

ray charlesRAY CHARLES: The Spirit of Christmas
Brother Ray does Christmas pretty much as you would expect—in his own way, never predictably, and not without some surprises along the way.

 

 

CHRISTMAS THE MOUNTAIN WAY (Various Artists)—A CD/DVD combo from a show earlier this year in Pineville, Kentucky, featuring some of the top names in traditional bluegrass celebrating the true meaning of Christmas in familiar carols and a couple of new tunes written especially for this occasion. DALE ANN BRADLEY, STEVE GULLEY, MARTY RAYBON, COMMON STRINGS, CUMBERLAND RIVER, MIKE SCOTT and DEBBIE GULLEY are among the impressive roster of top-tier bluegrassers who make this an essential Christmas offering from the Rural Rhythm label.

nat king coleNAT KING COLE: The Christmas Song, Like No Other Christmas Song
Christmas is illegal without Nat King Cole, right? Surely it would violate the laws of this land for a season to pass without the reassuring tones of the man with the smoky grey voice blessing us with a comforting "Merry Christmas...to you," his annual benediction reaffirming warm tidings of home, family and seasonal traditions, unsullied by cynicism, untouched by post-modern angst.

bingA MERRY CHRISTMAS WITH BING CROSBY & THE ANDREWS SISTERS-- Few male-female vocal pairings of a holiday nature summoned the festive and the reflective spirit of the season alike with more grace and conviction than that of Bing Crosby and Andrews Sisters Patty, LaVerne and Maxene. This 20-track collection contains all six of the wonderful Crosby-Andrews Sisters pairings on record, a couple from 1950, the others from the ‘40s, dating back to 1943’s double-sided gold-certified hit single, “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” b/w “Jingle Bells.”

parkeningKATHLEEN BATTLE and CHRISTOPHER PARKENING: Angels’ Glory
To the energy and intellect the marked his playing in his early professional career, Christopher Parkening has over time (notably since returning from a self-imposed retirement in the early ‘80s, during which he became a devout Christian) added restraint as another essential ingredient to his approach. He uses it as effectively as the late film director Stanley Kubrick used silence, making it an identifiable element of his art, a near-sensuous presence as a defining feature of the soundscapes he constructs with strings. It is one of the many compelling aspects of his exceptional pairing with the temperamental lyric soprano Kathleen Battle on the seasonal fare comprising Angels’ Glory.

armstrongBING CROSBY and LOUIS ARMSTRONG: a Yule without Der Bingle or Satchmo would be comparable to finding a lump of coal in the stocking on Christmas morn.

 

 

dorisDORIS DAY, Complete Christmas Collection--Wonderful technique is at work in all of Day’s recordings, but what she wrought in her Christmas material is something beyond technique, something abiding in the exalted realm of the heart, where pure feeling produces the peace that passes all understanding. This is beautiful.

dylanBOB DYLAN, Christmas From the Heart
By Billy Altman

I think it's safe to say that, were he so inclined, Bob Dylan would probably be having himself a merry little "Ho ho ho" surveying all the furrowed-brow commentary surrounding the "meaning" of his Christmas In The Heart. The CD finds Dylan delivering disarmingly straightforward renditions of fifteen Yuletide tunes, all of which have been part of our collective consciousness since everyone's childhood. As he's periodically demonstrated throughout his near half-century in the public eye, Dylan is an artist who at his core really does understand and respect the value of tradition.

ella fitzgeraldELLA FITZGERALD: And A Swinging Christmas To You, Too
Remastered and reissued in 2002, the First Lady of Song's only album-length collection of secular Christmas songs ranks with the finest efforts of her gifted peers, including those of her staunch fan and supporter Frank Sinatra.

arethaARETHA FRANKLIN: Making Believers Of Us All
Whether live or in the studio on Joy To The World, Aretha Franklin is never far from the gospel highway--the church infuses everything she does here. So mark this one a seasonal keeper, by the sheer force of Aretha's unassailable artistry and bountiful spirit. She'll make a believer of you, in many ways.

haggardMERLE HAGGARD: Making a Stand for Things That Matter
The world of 1973 wasn't in nearly as bad a shape as it is now when Hag penned his devastating chronicle of a family on the edge of financial collapse, "If We Make It Through December," but if ever a sentiment was appropriate for our time, with unemployment seeming intractable, and the economy at home and even more so abroad still staggering, it is this. The song was chilling enough back then, but now it seems eerily, unfortunately prescient—Hag saw it all coming.

HEREFORD CATHEDRAL CHOIR, Christmas from HerefordA lovely and unusual disc, this cozy, gentle and varied collection of Christmas music from Hereford Cathedral is broken into three sections: Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. The music ranges from the 14th-century Resonemus laudibus, a joyous piece arranged with a fanciful organ part by David Willcocks to offset the rigidity of the medieval melody, to a work by John Tavener (his glorious—and only—brief masterpiece, The Lamb), with stops in between, in each of the three sections, for one of Mendelssohn’s short but imposing Op. 79 motets.

jacksonJACKSON 5: ULTIMATE CHRISTMAS COLLECTIONThe original Jackson 5 Christmas Album, though less introspective and minus the spirituality of Yuletide long players by labelmates Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and Stevie Wonder, is a classic Christmas album nonetheless simply for doing what the Jacksons were doing so well back then—speaking to their audience with a lot of heart and abundant, infectious energy. The original 11-song LP is remembered for its high spirits and hard charging performances; the Ultimate version of the J5 Christmas album is fleshed out with spoken Season’s Greetings from four of the five brothers (including Michael), and six other musical tracks. The original album, though, remastered and reissued on CD in 1993, will do just fine for those on a budget or preferring an undiluted Jackson 5 holiday bonanza.

alan jacksonALAN JACKSON: Right At Home For Christmas
Two very different approaches to Christmas music are defined in Alan Jackson's Yuletide long players. Honky Tonk Christmas, released in 1993, came near the beginning of Jackson's hit-filled career, and it emphasizes his reverence not only for the season but for the style of country music he prefers and has made his trademark when other artists of his generation and younger are recycling '80s arena rock riffs. Let It Be Christmas, from 2002, is from an artist at the top of his game, assured enough to broaden out his basic band with orchestra, strings and a large background chorus, adopting a soft, dreamy pop ambience in stark contrast to the stripped down approach of its holiday predecessor.

bb kingA SOUL EVER MORE GRATEFUL FOR WHAT IT KNOWS OF LOVE
The interesting fact about B.B. KING's first Christmas album is how the sum of the parts adds up to something greater than what went down in Maurice, Louisiana's Dockside Studios in June 2001. Taken individually, the performances on the album are warm and ingratiating enough, appropriate to the season, some treated in a lighthearted manner, a couple of blues getting down into the depths of feeling; but when it's all over, a spell lingers. There's something special about the imprint B.B. puts on these songs--the conviction in his voice, the personality he projects throughout, Lucille's sunny tone—and when that's coupled to his road band's high spirited accompaniment the end result is a model Yuletide blues album that sneaks up on a listener.

nancy lamottSUFFUSED WITH BEAUTY
NANCY LAMOTT
and beauty were on intimate terms. It radiated from her warm personality, resonated in her tender vocals, and suffused the recordings she made before succumbing to cancer in 1995 at age 43. Disc jockey Jonathan Schwartz declared Lamott the finest cabaret singer since the Chairman of the Board, praise well earned by Lamott and thoughtfully dispensed by Schwartz. Like Sinatra, Lamott sought out literate songs with a folksy quality--the settings may have been urbane, but the feelings were universal. The Great American Songbook has rarely had so effective an advocate as Nancy Lamott. Her lone Christmas album, Just In Time for Christmas, is a crash course in all that was remarkable about this gifted artist.

LOS ROMEROS, CHRISTMAS WITH LOS ROMEROS-- In a world whose centrifugal globalizing powers are stretching the fibers of closely-knit tribal units to breaking point, the final days of December don't just mark a time of stability, but of unity: Having mostly sacrificed its religious meaning in favor of commerce, Christmas, to most, has retained its significance by remaining a family ritual. So it should seem only consequential that Los Romeros should finally record their first Christmas album after half a century at the pole position of the guitar quartet, a genre they have made their own like few others.

GOOD TIDINGS FROM LITTLE MISS DYNAMITE: Brenda Lee Makes Christmas Memorable
From “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” to “Papa Noel” to “Christmas Time Is Near,” the 18 tracks comprising The Best of Brenda Lee: The Christmas Collection, so unassuming in its design, assay a wide range of feelings, and illustrates anew the great synergy between producer Owen Bradley and artist BRENDA LEE. All those enduring pop and country hits were no accident, and the performances herein, though less well known, are standing the test of time quite well, too, thank you.

motownOF SOUL, AS AN AFFIRMATION OF OUR COMMON HUMANITY: THE ULTIMATE MOTOWN CHRISTMAS COLLECTIONThe best reason to buy all the classic ‘60s Christmas albums from legendary Motown artists such as the Supremes, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, and the Temptations, among others, is because those albums are so good in and of themselves. However, the two-CD, 51-track The Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection is pretty great on its own, too, in that it serves up some of the finest performances from Motown greats along with some worthy installments by good artists who followed the label’s Golden Era. Make no mistake, though—the big names carry this double-disc set, and they alone elevate it to the rank of Yuletide essentials.

murpheyMICHAEL MARTIN MURPHEY, ACOUSTIC CHRISTMAS CAROLS: COWBOY CHRISTMAS II--What can you say? At every step Murph makes all the right moves and delivers a Christmas message in a style all his own, as intimate in its concept and execution as it is expansive in its larger meaning. This is a big-time album, in a quiet way.

oconnerMARK O’CONNOR, AN APPALACHIAN CHRISTMASComprised largely of superb, previously released performances, An Appalachian Christmas is, says O’Connor, in “the spirit” of the mountain region he sometimes calls home. Purists may indeed agree with an Amazon reviewer who can’t spell Appalachia but decries this as being Appalachian in stock cover photo only; but even taking such objections into account, what’s right here is the spirit invested by some of today’s finest musical artists in lending virtuosity, heart and soul to these proceedings. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

patti pageTHEN, NOW, ALWAYS PATTI PAGE
Considering a consummate stylist’s two fine Christmas albums, released almost fifty years apart, 1955’s Christmas With Patti Page and 2002’s Sweet Sounds of Christmas, on which she reduces age to irrelevance.

 

persuasinsTHE PERSUASIONS: IN ALL WEATHERS, GLAD TIDINGS
Given how fundamental the church has been to just about everything the Persuasions have sung in their long career, it’s rather amazing that it took this incomparable a cappella quintet until 1997 to get around to a Christmas album. What’s important, though, is that they did get around to it, because it’s everything you would expect of a Persuasions Christmas album and more.

elvisELVIS PRESLEY: The King Keeps Christmas Well
Despite reports of Elvis's blasé attitude going into those 1957 and 1971 sessions, however, a listener would be hard pressed to hear anything on the finished products but warm, committed vocalizing on the traditional carols and spirituals and feisty, carefree spirit on the rock 'n' roll and blues numbers.

setzer‘ZAT YOU, SANTA CLAUS?
Brian Setzer puts his cat clothes on and rocks the Yule, again
Christmas 2009 brought another Brian Setzer Orchestra Yuletide blast in Ultimate Christmas Collection, a compilation boasting some of the swingin’est tunes from his two holiday long players in a collection further sweetened by a DVD, Christmas Extravaganza, featuring no less than 25 songs from a near-two-hour performance.

soul christmasSOLACE AND LAUGHTER IN A VALLEY OF TEARS
Originally released at the end of a tumultuous 1968, Atlantic's SOUL CHRISTMAS collection, featuring southern soul greats such as Otis Redding, William Bell, Carla Thomas, Clarence Carter, Booker T. & the MG's, and others, came along with a message of love, conciliation and reconciliation, delivered with conviction, warmth, inclusiveness and a dollop of humor. It was recorded by black and white musicians in studios in New York and Nashville, but mostly in Memphis, not far from the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. King lost his life. Soul Christmas abounded in hope without ignoring reality, offered solace and laughter in a valley of tears. It still does; you just have to work a little harder to get there.

spectorTHE MYTHIC WEIGHT OF PHIL SPECTOR'S CHRISTMAS GIFT
By Billy Altman

Few holiday albums carry the mythic weight of 1963's A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector, wherein Spector sought to put his personal stamp on Christmas music by "treating" a batch of well-worn Yuletide classics to his signature "Wall of Sound" production style. Here's what happened next, when tragic history intruded on the young producer-titan's dream project.

staffordJO STAFFORD: Season’s Greetings Of A Singular Nature
Assessing the essential holiday recordings by one of the greatest of all American pop singers. Quoth Lester Young: ‘I hear her voice and the sound and the way and the way she puts things on. Enough said.’

stingCENTURIES OF SENTIMENT AND CELEBRATION
By Christopher Hill
STING, If On A Winter’s Night; SUSAN MCKEOWN & LINDSEY HOMER, Through the Bitter Frost and Snow

Every once in a while, an artist happens down the Christmas trail through whose senses we can feel the season freshly; combine that with centuries of festive associations, and you can really have something.

DONNA ULISSE, ALL THE WAY TO BETHLEHEM From the first brisk, fingerpicked acoustic guitar notes on the album opening hosanna, “I See the Light of the World,” to the near-identical melody and spirit summoned by the fiddle, mandolin and pennywhistle on the closing exaltation, “Morning In Bethlehem,” and the vignettes and music that fall in between these bookends, Donna Ulisse’s song cycle All the Way to Bethlehem is not merely close to perfection, it’s a work of art.

winterbloomWINTERBLOOM, TRADITIONS REARRANGEDIt’s unclear at this point exactly how down with Father Christmas the four impressive gals of Winterbloom really are, but they sure have made their holiday EP a memorable event, acerbic and reverent all at once.

yearwoodTRISHA YEARWOOD, THE SWEETEST GIFT--For her first holiday album, one of country's great singers eschewed the safety of seasonal favorites for a 50-50 mix, with half of the songs being newly penned by contemporary songwriters. Despite being no stranger to huge, soaring ballads, Yearwood here opts mostly for a low-key approach, and by and large keeps it country; in the end the sweetest gift is quietude.

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GATHERING EVERGREENS

(from our archives, other recommended recent and vintage Christmas music)

THE EDIE ADAMS CHRISTMAS ALBUM with ERNIE KOVACS

DEANA CARTER, Father Christmas

CHERISH THE LADIES, A Star in the East

A CHRISTMAS CELTIC SOJOURN LIVE

JOHN COWAN, Comfort &Joy

CHARLIE DANIELS, A Merry Christmas To All

ENYA, And Winter Came

ETTA JAMES, 12 Songs of Christmas

HEY ROSETTA, A Cup of Kindness

TOBY KEITH, A Classic Christmas, Vols. One and Two

PATTY LOVELESS, Bluegrass & White Snow

DEAN MARTIN, Christmas With Dino

KATHY MATTEA, Joy For Christmas Day

REBA MCENTIRE, The Best Of Reba: The Christmas Collection

JANE MONHEIT, The Season

NEW GRANGE, Christmas Heritage

JOE NICHOLS, A Traditional Christmas

BRAD PAISLEY, A Brad Paisley Christmas

SHEDAISY, Brand New Year

MINDY SMITH, My Holiday

JAMES TAYLOR, At Christmas

PAM TILLIS, Just In Time For Christmas

THE JAY UNGAR & MOLLY MASON FAMILY BAND, A Fiddler’s Holiday

CHRISTMAS COOKIES (Various Artists)

O CHRISTMAS TREE: A BLUEGRASS COLLECTION FOR THE HOLIDAYS (Various Artists)

SHIMMY DOWN THE CHIMNEY: A COUNTRY CHRISTMAS (Various Artists)

WONDERLAND: COOL DECEMBER (Various Artists)

WONDERLAND: UNDER THE MISTLETOE (Various Artists)

WONDERLAND: YULESVILLE (Various Artists)

THE VENTURES, The Ventures’ Christmas Album

WYNONNA, A Classic Christmas

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