Story by Tony BonyataWell here it is again, that season of snow on the trees, garland on gutters and warmth in our hearts (that is, for those of us who enjoy the Christmas season).
For those grinches who don't care for the holidays but would like to try, one of the best ways to invoke the Christmas spirit is the music of the season. People have been celebrating the birth of Jesus through song for centuries and still continue to do so, even though most new Christmas music focuses more on presents, sleigh rides and department store Santas than the birth of the big guy.
As different music styles have changed over the years, so has the sound of the holidays. From medieval Gregorian chants, classical baroque, traditional carols, jazz, country, folk, blues, rock and roll, and punk, Christmas music seems to fit comfortably into any genre. What follows (in no particular order) is a brief overview of Christmas music highlights from some of the different musical styles throughout time.
Frank Sinatra - The Sinatra Christmas Album (Capitol) -
On this album of Christmas standards 'old blue eyes' smoothly delivers on songs such as "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", "The First Noel" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing". On "Jingle Bells", one of the few songs that strays from it's traditional arrangements, you can almost hear Frankie spilling his martini as he purposely stutters, "Jingle Bells, Jing, Jingle Bells".
Nat King Cole - The Christmas Song (Capitol) -
O.K., O.K., I'll choose. But, first take that that gun away from my head. Nat King Cole without a doubt. No other Christmas album conjures up a warm, cozy fireplace and twinkling lights on a snowy evening more than this. Cole's voice is warm and natural, and the orchestral arrangements range from the majestic to the solemn. The tone is best summed up on the opening line of Mel Torme's classic, "The Christmas Song", "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose". It doesn't get any better than this.
Johnny Mathis - Merry Christmas (Columbia) -
Mathis along with Percy Faith's swelling orchestra have made this collection of hymns and popular carols a holiday favorite for decades. Mathis' sometimes impish sounding voice gives these songs a magical feel.
Bing Crosby - Merry Christmas (MCA) -
What would the holidays be without Bing's quintessential version of Irving Berlin's, "White Christmas", the number one best selling Christmas song of all time? Crosby's low, bubbly voice comforts on standards such as "Silent Night" and "I'll Be Home For Christmas", while introducing us to an Irish traditions on "Christmas In Killarney" and taking us to an unexpected Hawaiian isle on "Mele Kalikimaka".
The Boston Camerata - A Medieval Christmas (Elektra) -
Derived from pagan songs from the winter solstice celebrations in the Middle Ages, this collection of songs and readings, that range from the 10th to the 15th century, give an accurate account of the early sounds of the holidays through The Boston Camerata's use of authentic instruments (lutes, recorders, flutes, harp and bells) as well as an impressive period choir.
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra - Corelli / Concerti Grossi Op. 6 (BMG) -
While not exactly Christmas music, Baroque music, a classical style with highly embellished melodies which flourished in Europe in the early 1700's, nonetheless, has become synonymous with the holiday season. Tafelmusik, Canada's world-class orchestra on period instruments, reveals the richness and clarity of Baroque composer Corelli's "Concerti Grossi Op. 6", which was completed during the last years of his life.
Vienna Boys' Choir - Merry Christmas (Phillips) -
Ranging in ages from 10 to 14, the Vienna Boys' Choir perform a number of seasonal Austrian favorites here, and do it with an immense amount of clarity and power. Not bad for a singing group that turns 500 years old next July.
The Kingston Trio - The Last Month Of The Year (Capitol) -
Dave Guard, Nick Reynolds and Bob Shane, otherwise known as The Kingston Trio, deliver a nice mix of European carols and keep things interesting with their pleasing folk harmonies and stringed instruments, including guitar and banjo and the Bouzouki, a Greek instrument sounding similar to a lute or mandolin. It's hard to listen to the Trio singing about the brown ale made from the finest malted barley and downing a harmless drop of good cider on the lusty "Sommerset Gloucestershire Wassail" without raising a bit of Christmas "spirits" yourself with friends and family.
Various Artists - Blue Yule: Christmas Blues and R&B Classics (Rhino) -
This marvelous collection of blues-inspired Christmas tunes shows that while the busy holiday season provides joy for some, it also gives others the blues, as John Lee Hooker, Detroit Junior and Lightening Hopkins prove. Charles Brown is featured on the laid-back classic number "Merry Christmas Baby" , a song which first became a hit for him in 1946. The real gem here, however, is Sonny Boy Williamson's "Santa Claus" where sparks fly from Sonny's harmonica and he rasps out in a gravelly voice the tale of how he can't keep his hands out of his baby's drawers (dresser drawers, that is, filled with presents for him from his girlfriend).
Roomful Of Blues - Roomful Of Christmas (Bullseye Blues) -
Just try and keep your feet still through this rousing set of R&B Christmas classics performed by "America's best little big band", Roomful Of Blues. This swinging, bopping outfit runs the gambit of songs from Fats Domino's "I Told Santa Claus" to Chuck Berry's "Run, Rudolph, Run" to a New Orleans-styled "White Christmas" complete with syncopated beat.
Jazz / Soul
Various Artists - Hipsters' Holiday / Vocal Jazz and R&b Classics (Rhino) -
Louis Armstrong growls, "Zat you, Santa Claus?", Pearl Bailey pleads for nothing more than a five pound box of money for Christmas and gold-digging Eartha Kitt seduces old Kris Kringle on "Santa Baby" on this album of all-too-cool scat, be-bop and big band numbers.
Vince Guaraldi Trio - A Charlie Brown Christmas -
Any baby-boomer that grew up in house with a T.V. in the sixties will appreciate this album of cool jazzy numbers that were part of the perennial television holiday special "A Charlie Brown Christmas". The only letdown was the realization that these breezy little piano numbers weren't performed by ace-Peanuts-pianist Schroeder, but, in fact, by the talented Vince Guaraldi Trio.
James Brown - Funky Christmas (Polydor) -
Here we have the 'Godfather of Soul' James Brown 'taking-us-to-the-bridge' on the funkified "Go Power At Christmas Time", "Tit For Tat (Ain't No Taking Back)" and "Hey America". Not only is this a great collection of soul ,funk and blues, but let's face it, what would Christmas be without Brown's classic "Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto"?
Mahalia Jackson - Mahalia Sings Songs Of Christmas! (Columbia) -
Compiling three historic recording sessions done in 1955, 1962 and 1968 of New Orleans gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, these 18 songs celebrate the birth of the christ child. Jackson's powerful voice weaves throughout traditional hymns, carols and inspirational Christmas anthems. No where on this album, however, can her New Orleans gospel roots be found more prominent than on "No Room At The Inn", "The Holy Babe" and her signature "Go Tell It On The Mountain".
Childrens / Novelty
Raffi - Raffi's Christmas Album (A&M) -
Singer/storyteller Raffi succeeds in entertaining young children so well because he sings and speaks at their level, and this is prevalent throughout this rollicking album. All the favorites are here, "Frosty The Snowman", "Jingle Bells", "Up On The Housetop", "Deck The Halls" and "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer". Just watch out you might get as hooked to this as your kids.
Spike Jones - It's A Spike Jones Christmas (Rhino) -
Filled with traditional Christmas medleys, zany songs, such as "Jingle Bells" sung in Pig-Latin, along with hysterical voices, lyrics and instruments this is guaranteed to pull a smile from Grandma and Junior alike. The funniest moments are sung by George Rock who plays the mischievous little brat in "All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth", "(I'm The) Angel In The Christmas Play" and "Santa Claus' Son".
Elvis Presley - If Every Day Was Like Christmas (RCA) -
Here we find the most comprehensive packaging of Elvis' holiday favorites, 24 in all including unreleased alternate versions of "It Won't Seem Like Christmas (Without You)" and "Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees". These songs represent 3 different studio sessions in 1957, 1966 and 1971. The strongest songs are the ones Presley recorded with The Jordanaires in 1957. With classics such as "Blue Christmas", "Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me)", "I'll Be Home For Christmas" and the rocking "Santa Claus Is Back In Town", The King has become almost as synonymous with Christmas music as Bing or Nat.
Various Artists - The Edge Of Christmas (Oglio) -
Christmas is represented here with a slightly more modern approach with the original sounds of New York punk-pioneers, The Ramones on "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight)", Irish gutter-rats, The Pogues on "Fairytale Of New York", Queen (featuring the late Freddie Mercury), The Pretenders and Kate Bush. This is also the disc that finally captures the unlikely duet of David Bowie and Bing Crosby on the wonderfully warm and sentimental "Peace On Earth / Little Drummer Boy". While this mix of more current music may not evoke images of snowmen and decorated trees it does show, however, that as long as new musical styles continue to change, Christmas music shall too change.
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