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Christmas Classics: New and Old


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I love the Christmas season, like everyone else, but not just for the presents, the food, the time spent with family. No, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are my favorite time of year because it’s the only time I can openly listen to my favorite music without friends and roommates thinking I’ve lost my mind. I listen to Christmas music furtively throughout the year—on New Year’s Eve, at Eastertime, on the Fourth of July. Only when the leaves start falling again do I feel comfortable enough to drop the headphones and turn up the volume.

That’s not to say I’m one of those sentimental people who tries to “spread Christmas cheer throughout the year.” I just happen to think that many musicians are at their best when they apply their talents to a celebration of Christ’s birth. For instance, I’m not generally a huge fan of big band music, but I love the Christmas music of that era, from Bing Crosby to Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald to Rosemary Clooney. I don’t often listen to 1960s bubblegum pop, but when Karen Carpenter sings “Merry Christmas, Darling,” I drop what I’m doing.

A lifetime of compulsive listening might not fully qualify me as an expert, but I hereby present my picks for the best Christmas albums of this season and last, from both Christian and secular artists, along with a quick recap of a few must-have classic albums for anyone looking to start their own collection.

Fred Hammond Christmas: Just Remember
Fred Hammond - Fred Hammond Christmas: Just Remember
As you might expect from one of the most original artists in gospel music, every song but one on Fred Hammond’s Christmas album is a new composition. And the one that isn’t (“Go Tell It on the Mountain”) is so unfamiliarly smooth and distinctive, you might think it’s new, too. On the whole, the selections are slower and mellower than many of Fred’s earlier, rollicking recordings, but true gospel fans won’t mind. His voice is earnest and plaintive, just the right combination to move your mind into a frame of worship.
Holiday! - Crystal Lewis
Crystal Lewis - Holiday!
I’ve had an almost obsessive appreciation for Christian vocalist Crystal Lewis’s music since seeing her in concert, an experience I definitely recommend. And this album is hands-down her best. Her band abandons its usual techno-inspired, synthesizer-driven sound in favor of a simple jazz trio—piano, string bass, and trap set. But Crystal herself is the greatest instrument of all, a soaring, unpretentious soprano who gives new life to standards like “Joy to the World,” “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and (they said it couldn’t be done) “Jingle Bells.”
Let It Be Christmas - Alan Jackson
Alan Jackson - Let It Be Christmas
If you’re not a country music fan, keep an open mind on this one. There are a few honky-tonk-style steel guitars, but they quickly fade into the background to allow a more traditional orchestra to take over. (They stage a literal duel in “Winter Wonderland” ... and the orchestra wins.) Alan’s voice is well-suited to this new background, a smooth, versatile baritone who can take his place next to Bing, Andy, and Nat (see below) as a modern-day Christmas crooner. He never quite loses the country twang, but that’s part of the appeal. Another refreshing aspect of country music is its unabashed connection to its gospel roots—Alan sings a convincing “Silent Night” that achieves the level of serious contemplation.
Christmas Extraordinaire - Mannheim Steamroller
Mannheim Steamroller - Christmas Extraordinaire
I grew up in Nebraska, where New Age composer Chip Davis is revered as a local boy who made good. Perhaps that’s why I have a soft spot for Mannheim Steamroller, despite the band’s occasional (okay, I’ll admit it, frequent) lapses into dorkiness. Mannheim takes great care, on all four of its Christmas albums, to play old songs with the instruments that originally would have been used (for instance, clavichords for medieval tunes) ... but then often overlays that authentic sound with synthesizers, destroying the effect. But when these guys are on, they’re really on. In their newest album, “Hallelujah” (from The Messiah) and “Silver Bells” are dorky in the extreme ... but “Away in a Manger” and “The First Noel” are right on.
The Christmas Shoes - Newsong
Newsong - The Christmas Shoes
The members of Newsong have such an undisguised Christian-contemporary sound, their harmonies alone seem to exude the gospel message. This album features many old favorites and a few new songs, including the sappy but popular title track. Their vocal style is fairly straightforward and their attitude worshipful on hymns like “What Child is This” and “The First Noel.” But the reason I place this album among this year’s best is for one song alone: “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” It’s frantic and hysterical—and its placement in the middle of such a serious album is almost scandalous. With a quick riff on the Peanuts Christmas theme in the opening track, Newsong pays homage to both of the greatest Christmas cartoons of all time.
Boogie Woogie Christmas - The Brian Setzer Orchestra
The Brian Setzer Orchestra - Boogie Woogie Christmas
Setzer is the former lead singer and guitar frontman for the Stray Cats, a neo-swing band, and his 16-piece eponymous orchestra has a similar sound. I can confidently say that this is the most accomplished Christmas album by anyone this year, and predict its staying power as a classic. The fun begins with a jazzed-up “Jingle Bells” and doesn’t let up through an instrumental “Nutcracker Suite” and more contemplative “O Holy Night.” The blaring brass and Setzer’s crooning vocals are reminiscent of a more exciting time in American pop music—the ’57 Chevy-turned-open-sleigh on the album cover says it all.
Christmas - Jaci Velasquez
Jaci Velasquez - Christmas
I have to admit that this album, from the young Christian star, surprised me. Jaci’s voice has always been mature beyond her years, but I’m glad she seems to be growing out of her pop phase and attempting a more classic sound, with orchestration. The selections here are mostly slow, which won’t win her many new teenage fans, but her rich vocal color makes up for the monotonous tempo. “O Come O Come Emmanuel” is one of my favorite Christmas carols anyway—and Jaci’s version is stirring, a flashback to the big-band vocal goddesses of the 1940s.

Okay, enough with the new stuff. The following classic albums are the indispensables, the non-negotiables. If you’re just getting started with your Christmas collection, start with these and fill in the gaps later.

White Christmas - Bing Crosby
Bing Crosby - White Christmas
The granddaddy of them all. Even if you live in a cave with only an AM radio for company, you’ve heard the title track enough times to do your own impression. I don’t need to tell anyone about Bing’s resonant, cream-smooth vocals, but you might be surprised at the unmasked Christian overtones of his first few tracks, including “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and the nineteenth-century hymn “Faith of Our Fathers.” Bing throws down his lowest note on “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” (a low F, for those of you trying at home).
Elvis' Christmas Album
Elvis Presley - Elvis' Christmas Album
What can I tell you about Elvis that you don’t already know? He released two Christmas albums in his lifetime, this one and Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas (1971). The earlier one is better for two reasons. First, the extravagant instrumentation that marked his later career hadn’t yet developed, leaving his voice free to take center stage. The other reason is that half of the songs on the first album are sacred, and not just for Christmas—including “Peace in the Valley,” “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” and “It’s No Secret (What God Can Do).” Forget the cultural legend that Elvis became, and just enjoy his raw, heartfelt sound.
The Andy Williams Christmas Album
Andy Williams - The Andy Williams Christmas Album
I might be unfairly partial to this one, since I listened to it innumerable times growing up. Andy’s version of “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is the sort of big-band extravaganza that makes you get up and take a whirl through the Plaza ballroom ... or your one-bedroom apartment, wherever you happen to be. Andy also does something unthinkable for any musician today—he corrects the grammar on an African spiritual (“Sweet Little Jesus Boy”). The song’s powerful lyrics (“please forgive us, Lord / we didn’t know who you were”) overcome this misstep, though, and make it one of the album’s most moving selections. A few more essential crooner albums I’ve left off for the sake of brevity are Frank Sinatra’s A Jolly Christmas, Ella Fitzgerald Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song, and Dean Martin’s Making Spirits Bright.
A Charlie Brown Christmas - The Vince Guaraldi Trio
The Vince Guaraldi Trio - A Charlie Brown Christmas
The Charlie Brown Christmas special was the first prime-time TV program to feature a character quoting Scripture. It was also the first (and to my knowledge, only) made-for-TV movie to release a soundtrack, from legendary jazz composer Vince Guaraldi. With a bare minimum of instrumentation (piano, bass, drums, and occasional vocals from the Peanuts kids), Guaraldi achieves something close to magic—jazz that is both accomplished and accessible, classy and fun. Only one track might annoy some listeners—the kids’ scream-singing of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”—but otherwise this is a perfect selection for holiday parties or just hanging around the Christmas tree.
A Christmas Album - Barbra Streisand
Barbra Streisand - A Christmas Album
This album confirms my longtime thesis that Barbra Streisand is crazy. After you hear her schizophrenic “Jingle Bells,” you’ll agree. But you’ll listen to it again. The rest of the songs are much more serious, and include a bittersweet take on “My Favorite Things,” and a lovely “Ave Maria.” I have to ask the obvious question, though—what’s a nice Jewish girl doing singing sacred Christian hymns (“Silent Night,” “I Wonder as I Wander”)? The power of the songs themselves overcomes Babs’ motives for singing them, but the effect can be somewhat disconcerting for those who actually believe the words and are moved by them. (By the way, Barbra released a new holiday album, Christmas Memories, last year. It’s very good, but I didn’t include it on my “best” list for a few reasons. For starters, there’s virtually no conflict this time between her religion and the lyrics. And the final pan-religious ode “One God” is a throw-away for anyone with any real convictions whatsoever—“So many children calling to Him / by many a different name ... For your God / and my God / are one ...” I suppose we can only expect as much in this era of bland tolerance.)
Christmas Portrait - The Carpenters
The Carpenters - Christmas Portrait
If you don’t already love Richard and Karen Carpenters’ sound, you can at least admire the sheer magnitude of this project. They cover 34 (count ’em, 34) Christmas songs in the course of 70 minutes, several of them in medley format, twelve of them sacred. Not all are performed by the sisterly half of the duo—Richard gets his share, as does the orchestra. In fact, Karen is absent for the first ten minutes, before she finally steps in with the opening strains of “Christmas Waltz”: “Frosted windowpanes / candles gleaming inside ...” When she does, you won’t begrudge the price of admission.
- Ethan Campbell
December 2002
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