OK, OK, OK, I'll do it! To my surprise, a few people have asked me to "write something about Christmas music," usually followed by "like you used to." I'm happy to oblige. Longtime readers of CL will remember when we used to run an annual look-see of new Christmas albums. It was a kind of self-indulgence on my part, but those stories always got great reader response. I think it's because for many of us, holiday music is one of the best parts of the season, as well as one of the best ways to help keep a good focus during the mad commercial rush.
So, considering the space limitations of a column, here is a list of some of the best Christmas albums, at least in my humble opinion. Hopefully, some of the recordings on this list will help get you in the mood.
Jinglebell Jazz -- Various Artists (Sony/Columbia). A splendid assembly by some of Columbia's jazz giants. Not to be missed: one of the greatest of all Yule tracks, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" by the Dexter Gordon Quartet, plus "I'll Be Home For Christmas" by McCoy Tyner and a tricky "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" by Paquito D'Rivera.
Christmas Classics -- Various Artists (Rhino). The music lives up to the title. All the rock Christmas hits like "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree," etc., are here, plus collectors' items like "Twistin' Christmas" by Santo & Johnny, the certifiably insane "Santa Claus is Watching You" by Ray Stevens, as well as Stevie Wonder's brilliant "Someday At Christmas."
The Spirit of Christmas -- Ray Charles (Rhino). An essential Christmas album that showcases Charles' heart and soul as well as his exhilarating arranging skills. The Columbia original has been remastered and reissued, with the addition of "Baby It's Cold Outside" featuring Brother Ray and jazz diva Betty Carter. A soulful classic.
A Christmas Gift To You -- Various Artists, produced by Phil Spector (Pavillion). Irreplaceable, originally released in 1963, this was the first effort to present a complete rock 'n' roll Christmas album. Spector put his stable of fabulous singers including the Ronettes, the Crystals and Darlene Love through his patented "Wall of Sound" production machine. Several classics resulted. Not to be missed: the Ronettes' tough-urban-chick version of "Frosty the Snowman."
Memories of Christmas -- Elvis Presley (RCA). Christmas was the King's favorite time of year, and it shows. This album includes the best from his original 1957 Yule album, plus some of Elvis' most soulful singing on "Why Can't Every Day Be Like Christmas" and a gutsy, eight-minute, bluesy rendition of "Merry Christmas Baby."
A Charlie Brown Christmas -- Vince Guaraldi Trio (Fantasy). This classic, originally background music for the TV special, gets better, and more entrenched in our culture, every year. Now it sounds like a long lost friend the first time you hear it each year. Guaraldi's touch on piano is simultaneously lighthearted and sophisticated, its distanced, yet affable, feel perfectly suited to our age during this time of year.
Santa Claus Blues -- Various Artists (Jass). This 23-cut CD serves up some seriously jiving old jazz and blues with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Victoria Spivey, Sidney Bechet and a lot more. Ella Fitzgerald's suggestive 1950 recording of "Santa Claus Got Stuck in My Chimney" is worth the price of this one alone. Fats Waller (who spent one Christmas in jail for not paying alimony) tickles both his ivories and his listeners on "Swingin' Them Jingle Bells" (1936). The sound quality is a bit scratchy in places, but the music's spirit makes up for it.
Hipsters' Holiday -- Various Artists (Rhino). Eighteen jazz and R&B holiday tunes, filled with fun and attitude. Highlights include Louis Armstrong's 1953 proto-rap on "Cool Yule," "Jingle All The Way" by Lena Horne, R&B masters The Marquees on "Santa Done Got Hip," and the original "Santa Baby" by Eartha Kitt.
Light of The Stable -- Emmylou Harris (Warner). Harris' heart-melting voice leads the way through traditional songs, including some spirited Appalachian seasonal tunes, as well as a few originals. This is a wonderful album, more on the spiritual side than most, and is the benchmark by which all country Christmas albums released since are judged.
Crescent City Christmas Card -- Wynton Marsalis (Columbia). Marsalis imbues seasonal classics with the bluesy feel of New Orleans jazz. Some marvelous improvisational work energizes all the cuts here, with particularly spirited playing on "Winter Wonderland" and "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow!"
Blue Yule -- Various Artists (Rhino). A stellar album of Christmas blues, most of it a romp. Highlights: the classic "Merry Christmas Baby" by Charles Brown; "Christmas Day" by Detroit Junior, a jump blues in the Louis Jordan tradition; Jordan himself with the plaintive "Santa Claus, Santa Claus"; and the incredible "Santa Claus" by the explosive Sonny Boy Williamson, singing about looking for his Christmas present "in my baby's dressa draws."