Thursday, November 29, 2012

Tis the Season

Tis that time of year again, when stores put out their green and red and cover everything in cotton snow, towns line the streets with festive lights and every mother’s child puts out a flippin’ Christmas album.

I believe I did a few Christmas posts a couple of years back, and likely expressed my misgivings with the holidays at one point in my life. But with age and kids, my old soft heart has caved and I’ve found that I rather like Christmas music. As always it’s an emotional thing, and few tunes can swing with zany delight or break your heart into a billion pieces better than those we only pull out for about five weeks at the end of each year. And personally, I prefer classic songs to new compositions, and a more standard, “reverent” rendering of those songs than an amped up throw away tossed on some “Rockin’ XXXmas!” compilation. Of course there are exceptions in both categories, and I believe I’ve mentioned The Pogues/Kirsty McColl ditty Fairytale if New York as a personal favorite, and have also always enjoyed the Cocteu Twins take on Frosty the Snowman and Winter Wonderland.


I “don’t allow” Christmas music in the house until Thanksgiving Day, and it irked me to no end to see trees and garland for sale at Target before it was even Halloween. But now that Turkey Day is behind us, it’s been a holy and a holly jolly good time left and right. This year I beefed up the rather small collection of Christmas albums with several that were on sale for “I’ll pay that” cheap at a couple of places. None of them are in the category of A Charlie Brown Christmas, the greatest Christmas album of all time (and if you don’t agree, you are flat out wrong), but one or two might be darn near close in their own way.

Let’s begin!

Frank Sinatra – Christmas Songs by Sinatra: This here is a re-release of a repackage of an original release from back in 1948 that had various other songs tacked on here and there along the way. None of this material was recorded after 1950, so this is prime Sinatra. For the most part it’s a “ballads” collection, so better for background dinner music than to get the party hoppin’, but a few numbers in the middle swing as only Frank can. My favorite part is the bits recorded for broadcast to the troops overseas, complete with pre-song dialog.

Louis Armstrong & Friends – What a Wonderful Christmas: An obvious cash-in on Armstrong (he only appears on about six of the fourteen songs), this is still an excellent collection, as his “friends” include the likes of Duke Ellington, Mel Torme and Lena Horne, just to name a few. I’m not sure that Louis is really well known for his rendition of any one Christmas jingle, but Eartha Kitt’s Santa Baby is always a sexy delight and Torme’s take on his own Christmas Song, while not the definitive Nat King Cole version, reminds you why this is usually considered the greatest Christmas song of all time. But the standouts for me are the lesser known cuts, and especially from Louis, with tunes like Christmas in New Orleans, Cool Yule and the cake taker, ‘Zat You, Santa Claus?

Carpenters – Christmas Portrait: This is the only one I considered a possible gamble and, while I’m not officially ranking, may be my favorite of the bunch. Apparently this version of the album adds tracks from their second Christmas album, the post-Karen An Old-Fashioned Christmas. And really, “old-fashioned” as in “traditional and wholesome” is what they were going for here, and I mean that in the best way possible. Richard C certainly had a vision here with his grand chorals and sweeping symphonies, and the focus here is not Karen but the entire production itself, as through a series of vocal medleys and instrumental highlights she doesn’t make a full on appearance until track 4. From start to finish this is a big production, but always tastefully so, from song selection to arrangements and delivery, and it never drags, never goes too far over the top and hits you in all the right places, both toe-tapping and heart-wrenching/warming.

Dean Martin – My Kind of Christmas: This appears to be a reworking of a previous collection of Dino’s well known (and not so) Christmas standards. All the obvious holiday radio staples are up front and in classic, mischievously lovable form, from Baby It’s Cold Outside to Silver Bells to Rudolph. In addition are some lesser known but equally delicious numbers like Christmas Blues, as well as Blue Christmas, the whacky A Marshmallow World and the not necessarily Christmas, but certainly fitting, I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm. In an attempt to keep things hip and fresh, a reworking of I’ll Be Home for Christmas as a duet with Scarlett Johansson isn’t quite mind blowing but is certainly entertaining (and admittedly the final decider in me picking up the CD), but “The Swingin’ Yuletide Mix” of Winter Wonderland, complete with in your face bass and dance beat, absolutely wrecks an otherwise fantastic version of the song. I guess you can’t get through the season without a couple of broken ornaments.

Burl Ives – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: One problem with holiday songs is that there are pretty much 25 or 30 that you hear over and over again, and that everyone seems to do ad nauseum. And for the most part these are all great songs, so that’s a good thing. But when you’ve just picked up a handful of albums and White Christmas is on most of them…well, you know. That’s what makes what is essentially the soundtrack to the 1969 Christmas special for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, featuring the always perfect Burl Ives, rather refreshing. And to be sure, his take on A Holly Jolly Christmas is the “hit” of this whole deal, but not-likely-to-be-on-your-Pandora-station offerings like the touching Silver and Gold and the nyah-nyah We’re a Couple of Misfits not only conjure up immediate images from the show, but add a little variety to the sometimes monotonous fruit cake that is listening to holiday music for extended periods.

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