Ten Favourite Christmas Albums

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A festive entry in my little series of “ten favourite” posts.  This time I turn my attention to music and Christmas albums.  So, in no particular order…

White Christmas with Nat & Dean (LP version)

Back in the 1970s, Music for Pleasure released a lovely 12 track LP alternating songs by Nat King Cole and Dean Martin.  It was a favourite in our house while I was growing up, and featured some fine performances and, rather strangely, the split album idea worked very well.  What’s more, it was one of the few places to find Dean Martin’s “The Christmas Blues” at the time.  It all went to pieces on the CD issue though.  Extra tracks were added, but only from Nat King Cole, thus upsetting the balance and the magic was gone.   The original album is superb though, and worth grabbing just to hear Nat King Cole tell us that he’s the “Happiest Christmas Tree” (Ho ho ho, he he he).

Seasons Greetings from Perry Como

This is Como’s Christmas album from 1958 and is one of the warmest Christmas albums you will ever find.  The first side features secular festive favourites, while the second side features Como singing carols, leading to the concluding lengthy track in which he narrates the story of the first Christmas, with his narrative interspersed by snatches of carols (this was something he started doing on TV in the early 1950s).  Como’s version of “Home for the Holidays” and “Oh Holy Night” make this a must – and the final track makes it a great one for the kids. 

Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas

If ever there was an unjustly neglected Christmas album, this might be it.  Ella forgets jazz for thirty-five minutes as she leads a choir through a series of Christmas hymns and carols.  A very different affair from her Christmas album for Verve, this was her second release for Capitol in 1967, and was either ignored by critics or ravaged by them.  In reality, Ella is probably in the best voice of her career and her warmth and sincerity oozes out of every groove.

A Dave Brubeck Christmas

Jazz Christmas albums are a little hit and miss, but this one is both delightful and unusual in that it finds Dave Brubeck playing solo piano rather than as part of a trio or quartet.   This is great stuff, with Brubeck still in great form despite being in his late seventies when it was recorded.  He might be best known for his  cool/bop jazz recordings, but perhaps the most enjoyable track here is “Winter Wonderland”, which finds him playing good old-fashioned stride piano. 

Michael Buble’s Christmas

It’s not very often a modern Christmas album becomes an instant favourite, but this one seems to be the exception.  Buble presents us with an album of mostly traditional Christmas fare, but a number of tracks have a twist – such as the wonderful Dixieland take on “Blue Christmas” – and others are just so well sung and arranged that it’s hard not to fall in love with the album.

Elvis’ Christmas Album

No, not the original 1957 version, but the 1970 issue which ditches the gospel material and adds “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” (a single from 1966) and the non-festive “Mama Liked the Roses”.  The 1966 track oddly fits snugly amongst the raw sounds of those recorded nearly a decade earlier in which songs range from the dirty innuendo-ridden blues of “Santa Claus is Back in Town” (Hang up your stockings/Turn down the lights/Santa Claus is coming down your chimney tonight) to the reverent take on “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem”.   Elvis went on to record a second Christmas album in 1971, one which finds him in poor voice and singing a batch of mostly depressing, uninspired new songs.  It has to rank as one of the most disappointing sequels in history.

Harry Connick Jr: Harry for the Holidays

Harry Connick Jr’s Christmas albums are a mixed bag.  The first one, “When My Heart Finds Christmas” was so awful that ever after in our household he was known as “Harry Chronic”.   “Harry for the Holidays” is much better, and catches Harry during one of his better periods, following hot on the heels of his great “Come By Me”,“30” and “Songs I Heard” albums.  So this album features slightly left-field, whacky big band arrangements of mostly well-known Christmas songs.  “Frosty the Snowman”, which opens the album is typical of this, given a noisy makeover that makes it sound like something out of a New Orleans Mardi Gras.  It all runs a little out of steam by the end of the 65 minute album, but “Silent Night”, which closes the album, is given a lovely arrangement, mixing traditional jazz and gospel sounds. 

The Sinatra Family Wishes You a Merry Christmas

I wrote about this one a few days back in a separate post, but this is a fun album featuring Sinatra and his three kids.  Nancy Sinatra never sounded better.

Christmas with Chet Atkins

This is a lovely warm album of instrumentals from country-styled guitarist Chet Atkins, and features fourteen tracks and is ideal for non-obtrusive music while hanging up those decorations.  The original CD issue was rather botched for some reason, but it’s now available under the title “Songs for Christmas” in better sound – it couldn’t be worse than Mum and Dad’s copy of the album, though, which was bought in 1961 and regularly got stuck as the needle tried to avoid the scratches!

The Andy Williams Christmas Album

The BBC recently showed a couple of clip shows from the Andy Williams Show that ran from the early 1960s until the mid-70s (shame on the BBC for cropping the picture!).  Watching it reminds us of how talented Williams was in his prime, with vocal performances that saw him singing jazz with Ella Fitzgerald and folk with Simon and Garfunkel.   His Christmas album was released in 1963 and contains a relatively predictable set of festive favourites.   If the vocals are sometimes just a little too laid back at times, and the arrangements a little saccharine, there are still gorgeous performances of “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, “Happy Holidays” and “The Little Drummer Boy”.

This is my last post before Christmas, so have a great Christmas and we’ll gather here again in that strange lull between Christmas and New Year!

 

 

HARRY CONNICK JR: SMOKEY MARY

smokeyDo you remember when Harry Connick Jr was fun?  I was an impressionable teenager when Connick came to the fore back in the early 1990s, and he was a young man who managed to make swing and big band music cool again, and made it fun.   Anyone who has seen Swingin’ Out Live and The New York Big Band Concert would be hard-pushed not to have a good time watching Connick on stage having a ball.  And the albums that came out during the period had wonderful invention in their arrangement, perhaps reaching their peak with Blue Light, Red Light.

Then everything went a little strange.  The first Christmas album, When My Heart Finds Christmas, was good in parts but was marred by dark, heavy orchestrations of the ballads.  Then came the two funk albums, of which She was a real blast, but Star Turtle was rather hit and miss and seemed to be stretching the concept too far.  But at the end of the decade, Connick seemed to find himself again.  Come By Me was a great return to the big band genre, with some wacky orchestrations to boot.  30 was easily the best of the Harry-at-the-piano series, and Songs I Heard saw Harry giving a batch of kids songs from films the New Orleans treatment:  Music to party to, and Connick at his best.

Then it all went wrong.  Well, not so much wrong as boring. Only You was OK for what it was.  But the arrangements of these 50s and 60s pop songs were far too heavy and seemed to lack the life and vitality that was so instilled in Connick’s best music.  And the voice itself had also got older, darker and deeper.  It was almost as if Harry Connick had got middle-aged overnight.  The DVD concert that accompanied that release showed more of the same.  Gone was the spontaneous sense of fun that I had witnessed when I had seen  Connick at the Royal Albert Hall a few years earlier, replaced with a more ballad-oriented set and little of the spark between Connick and his musicians.  Even the wonderful There Is Always One More Time failed to come alight, despite the wonderful performance on 30.  There were signs of life with the two “New Orleans” albums from 2007, but that was extinguished with Your Songs.  I’m sure it’s a fine album if you’re in an elevator, but it was fatally flawed not because it was ballad-heavy, but because it was simply boring.   The live album from 2011 did little to show that Connick was coming out of the doldrums.

Somehow, during the middle of the decade, Connick had become irrelevant as other young pretenders came along and seemingly stole his thunder.  While Michael Buble started his recordings for a major label with dull retreads of old arrangements, he soon started to have arrangements that were undeniably his, culminating in the Christmas album from last year which has become an instant classic and contains some of the left-field style of arrangements that Connick used to produce.  Meanwhile, Jamie Cullum was the next pianist-vocalist, and while he’s not as talented as Connick in either capacity, he has endless energy and invention, and is never afraid to transform a song in the least likely way.  Meanwhile, there was also success for the likes of Peter Cincotti, Peter Grant and Hamel.  Meanwhile, there was little sign of Connick regaining his form, despite the fact that he was far more prolific in the album department during this period than any of these young challengers.

Bearing all of this in mind, Smokey Mary, Connick’s latest effort is a pleasant surprise, returning to the funk style of the mid-1990s albums.  There are problems here, not least the fact that the album is a mere 45 minutes, and two of the numbers are reissues of songs from Star Turtle, but the nine new songs are surprising in that, for the first time in years, Connick sounds alive.   Considering how dark and sombre his vocals have been of late, I even wondered for a while if these were recorded ten or more years ago and left in the can only to be released now, but that isn’t the case.  This is Connick sounding young and vibrant again, and for that it is most welcome.

The material isn’t quite as strong as on the first funk album, She.  That said, this is an enjoyable upbeat album of originals (and devoid of the often-strange linking tracks of the earlier albums) that sees Connick’s songwriting coming to the fore once again, and his light, airy vocals are a sign that things are looking up for Connick fans.  There are some standout tracks here, including the title track, Angola (at the farm),  and the gospel-influenced S’pposed To Be.  Allmusic’s review concludes that this is “colorful, shiny fun”, and this is a good summation.  There’s not a great deal of depth here, but it is music that allows the listener to have a good time, and for Connick fans it’s been a long time coming.

There is still a rather scary reminder that Connick is now a middle-aged man.  On opening the CD case for the first time, one is presented with possibly the worst picture of Connick ever to emerge (see below, but  the uncropped image is a lot worse!).  He is pictured on what is presumably the mardi gras float that the album is named after, but Connick really doesn’t come out of this well as he grins uneasily at the camera whilst wearing a glittery costume and standing against what appears to be metallic flowers.  It’s as embarrassing as your Dad’s dancing at a wedding, and is a worrying sign that Connick is still likely to make some baffling artistic choices as he claws his way out of the doldrums.

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