Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Top 10 Christmas Albums Of All Time Revisited

Below is an edited and updated blast from the past that was published on Bloggerhythms in its original form on December 1, 2006. Since then I've listened to a lot of new Christmas music so, seven years later, it's time for the 2013 edition of The Top 10 Christmas Albums Of All Time. You can see the older version here.
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Every year, new holiday fare is released to the public to satiate their never-ending desire to hear Christmas music. It amazes me how the music industry continues to recycle the same Christmas songs year after year in various packages, by every conceivable artist known to man, and we keep buying. From James Galway, to Willie Nelson, to Lynyrd Skynrd, and everybody in between, Christmas music sells and sells and sells. One of the nice things about this time of year is we all enjoy music by artists that we would never otherwise think of listening to the rest of the year. A case in point is my adult daughter. She knows nothing about Nat King Cole except for his Christmas album and his perennial chestnut (pun intended), "The Christmas Song." While she enjoys this standard holiday tune very much, she would never consider listening to anything else he recorded without poking fun at the old folks who realize that Cole was one of the great jazz and pop singers of his era. At what other time of year do adults voluntarily listen to and sing along with novelties like "The Chipmunk Song" and "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" rather than changing the radio station. Keeping the above in mind, following are capsule reviews of Bloggerhythms' top ten all-time favorite Christmas albums.

1. Nat King Cole - The Christmas Song (1963)
This album, combining some of the best loved carols and songs with Mel Torme's title track, is sung by one of the 20th century's greatest voices and therefore it easily tops my list. It is one of the few Christmas albums I never tire of hearing. I'd even enjoy it if I listened to it in July. An expanded version was released a few years ago with eight additional tracks.

2. Hall & Oates - Home For Christmas (2006)
The Philadelphia duo's blue-eyed soul has never been better and their song choices for this album are impeccable. They include everything from pop (a remake of their version of "Jingle Bell Rock" is included) to ballads and high-energy gospel. They cover Robbie Robertson, Stax-Volt, and wrote two originals. To their credit Hall and Oates didn't succumb to political correctness. They had the guts to include three old traditional religious carols, the best of which finds Hall successfully navigating the tough melody of "O Holy Night." It's all beautifully performed and recorded. Here is the original, full review.

3. Various Artists - Acoustic Christmas (1990)
The CD's twelve tracks includes songs by Roseanne Cash, Shawn Colvin, The Hooters, Harry Connick Jr., and T-Bone Burnette. The album travels all the roads of acoustic music as it alternates between soft and mellow settings with the emphasis on the song and vocals (Art Garfunkel singing "O Come All Ye Faithul" is a great example) to boisterous, fun-filled arrangemnents by Poi Dog Pondering who teamed up with The Dirty Dozen Brass Band for "Mele Kalikimaka." It's all very eclectic and wonderful. You can easily find it on Amazon.

4. Brian Setzer Orchestra - Boogie Woogie Christmas (2002)
This is Setzer's first of two holiday releases and it's a barrel of fun. He and the world's most famous rock n' roll big band roar through some holiday standards with his hot guitar and lots of brass and woodwinds. It's mostly party time but when Setzer slows things down he shows he can really sing and proves he and his band are more than just a gimmick. The orchestra's versions of "Jingle Bells" and "Sleigh Ride" will blow your walls down. See the full review here.

5. Chicago - XXV/What's It Gonna Be Santa? (1998/2003)
This CD was originally released in 1998 as Chicago XXV and re-released in 2003 as What's It Gonna Be Santa with six additional songs. Why is this album so good? It's because Chicago proved they are a horn band once again and therefore it's the best set of music they've released since Terry Kath died in 1978. "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" features the Chicago horns in all of their blazing glory and it shouldn't be missed. If you like the "real" Chicago you'll like XXV. Read the complete review.

6. Michael Buble - Let It Snow (2003)
This five song EP, originally given away free by the late, great Borders Books and Music stores, and still available online, was my introduction to Buble. When I first heard these five songs I was stunned. Nobody sings like the old time big band vocalists anymore. Therefore saying Buble is the best 1940s band singer since Sinatra may seem like faint praise. However, one listen and you know Frank would have been impressed. Harry Connick's vocal chords can only be jealous of this guy. It's even better than his very good full length Christmas album that he released last year. You can buy it from Amazon.

7. Vince Guaraldi Trio - A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
This is one of the most universally loved jazz albums of all time and one of the most famous albums in history, Christmas or otherwise. Guaraldi's marvelous piano playing and composing are a perfect fit as the soundtrack to the famous TV show. It may also be the most important non-sacred Christmas album ever released because of its influence on our culture. It helped elevate the Peanuts gang to the exalted status they held for decades and that makes this record more than just a Christmas album. A new remastered version with four alternate takes was released a few years ago.

8. Pink Martini - Joy To The World (2010)
Sometimes Pink Martini is hard to swallow. Often they're too eclectic, too internationally focused, for their own good. However, on this album lead singer China Forbes and bandleader Thomas M. Lauderdale nailed it. While the large aggregation doesn't forsake their love of world music on this outing they chose more accessible offerings to go along with the more mainstream songs. There is a Japanese version of "White Christmas," a "Ukrainian Bell Carol," and a Chinese song about Winter. The liner notes tell us that "Do You Hear What I Hear" was written in October 1962 as a "plea for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis." They closed things out with what just might be the most uplifting take on "Auld Lang Syne" I've ever heard. While it's not exactly a party disc, Joy To The World will definitely lift your holiday spirits.

9. Oscar Peterson - An Oscar Peterson Christmas (1995)
There are two truly great elements to this fourteen song holiday set. First the musicianship is superb and secondly I've never heard such enjoyable improvisation around the melody without ever losing site of it. Peterson blends vibes, flugelhorn and his piano around a rhythm section with very tasteful arrangements that will make you want to listen to this album closely. As with Guaraldi's work it's far more than just Christmas music. Don't just play this album as background dinner music because it is top drawer jazz. Peterson never fails to shine and this is no exception. Buy it from Amazon.

10. John Boswell - Festival Of The Heart (1992)
New Age pianist John Boswell has wonderfully arranged these traditional Christmas carols and songs in a manner that emphasizes the beautiful melodies most of them possess. These instrumental, all acoustic offerings let the melodies shine through without any gimmicks. Listen and buy it here.

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