The 12 CDs of Christmas

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This article originally ran on December 22, 2006.

‘Tis the weekend before Christmas, and something like a hundred million Americans are heading to a place called home. They still call it that, though they’ve lived far away for years, and have created new branches of the family they grew up in. This trip into the past may be pleasant or painful. But for most people, whether or not they are practicing Christians, the soundtrack of that wayback machine is Christmas music: the religious and secular tunes, the novelty songs and ballads. Grandma has spun these standards for a half century or more, replacing the 78s with LPs, then cassettes and now CDs. The formats change; the songs and feelings don’t. Sometime in the next few days, you’ll hear Bing Crosby sing “White Christmas,” and shed a tear or grit your teeth.

Young people, reared in the current Rude Era of pop culture, might be miffed at having to endure, on the home field of their elders, the one time of year that celebrates family and sentiment. Deal with it, kids. These fogies put you through school and probably put up with a lot more. The least you can do is keep your eyes from rolling when a senior citizen plays the Andy Williams Christmas album (or turns the channel to It’s a Wonderful Life).

You might even learn something. For aside from the cinnamon and schmaltz that infuse many carols, the great American Christmas songbook affords young people their most sustained exposure to the vocal skills of the early to mid 20th century. I speak of pitch, clarity, enunciation, the artfully natural wedding of lyric and melody, intellect and emotion — what used to be called singing. Ignore the lofty, dewy texts of these songs, if you want, and attend to the care the singers invest in the succession of notes, the chain of aural imagery. You might ask: Where has this been all my life?

And if you don’t, fear not, your ordeal will be over soon.

What follows are notes on a dozen familiar Christmas albums, most of them traditional, all chosen from the collection of a married couple very like the people who are about to force this music on you. These CDs play while the harder-working, more creative member of the pair decks the halls, the bedroom, the bathroom and the lobby. For Mary, it’s a sacred mission that takes weeks. And while she dresses the tree, I listen again to the renditions of these songs — which from time to time have made me cringe — and marvel at their emotive and staying power. The albums are listed in chronological order of their original release.

1. Bing Crosby, Merry Christmas, 1954

Bing pretty much invented the Christmas music industry. He’d been hosting Christmas specials on radio since 1936. Then in 1942 he introduced Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” in the film Holiday Inn. Tapping into the nostalgia that GIs at war felt for their first Christmas away from home (as did another Bing hit, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”), the song stayed at #1 on the hit parade for seven weeks. Reissued each year thereafter, it topped the charts again in 1945 and 1946, and was in the top 15 eight other years. In the mid-’40s Crosby recorded eight Christmas songs issued in an “album” of four 78 rpm discs, and that was the basis for this 12-song LP, which has never gone out of print. Bing does a little globetrotting here, adding songs with Irish and Hawaiian settings, but it’s basically that warm Crosby baritone, equally adept at solemnity (a robust “Adeste Fidelis”) and swingin’ (the vamps of “Jing—jing—jing—jingle bells” that he swaps with the Andrews Sisters). Among holiday LPs, this is the all-time champ.

2. Gene Autry, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Other Christmas Classics, 1956

Crosby had “White Christmas,” but the singing cowboy from Tioga, Texas, scored three huge Christmas hits in three years: “Here Comes Santa Claus” (#9 in 1947), “Rudolph” (#1 in 1949) and “Frosty the Snowman” (#7 in 1950). These were part of the Christmas novelty-song trend, which included “All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” (Johnny Marks, who wrote “Rudolph,” rode another trend in 1957 with the not-very-rockin’ “Jingle Bell Rock.”) This album, reissued in 2000, lassos together all of Autry’s seasonal singles.

3. Nat King Cole, The Magic of Christmas, 1950s

The first black artist with his own network TV show, Cole was a jazz pianist whose voice was too lyrical and intimate to be shut up. He put that silky, highly palatized tenor to splendid use in this collection, which was everybody’s second Christmas album. (You couldn’t play Bing all the time.) Like Crosby, Cole mixed the religious and the secular songs, his vocals lending a silky cohesion to the enterprise. Best remembered is “The Christmas Song,” by Robert Allen and Mel Torme, which Nat first recorded in 1946 and made his own. He had us at “chestnuts.”

4. Elvis Presley, Blue Christmas, 1957

What kind of Christmas album would rock ‘n roll’s first superstar make? Well, the opening track, a Leiber-Stoller R&B number called “Santa Claus Is Back in Town,” sounded a declaration of war against the Christmas—music tradition. As Elvis growled and screamed it: “Hang up your pretty stockin’s / Turn off de light / Santa Claus is comin’ / Down the old chimney tonight.” Sexually explicit enough for ya? The title track — which lyrically is just another song about being alone or lonely on a holiday that’s meant to reunite loved ones — was sung as a cry of sexual deprivation. Elvis’ “White Christmas” borrows heavily from the 1954 doo—wop version by Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters; but most of the other renditions are not so extreme. He does an excellent, committed “Silent Night,” with careful intonations that his Tupelo elocution teacher would’ve been proud of (a soft hammering of those final t’s). And “Here Comes Santa Claus” shows how much the crooner in Elvis owed to Crosby.

5. Johnny Mathis, Merry Christmas, 1958

“Johnny, you’re the king of Christmas,” Bette Midler tells him on Mathis’ latest collection, Gold: 50th Anniversary Christmas Celebration, before they lend their still-expert chops to a medley of “Winter Wonderland” and “Let It Snow.” At 71, Johnny is certainly the season’s most consistent troubadour, having done Christmas albums in 1958, 1963, 1969, 1986 and 1993. Stick with the first, which matches Mathis’ clear, confident tenor to a familiar batch of seasonals. A camp highlight is “Sleigh Ride,” in which Johnny unleashes a falsetto, tres gay “Yoooo HOO!” The numbers get lush, warming orchestral support from the man whose very name embodies the propriety and piety of Christmas: Percy Faith.

6. Peggy Lee, A Christmas Carousel, 1960

Reissued this year as Christmas With Peggy Lee, this innovative album contains many less familiar songs, including three of the singer—songwriter’s own compositions (“Don’t Forget to Feed the Reindeer,” “Christmas Carousel” and “The Tree”). Lee could bring as much sex to singing as Elvis; but whereas he was singing from the gut and the gutter, she was the voice of mature eroticism. She sexualizes a neutral song like “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” (undermelody: “Big fat Santa’s on his way”), turning Saint Nick into a sugar daddy. Mostly, though, the mood is one of longing and regret, which suits a vocal style so intimate it was practically internal. Her beautiful “White Christmas” emphasizes the distance between the singer and the people she wants to be near. In the Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn “Christmas Waltz,” the chorus goes: “And this song of mine / In three—quarter time / Wishes you the same thing too.” But there’s a tentative, almost skeptical tinge to those “wishes.” She knew that, even (or especially) at Christmas, grownups don’t get everything they hope for.

7. Various Artists, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, 1963

Long before he was an eccentric recluse charged with murdering an actress, Spector was the wunderkind of pop—rock production techniques, infusing such girl—group hits as “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Be My Baby” with his Wagnerian pomp and sonic drive. In this great set, arranger Jack Nitzsche smartly attaches vamps from RB (Sleigh Ride‘s “ringa-linga-linga-ding-dong-ding”) and the Big Band era to the Christmas hits of the previous two decades (no spirituals here) and supplements the tambourine-and-drum pulse of the Spector sound with chimes, sleigh bells and a million maracas. The Crystals’ propulsive version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” might be my favorite Christmas song ever. This is a meticulous Christmas album: you’ll hear rarely used intros and second choruses to go along with the excellent sax solos and samplings of faux Mozart. Like his singers, Spector was still a kid in 1963; he turned 23 the day after Christmas. And he still had sensational work ahead (“River Deep Mountain High’). But the Wall of Sound never got better than this.

8. The Roches, We Three Kings, 1990

Instead of sitting the children down for a reading of The Little Engine That Could, some gramps will tell them, “Once, kids, there was a thing called harmony.” There’s no richer reminder of how lovely three voices singing as one can sound than this album by the New Jersey sibs: soprano Terre, contralto Maggie and alto Suzzy. The sisters’ neo-traditional sound works wonders on a range of Christmas songs. A third of the 24 cuts are of secular songs, including a Caribbean-flavored “Deck the Halls,” a “Sleigh Ride” whose percussion is horse-clop tongue clicks and a very heavily Brooklyn-accented “Winter Wonderland.” Even the infectious title track has an folk-rocky vibe. Overall, though, the program is liturgical, the tone inspirational, the impact indelible.

9. Oscar Peterson, An Oscar Peterson Christmas, 1995

I know people (I’m married to one) who cherish Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas as the finest holiday jazz album. But I’ll take this one, from Montreal’s gift to coolness. In 1993, the pianist suffered a stroke that severely restricted his left side. But, as this buoyant set shows, he could still outplay the competition with one hand tied behind his back. “Christmas Waltz” is the one you’ll be hitting the replay button on.

10. Trey Parker, Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics, 1999

Mr. Hankey is a talking turd who, in the early years of South Park, emerged for the annual Christmas show — notably the all-singing episode that sprang from this, the most obscene and fabulous of all holiday CDs. Parker and uber—chartsman Marc Shaiman worked their coprophagic magic on material both traditional and original. Parker uses the pseudonym Juan Schwartz for the fatalist’s folk tune “Dead, Dead, Dead” (“And so on Christmas morning / Let good tidings fill your head / What a festive season! / Some day you’ll be dead”). Eric Cartman warbles a soulful misdirection of “O Holy Night” (“Jesus was born and so I get presents”). Not to ignore Hanukkah, Parker and Shaiman expand the tune “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” into a five-part round for Kyle, his parents, Stan and Cartman; and Kyle plaints “The Lonely Jew on Christmas” with the help of someone who sounds like Neil Diamond. (It’s Parker again; he’s everywhere.) For the prissiest of your relatives, you can play the finale: a seriously heartfelt chorale of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” But all 18 tracks are funny, terrific and, in their oddball fidelity to the conflicting spirits of Christmas, kind of sweet.

11. Various artists, Ultimate Christmas, 1998

If you buy (or can tolerate) only one Christmas album, this is it. Among the 17 tracks are Bing’s “White Christmas,” Elvis’ “Blue Christmas,” Nat’s “The Christmas Song,” Johnny’s “Sleigh Ride,” Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby,” Sarah MacLachlan’s “Song for a Winter’s Night” and, to go out on a note of heartbreak, Judy Garland’s original of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” We’ll be playing this one forever, if the fates allow.

12. Sarah McLachlan, Wintersong, 2006

When the stockings are hung, the kids are in bed and two grownups sit before the fireplace, nursing glasses of eggnog and pondering the emotional vectors of the past year, this is the album to put on. McLachlan works in a whisper, like Peggy Lee, but with an audible poignancy rather than sexiness. She renders “Silent Night” as a lullaby to the baby Jesus, and mines all the yearning in “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Addressing not just Christmas but all the chilly months, Wintersong is truly a seasonal CD. My favorite pieces are by two of the singer’s fellow Canadians. Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song for a Winter’s Night” is another lonely-in-the-cold ballad — “If I could only have you near / To breathe a sigh or two / I would be happy just to hold the hands I love / On this winter’s night with you” — that McLachlan treats as both a prayer and a plea. In her take on Joni Mitchell’s “River” she gives us a little epiphany. Twice she sings “I wish I had a river so long, I would teach my feet to fly” — and the second time, she holds the last word for 10 seconds, as it gathers strength, touches on a wistful tenderness and breaks off. In one note, and so many moods, it is a perfect flight, from gentle ascent to a graceful landing on tiptoe.

Which sets me to thinking about another virtuosa vocalist. Isn’t it odd, and sad, that k.d. lang — the supreme lyric reader of our time, the modern singer without rival at making sentiment sound like world-weary wisdom — hasn’t done a Christmas album? That would be a lovely present under next year’s tree.

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