Saturday, December 4, 2010
The only Christmas albums anyone needs
Philbin or Carey? Presley.
If there's a broken heart for every light on Broadway, then there must be 10 bad Christmas albums for every light on the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.
My take on music - all music - is that there are only two kinds: good and bad. Good music is good every season, and bad music is bad every season.
So while you may find me playing the Ventures' Christmas Album in the middle of July, you'll likely only find me playing the Regis Philbin Christmas album while I'm being waterboarded by the CIA.
With that in mind, here are the only essential Christmas albums you'll ever need, and - take my word for it - they sound just as great when you're mowing the lawn as they do when you're shoveling the snow:
1. and 2. Elvis Presley - Elvis' Christmas Album and Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas
Elvis has not one but two essential holiday albums - and they're packed with an embarrassment of Christmas riches.
Elvis' Christmas Album has got some great gospel - (There'll Be) Peace in the Valley (For Me) and I Believe - his definitive recording of Blue Christmas, and a great, bluesy rendition of Leiber-Stoller's Santa Claus is Back in Town.
Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas is even better. As Rolling Stone says, "it includes one bravura performance after another" including If I Get Home on Christmas Day, "the King's best recorded vocal."
It also has Elvis' intentionally hilarious treatment of of the blues classic, "Merry Christmas, Baby" in which our hero lustfully longs for his baby over James Burton's rousing guitar solos.
3. The Ventures' Christmas Album
This album was recorded in the mid-60s and melds the pop hits of the day with the Christmas classics of yesteryear.
I have no idea if or how the Ventures got the Beatles to approve the I Feel Fine/Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer mashup, but after giving it a listen, I think that you'll agree that the Ventures, the Beatles, and Rudolph should hang out more often:
4. Merle Haggard's Christmas Present
I'm usually not much of a country fan, but the first time I heard this album, it stopped me in my tracks; like Elvis Presley's In the Ghetto, Haggard's If We Make it Through December rings true as a depressing account of what it means to have no money or prospects at Christmastime - a nice reminder in the recessionary times in which we live.
Half originals and half standards (Silver Bells is the best cover), this album's emotional resonance reveals the shameless holiday cash-in albums to be exactly what they are.
5. Phil Spector's Christmas Album (aka A Christmas Gift For You)
The ultimate rock and roll Christmas album - released under a variety of titles over the years - backed by Spector's famous and fabulous wall of sound.
Exceptional performances by Spector's stable of artists abound, but Darlene Love's Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) is the standout. Every year, David Letterman brings her back on his show to sing it, and every year she knocks it out of the park.
And if you only know Phil Spector from his creepy appearances in court, his sentimental, spoken Christmastime coda on the album is just the thing you'll need to confirm your suspicions that he was a crackpot long before the law ever caught up with him.
6. Jackson 5 Christmas Album
The best way to remember Michael Jackson isn't by watching his videos - too creepy a descent into plastic surgery and skin bleaching for me - but by listening to this excellent album of lighthearted fun (Frosty the Snowman) and sentimental favorites (Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas).
The best track by a mile is one of young Michael's greatest vocals: Give Love on Christmas Day.
7. Stevie Wonder - Someday at Christmas
Wonder - at age 17! - makes his way through standards and originals, though there's nothing here written by Wonder himself. Highlights include the title track (reminding us to have hope for peace in a shitty world) and Ave Maria (ditto).
8. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles - A Season for Miracles
As laid back as Christmas can possibly be with mellow but satisfying renditions of Deck the Halls and Stevie Wonder's I Can Tell When Christmas is Near.
9. Various Artists - Soul Christmas
A who's who of soul artists - Joe Tex, Booker T. and the MGs, Solomon Burke, King Curtis among them. Standouts include the most-depressing Christmas song ever recorded, Otis Redding's White Christmas, and the song that puts the X into Xmas, Clarence Carter's Back Door Santa:
10. Various Artists - Rhythm & Blues Christmas
Another incredible compilation, featuring 10 songs recorded between 1949 and 1967. Includes the greatest Christmas song ever recorded: Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters' White Christmas. Listen and learn where Elvis stole the arrangement on his first Christmas album:
The album is sadly out of print, but the song is widely available everywhere, including iTunes.