Sunday, December 23, 2007

James' Top 5 Christmas CDs

Since we've been listening to a lot of Christmas music lately, I thought I'd take this opportunity to blog about my Top 5 Christmas CDs. Before I do, I'd like to explain my selection criteria.

Besides the tree, Christmas music is one of the best parts of the holiday season. (12/24/06)
Besides the tree, Christmas music is one of the best parts of the holiday season. (12/24/06)

First of all, these are favorite full-length albums, not individual Christmas tracks. If it were actual Christmas tracks, the list would A) be very hard for me to compile, and B) certainly include many songs that don't appear on these favorite albums. Secondly, I limit my scope to Christmas albums by a single band, artist or entity. No compilations!

Lastly, I only list my Top 5 (as opposed to my Top 10) because I felt the Top 5 were far superior than what I would have included in #6-10. I do give honorable mention to Tony Bennett's Snowfall, Clay Aiken's Merry Christmas With Love and Peggy Lee's Christmas Carousel, however I don't think these albums even come close to the quality and timelessness of my Top 5. So with no further ado, here they are:

5. Barbra Streisand — A Christmas Album

Sometimes the oldies really are the goodies. And that is certainly the case with Barbra Joan Streisand's classic 1967 release. This one ranks on several Top Christmas Album lists, and with good reason. It's dang good.

Barbra Streisand - A Christmas Album (1967)
Barbra Streisand - A Christmas Album. (1967)

It's also incredibly diverse. One minute you're enjoying Babs' playful take on a highly-syncopated version of "Jingle Bells." Next thing you know, you're hearing "My Favorite Things" in full torch-song styling. And just when you're thinking it couldn't get more different, she knocks you out with her devotional covers of such sacred hymns as "The Lord's Prayer" and Gounod's "Ave Maria."

The album also contains what I believe is the definitive recording of "White Christmas," one of my all-time favorite Christmas tracks. It's funny to think that one of my favorite Christmas songs is sung by, and written by, two people of the Jewish faith (Irving Berlin was Jewish). It just goes to show that the magic of Christmas music isn't limited to those who celebrate it. (Although the same can't be said for Neil Diamond, whose Christmas album is one of my least favorites).

This is simply one of the best Christmas albums out there. Period. I am sorry to say, however, that my acclaim doesn't extend to Barbra's 2001 Christmas album, Christmas Memories, which was disappointingly average. It's not bad. But it's not great either. Sometimes the Christmas magic only strikes once.

4. Sarah McLachlan — Wintersong

Released in 2006, this is the newest album on my list. Although the album opens with a fairly ordinary cover of the John Lennon/Yoko Ono "Happy Xmas (War is Over)," it's when you hit track #2 that you realize this is a whole new approach to traditional Christmas music. McLachlan's re-melodization of the time-honored classic, "What Child Is This," is not only totally fresh, it's stunningly beautiful. The same can be said about her re-interpretation of "I'll Be Home for Christmas."

Sarah McLachlan - Wintersong. (2006)
Sarah McLachlan - Wintersong. (2006)

She includes a beautiful cover of Joni Mitchell's "River," which I never really considered a Christmas song before. I know it mentions "Christmas" in the lyrics, but it just never seemed like it belonged on a Christmas compilation. That is until Wintersong came out.

The album also contains an original song, "Wintersong," which always scores points in my book. And it helps when the song is amazing, as is this one. Another facet I must mention is the soulful duet with Diana Krall on Vince Guaraldi's "Christmastime is Here," made famous in the timeless 1965 TV special, A Charlie Brown Christmas.

But my absolute favorite track on the album has to be "The First Noel/Mary Mary" which after the first chorus, is completely different from the original melody, but just as beautiful. Definitely add this to your wish list for next year if you don't already have it.

3. Ella Fitzgerald — Ella Wishes You a Swingin' Christmas

This album, the oldest on my list, is a toe-tapping, finger-snapping delight. Released 47 years ago, this album by one of the most influential jazz singers in American history, is simply timeless. Between Ella's crisp vocals and the amazing orchestration by Frank DeVol (who despite his many successes, is best known for having orchestrated The Brady Bunch series), this album is pure gold.

Ella Fitzgerald - Ella Wishes You a Swingin' Christmas. (1960)
Ella Fitzgerald - Ella Wishes You a Swingin' Christmas. (1960)

The album comes out of the gate with Ella's bright and lively "Jingle Bells." She slows things down a little for "The Christmas Song," which really shows off DeVol's amazing ear for orchestration (gotta give mad props to to the guy who did that tight xylophone solo).

But the tempo comes right back up for Ella's delighful take on "Let is Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!" Other favorites of mine include "Sleigh Ride," "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," and "Winter Wonderland."

This amazing album also contains what I think is the definitive recording of, "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve," which I believe is one of the most under-rated songs of the season. Go pick this CD up!

2. Celine Dion — These Are Special Times

Many of you who know that I idolize Celine Dion are probably surprised to see that this only ranks as #2 on my list. It actually was my #1 until 2000 when it was eclipsed by my current #1 choice (more on that later). Believe me when I tell you that picking my #1 was like choosing your favorite child.

Celine Dion - These Are Special Times. (1998)
Celine Dion - These Are Special Times. (1998)

This incredible album begins with Celine's melisma-infused "O Holy Night," which after hearing it hundreds of times over the years, still makes me tingle. To me, this is the best recording of "O Holy Night" there is. In addition, this album also contains my all-time-favorite cover of the equally beautiful "Ave Maria."

My favorite track on the album, however, just may be "The Magic of Christmas Day (God Bless Us Everyone)" which was rather startlingly written by Twisted Sister lead vocalist Dee Snider. It still amazes me that Dee Snider could have written something so melodic and enduring. Combine that great songwriting with Celine's angelic voice, and you've got some serious holiday mojo, baby!

Other great tracks include "Christmas Eve," which has a sort of mid '60s vibe. It reminds me of something that could have been written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin. The album also offers a Diane Warren power ballad, "These Are Special Times." And I would be remiss not to mention "The Prayer," Celine's flawless duet with Andrea Bocelli.

Finally, I have to add that I simply love the recording of "Les Cloches du Hameau." I know it doesn't exactly showcase Celine, since it's sung by an entire choir, but it's such a captivating melody that I can't help but enjoy it every time.

1. Linda Eder — Christmas Stays the Same

Back in 1998 and 1999, I would have never thought another Christmas album would top the near perfection of Celine Dion's These Are Special Times. But in 2000 along came Linda Eder's equally perfect Christmas Stays the Same.

Linda Eder - Christmas Stays the Same. (2000)
Linda Eder - Christmas Stays the Same. (2000)

By combining traditional Christmas songs, both sacred and secular, with the amazing voice of Linda Eder, you get an album that's pure bliss. It all comes together perfectly on tracks like "Here Comes Santa Claus/Santa Claus is Coming to Town." The big band swing orchestration on this track is the perfect backing for a big voice like Linda Eder's. Pay particular attention the tiny moments that pay homage to such musical icons as Benny Goodman's "Sing Sing Sing," Kander & Ebb's "New York, New York," and Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

Constrasting starkly with the big band swing orchestration and vocals is the subdued "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," which really highlights the purity of Eder's voice. Another favorite is "The Little Drummer Boy," which layers multiple versions of Eder's voice, highlighting the beautiful harmonies.

It's nearly impossible to pick just one favorite track from the album, but if I did, it just might be "Do You Hear What I Hear." Backed by a gospel choir and orchestrations that could fit just as easily on the Broadway version of The Lion King, this is perhaps the most joyous song on the entire album. "With a voice as big as the sea" indeed.

Although the classic Christmas songs are stellar, the brilliance really emerges with the three original songs written by Eder's husband-at-the-time, Frank Wildhorn, the acclaimed composer of such Broadway shows as Jekyll & Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel. The songs — "Christmas Stays the Same," "Christmas Through a Child's Eyes," and "The Bells of St. Paul" — add a whole new depth to the Christmas album. Like Lennon & McCartney, Gilbert & Sullivan and Quincy Jones & Michael Jackson, the combination of Linda Eder and Frank Wildhorn is true magic.

I simply can't say enough about this album. If you don't already own this album, it simply must be on your list for next year.


Anonymous said...

Oh, man, I so wanted to bash your pics for top five Christmas albums, but, alas, I cannot. You have picked five of my favorites as well! Where to begin...

Barbra: Just amazing. I kid you not, just hearing any of these songs brings back floods of great childhood memories. This one was a staple at our house once über-fan Wendy came along. Love this record!

Sarah: Beautiful! I especially love to play that sad-ass "Wintersong" and just sob my face off. Apparently that one was written not long after losing her mother to cancer. Oh God, I'm crying already...a really beautiful song and a great modern classic!

Ella: Wow, what can you say? Perfection! They played the hell outta this CD at The Gap when Christine and I worked there and for that reason alone, it holds a place of honor in our hearts!

Celine: Again, that number with her whole family singing just slays beautiful! Some of the other songs are a bit over-cooked at times...but love her poignant Holiday cover of Dee Snider's "We're Not Gonna Take It"...really amazing stuff!

Linda: I hear you on the "Lion King" song, but I still love it! And "The Bells of St. Paul"? Wow, even if the first time I heard it was on Rosie O'Donnell's cheesy old show, I gotta say, I love that song!!

So, great picks, dude! Dying to hear what the other five were...=)

Anonymous said...

Also, if you're looking for top five Christmas albums by men (since male singers are conspicuously missing from your list) I'd have to add a few albums myself.

Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song": A staple. Beautiful, shimmering Christmas music as it's best.

Elvis's "Elvis Christmas": His estate released this new two-CD set earlier this year and it is amazing! Some might even call it "spiritual". Yep, it's that good.

John Denver and the Muppets: I didn't discover this one till later in life (thanks, Matty!) but it is a really rocking good time. I defy you not to smile during that first Denver and muppets SINGING! How can you miss?!

Meco's "Christmas in the Stars": For my family, this STAR WARS Christmas album just is Christmas. Goofy, fun, amazing.

And finally, though she's not a dude, I gotta add Anne Murray's beautifully understated "Christmas Wishes" to the mix. Canadian jokes aside, I'm sorey, but there is nothing aboot this album that I don't love! Rock on, Anne Murray!

OK, that's it for now...thanks again for your list! Good times!