Don't Hate The Christmas Music
Don’t Hate The Christmas Music
by Richard Sullivan
More than just a few Christmas spirits have been numbed by the enthusiasm-killing mediocrity embodied in the proliferation of 24-hour-a-day Christmas elevator music radio broadcasts. With hundreds of Christmas albums, CDs and downloads from which to choose one marvels at how little effort goes into auditioning tracks for broadcast of what should be a joyful celebration of this much-maligned music genre. Instead, the stations thoughtlessly program their rotation with no more discretion than if clicking on the shuffle option on some endless iTunes playlist. Making it worse are the armies of new artists each year who are merely cashing in on their popularity by cheerlessly re-recording uninspired renditions of Christmas standards. The resulting annual aural assault is enough to make Santa himself grind his teeth in vexation.
Following are ten of the best Christmas albums ever produced, distinctive for their sheer creativity, the artists’ dedication to ingeniously reimagining Christmas standards, and their foraging hither and yon in a quest for new and wonderful material.
Gloria Estefan - Christmas Through Your Eyes (1993)
Gloria Estefan’s terrific Phil Ramone-produced Christmas Through Your Eyes speaks volumes as to both artists’ creativity, love and extensive knowledge of Christmas music. It is more inventive and meticulously-crafted a standout in the Christmas genre than virtually anything that has come down the pike since its 1993 release. Far more than a mere collection of pleasant holiday tunes well crafted, Estefan and Ramone have woven together a tight ensemble that reads as a masterfully composed joyful aggregate, sounding as fresh and sincere today as it did almost a quarter century ago.
Gloria Estefan / This Christmas
Billy Gilman - Classic Christmas (2000)
Billy Gilman, current favorite on The Voice, recorded as a child star the outstanding Classic Christmas over sixteen years ago. The boy alto, talented head and shoulders above any other child recording artist since Brenda Lee way back in the 1950s, embraces the buoyant musical arrangements like a festive gift being enjoyed with a mug of steaming hot chocolate on a snowbound day. Gilman’s spot-on vocal phrasing is all the more remarkable for his age of only twelve years. The original tune “Warm & Fuzzy,” whose being ignored by others ever since Gilman recorded it perfectly illustrates the point that terrific original Christmas songs are going unsung in favor of others that have been done to death. “Warm & Fuzzy” by all rights has “Christmas classic” written all over it.
Billy Gilman / Warm & Fuzzy
Gavin James - RAK Sessions (2016)
Gavin James is the latest phenom to emerge out of Ireland fully conceived. His six track Christmas EP (with the decidedly un-holiday title “RAK Sessions”) is available as a download-only on both Amazon and iTunes. Laid back, lovely, and low key, the album standout is James’ version of Driving Home For Christmas. It is a total 180 degree departure from the hundred or so other versions recorded by others, all of which pointlessly copy the arrangement of the original by Chris Rea exactly. The ability to take a song that’s been recorded umpteen times by others and make it something entirely new and fresh is why we call troubadours of Gavin James’ caliber “artists.”
Gavin James / Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas:
Kenny Loggins - December (1998)
Produced by Loggins and Peter Asher with vocal contributions by Graham Nash and David Crosby, the romantic December is a concept album in the very best sense of the term. With four original Loggins-penned selections sprinkled among classics, the cuts segue seamlessly from one to the next almost imperceptibly. As a whole it produces an almost visual sensibility, best experienced with a glass of wine, a blazing Yule log, quality headphones, and a smile.
Kenny Loggins / On Christmas Morning
Luis Miguel - Navidades (2006)
The rollicking lushly orchestrated Navidades arrived as a refreshing upbeat holiday present to fans of Miguel’s cherished CDs of Classic romantic Latin boleros. Recorded in New York and Hollywood with top-shelf studio musicians, the Puerto Rican superstar excels as both vocalist and pull-out-all-the-stops producer in this collection of Christmas dependables sung in Spanish and provided an infectious 1940s-tinged Big Band treatment. A standout is “Noche de Paz (Silent Night).” The retooled overhaul of what is probably the most-recorded Christmas song of all time surprises for its gutsy arrangement and an on-fire rockin’ gospel choir.
Luis Miguel / Santa Claus Llego A La Ciudad:
Aaron Neville - Aaron Neville’s Soulful Christmas (1993)
The artist that Linda Ronstadt described as having “the voice of an angel,” has produced here a masterful, heartfelt and often dreamy vocalization of holiday delights old and new, contributing for good measure the infectious original toe-tapper Louisiana Christmas Day. Neville’s artistry shines in his novel reimagination of the Drifters’ “Such A Night” into a Christmas standard.
Aaron Neville / Please Come Home For Christmas:
A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector (in stereo) (1963)
It’s almost impossible to choose a standout in this rip-roaring Wrecking Crew-backed collection, but if push came to shove it would have to be the debut of the Jeff Barry / Ellie Greenwich-penned Darlene Love holiday anthem, Christmas (Baby Please Come Home). Phil Spector’s much-loved and celebrated classic Wall of Sound holiday album, featuring his stable of hitmakers, has never been released on CD in stereo. The Beatles’ Apple Records did issue the stereo version on vinyl which can be found by searching online. Until then, don thy merry earbuds and listen to it on Youtube — the experience is akin to a Technicolor Holiday cartoon for the ears.
A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector (in stereo):
Luther Vandross - The Classic Christmas Album (1995/2012)
Delightfully-crafted exceptional original songs such as With A Christmas Heart, Every Year Every Christmas and This Is Christmas mingle with time-honored holiday tunes bathed in the warm honey that is Vandross’ ardent crooning. This album is admirably unique for its incorporating such a large number of highly-listenable original Holiday tunes.
Luther Vandross / Every Year Every Christmas:
Andre Gagnon and the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra - Christmas Album/Noel (1996)
The prolific Quebecois composer teams with the Prague Philharmonic to gift us a lushly opulent collection of fully orchestrated classics perfectly complemented by Gagnon’s own beautifully composed holiday originals. Spark up a legal joint and lay back eyes closed to lose yourself in Andre Gagnon’s uncommon world.
Andre Gagnon / Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
Carpenters - Christmas Portrait (1978)
Many, this writer included, have placed the Carpenters’ Christmas Portrait at the very apex of holiday recording accomplishments. The album is an bonafide aural Christmas masterpiece that no one since has come close to approximating. Exuberant, playful and sumptuous, no other artist has before or since captured the entirety of Christmas emotion by way of musical articulation better or more engagingly than Richard and Karen Carpenter. Karen’s vocals of perfection coupled with Richard’s genius at arranging, multi-track layering and playing have resulted in the best Christmas album ever recorded, bar none. Christmas Portrait stands head and shoulders above all the rest.
Carpenters / Merry Christmas Darling: