The Soul of Christmas
The reissue of the Cotillion Records compilation Funky Christmas (Real Gone Music) gets off to a fabulously funky start with “May Christmas Bring You Happiness” by a quintet called Luther. Led by the late Luther Vandross (shortly before his disco breakthroughs with Bionic Boogie and Change, and his subsequently soaring solo career), both of Luther’s tracks (including the other Vandross original “At Christmas Time”) are the main reasons to unwrap this disc. Margie Joseph’s “Christmas Gift” and “Feeling Like Christmas” are also pleasant.
Comprised of songs culled from Gladys Knight & The Pips’s Christmas discs The Christmas Album (1975) and That Special Time of Year (1982), The Classic Christmas Album (Columbia/Buddha/Legacy) makes the season bright. Knight and company’s renditions of “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” “It’s the Happiest Time of the Year,” and “That Special Time of Year” are standouts. A pair of cuts featuring Johnny Mathis, including “When a Child Is Born” and “The Lord’s Prayer,” wraps everything up with a pretty bow.
Speaking of Johnny Mathis, the legendary (and out) vocalist has been releasing Christmas albums since 1958. His latest, Sending You a Little Christmas (Columbia) is a delightful addition. More than half of the seasonal selections are duets with a stellar array of guests including Billy Joel (“The Christmas Song”), Natalie Cole (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), Gloria Estefan (“Mary’s Boy Child”), and Jim Brickman (the title tune, co-written by Brickman), to mention a few.
A Mary Christmas (Verve/Interscope/Matriarch) by Mary J. Blige could just as easily be included in the above category, but her bright “When You Wish upon a Star” duet with none other than Barbra Streisand (featuring horn hottie Chris Botti) earns her a special slot in this category. In fact, Blige should be commended for her choice of duet partners throughout the disc, including bi Brit Jessie J (on the popular “Do You Hear What I Hear?”), gospel goddesses The Clark Sisters (on “The First Noel”), and Marc Anthony (on the bilingual “Noche De Paz/Silent Night”). Blige’s “The Little Drummer Boy” is also spectacular, and her reading of “My Favorite Things” indicates that she ought to consider doing an album of standards.
What self-respecting homosexual doesn’t have both of Barbra Streisand’s Christmas albums—1967’s A Christmas Album and 2001’s Christmas Memories—in their holiday music collection? So as not to make Streisand’s The Classic Christmas Album (Legacy/Columbia) completely superfluous, think of it as a good way to initiate the next gay generation in the joys of Barbra at the time of the winter solstice. The disc (featuring sixteen selections split almost evenly between the two source albums) would also make a lovely gift for straight friends and family members.
Nice Jewish boy Joshua Bell fiddles with friends on Musical Gifts (Masterworks). Bell jingles the holiday songbook with Alison Krauss (“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”), Straight No Chaser (on the “Nutcracker Medley”), Kristin Chenoweth (“O Holy Night”), Renée Fleming (“I Want an Old-Fashioned Christmas”), Placido Domingo (“O Tannenbaum”), Branford Marsalis (“Amazing Grace”), fellow NJB Michael Feinstein (“The Secret of Christmas”), and Steven Isserlis and Sam Haywood (“Baal Shem, Simchat Torah”).
Released in time for Hanukkah, the double disc set It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba (The Idelsohn Society), subtitled The Latin-Jewish Musical Story: 1940s–1980s, tells the tale of “Jews falling in love with Latin music.” From resorts to bar mitzvah parties and weddings, from mambo to limbo to cha-cha, Jews and Latin music go way back (can you say Spanish Inquisition?). The forty-one tracks compiled here feature both Latino and Jewish musicians, such as Xavier Cugat, Ruth Wallis, Perez Prado, Carole King, Tito Puente, The Barry Sisters, Celia Cruz, Mickey Katz, Willie Colon, Eydie Gorme, Eddie Palmieri, Abbe Lane, Ray Barretto, and, of course, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, among others. The spicy collection is suitable for playing at any winter holiday gathering.
For many people, both Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams have names that are synonymous with Christmas music. Williams’s three Christmas recordings, The Andy Williams Christmas Album from 1963, Merry Christmas from 1965, and Christmas Present from 1974, along with a few singles and unreleased tracks, have been compiled on the two-disc set The Complete Christmas Recordings (Real Gone Music). Questionable politics aside, the late Williams had one of the most distinctive singing voices in mid-twentieth-century popular music, and that’s the reason his renditions of seasonal favorites are classics.
You may already have A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Original Sound Track of the CBS Television Special (Fantasy) by the Vince Guaraldi Trio in one of its previous configurations. However, this latest release includes a make-your-own Snoopy doghouse, complete with festive trimmings and Peanuts characters cutouts. Of course, the music—consisting of jazzy renditions of “O Tannenbaum” and “What Child Is This?,” as well as Guaraldi originals “Christmas Time Is Here” (both the instrumental and vocal versions), “Skating,” “Christmas Is Coming,” and “Linus and Lucy”—is the real reason to make this a part of your holiday music library.
If you have a hankering for some country this Christmas, then The Classic Christmas Album (Epic/Legacy) by George Jones & Tammy Wynette should fill the bill. Bookended by a pair of duets—“Mr. & Mrs. Santa Claus” and “The Greatest Christmas Gift”—this set mainly consists of Jones and Wynette’s solo recordings from the ’60s and early ’70s.
Fans of “the singing rage” Patti Page will all want Christmas with Patti Page (Real Gone Music). Almost worth owning for the cover alone, her novelty recording of “The Mama Doll Song,” as well as her renditions of traditional holiday music, are sure to please. Six bonus tracks, including three songs from her short-lived TV program The Patti Page Show, fill up this musical holiday stocking.
Patti Page wouldn’t be out of place on the twelve-song compilation soundtrack Mad Men Christmas: Music from and Inspired By the Hit TV Series on AMC (Lionsgate/Concord). Mostly comprised of vintage holiday recordings (in keeping with the show’s retro theme), such as “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” by Darlene Love, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” by Teresa Brewer, and “White Christmas” by Rosemary Clooney, the disc also features newer recordings including “Christmas Waltz” by Nellie McKay, “Zou Bisou Bisou” sung by cast member Jessica Paré, and RJD2’s Mad Men theme “A Beautiful Mine.”
Is there anything better than holiday music sung phonetically? You can answer that for yourself when you hear Buon Natale: The Christmas Album (Interscope) by Italy’s trio of teen tenors Il Volo. Combining traditional Christmas fare (“Silent Night,” “Ave Maria,” “O Holy Night”) with more contemporary titles (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree”), Il Volo continues to aim for crossover success, this time with an accent on the holidays. Contemporary country diva Mindy Smith must love Christmas. After all, the five-song EP Snowed In (Giant Leap/TVX) is her second holiday-themed release this century. Smith’s lighthearted originals (“Tomorrow Is Christmas Day” and the title track) balance out the seriousness of the more traditional selections, including “Silent Night” and “Auld Lang Syne.”
File this under Oh, no she didn’t!: Susan Boyle opens Home for Christmas (SYCO/Columbia), her second Christmas CD in three years, with “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” a duet with none other than Elvis Presley (gulp). Not the best or most festive idea. The previously mentioned Johnny Mathis reprises his “When a Child Is Born” duet duties when Boyle teams up with him for one of the more pleasing moments on the album. Also a joy is Boyle’s version of “The Christmas Waltz” (written by two Yids, no less!).
Not sassy or brassy enough, despite the implied wackiness of the cover, Christmas Time Is Here (Steinway & Sons) by Canadian Brass features thoroughly delightfully playing throughout. The horns shine, particularly on Guaraldi standards such as the title cut and “Christmas Is Coming.” “Bach’s Bells” trumpets the arrival of the holidays, and you could even say “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” glows. But when all is said and done, it’s a bit too restrained.
The self-titled debut album by multi-cultural America’s Got Talent finalists Forte (SYCO/Columbia), while not specifically a Christmas album, does close with the trio’s version of “Silent Night,” and also includes their interpretation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Pie Jesu.”
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.