Christmas Music 2009 (Part One)

I’m a huge fan of Christmas music.  Since I bought my first Christmas CD in 1987 (I believe it was First Call’s An Evening in December), I have accumulated hundreds and hundreds of albums, shared out of print albums digitally across the web, and found obscure and new items on iTunes and other internet sites.

Each year I am thrilled to add more music to my collection, which currently numbers more than 6,500 songs and takes up 30 GB of hard drive space.  If I let the music play for 24 hours/7 days a week, Christmas music would stream from iTunes for 15 days without repeating.  Yes, I love Christmas music.

This year, I’m going to post on some favorite albums and give some suggestions on collections or recordings you should add to your collection.

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Ralphie, Before He Shot His Eye Out

This year’s “Big Find” (at least, so far) was the original soundtrack to the Christmas classic, A Christmas Story.  Long-requested but never before released, the music is not ground-breaking.  It didn’t win any major awards, and it’s definitely not going to give composers like John Williams a run for their money.

But from the opening jingling of bells in the main title sequence, to the menacing pastiche of “He Had Yellow Eyes,” which beautifully rips off the wolf’s theme from Peter and the Wolf, to the barking, jaw-harp twang of the Bumpus Hounds’ theme, there isn’t a tune on here that won’t bring back memories of this well-loved film.  Most of the music is adapted from classic Christmas carols or classical music themes, which makes it ideal listening for the season.

None of the period songs were included on the album, which is available from iTunes and Amazon, which means you won’t hear the classic songs of 1940’s America.  But whether it’s the opening title sequence (which is oddly combined with the themes for the Old Man’s Major Award) or the wonderful ripoff of Groffe’s “Grand Canyon Suite” forming the basis of Ralphie’s adventures fighting Black Bart, the music is charming, nostalgic, and sure to conjure up wonderful memories of past viewings of this classic film.

When the whole thing wraps up neatly with “Beautiful, Glorious Christmas,” you’ll agree with Ralphie: “All is right with the world.”

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For sheer Christmas perfection, there is no greater album than The Andy Williams Christmas Album.  Recorded in 1963, it has become one of the biggest-selling Christmas albums of all-time, and for good reason.  I grew up listening to this album, and the familiar grin of Andy from the lower left corner of the cover brings back many memories. But, unlike many Christmas albums that make one nostalgic, this album has withstood the test of time and emerged a classic.

Like many holiday LPs of the era, Andy’s eponymous album was divided by sides. Side One conjures the secular fun of the holiday while Side Two dedicates itself to the carols of the season. What this ends up as for the contemporary listener is a wonderful musical journey that is full of delights.

The first track is Andy’s soothing rendition of “White Christmas,” which is mellower than Bing’s–and a perfect way to kick off the album. From there, “Happy Holiday-The Holiday Season” shows what Andy will be leaning toward as the album progresses–some fun, swinging numbers. This track was so good that the Manhattan Transfer virtually duplicated it on their own Christmas album 30 years later. The classic “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” debuted here, which helps explain why Andy’s version is still the definitive one. (On a side note, one of the co-writers of the tune is more famous as the composer behind the “Gilligan’s Island” theme.)

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This Picture Means Christmas is Coming

“The Christmas Song” is beautiful–especially when Andy soars into the final chorus. I prefer it to Nat King Cole’s original recording for sheer beauty. Andy’s version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (A Song and a Christmas Tree) takes the song to wonderful heights of 60’s-era stereo tricks, while “Kay Thompson’s Jingle Bells” (arranged by the lady more famous as the author of the “Eloise” books) kicks the end of Side One into the stratosphere. Absolutely amazing arrangement that swings with the best of the psychedelic 60’s.)

Andy’s versions of some best-loved carols are also quite lovely, with his versions of “The First Noel” and “Silent Night” being among the loveliest recordings. His “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” makes excellent use of his vocal ability and showcases the beauty of his under-appreciated talent. The only drawback to Side Two is the warbly-voiced child who practically wrests control of “Away in a Manger” away from the star.

All in all, though, this is a stand out for any season. Often copied (Michael W. Smith most recently did a version of “Kay Thompson’s Jingle Bells” that is virtually identical to Andy’s), but never duplicated, it is a triumphant holiday album that will be listened to by my great-great grandchildren. And somehow that red cover with Andy’s grin will bring back holiday memories for them, too.

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Many more albums to come.  Happy listening!

One response to “Christmas Music 2009 (Part One)

  1. Thanks very much for the informative post; we look forward to more. We, too, are fascinated with the genre, having just released “Season’s Briefings From The LawTunes,” our fifth album of original holiday rock songs with a legal perspective, demonstrating the very broad scope of offerings that are available.

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