YOUR official Christmas 2017 LISTENING Guide

It’s the most wonderful time of the year ladies and gentlemen, which means it’s time for Christmas trees, Christmas decorations, Christmas fudge, Christmas movies and—oh yes—Christmas music! And, despite growing up in the Jerry Seinfeld school of “I hate everyone,” I will for one month a year shed my introverted skin and become a loud caroling fool.

Did I say “one month;” I meant “starting Halloween night.”

Yes, our family’s minivan—which we use to haul our three precious children to and fro—is preloaded on its internal memory with over three-hundred of my favorite Christmas songs. The music starts playing as we drive them trick-or-treating and by the time Thanksgiving comes we’ll have listened to everything there is to hear at least twice over!

It’s delightful.

I’m such a fanatic about Christmas music I paid over two hundred clams to some guy in France to custom-make me an LP record (complete with custom sleeve) of sixteen of my absolute favorite Christmas songs. I know this genre. This genre is my life. I get excited on the fourth of July because that means I’m only four months away from hearing Bing, Dean, Elvis and the rest sing with sleigh-bells and vibraphones about winter wonderlands and more.

So if you’re like me and you’re well-into the Christmas spirit…probably this article is going to retread old ground for you. That’s fine that’s fine, read it anyway.

If you’re not like me and you hate Christmas (the whole Christmas season), then…this probably isn’t the article for you either. But that’s fine that’s fine, read it anyway.

THIS is YOUR top ten official Christmas 2017 LISTENING GUIDE

It’s joyful and triumphant.

THE BOTTOM FIVE

RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER SOUNDTRACK (1964)

An odd choice, admittedly, but one that finds a place on the list for one reason: Side two is entirely devoted to the orchestra, with no lyrics/singing. It makes the perfect background music for a Christmas party or for Christmas morning during present-opening. On the subject of soundtracks, an honorary mention goes to the music from Merry Christmas Charlie Brown (1965). It’s a blend of music and songs, but it’s just as infectious and toe-tapping as ever.

A VERY SHE & HIM CHRISTMAS (2011)

I’ve written before about my love for Zooey Deschanel and her indie-music partnership with singer/producer M Ward, dubbed “She & Him.” They have a great, simple, easy-listening sound that is the perfect compliment to a warm summer day, driving with the windows down. Somehow they managed to adapt that style to the frigid circumstances of wintertime. Their easy-breezy album of Christmas standards won’t blow you away with any new arrangements or twists; it’s just a dozen of the songs you love, sung without a lot of the overproduction you get with modern interpretations. Good stuff.

THE DEAN MARTIN CHRISTMAS ALBUM (1966)

I grew up believing Dean Martin was a distant cousin of mine. In fact I’m not quite 100% sure he’s not. Depending on how comfortable you are with someone taking a traditional-sounding Christmas song and swinging it up you will either love or hate this album. Personally, I dig Martin’s ability to translate the “martini in one hand, slight drunken sway as he woos a lady” style to music, and though you might not think it, it translates well to Christmas too. It helps that, other than the closing number, he sticks to the secular side of the holiday, and gives everything from Silver Bells to Jingle Bells his patented, effortless, charm.

THE JACKSON 5 CHRISTMAS ALBUM

Yes, behind the scenes the Jackson Five were an absolute mess. But darn it if they didn’t produce so downright jubilant music. Their Christmas album continues the trend, with the classic Motown production and each of the singers—particularly Michael—in peak form. It’s probably not an album you could turn on during a Christmas party, unless you just wanted everyone to start absent-mindedly tapping their toes, and then quietly humming, and then outright singing at the top of their lungs. So unless you want an improv karaoke to break out, keep this one in your car’s rotation.

NAT KING COLE’S THE MAGIC OF CHRISTMAS (1960)

How can you not love Nat King Cole? Everyone knows his rendition of “The Christmas Song” but his full album includes so many beautiful and fun takes on Christmas classics. Most impressive is the fact that he sings in English, Latin and German. It’s not a big deal now, but the perception of the 1960’s was that African Americans were by nature less-intelligent and not as well-educated as their white counterparts. Cole smacked that nonsense right out of the window. The album has a great variety of songs both secular and spiritual, all sung with Cole’s trademarked jazz arrangements and smokey (literally) vocals.

THE TOP FIVE

MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM MARIAH CAREY (1994)

As with Nat King Cole, Carey is associated with Christmas via one song in particular. It’s one of the very few in the post-war era, not only to break into regular radio rotation, but also to seep into the collective consciousness of society around this time of year. The thirteen notes that open “All I Want for Christmas” are as instantly recognizable as the jazzy opening to “The Christmas Song.” But as with Cole’s album, Carey’s record is more than a one-hit wonder. There are great covers of Christmas classics, a great take on “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” and a few more original numbers that, while they don’t reach the sublime peaks of “All I Want for Christmas,” are worthy compliments at least.

MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM BING CROSBY (1955)

Crosby’s 1942 “White Christmas” is the best-selling single song of all time. At a time before 33 1/3 records lined every living room stereo center, that single-track record was the defining song of the season. Over time, additional seasonal tracks were recorded and initially released as a 78rpm album in 1945. More was added and the album was again re-released, this time as a proper, twelve-track LP in 1955. That’s the one with Crosby wearing the santa hat and holly leaves for a bowtie. It’s the one your grandmother owned.  Split between ballads (on side-one) and up-tempo numbers (on side-two), the album offers something for everyone looking to slip back into the black and white era of standards, big band sound and crooning singers who wore suits to the recording studio. This album is “classic Christmas” distilled into music form.

CHRISTMAS PORTRAIT BY THE CARPENTERS (1978)

Derided by some as mall music, elevator music, or—most insultingly—MUZAK, the Carpenters nevertheless have their fans. And though I’m not a fanatic by any means, I do know good Christmas music when I hear it, and “Merry Christmas Darling” is good Christmas music. The whole album mimics that hit-single’s “1970’s easy listening” sound, with great production by brother Richard, and effortless singing by sister Karen. Each side features a piano medley for a change of pace, as well a mix of traditional favorites and hymns, all sung with the then-modern sound the Carpenters were printing money with. Their January-November music may not be for everyone, but you can’t deny the quality of their December output.

ELVIS’ CHRISTMAS ALBUM (1970)

Here’s the thing, there’s no question the original 1957 album is one of the very best Christmas records ever. It’s the first rock and roll Christmas album and one of the very first “theme” albums, in an era where LPs where just starting to emerge as a big market. And yet, I choose the 1970 “reissue” for one specific reason: It’s a lean, mean, Christmas machine. The 1957 original was really just eight Christmas songs (made from two four-track Extended Play records smashed together), but since RCA standards did not allow an LP to release with only eight songs, they slapped on the four-track Gospel-themed EP to round out the collection. Now those Gospel songs are brilliantly sung, but it’s not Christmassy-enough for me. The 1970 reissue strips away the padding, and adds the recent single “If Everyday Was Like Christmas” to round it out. It makes for a much better all-around “Christmas” album.

A CHRISTMAS GIFT FOR YOU FROM PHIL SPECTOR (1963)

This is the one. This is, in this writer’s arrogant opinion, the definitive Christmas album. Say what you want about Phil Spector (and you can say quite a lot) but the man knew how to make music. He was a fair singer but never amounted to anything until he turned his attention to song writing. That lead to his real successes as a record producer. Spector created the so-called “Wall of Sound” style of music, which featured large ensembles, big band instrumentation and usually a heavy emphasis on “girl groups” singing notes high in the rafters. “Be My Baby,” “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Then He Kissed Me” are just a few of the songs Spector wrote and produced and employed his Wall of Sound technique on. Never before had music and singer been given such equal footing from beginning to end on songs before.

There are many albums produced by Spector that demonstrate what an ear he had for music, but there’s no better example than his “Christmas Gift” album from 1963. The record features all the best performers working with him in those days singing a dozen of the most well-known Christmas songs, with that instantly-identifiable style of his. The standout is the only song that wasn’t an old favorite. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” was another Spector composition sung by Darleen Love. If there’s a song that better encapsulates the marraige of Christmas and the swinging, happy songs of the early-sixties I haven’t heard it.

Magic.

That’s my list.

What will you be listening to this holiday season? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below,

happy holidays!

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