originally published Christmas 2006
Aware of its public service remit and the need to protect the health and welfare of its readership, Wears The Trousers has taken a deep breath and dipped a toe into the murky waters of the Christmas album. And what dangerous territory is the seemingly innocuous holiday record! Certainly not for the faint of heart or the intolerant of insulin. Sugar, schmaltz and saccharine certainly seem to be the alliterative order of the day. However, hidden in amongst all the tacky tinsel it is possible to find a star or two to follow. But first let’s lay down some ground rules. We’ll assume that there’s already a copy of Now That’s What I Call The Best Crimble Album In The World…Ever! Vol. 27 lurking in your collection alongside a Carols From [insert name of Oxbridge college here] freebie spewed from one of the tabloids – well, that’s all your Slade/Wizzard/Bing Crosby/chorister needs catered for and Saint Cliff’s seasonal output is mercifully excluded from Wears The Trousers’ catchment. This is ‘proper’ Christmas albums we’re talking about; even Laura Nyro’s sublime Christmas & The Beads Of Sweat doesn’t qualify. But then again, you’ve already got a copy of that…haven’t you?!
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A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector, 1963
Picks: ‘Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer’, ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’
It’s an irrefutable fact that Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You should feature on every self-respecting Yuletide playlist and there couldn’t be a better time to get yourself a copy. This festive collection of “wall of sound” Christmas tunes from Darlene Love, The Ronettes and The Crystals is a girl group classic and was recently re-released by the nice folks at ABCO, bundled with a best of disc as The Phil Spector Collection: Wall Of Sound Retrospective / A Christmas Gift For You at single album price. So if The Pipettes are still refusing your invite to come round and watch the Queen’s speech, here’s the next best thing.
A Very Special Season, 1998
Picks: Amazing Grace, Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
Of course, it would be foolish to forget the Motor City. There are several creditable Motown Christmas compilations available; however, all their best female-fronted tunes can be found on one disc. Diana Ross & the Supremes’ Merry Christmas is simply fantastic with the usual selection of fat bearded men, outcast reindeer and little drummer boys coming to town. Diana’s 1998 solo effort A Very Special Season, too, is a lovingly produced collection that presses all the right festive buttons.
Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas, 1967
Picks: O Holy Night, It Came Upon A Midnight Clear
Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas, 1960
Picks: Frosty The Snowman, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
From soul to jazz, your first stop should always be the inimitable Miss Ella Fitzgerald. Two collections are particularly worth checking out for the smoothest sounds. Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas covers the traditional carols in full-on gospel hymn mode but it’s Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas that’s really designed to get your fingers a-clicking and toes a-tapping as a seemingly gigantic big band throws itself behind her spectacular vocals with uninhibited glee.
The Season, 2005
Picks: Merry Christmas Darling, My Grown Up Christmas List
It’s Ella’s earlier album that supplied the inspiration for New Yorker Jane Monheit’s The Season. Ranging from big band sounds to intimate club jazz via The Crusaders-style easy listening, Monheit brings together a collection of standards and newer songs in a style that’s bound to get you drunkenly, provocatively wiggling one second and cosied up in front of the fire the next.
Christmas Songs, 2005
Picks: What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve, Count Your Blessings Instead Of Sheep
Staying up to date, you might also want to sample modern jazz icon Diana Krall’s does-what-it-says-on-the-tin release Christmas Songs. Mixing up modern Christmas standards with traditional carols in her distinctive piano-and-vocal style (with additional instrumentation provided by renowned Canadian musicians, the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra), there’s plenty to enjoy for fans and casual listeners alike.
Light Of The Stable, 1979
Picks: Christmas Time’s A-Comin’, Light Of The Stable
Country music has a long tradition of Christmas albums, most more insidiously lethal than Polonium-210, but there are some worth searching out to satisfy your inner Stetson wearer. Take Emmylou Harris’s stunning Light Of The Stable. Not one to get a party started but perfect for warming a cosy night in, Harris kicks Christmas commercialism firmly to the curb with touching sensitivity and grace. Ever the well connected grand dame of country, Light Of The Stable features backing vocals from the likes of Dolly Parton, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt and Willie Nelson, and with a cast like that she could scarcely have gone wrong.
Home For Christmas, 1990
Picks: Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, Go Tell It On The Mountain
Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton
Once Upon A Christmas, 1984
Picks: The Greatest Gift Of All, Christmas Without You
Speaking of Dolly, her twin offerings Home For Christmas and Once Upon A Christmas (a duets album with regular vocal foil Kenny Rogers) are worth checking out if more commercial country is your thing. Here the seasoned (and seasonal) performer reinterprets the usual Christmas fayre in her inimitable style. Are they laden with cheese? Of course they are, but would you really want it any other way, hmm?
Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison
Happy Holidays, 2006
Picks: Santa Baby, Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy
Featuring yet more country Christmas duetting goodness, Kelly Willis and husband Bruce Robison wish you Happy Holidays with their first proper collaborative effort (it’s actually an extended version of their 2003 EP but let’s not get hung up on details). Easy on the twang but big on playfulness and feeling, it’s a lovely addition to the festive album canon.
The Christmas Album, 1998
Picks: Ave Maria, Adeste Fideles
Christmas With Peggy Lee, 2006
Picks: Don’t Forget To Feed The Reindeer, The Tree
Those looking for a more traditional country approach to the season could do much worse than searching out any of the several festive Connie Francis or Peggy Lee collections.
Cherish The Ladies
On Christmas Night, 2004
Picks: The Castle Of Dromore, O Holy Night/Cill Chais
An Irish Christmas, 2005
Picks: Do You Hear/Don Oiche Ud I Mbeithil, I Still Believe (In Christmas)
Folk music is a fertile ground for quality Christmas music reflecting perhaps the folksy origins of our best-loved carols. In the ever-expanding minefield of distinctly average Celtic festive release, Cherish The Ladies serve up the season’s classics in finely executed fiddle and reel style with On Christmas Night. A bit less “authentic Irish” but nonetheless scattered with whistles, pipes and bodhran is Moya Brennan’s An Irish Christmas. The “voice of Clannad” does not disappoint with a set of Celtic-tinged (mostly) traditional tunes with flourishes of the trademark ethereal and evocative sound developed in her day job.
To Drive The Cold Winter Away, 1987
Picks: The Wexford Carol, Let Us The Infant Greet
A Winter Garden: Five Songs For The Season, 1995
Picks: Snow, Seeds Of Love
If haunting and sad is what you are after then Loreena McKennitt’s old-world lamentations on the season of goodwill will tickle your every fancy. Devastatingly pure and, yes, perhaps a little pious, To Drive The Cold Winter Away was only her second recording yet propels itself commendably with real, striking vision. Her later mini-album, A Winter Garden, delivers more of the same but with glossier production. Both are lovely.
Maddy Prior with The Carnival Band
An Evening Of Carols & Capers, 2006
Picks: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Sussex Carol
Gold, Frankincense & Myrrh, 2001
Picks: Melima, Song Of The Animals
The open-minded music fan looking for something different to accompany their turkey could do worse than get their mitts on any of Steeleye Span stalwart Maddy Prior’s albums with The Carnival Band, notably An Evening Of Carols & Capers or Gold, Frankincense & Myrrh. What you’ll get is a slightly bonkers mixture of traditional tunes and medieval instruments welded onto a contemporary outlook that ranges across madrigal to jazz via Louisiana stomp. And a huge grin, which is as good a gift as any.
Kate & Anna McGarrigle
The McGarrigle Christmas Hour, 2005
Picks: Seven Joys Of Mary, Rebel Jesus
Not specifically Celtic but hey, we didn’t know where else to stick it. Kate & Anna McGarrigle’s cosy The McGarrigle Christmas Hour may only be a year old but it already shows all the signs of becoming a seasonal classic. A star-studded affair with contributions from family (Martha and Rufus Wainwright included) and friends like Emmylou Harris. A veritable musical yuletide in Lake Wobegon.
One More Drifter In The Snow, 2006
Picks: Whatever Happened To Christmas?, You’re A Mean One, Mr Grinch!
While the new original ‘Calling On Mary’ and the bittersweet ‘Christmastime” (originally recorded in 1996 for the soundtrack of Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Hard Eight’) find her in a reassuringly downbeat mood, the talking points belong to the covers. ‘You’re A Mean One, Mister Grinch!’ might easily have been a torrid taste faux pas, but instead the duet with Grant Lee Phillips raises a glass and a grin with Mann’s vocal trademark cynicism making her the perfect musical foil for Phillips’s booming narration. Another surprise is how well Mann copes with some of the older tunes like the Nat King Cole favourite ‘The Christmas Song’. In fact she turns out to be no mean crooner – had she been born 50 years earlier there’s no doubt that she could easily have given the likes of Julie London and Patsy Cline a run for their money [full review].
Picks: River, I’ll Be Home For Christmas
It’s easy to see Wintersong as a sonic extension of 2003′s Afterglow, albeit with a few more whistles and sleigh bells. Like so many Christmas albums it mixes carols, standards and original songs and the selection is well chosen. Always proficient at recycling old material, McLachlan couldn’t resist another shot at ‘Song For A Winter’s Night’, originally released on the 1996 compilation Rarities, B-Sides & Other Stuff, but it’s all in the spirit of giving so that’s alright. It’s the traditional carols, however, that ended up the most satisfyingly Christmassy. One your mum or grammy would love [full review].
Wishing For This EP, 2006
Picks: Hard Candy Christmas, Maybe This Christmas
Just seven tracks long and available only on download, Wishing For This is a charming set of songs that by and large avoids the usual Christmas album clichés with more interesting selections. In keeping with her faith Nash doesn’t shy away from reminding us of the true meaning of Christmas, reinforcing the idea that it’s patience, kindness, generosity and other neglected virtues that ought to be under everyone’s tree. The only Nash original is the title track, a heartfelt inclusion expressing a longing to spend the season with the one you love…and isn’t that what all the greatest Christmas songs are made of? While not exactly essential, Wishing For This is a sweet, refreshing collection that lovingly captures the spirit of the season [full review].
Over The Rhine
Snow Angels, 2006
Picks: All I Ever Get For Christmas Is Blue, Darlin’ (Christmas Is Coming)
The Darkest Night Of The Year, 1996
Picks: Thank You My Angel, A Little Lower Than The Angels
A decade on from their stunning yet wholly unconventional Christmas album The Darkest Night Of The Year, Cincinnati’s finest husband and wife team Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist (collectively known as Over The Rhine) bequeath us Snow Angels, a considerably less harrowing, more joyful affair. That’s comparative, of course. Over The Rhine have always had a melancholic edge and Snow Angels is no exception; that’s why the lyrics to the traditional carol ‘O Little Town Of Bethlehem’ get a beautiful reworking to reflect on how the region is now torn apart by senseless violence and war. Perfect in every way.
Picks: Hallelujah, What Child Is This (Greensleeves)
Despite some odd inclusions for a Christmas release (The Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’ and ‘In My Life’ and The Rolling Stones’ ‘Shine A Light’, anyone?), Tidings mostly hits the spot. Allison Crowe is in fine, belting voice throughout and her piano skills are emphasised nicely. Her versions of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ and Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’ verge on the obvious but both are eminently listenable. Fellow countrywoman Sarah McLachlan also gets a look in with a cover of the decidedly unfestive but touching ‘Angel’.
London Community Gospel Choir
Christmas Gospel, 2005
Picks: Little Donkey, I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day
Finally, we take a quick look at something of a more directly spiritual bent. Now, contemporary Christian music can be a cheesy prospect at the best of times but at Christmas there’s a clear and present danger of the situation escalating above and beyond fromage factor 10. Treading carefully is imperative! We’ve already mentioned that Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas is all you need to cover the traditional carols in tasteful style; however, just try and resist downloading the London Community Gospel Choir ripping it up through carols and Christmas #1s alike on their 2005 iTunes-only release, Christmas Gospel.
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So there you have it, a selection of the classier and more listenable platters to find in your stocking this Christmas morn. On the other hand, if saccharine’s your thing, no fear! The choice out there is almost limitless, from Ashanti to Christina Aguilera, Celine Dion to Whitney Houston, Destiny’s Child to Jessica Simpson and all ports in between. There’s a disc to suit every lack of taste, ranging from Mariah Carey’s mildly annoying schmaltz and inability to hold a note for half a beat without warbling off into the stratosphere on Merry Christmas to Jewel’s truly appalling Joy: A Holiday Collection (which contains possibly the worst piece of music ever recorded in her rendering of ‘Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer’…and I would remind you that one definition of the word ‘rendering’ is ‘to melt fat off a dead carcass’). You have been warned!
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Trevor Raggatt and Alan Pedder
Tagged aimee mann, allison crowe, buyer's guide, cherish the ladies, connie francis, diana krall, diana ross, dolly parton, ella fitzgerald, emmylou harris, jane monheit, kate and anna mcgarrigle, kelly willis, leigh nash, loreena mckennitt, maddy prior, moya brennan, peggy lee, phil spector, sarah mclachlan, the supremes