by Jeff Fiedler
While many artists have turned out great Christmas singles over the years (though they don’t always get the attention they deserve, Ray Parker Jr.’s “Christmas Time Is Here” and Erasure’s “She Won’t Be Home” being just two fond childhood favorites of mine that seldom ever pop up on holiday radio these days), turning out a great Christmas album can be a trickier affair, and it’s arguably harder to create a truly iconic and almost universally-loved Christmas album than a truly iconic non-seasonal album unless, of course, your name is Phil Spector, A Christmas Gift for You still every bit as treasured today as it was in the ‘60s. There are certainly exceptions to the rule – Carpenters’ Christmas Portrait remains sufficiently beloved to get considerably more FM radio play than even the duo’s non-seasonal hits garner during the entire remainder of the year, and the same can be said of The Andy Williams Christmas Album. (You’ve certainly heard his renditions of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “Happy Holidays/The Holiday Season” more times than you can count, but when was the last time you heard, say, “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” or “Butterfly” on an FM station?) Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas similarly deservedly remains an iconic holiday classic. But Christmas albums too often are released merely as stopgap product rather than out of inspiration, and too often they sound that way, too, few artists truly taking the time to craft arrangements that distinctively sound like seasonal offerings. (Take, for instance, Christina Aguilera’s Top 40-charting version of “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” – it sounds contemporary, to be sure, but strip the vocals off of the recording, and is there any way you can really tell it was meant to be a holiday record?) Unfortunately, some of the best Christmas albums out there are also the most extremely overplayed, the Spector album included. So if you need some relief from the repetition of holiday radio programming (how many times can you hear Wham!’s “Last Christmas” in one day?), I’ve put together this list of underrated – and quite underexposed – enchanting Christmas albums (twelve days’ worth, to be exact, and I’ve sequenced these in the best order to listen to them in for those of you who are tempted to sample them all, whether on Spotify or on the home stereo) you may want to turn to in the moments when you want to put something seasonal on the turntable or CD player to conjure up the spirit of the season but want something just a little less overly familiar or even brand-new to you! I hope some of this music helps to enliven and bring some added joy to the next few weeks for you, and I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very, very happy holiday season!
Something Festive!, Various Artists (1968, A&M)
This much-loved holiday album has never been issued on CD, but the reason for that is less likely a lack of demand – on the contrary, this album has a large cult following, especially among fans of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass – than it is either a case of confusion over who owns the rights to it or a lack of corporate interest in reissuing the disc. [Rather than being available in traditional record stores, the album was produced by the A&M label specifically for tire manufacturer BF Goodrich to sell exclusively at their own stores.] Most of A&M’s major roster artists of the ‘60s pop up here, including Alpert (also the co-founder and co-owner of the label), Burt Bacharach, Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, folk group We Five (“You Were on My Mind”), and French songstress Claudine Longet, the then-wife of Andy Williams. There’s just something very warm about the album, and cuts like pianist Pete Jolly’s jazzy instrumental version of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” Sergio Mendes and Brasil ‘66’s bossa-nova-styled version of “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),” and Longet’s stirring rendition of the Randy Newman-penned “Snow” are incredibly relaxing. Bacharach’s charming and catchy original “The Bell That Couldn’t Jingle” is one of the more criminally overlooked Christmas songs of the ‘60s, while the most distinctly festive moment here is Alpert’s rollicking performance of “Jingle Bell Rock.” Sure, you could argue whether We Five’s “My Favorite Things” or Liza Minnelli’s “Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy” really qualify as Christmas songs per se, but they unexpectedly fit in quite nicely here and add to the warm feel of the album. While you can only pick this disc up on vinyl, it’s not very hard to find, either, and copies can easily be found at thrift shops and in record-store budget bins for mere pocket change, so it’s one of the better Christmas-album deals you’ll ever find.
Christmas Is …, Percy Faith and His Orchestra (1967, Columbia)
There is a bona fide Christmas classic here in the conductor’s rendition of “We Need a Little Christmas,” but even that doesn’t get as much radio airplay during the holidays as it truly deserves. The rest of the disc – which strangely does not seem to have ever been released on CD – is nearly every bit as charming, boasting some brilliantly clever arrangements from Faith (best known for composing and recording the timeless instrumental title theme for A Summer Place), like the mid-tempo instrumental re-working of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that twinkles in a staccato-like fashion as if accompanying blinking Christmas tree lights, while Faith offers up a lovely original of his own in the lazy wintry stroll of the title track.
Remembering Christmas, David Benoit (1996, GRP)
Seasonal offerings from jazz artists seldom ever get worked into holiday radio programming, but that may be part of what makes this album so refreshing. A predominantly instrumental outing from the veteran jazz pianist, this beautiful album – actually the second seasonal release from Benoit (following 1983’s Christmastime) and sporting cameos from jazz greats Dave Brubeck, Michael Franks, Earl Klugh, and Harvey Mason – not only boasts fine performances from everyone involved, but it’s got a well-compiled track selection that mixes the familiar, i.e. “The Christmas Song,” “Silent Night,” etc., with the slightly more obscure, such as an especially stirring version of the too-seldom-heard “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and three Vince Guaraldi-penned tunes, including the underappreciated and atmospheric “Skating,” while Benoit also contributes a delightful seasonal original of his own in the title cut.
A Christmas Festival, Arthur Fiedler (1987, RCA)
The late, great Boston Pops conductor – who, in case you’re wondering, yes, I am distantly related to – has an admittedly extremely confusing discography, as RCA – just as they’ve similarly and notoriously done with Elvis Presley’s catalog as well – has reissued and repackaged a lot of the same material using different titles and/or cover art over the years. The Boston Pops under Fiedler’s leadership also released several different Christmas albums with overlapping material, so the most ideal way to collect most of the major highlights from Fiedler’s holiday recordings with the legendary orchestra is via this handy, seventeen-track compilation, which naturally includes their renditions of well-worn standards like “Winter Wonderland” and “Sleigh Ride” (their rendition of the latter being almost identical to and virtually indistinguishable from Leroy Anderson’s version) but also incorporates less obvious standards like “I Saw Three Ships” and “Here We Come A-Caroling” and playfully enchanting tracks like their much-loved recording of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from The Nutcracker (one of the few cuts from the orchestra to garner much airplay on seasonal radio programming), “The Toy Trumpet,” “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” and “March of the Toys.”
Any seasonal release from Amy Grant: A Christmas Album (1983, Myrrh), Home for Christmas (1992, A&M), and A Christmas to Remember (1999, A&M)
Contemporary Christian star Amy Grant exploded onto the pop charts in a very major way in the late ‘80s, first reaching the Top 40 with the excellent, chilling Unguarded single “Find a Way” before serving as Peter Cetera’s duet partner on the Number One hit “The Next Time I Fall.” By the ‘90s, Grant would be hitting the pop charts on a regular basis with well-crafted singles like “Every Heartbeat,” the Number One hit “Baby Baby,” “Good for Me,” the Vince Gill duet “House of Love” and “That’s What Love Is For.” Much like Karen Carpenter before her, Grant’s warm voice and easygoing delivery made her an ideal recording artist to cut a seasonal disc, and the results turned out to be so magical, she rightfully ended up releasing two more holiday albums in the following decade. Grant and her collaborators – including Brown Barrister, Michael Omartian and Christian-pop superstar Michael W. Smith – have a knack for keeping the tracks focused, warm, and rarely ever overdone, and they excel both at picking great lesser-known songs (“Christmas Can’t Be Very Far Away,” “’Til the Season Comes ‘Round Again,” “Welcome to Our World”) and even crafting some of their own appealing – if not even downright goose-bump-inducing – holiday tunes (“Christmas Lullaby (I Will Lead You Home),” “A Christmas to Remember,” “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song),” “Emmanuel, God with Us.”) These discs do get a moderate amount of radio airplay around the holidays, so they’re not exactly obscure (certainly not to the same degree as most of the other discs on this list) but somehow, the stations always bypass the most magical and chilling songs on these discs in favor of Grant’s remakes of well-worn tunes like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Consequently, if you’re only familiar with these discs from the cuts singled out for radio play, you’re not getting an accurate representation of just how beautiful and moving these albums truly are. Simply put, hardly anyone from the world of ‘80s and ‘90s pop was more suited for and excelled at cutting heartwarming, old-fashioned Christmas full-lengths than Grant, and the fact that none of her Christmas sides gets the same exposure – ubiquity, even – as, say, Hall & Oates’ “Jingle Bell Rock,” Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” or the Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping” is a bit of a shame.