by Jeff Fiedler
Christmas Wonderland, Bert Kaempfert (1963, Decca)
If the name sounds vaguely familiar to you, it may be because the late German bandleader is name-checked in Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week” (“Bert Kaempfert’s got the mad hits”) or because he has the distinction of having produced the first-ever recording session for the Beatles (which yielded the single “Ain’t She Sweet” b/w “Cry for a Shadow” and the Tony Sheridan single “My Bonnie” b/w “When the Saints Go Marching In.”) Or maybe it’s because Kaempfert co-wrote two Number One hits for other artists: Joe Dowell’s “Wooden Heart (Muss I Den)” (also covered by the King himself, Elvis Presley) and Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night.” But Kaempfert was also a recording artist (even scoring a Number One hit with the instrumental “Wonderland by Night”), and he’s responsible for one of the most magical and criminally underrated Christmas albums of the ‘60s. It’s entirely instrumental, but few holiday recordings, vocal or otherwise, quite capture the magic of the season (particularly for children) like “Holiday for Bells,” “Children’s Christmas Dream,” and “Toy Parade” can.
And Winter Came …, Enya (2008, Reprise)
The Irish new-age vocalist – best known for the cross-over Top 40 hits “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” and “Only Time” – has always been renowned for her chilling, atmospheric ballads, so it’s only natural that she should make a Christmas disc. [The most shocking part is that she waited so long to make one!] Not surprisingly, it’s every bit as goose-bump-inducing and as beautiful as you would expect a holiday album from Enya to be (even the cover art is perfect), and if you’ve got a good sound system in your car, there’s perhaps no more magical way to experience this disc than to listen to it while driving during a snowy day or eve. A few traditional tunes are included, i.e. “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” but the bulk of the album is scene-setting originals like “One Toy Soldier,” “White Is in the Winter Night,” “Trains and Winter Rains,” and “The Spirit of Christmas Past,” which helps to keep the disc fresh. Even if you’re not a fan of Enya’s non-seasonal discs, it’s still hard not to find this album utterly enchanting.
A Christmas Tree, Rita Ford (1990, Columbia)
Perhaps the most obscure album on this list, this disc is not only entirely instrumental, but it’s not even performed by humans; the late Rita Ford was not actually a musician but, rather, a Manhattan antique-shop owner who specialized in vintage music boxes, and this album consists entirely of early Christmas tunes played on music boxes from her collection. Naturally, this isn’t the most commercial of holiday albums, and you’ll very seldom ever hear anything from it – or any of Ford’s other three equally enchanting seasonal releases dating back to 1961’s A Music Box Christmas, for that matter – on holiday radio (except perhaps as bumper music in station promos), but Christmas albums do not get much more enchanting than this, and this is a particularly magical disc for shops and seasonal businesses to use as background music around the holidays. This is also an especially magical disc to play around the holidays for young children just beginning to discover the joy of the season (particularly as you gather together to turn on the Christmas lights or to hang ornaments on your tree), and any child who’s ever heard this disc will likely never be able to forget the sound of it for many Christmases to come. My own family has probably worn out three copies of this record by now!
Watching the Snow, Michael Franks (2004, Rhino)
A veteran jazz-pop vocalist (who previously recorded under the Warner Brothers umbrella from 1976 through 1995, releasing critically-lauded albums like Sleeping Gypsy and The Art of Tea), Franks comes up with a very novel – and seldom-imitated – idea for this album by not incorporating any well-worn Christmas standards at all. Rather, the disc consists entirely of original material. While there’s nothing about the arrangements themselves that particularly screams Christmas, Franks’ unmistakable warm voice and his brand of jazz-pop is ideal for a holiday offering, and that, coupled with the seasonal vibe of the well-crafted lyrics on cuts like “Said the Snowflake,” “Christmas in Kyoto,” “When the Snowman Sings” and the title cut makes this a delightful and easygoing disc to listen to in winter weather.
Holly & Ivy (1994, Elektra) and The Magic of Christmas (with the London Symphony Orchestra) (1998, Elektra), Natalie Cole
The late, great daughter of legendary crooner Nat “King” Cole found her career rejuvenated after the 1992 success of Unforgettable … with Love, a full-length tribute to the music of her father, and she wisely concentrated from there on out on cutting jazz sides and standards. As warm and appealing as her voice was, it’s slightly surprising that it wasn’t until after Unforgettable that Natalie recorded her first Christmas disc, but the timing couldn’t have been more perfect, Holly & Ivy having a real warmth and organic quality to it that it might not have had if it had been recorded during her ‘80s period, and it was a fitting way for her to follow up Unforgettable and its equally jazzy follow-up Take a Look. “Caroling, Caroling” is as vibrant and spirited as you could want an up-tempo holiday song to sound, while her gentle renditions of “The Holly and the Ivy,” “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” (a natural song to include here, since her father recorded the definitive version of the Mel Torme-penned classic), and “The First Noel” are all quite lovely, and the stirring ballads “A Song for Christmas” and “The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot” should be extremely refreshing to those looking for something less well-worn. The Magic of Christmas isn’t quite as magical as its predecessor, but it’s still an awfully chilling and much-better-than-average Christmas album, Natalie offering up a surprisingly successful jazz-styled re-working of “Carol of the Bells” along with gorgeous readings of “O Tannenbaum” and the criminally underrated standard “The Christmas Waltz.” The album also includes perhaps the best version you’re likely to ever hear of the David Foster-penned “My Grown-Up Christmas List,” one of the better and lovelier modern-day Christmas songs of the last few decades. You will occasionally hear a track from one of these discs on seasonal radio, but neither of these full-lengths is anywhere near as famous as, say, Mariah Carey’s first Christmas album, which is a real shame, because these aren’t nearly quite so overblown and command your attention in a much more subtle manner, serving as easily two of the most elegant, warm, and inspiring holiday discs to come out of the ‘90s.
The Christmas Album, The Manhattan Transfer (1992, Columbia)
This highly-esteemed co-ed jazz-vocal quartet – consisting of the late Tim Hauser, Alan Paul, Cheryl Bentyne, and Janis Siegel and best known for their 1981 Top Ten cover of the Ad Libs’ doo-wop classic “Boy from New York City” – was so renowned for its warm, smooth harmonies that it’s almost shocking that the band didn’t cut a seasonal album until a full seventeen years after scoring their first Top 40 hit with “Operator,” the band sadly past its commercial prime by the time this disc was recorded. The band was still in fine shape artistically, however, and they have the smarts here to recruit the legendary Johnny Mandel to co-produce and handle the orchestral arrangements, which adds to the lush, jazzy feel of the disc. Their mellow renditions of classics like “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” and “The Christmas Song” (the latter featuring a guest turn from Tony Bennett) are beautiful indeed, but the band keeps things fresh with cuts like “Snowfall” and the Mandel-penned “A Christmas Love Song” and also daringly and creatively ends the album with an unexpected cover of the Beatles’ White Album cut “Goodnight.”
Merry Christmas, Johnny Mathis (1959, Columbia)
Mathis – whose non-seasonal classics, like “Chances Are,” “Misty,” “It’s Not for Me to Say,” and “Wonderful, Wonderful!” are sadly seldom heard on the radio anymore except on specialty AM stations – does pop up on more mainstream stations around the holidays. Unfortunately, it’s usually his later Christmas discs from the mid-‘80s and beyond (long after he stopped having hits, Mathis’ only post-‘60s Top 40 hits being the 1978 Number One hit and Deniece Williams duet “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” and the lesser-charting 1982 Dionne Warwick duet “Friends in Love”) that you hear on the dial, and, frankly, those later Christmas sides are not anywhere near as lovely – or Mathis’ vocal performances on them nearly as warm and inviting – as those on the very first seasonal album he ever made. Sporting arrangements that alternate between astonishing seasonal soundscapes (such as that on “Sleigh Ride,” which is nearly every bit as magical as Leroy Anderson’s famous instrumental version) and sparse, chilling renditions of less secular Christmas standards like “O Holy Night” and “Silent Night,” Christmas albums simply do not get any prettier than this (this is probably my favorite Christmas album of all-time, actually), and Mathis has seldom ever sung quite as beautifully as he does here, either.