Sketches: My Favorite Christmas Albums

Remember last week when I said I’d get this post out “today or tomorrow”? Or earlier this month when I planned a grand round of Christmas-themed festivities (aside from the Holiday Songs of the Day that I’ve thankfully already posted, for your reading & listening pleasure)? Ha. Like I can be expected to hold to some crazy, unattainable blogging standard like posting regularly. Posting regularly is for the little people. I scoff at people who update their blogs regularly. Ready? Do it with me. Scoff in disdain. SCOFF, I SAY!

OK, so most of that paragraph was kind of ridiculous. Moving on…I’ll do my best to make this week of Christmas Eve/Christmas a lovely one, at least blogging-wise. Look for some Christmas Cover Stories to come before Saturday, something I’m holding myself to. You saw it here. If I do not deliver on my promise, feel free to send me copies en masse of particularly distressing rap albums or something. Unless, of course, you don’t know my address, in which case I shall be able to escape unscathed. 🙂

And I have now spent two paragraphs spouting nonsense. What else is new? Anyhow, this post is a (hopefully concise and pithy) exploration of a few of my favorite holiday albums. They’re not even close to touching even part of my Christmas music tastes (and they’re even farther from covering all of the wonderful, even definitive, holiday albums there are out there)…but they’re records that have touched me, inspired me, or warmed my heart in some way. It’s not a Christmas season for me without them, that’s for sure.

Harry Connick, Jr. — “Harry For The Holidays” (2003)

I’m a huge Harry Connick, Jr. fan, so when I got this album back in the day (early 2000s ftw!), it was pretty much a given that I’d enjoy it. However, years later, I probably never could have expected I’d still love it this much. Harry has recorded 3 holiday albums over his career, and while I like what I’ve heard of his first one (which came out back in 1993), and I own and enjoy his latest one (2008), this is the Christmas album of his that I keep coming back to. The selection of songs is top-notch, a great balance of holiday classics both secular and sacred. He includes an outstanding selection of original tunes (my favorites include his buoyant “The Happy Elf” and a heartstoppingly touching ode to the Savior’s life, “I Come With Love”). And best of all, his arrangements and voice are in peak form. From the opening trombone wails of “Frosty The Snowman,” I’m always absolutely hooked. Harry doesn’t phone anything in on this album…he brings a daring sense of reinvention and life to a fine collection of Christmas melodies, all while keeping the innate charm that made them chestnuts in the first place. You really can’t get much better than this, whether it’s Christmastime, or anytime in the year.

Check out a track from the album, “Frosty The Snowman”:

Ella Fitzgerald — “Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas” (1960)

It took me a scandalously long time after I fell madly in love with Ella’s voice in her music to discover this Christmas gem, but rest assured that after I did find it (and buy it on eBay) a few years ago, I have cherished it completely since then. Recorded at what was in many ways during the height of her career, this is a holiday album that’s darn near perfect. Accompanied by Frank DeVol’s orchestra (his arrangements are both thoughtful and timeless), she doesn’t do as much scatting here as in her other work, but her improvisational skills are still on full display, and what’s more, her warm, captivating voice is an effortless fit with the Christmas music canon. You’d be hard-pressed to find lovelier versions of oft-covered songs like “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” (done here with a bit more swing than most takes on the song), “Sleigh Ride” (featured in the hilarious Will Ferrell film “Elf”),  and “Jingle Bells” (the album’s jaunty opener). Check out the 2002 reissue and you’ll also find a wealth of bonus tracks, including a lovely holiday obscurity, “The Secret of Christmas,” and 3 intriguing alternate takes of songs on the album that would have fit inperfectly had they been released instead. All in all, if you don’t have this album in your Christmas collection, you’re seriously missing out.

Want to hear a taste? Here’s Ella’s spin on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”:

Any Mormon Tabernacle Choir & Orchestra at Temple Square Christmas album (2000-2011)

A bit of a cop-out, I know, but they’ve released eight Christmas recordings since 2000 (a majority of them being live recordings from their long-standing annual Christmas concerts, a practice they experimented with in 2006 and began in earnest in 2007), and if I went over all of them individually, they’d overtake this list in a hurry. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Christmas have long been synonymous for many, but thanks in part to Mack Wilberg’s stunning arrangements (and since taking over the baton as director in 2008, his conducting), along with the richness that the Orchestra at Temple Square provides, plus a cornucopia of great guest artists (Angela Lansbury, Bryn Terfel and Frederica von Stade, Audra McDonald, Renee Fleming, Sissel, the King’s Singers, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Natalie Cole, and David Archuleta, oh my!), they’re better than ever when it comes to holiday music. Their performances of Christmas classics new and old are vibrant, dynamic, and full of warmth and heart. It’s bigger than a choir, than a song, than a season. They give us pure, beautiful, enduring music.

Just one of the many highlights of their Christmas repertoire…their traditional Christmas concert closer, a rousing arrangement of “Angels From The Realms of Glory” (Special Note: I was in attendance for this specific performance):

Jane Monheit — “The Season” (2005)

Jane Monheit’s vocals are rich, smooth, and dare I say sexy, but distinctive, top-notch vocals do not a great Christmas album make on their own. But when they’re paired with an excellent collection of songs and fine arrangements ranging from gorgeous to fun to everything in between, you’ve got a recipe for a holiday classic. From her delicious opening take on Donny Hathaway’s seminal “This Christmas” to a hauntingly spare rendition of “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day” done with just guitar, this album is captivating, warm, and beautiful, and I really can’t get enough of it. Jane’s vocal skills are close to peerless, and here they’re certainly very well showcased. She includes a nice selection of uptempo numbers as well as ballads, and the result is an album I’m very proud to have in my holiday collection.

Jane’s sizzling rendition of “The Christmas Waltz,” coming right up:

She & Him — “A Very She & Him Christmas” (2011)

Seeing as I’ve only had this album since the end of October, I’ve been kind of asking myself whether it really belongs on this list yet. However, even considering the short time it’s been around, I think it’s worthy of inclusion. Yes, my great admiration for Zooey Deschanel is a big factor, but that aside, this is a lovingly crafted throwback to days of Christmas past that still has a lot to offer to the holiday music world today. Zooey’s voice has a real classic quality…I remember when “Elf” came out and she sang in it, that it reminded me a bit of Judy Garland’s in a way. It’s soft and fragile at times, but also very rich and distinctive as well. And the new spins on holiday tunes Zooey crafts with M. Ward are gorgeous and smooth. The only clear misstep is an awkward rush through “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” that seems like it was included only because this is a Christmas album done by a duo, but otherwise, this is a piece of Christmas gold that will last for years to come.

Haven’t checked out the album yet? Hear Zooey & M. Ward take on the Beach Boys’ sunny tune “Christmas Day” here:

Diana Krall — “Christmas Songs” (2005)

Backed by the incomparable Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, along with her own top-notch piano playing, Diana Krall is an absolute delight singing a lovely assortment of Christmas tunes here. The album’s opening track, a firecracker of a take on “Jingle Bells,” is one of the best holiday tunes I’ve ever heard, and things rarely let up from there. Diana’s well-known for having a very sultry voice, but it fits like a glove on songs like “Let It Snow” and “Sleigh Ride,” as well as tender ballads like “The Christmas Song” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”. The big-band arrangements are vibrant and dynamic (thank one of the best arrangers and musicians of all time, John Clayton, for those), and the intimate combo settings for the ballads work beautifully as well. There’s even a tune included at the very end that’s not often associated with the holidays, but closes the album nicely…a tender version of “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.” This is a treasure of a Christmas record, a heartfelt homage to the past and a full-on embrace of the future, full of holiday warmth and spirit.

Hear the album’s ebullient first track, “Jingle Bells”:

Johnny Mathis — “Merry Christmas” (1958)

And I’ve saved the best for last. By “best,” I don’t necessarily mean that I enjoy this more than all the other albums I’ve listed…on the contrary, true to form, I love them all the same, for the most part. However, this album holds a special place in my heart, and that’s all thanks to my dad, who made it a Christmas tradition to have it played frequently each December. I’ve grown up with this album…it’s a holiday institution in our house (well, now it’s technically houses, but you get the point), and I haven’t gone a year without listening to it fondly. The nostalgia is a huge element in my love for this record…but it’s more than that. There’s a perfect storm of song selection (there’s not a bad track on the album), vocal delivery (Johnny was in peak form, and his singing is beautifully heartfelt and tender), and instrumental backing (Percy Faith & His Orchestra provide gorgeous, rich arrangements that stand the test of time, yet never seem phoned in) at play here. It’s the quintessential embodiment of Christmas spirit. When I hear the opening strains of “Winter Wonderland,” when I hear Johnny’s soaring high notes in “O Holy Night” (a song that you really can’t get wrong*), when I hear the tinkling sounds of “Silver Bells”…I’m home, and I feel Christmas in my heart. When it comes to holiday music, you really can’t ask for anything more.

Just one of the many terrific songs of this album…a lush version of “The Christmas Song”:

And there you have it. Just a taste of the Christmas music that soothes my soul. Feel free to take to the comments to share your favorite holiday music, or comment on my choices. I’ll see you later this week (remember…hold me to it!) with some more Christmas music goodness. Hope your holidays are going splendidly so far! 🙂

(*For someone who DID get it wrong, in the most awful but oddly wonderful way, click this link if you dare. You may have heard it already.)

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