Capitol / EMI Christmas Wrapup

Capitol Christmas Wrapup The fine folks at Capitol/EMI sent us a batch of holiday discs they’ve issued for the 2011 Yuletide season.

Chipmunks – Christmas with the Chipmunks
Quite possibly the greatest Christmas album ever – at least in small doses.  Christmas with the Chipmunks features the original David Seville-led furry trio during their original burst of fame in the early 1960’s .  There were, in fact, two separate volumes of holiday tunes, and this album takes the best from both of them.  The amazing thing is just how timeless these recordings are.  In an age where a lot of humor from 50 years ago doesn’t apply, the Chipmunks, with the bratty Alvin always making trouble for leader David – never gets old.

Consider also that when these songs were originally released, they were groundbreaking (actually winning a Grammy for Best Engineered Album in 1959).  Multi-track recording was in its infancy, and Seville (who’s real name was Ross Bagdasarian) used every trick in the book – he voiced all three Chipmunks (Alvin, Simon & Theodore) himself by speeding up the recordings.

While 16 tracks is probably too much Chipmunks for anyone over the age of nine to handle, A Christmas with the Chipmunks is bound to put a smile on your face.

Beach Boys – Christmas Album Released at the tail-end of 1964,, the Beach Boys Christmas Album stands as one of the best holiday records by a rock band EVER.  The album is divided into two segments, with the first one (taking up most of the original side one) featuring original songs written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love.  Of these, “Little Saint Nick” has proven to be a bona fide classic.  Yet, the other four songs stand up quite well – especially “Man With All the Toys.”  There’s a youthful quality to these songs that most bands couldn’t pull off.  The second half (what was side two of the LP) features the Beach Boys harmonies backed by lush string arrangements of several classic Christmas tunes.  The standout is the buoyant “Frosty the Snowman.”   The album closes with their take on “Auld Lang Syne” which features a spoken-word message from drummer Dennis Wilson.

And, this is the case of less is more – Capitol had released The Beach Boys Ultimate Christmas, which included additional tracks from an unreleased holiday record from 1977.  But, by then, the Boys had lost that wide-eyed appeal, and those songs can’t hold a candle to the original classics.  So, stick with the original (shorter) Christmas Album.

Frank Sinatra – A Jolly Christmas A decent holiday album, A Jolly Christmas, finds Sinatra running through twelve Yuletide favorites, under the direction of Gordon Jenkins.  What prevents this from being truly great, however, is the lack of FRANK.  Too often, he simply plays it straight, not really adding anything.  So, when he tackles Nat’s “The Christmas Song,” or Bing’s “White Christmas,” you’re left wanting to hear their versions, and not his.

Sinatra had a knack for taking even the most shopworn tune and breathing new life into it; making it his own.  Take, for example, his rendition of Fred Astaire’s “The Way You Look Tonight,” from 1964; it had been done by hundreds of artists, yet Sinatra embodies the track and steals it for himself.  That’s what’s missing on A Jolly Christmas – a truly unique Sinatra Christmas song.  Perhaps, if it had been recorded a few years later, when Sinatra was running his own record label, maybe the outcome would’ve been different.  As a result, we end up with a holiday album that’s good, and probably should be in anyone’s Christmas library.  But, it could’ve been better.

Dave Koz – Ultimate Christmas Collection
Dave Koz likes Christmas – or, to put it another way, the public likes Koz’s Christmas albums.  He’s made three of them in a ten-year span: December Makes Me Feel This Way (1997), A Smooth Jazz Christmas (2001), and Memories of a Winter’s Night (2007).   His fourth holiday installment, Ultimate Christmas, sums everything up, grabbing tracks from all three of the previous albums.  Be forewarned – there’s nothing new here, except for a brief opening and closing to the CD.  Still, if you don’t own at least one Koz Christmas set, this is a good place to start.

While he’s been compared to Kenny G, Dave Koz is infinitely more tasteful in his delivery.  He’s also more soulful – take the surprisingly gritty take on “Please Come Home For Christmas” featuring Kimberley Locke on vocals.  Simply put, this is an excellent holiday album that makes for wonderful music to help set the mood of any holiday gathering.

Now That’s What I Call Christmas 4 For years, it was difficult to find a Christmas collection that was worth buying.  The problem is, all the great songs are scattered around various record labels.  Since holiday discs only sell one month out of the year, no single record company wanted the headache of licensing all these songs.  But, because the Now That’s What I Call Music series is actually a collaboration between three of the four major record labels (Sony, EMI & Universal), it makes sense for them to tackle holiday tunes as well.  For the most part, these collections have been fantastic, bringing together a bunch of Yuletide favorites, both new and classic, on a single collection.  Each volume follows a similar pattern: one disc is mostly devoted to newer artists and the other, concentrating on vintage songs from the past.  It’s been five years since the last installment, so you’d think Now That’s What I Call Christmas Vol 4 should have lots to draw from.

Disc one kicks off with “A Child is Born” from Rihanna, a piece of reggae-synth that never really gets off the ground, giving way to  Sheryl Crow’s take on the Charles Brown classic “Merry Christmas Baby,” which apes the Otis Redding arrangement, but Crow holds her own, turning  in a soulful vocal.  Colbie Caillat gives us the best original song on the collection in “Mistletoe” (dating from 2007, the year she broke with her hit “Bubbly”). Then, the collection gets strange – repeating Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” which already appeared on the Now Christmas vol 2, and Britney Spears’ “My Only Wish,” from the first volume.   This would be forgivable if these songs were classics (read on), but – they’re not.  There’s also a lot more country artists than on any of the other volumes, and it’s refreshing.  Especially good are Toby Keith’s twangy, western swing take on “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and Darius Rucker’s “Candy Cane Christmas,” which goes down like warm cocoa on a winter day.  The one thing all the country artists have in common is that they seem to have more respect for the material.  The same can’t be true of the pop artists – especially Christina Aguilera, who pummels “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (we’ll cut her some slack, since it was recorded eleven years ago).  And, what the hell is that Lady Gaga track?  She sings “my Christmas tree’s delicious.”


At least the disc ends on a high note with Diana Krall’s sultry reading of the Peanuts classic “Christmas Time is Here,” and Maroon 5’s surprisingly sparse rendition of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas.”

Disc two once again focuses (mostly) on classics from the past, with several repeats from previous volumes – but this is understandable, since these are stone-cold classics that should be in everyone’s rotation at Christmas.  In fact, the Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick” is actually making its third appearance on one of these sets.  However, each time, they manage to use a different version of the song (for this set, they grab the stereo single mix).  Nat “King” Cole’s “The Christmas Song” is back again, but sounds like a new, cleaner mix of the song, while Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” is also duplicated, but this time they use the original movie version, that’s more familiar.  There are also classic tracks from Dean Martin, Elvis Presley, Andy Williams, and Alvin & the Chipmunks, making for a nice series of great tunes.  Near the end of the disc, they return to more current fare, grabbing “Jingle Bells” from one of the best Christmas albums of the last ten years (James Taylor at Christmas), “Christmas at Sea” from a rather gruff voiced, barely-recognizable, latter-day Sting, and a pleasant “December” from Norah Jones.  The set ends with the star-studded African relief “Do They Know It’s Christmas” by Band Aid, before finishing, rather unceremoniously, with the robotic “Deck the Halls” from Mannheim Steamroller – honestly, I can’t understand the popularity of this one.

As an added bonus, the collection is billed as a “Special Caroling Edition,” featuring the lyrics to most (but not all) of the 36 tracks, so you and your buddies can sing along.  Now That’s What I Call Christmas vol. 4 isn’t quite the home run that previous installments have been, but there’s still enough good tunes from today, and especially the past, for an enjoyable listen.  –Tony Peters