By Dennis Polkow
Although The Decemberists released their “Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas)” (Capitol) only as a Christmas single, there are still artists releasing full holiday albums as well as classic reissues. Whether you’re looking for a last-minute stocking stuffer or an opportunity to savor the sounds of the season amidst the holiday chaos, this year’s selective releases of holiday music has something for every taste.
Over the Rhine, “Snow Angels” (Red Eye): This unconventional Christmas album offers a counter-culture view of the holiday with a heartbreaking sense of seasonal longing that hasn’t been heard since Johnny Cash. “Little Town” takes a walk along the apartheid wall constructed around Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem by the surrounding Israelis, but that’s just the start of this fascinating and unforgettable yet oddly optimistic journey down the depths of shattered holiday expectations.
“A Jolly Christmas with Frank Sinatra, 50th Anniversary” (Capitol): It’s been fifty years since Frank Sinatra released this iconic Christmas album, one of the few out there that has genuine swagger to it. Some of the arrangements are a bit schmaltzy, and lyrics have been changed here and there (with songwriters’ permissions, no less!) but Sinatra’s phrasing and sincerity make this essential holiday listening. There are two versions of “The Christmas Waltz,” including an alternate take, and a Christmas Seals PSA from ol’ blue eyes.
Raul Malo, “A Marshmallow World & Other Holiday Favorites” (New Door): Founder and frontman of the Miami-based Mavericks, singer, songwriter and guitarist Raul Malo lends his distinctive, flexible and smooth voice to this remarkably traditional and folksy Christmas record that has a lot of heart and is blessedly devoid of overproduction.
“Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas” (Capitol) (1967): Not to be confused with Ella’s more famous 1960 big band “Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas” of secular seasonal songs, this 1967 album is all sacred music with orchestra and chorus. I found it disappointing years ago, given that Ella is not heard swinging or scatting, but her clarion voice, diction clarity and little-girl wonder in the face of Christmas really give this overheard repertoire a facelift.
Josh Groban, “Noel” (Reprise): If you can make it through the razzle-dazzle and over-produced “why bother?” duets and over-arranged holiday retreads, there are some pleasant surprises here. It is particularly poignant with the war in Iraq still going on and so many troops unable to be home for the holidays to include the classic wartime “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” complete with the rarely heard verse that makes clear that the entire wartime “homecoming” is merely imagined. There is also a nice gratitude ballad, “Thankful,” and a heartfelt rendition of the French carol “Petit papa Noel.”
“Snowfall: The Tony Bennett Christmas Album” (Legacy): Tony Bennett’s 1968 Christmas album is a curious mix of schmaltz and swing and is being re-released along with a bonus DVD of a more lively Bennett nearly four decades later singing and swinging Christmas songs live on a television special with the Ralph Sharon Trio. By 1968 standards, this is a ho-ho hum release, but the newer TV tracks show how much Bennett has evolved as a singer in the ensuing decades, and are actually far more interesting than the older album.
Ellen Hargis & Paul O’Dette, “The Christmas Album” (Noyse): Chicago-based soprano Ellen Hargis and lute and therebo player Paul O’Dette offer an offbeat collection of medieval and Renaissance Christmas music from France, England, Italy and Germany along with a bonus track of the relatively contemporary standard “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”
Michael Bublé, “Let It Snow!” (Reprise): I have a family member who goes wild for Michael Bublé, but I find his crudely crooned pseudo-Sinatra very much in the Harry Connick Jr. vein (or should I say vain?). This EP features half a dozen secular holiday songs that are immensely derivative and uninspiring and hey, you can get a full Sinatra Christmas CD for half the price.
Paul French & the William Ferris Chorale, “Snow Carols: Christmas Music by William Ferris” (Cedille): Known for over three decades as a Chicago organist and choral director, the late William Ferris was also a composer and the Chorale that he founded and which still bears his name offers a selection of the seasonal repertoire Ferris wrote both for Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church on the North Side as well as for the William Ferris Chorale.
Joan Osborne, “Christmas Means Love” (Time Life): Singer-songwriter Joan Osborne offers a soulful and heartfelt holiday album that includes plenty of upbeat originals, including the title track and the Dixieland-inspired “Christmas in New Orleans” and the bluesy “What Do Bad Girls Get?” along with gospel-infused takes on sacred songs not usually found on holiday albums, such as the “Cherry Tree Carol.”
Mannheim Steamroller, “Christmas Song” (American Grammaphone): The early holiday albums of Chip Davis and company were fun and innovative, and there was always an overall concept to each arrangement that was sometimes moving, sometimes funny, but there was always a clever point. This holiday retread revisits holiday terrain already over-mined by the franchise, despite bringing Johnny Mathis and Olivia Newton-John out of moth balls to attempt to spruce things up.
Chanticleer, “Let It Snow” (Rhino): This first-class all-male a cappella San Francisco-based vocal ensemble has released some spectacular Christmas albums and DVDs over the years and performs a candlelight Christmas concert here regularly heavy in plainchant and Renaissance polyphony. This album finds the group conspicuously crossing over into Manhattan Transfer territory, with mixed results. If crossing “Jingle Bells” with snippets of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” is your idea of holiday fun, this is your album.
Boney James, “Christmas Present” (Concord): Saxophonist Boney James brings a hip-hop meets elevator jazz sensibility to the Christmas canon with some surprising results. His rethinking of “Merry Christmas Baby” with Angie Stone has an urban and funky edge while “Santa Baby” with Chante Moore struts over into R & B territory.
Luciano Pavarotti, “O Holy Night.” (Decca): Part of a massive re-issue of the entire Pavarotti album catalogue since his September passing, Pavarotti’s only solo Christmas album captured the superstar tenor in 1976 at the height of his vocal prowess. Despite some comical English diction on the first verse of the title track (the other verses are sung in the original French), the climax is the most thrilling captured in modern stereo and his Schubert “Ave Maria” blows away even the version he sang here for the Pope two years later at Holy Name Cathedral. But the “Sanctus” from the Berlioz “Requiem” is nothing less than hair-raising, despite a disappointingly mediocre chorus.