Wednesday, 19 December 2012

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (and Ladies) - best Christmas albums from the dearly departed

I’m more than just a little bit of a fan of Christmas music.  People always bitch about hearing it on the radio (starting in November, 99.3 has it 24/7!), in the stores, and pretty much everywhere you go.  I am not one of these people who complain.  In fact, I am probably the one in the background who has it cranked up to 11.  I have more than 700 Christmas songs on my lappy, playing on infinite loop for the entirety of December.  This includes all the soundtracks to the classic stop-motion, muppet and traditional Christmas cartoons.  It also includes all of the beautiful religious songs, and while religious I am not, these are by far the best and most beautiful of the Christmas tunes, and I love them.  Christmas music amps up my already profound Christmas fervor to ridiculous levels which suggest that someone let the ADHD kid eat all the candy canes.


Anyway, rather than simply doing a list of my favorite CD’s, I’d like to do a bit of a tribute to some of the beautiful voices that have left us, but remain immortalized in their wonderful Christmas albums.   I’ve picked four very different works from four different genres – opera, folk, country and jazz.  However different they are from each other, I would consider them all to be canonical Christmas CD’s, and complete must-haves for any Christmas music fan.

Also, you have to know that music was better “back then”, and this is just a fact (don’t make me whip out Sinatra vs. Bieber on you). 

So here we go.

Christmas With Mario Lanza

The original album was produced in 1956, and is probably my single favorite Christmas album EVER.  Mario Lanza was an absolutely peerless tenor (along with being a total babe!), and this album shows his virtuosity and powerful voice at its best.  Unfortunately, Mario Lanza’s troubles were as great as his talents and he left the world far too soon at the age of only 38.  It’s very difficult to pick a favorite song from this album, but I very much enjoy seeing the multiple sides of Lanza’s talent.  On O Holy Night we get to hear Lanza using the full might, power, and volume of his incredible voice.  And then there are very soft and tender moments, like on The Virgin’s Slumber Song which is just so melodic and beautiful that it brings tears my eyes when I hear it.  This is just an amazing album from an amazing artist, with not a bad song on it.  Even if you aren’t a fan of opera, your Christmas album collection is really not complete without this work.

The Very Best of Burl Ives Christmas

While this compilation was put together in 1999, Ives recorded most of the songs found on this album in the 1960’s.  Ives was a prolific Christmas music singer, with several albums of Christmas music to his name during his lifetime, and several re-compilations after his death.  Ives’ folk sound suits so many of these Christmas songs perfectly.  And while he is known for Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Holly Jolly Christmas which he sang in his role as Sam the snowman in the stop motion Christmas special, there are so many better songs by Ives on this compilation.  I’m particularly fond of his rendition of What Child is This, a Christmas song that seems not to be recorded very widely, but that Ives does an absolutely great job with.  While I have three Burl Ives Christmas CDs in my collection, if you are only going to pick one from the bunch, make it this collection for a good overall feel for Ives’ work and sound. 

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Other Christmas Classics - Gene Autry

I don’t usually dig country music at all.  And because it’s Christmas I’ll refrain from lambasting the genre all together (for now).  The tracks found on this CD were recorded in the late 40’s to early 50’s, and while there have been many other Gene Autry compilations created, this is the easiest one to obtain.  My favorite song has to be If it Doesn’t Snow on Christmas Day, I remember hearing this one as a child and I think that’s where my fondness for this album is rooted.  It’s a very fun song, told from a child’s perspective.  While Autry’s voice and ample twang cannot really be categorized as beautiful, it is certainly a unique sound which is instantly recognizable.  Even if like me you aren’t a country fan, this one makes a great addition to the collection purely for Autry’s unique sound and unusual take on some of the classics.

Ella Wishes you a Swinging Christmas

Great album, freaky cover.  Not sure what’s going on there with the trippy oil-slick unicorn...  anyway, this album from the lovely Ella Fitzgerald was originally released in 1960. As it's a jazz/swing album, obviously there's been a bit of liberty taken with the interpretation of some of the classics.  And while some of the songs are quirky to the point of near ridiculousness, the album has an absolutely fabulous version of Sleigh Ride which is irresistibly toe-tapping.  Fitzgerald’s amazing vocal range gets a pretty good workout on most of the tracks, if you can find a copy of this one I’d highly recommend adding it to your collection. 

Until next time. :)

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