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It’s Beginning to Sound a Lot Like Christmas

December 8, 2014

It’s that time of year when I sally forth, Wenceslas-like, through cold December nights to sing wonderful Christmas songs from years gone by at parties across the country.

I’m contractually bound, of course, to say that there really is no substitute for live music when it comes to creating the perfect Yuletide atmosphere, but I can’t be everywhere at once so if you’re in need of some festive sounds then here, in no particular order, are the albums I simply wouldn’t be without at Christmas.

1. “Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas” – Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald - Swinging Christmas

My first choice finds the legendary Ella Fitzgerald swinging her way through a dozen festive favourites under the baton of Frank de Vol and his orchestra.  From the sheer joy of tracks like “Jingle Bells” and “Let it Snow!” to the gentler introspection of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” this is one of popular music’s greatest voices pulling out all the stops. The CD reissue by Verve is nicely packaged and features bonus tracks.

In a Nutshell: More swing than you can shake a jingle bell at.

2. “A Christmas Gift For You” – Phil Spector

A Christmas Gift For You

Long before his spectacular fall from grace in 2009 Phil Spector produced what for many is the definitive Christmas album and fifty-one years on it still packs a punch few can match. Spector’s legendary “wall of sound” is the perfect vehicle for creating a lush Christmas sound and the album rattles along at a breathless pace with some truly outstanding vocal turns along the way – particulary Darlene Love who delivers “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” as if her life truly depended on it.

In a Nutshell:  Sheer joy to fill up your silent nights.

3. “The Christmas Album” – Doris Day (1964)

The Doris Day Christmas Album

Released the year after Phil Spector’s bombastic masterpiece, Doris Day’s Christmas offering is an altogether more traditional album and is none the worse for that.

Day’s voice is pure Christmas, with all the warmth of a festive fireside scenes, but with none of the kitsch. She includes all the songs you’d expect (“The Christmas Song”, “Winter Wonderland”, ” White Christmas “) but also includes a few less well-known numbers such as “Be a Child at Christmas Time” and “Toyland” which add some welcome variety.

In a Nutshell:  Smoother than eggnog and twice as festive.

4. “Cool Yule” – Bette Midler

Cool Yule - Bette Midler

Doris may have avoided the kitsch, but my next festive essential positive revels in it.  The cover of Bette Midler’s 2006 Christmas album, “Cool Yule”, gives fair warning of its contents and while many of the tracks have their tongues firmly in their cheeks (notably the title song and an utterly glorious version of the  Hawaiian-themed “Mele Kalikimaka”) there are some wonderfully restrained numbers too (“I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “What are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” are especially touching).  There’s a beautiful rendition of the carol “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” too.

I have one gripe about the album and that’s the whiff of autotune about Midler’s vocals, but given the quality of the arrangements and excellent song selection it’s a minor complaint.

In a Nutshell:  Camp as Christmas with a heart of gold.

5. “What a Wonderful Christmas” – Louis Armstrong and Friends

What a Wonderful Christmas

Louis Armstrong’s voice is like bottled sunshine and when he gets his musical chops on a song like “Zat You Santa Claus?” you can’t help but grin from ear to ear.  Unbelievably, in a career that spanned five decades Louis Armstrong only recorded six Christmas songs which accounts for the “friends” included on this album, but there are far worse fillers than Duke Ellington’s take on “Jingle Bells”.

In a Nutshell: Musical sunshine on a cold Christmas Day.

6. “Sweet Bells” – Kate Rusby

Kate Rusby - Sweet Bells

My final festive essential is something of a departure from the others. Barnsley-born Kate Rusby is a folk singer who, in 2009, released this gem of an album.

Before those pesky, order-loving Victorians got their hands on the hymn book and introduced a one-hymn-one-tune regime hymns and carols often had numerous accompaniments.  Different regions would have their own tunes, particularly for Christmas carols, and there would even be variations from village to village.  Rusby’s native Yorkshire has a strong tradition of this and for her album she uses a range of regional tunes to accompany well-known and obscure carols.

The title track is  a special favourite of mine.  It’s essentially “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night”, but with a chorus added between the verses.  With a brass section culled from the might Grimethorpe Colliery Band the result is a sound that is at once reassuringly familiar and startlingly new.

In a Nutshell: A joyful folk-fusion of the traditional and the contemporary.

So there you have my personal pick of the hundreds of festive albums available.  Of course if you ever fancy some real live Christmas music you can find out all about my act on my website

Merry Christmas!

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 9, 2014 5:14 am

    Wow, great choices, I love all these albums. 🙂

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