"The end is where we start from."

-T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Best Popular Christmas Albums of All Time

All three of these albums, listened to in a darkened room with nothing but the Christmas tree lit up, bring back rich memories for me of the beautiful family Christmases my parents created for us each year as we grew up. They are artistic masterpieces that are still enjoyed by discriminating fans decades after their first releases. All are now available on CD.

This LP, released in 1957 by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, is a lush, warm chorale miracle. Excerpts from the title track appear in the middle and at the end of the album, which adds the feel of a live performance with everyone dressed in winter wear, walking on a stage with artificial snow falling around them. Mixing a capella and orchestral pieces, and a harmonious blend of sacred and secular songs, which come together as a superb whole, this album is flawless.

Walter Schumann's Christmas offering, released in 1955, offers some peppier tunes than Waring's album, and is just as magnificent in its harmonies, arrangements, and mood. Basso profundo master Thurl Ravenscroft sang in the chorus on this album, and his work brings a broader vocal range to the LP, which adds depth to some of the tracks. Schumann takes some risks here that all work well, such as the Pearce family favorite, "Christmas Tree," (who doesn't laugh at the "Presents nice!" lyrics) and the loud, bouncing "Christmas Gift," which is part of Schumann's successful attempt to incorporate black folk- and spiritual-style Christmas songs into the album. It's hard to pick favorite tracks, but "Fum, Fum, Fum," and "Christmas in Killarney" are two fun songs that will keep you coming back to this album year after year. 

German jazz master Bert Kaempfert released the most interesting, and best, popular instrumental Christmas album to date in 1963. Taking traditional Christmas favorites such as "The Little Drummer Boy" and "White Christmas" and mixing them with five original tracks (my favorite is "Holiday for Bells"), Kaempfert offers an album that is light and whimsical, yet offers tender, soft arrangements (such as the title track) that allow the album to bring the joyful listener a broad range of emotional enjoyment. Some of the tracks contain carefully-layered, high-pitched solo and group women's voices, making musical sounds that enhance the instrumental work. The title track, a Kaempfert original visualized by the album's dreamy cover, makes thoughtful use of a jazz organ and trumpet, and the whole album is enriched by the tightness of the musicians, and the effective use of brass solos.