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Holiday Gift Guide Review: “The Classic Christmas Album” Series

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JMCCJohnny Mathis. Frank Sinatra. Perry Como. Steve Vai? Menudo? When it comes to Christmas music, Legacy Recordings doesn’t pull its punches. The label’s series of Classic Christmas Album releases has become a bit of an annual tradition, and this year’s batch of single- and various-artist anthologies once again draws on names both expected and unexpected. While the packages are bare-bones, with no liner notes (but happily with full credits and discographical annotation), the music most certainly is not.

Johnny Mathis recorded his first Christmas album in 1958 and his most recent in 2013; it’s no wonder that the eternally silky vocalist has become one of the artists most associated with the holiday music genre. Hot on the heels of Legacy’s Complete Global Albums Collection for Mathis – which itself features one new-to-CD Christmas album from the artist, 1963’s The Sounds of Christmas – producers Didier C. Deutsch and Jeff James have gone the extra mile for Mathis’ Classic Christmas Album. Two previously unissued tracks make their first appearances anywhere, both from a September 1961 session with Percy Faith’s orchestra – Harold Adamson and Jimmy McHugh’s jovial “Ol’ Kris Kringle” and “Give Me Your Love for Christmas,” from the same session. The latter is the title of Mathis’ 1969 Christmas album, named for a Jack Gold/Phyllis Stohn song. The pair is credited here, but this newly-discovered ballad is wholly different from the more pop-flavored 1969 track. Two single sides arranged and conducted by the great Gene Page in 1979 make their first appearance on CD here – “Christmas in the City of the Angels” b/w “The Very First Christmas Day.” 1970’s surprisingly funky, socially-conscious “Sign of the Dove,” the B-side to the lilting “Christmas Is” (also included here), is another new-to-CD track. These rare treats are joined by highlights such as Mathis’ 2006 duet with Bette Midler of “Winter Wonderland/Let It Snow,” his incomparable 1958 rendition of “Sleigh Ride,” and 2013’s “Home for the Holidays.” Maria Triana has beautifully remastered all tracks.

FrankFrank Sinatra’s Classic Christmas Album also finds room for rarities. This set features 14 holiday favorites from Young Blue Eyes’ Columbia Records period, long before he was “The Chairman of the Board.” At Columbia, Sinatra was, simply, “The Voice” – the voice which inspired bobbysoxers to riot and listeners everywhere to swoon. In sharp contrast to his later, swingin’ period (which is foreshadowed by tracks here like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” from 1948 and 1950, respectively), the tone here is largely reverential. This collection, which has the entirety of the 1948 10-inch LP Christmas Songs by Sinatra, also offers two spirituals featuring The Charioteers first issued on a 1947 single (“Jesus is a Rock (In a Weary Land)” and “I’ve Got a Home in That Rock”); both are somewhat unusual fare for a holiday album.  You’ll hear pure recordings from The Voice on “Silent Night,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and “Adeste Fideles.” Sinatra is equally affecting and bittersweet on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which like most of these tracks was arranged and conducted by his first great collaborator, Axel Stordahl. Two previously unissued performances round out this fine compilation: a loose take of Frank Loesser’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with soprano Dorothy Kirsten and an alternate version of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s “Let It Snow!” with the Page Cavanaugh Trio. This alternate is radically different than the 1950 version as it takes the song as a soft ballad rather than as a big-band swinger. Sinatra performed “Baby” with Kirsten on 1949’s Light Up Time radio program; it’s a real treat as the song wasn’t subsequently recorded in the studio by Sinatra. “Let It Snow” with Cavanaugh dates to 1946’s Songs by Sinatra show. Sound is top-notch courtesy of Maria Triana’s remastering.

After the jump: a look at Perry Como, Barbra Streisand and more!

Perry Como Classic ChristmasThe late crooner Perry Como also occupies a special place in the Christmas pantheon. Between 1946 and 1982, the genial entertainer recorded four holiday-themed albums for RCA Victor and a handful of singles, all of which were collected by Real Gone Music on its indispensable Complete Christmas Collection. Mr. C’s Classic Christmas Album entry samples 14 of Como’s Christmas perennials inimitably sung in his trademark relaxed style, including “Winter Wonderland” and the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice composition “Christmas Dream.” The earliest track here is from composer Carl Sigman (“Unchained Melody”), the 1950 “There’s No Christmas Like a Home Christmas,” while the German-flavored Lloyd Webber/Rice song is the latest, from 1974. Como’s original hit recordings of Meredith Willson’s “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” (1951) and “(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays” (1954) as well as a lengthy narration-and-song suite, “ The Story of the First Christmas,” are just three of the many highlights on this 14-track set remastered by Maria Triana.

BSCCThe crossover classical vocal quartet Il Divo followed in the footsteps of vocal legends like Como, Sinatra and Mathis with the 2005 release The Christmas Collection; this platinum-selling 10-track set has been retitled as part of this Classic Christmas Album series. It’s a largely reverential set, with Simon Cowell’s discoveries applying their lush sound to “The Lord’s Prayer,” “Silent Night” and “Ave Maria” as well as the secular “White Christmas” and most surprisingly, “Over the Rainbow.” In 2006, Il Divo toured as special guests of Barbra Streisand, who recently became the only artist in history with No. 1 albums in six consecutive decades. (Congratulations, Barbra!) Last year, Streisand received a Classic Christmas Album volume. That album has been tweaked for this year’s version, going from 16 tracks to 15 and favoring her sacred performances over her secular ones. The 2014 edition adds Gounod and Schubert’s settings of “Ave Maria,” plus “The Lord’s Prayer” and “One God” to a line-up already including “Silent Night” and “I Wonder as I Wander.” Other highlights include Streisand’s one-of-a-kind reinvention of “Jingle Bells?,” Stephen Sondheim’s haunting Evening Primrose ballad “I Remember,” and Frank Loesser’s ultimate holiday torch song, “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?.” The Loesser tune, too, is new to this collection which draws seven songs from 1967’s A Christmas Album and eight from 2001’s Christmas Memories. It’s all been produced by Streisand and Jay Landers, and remastered by Doug Sax and Robert Hadley.

Classic PopFinally, the series introduces three entries, each dedicated to a specific genre of music. The Classic Christmas Pop Album concentrates on modern pop (roughly speaking), with 15 songs – both originals and standards – from Backstreet Boys (“Christmas Time”), New Kids on the Block (“The Christmas Song”), Karmin (“Sleigh Ride”) and Phantom Planet (“Carol of the Bells”). All told, 14 tracks on this peppy compilation produced by Jeff James and remastered by Tom Ruff hail from the post-2000 era. The Classic Hard Rock Christmas Album, on the other hand, is a new spin on Merry Axemas, a 1997 compilation dedicated to a guitar-slinging Christmas. Four songs are repeated from that set: Jeff Beck’s “Amazing Grace,” Steve Vai’s “Christmas Time is Here,” Joe Satriani’s “Silent Night/Holy Night Jam” and Alex Lifeson’s “The Little Drummer Boy.” Those luminaries are joined by Toto’s Steve Lukather (“The Christmas Song”), Journey’s Neal Schon (“O Come, O Come Emmanuel”) and Robin Trower (“O Little Town of Bethlehem”) among others on this 11-track set. Most of these tracks have been derived from the second volume of Merry Axemas, from 1998. David Donnelly has remastered. The Classic Christmas Country Album – a Wal-Mart exclusive release – draws primarily but not exclusively on contemporary country artists for a cross-section of sixteen downhome holiday tunes including Kenny Chesney and Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper,” Brad Paisley’s “Winter Wonderland,” Martina McBride’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and Alabama’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” This disc produced by Gregg Geller has been remastered by Sean Brennan.

All of these titles are available now from Legacy Recordings!

Frank Sinatra, The Classic Christmas Album (Amazon U.S. /Amazon U.K.)

Johnny Mathis, The Classic Christmas Album (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Barbra Streisand, The Classic Christmas Album (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Il Divo, The Classic Christmas Album (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Perry Como, The Classic Christmas Album (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Various Artists, The Classic Christmas Pop Album (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Various Artists, The Classic Christmas Hard Rock Album (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Various Artists, The Classic Christmas Country Album (Legacy 88875 02026-2, 2014) (Wal-Mart)

Written by Joe Marchese

December 5, 2014 at 11:14

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