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The Boston Phoenix Santa's Playlist

Toasting some classic holiday chestnuts.

By Boston Phoenix music critics

Neil Diamond

THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM

(Columbia)

Half the appeal of Neil's deal, for me at least, is that he'll sing anything, no matter how corny it sounds or how silly he looks doing it, with absolute conviction. It's a trait he shares with other relics of pop's pre-ironic era -- Wayne Newton, Michael Bolton, Kathie Lee Gifford. But it comes in particularly handy for a Jewish guy from Brooklyn performing Christmas songs, and even writing one of his own. On this perfectly overblown 1992 disc, he doesn't just snack on little secular holiday novelties like "Jingle Bell Rock," he sinks his teeth into solemn Christmas classics like "Silent Night," "Little Drummer Boy," and, yes, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." It's an utterly convincing performance, devoid of even the slightest hint of the kind of self-awareness that just gets in the way this time of year. And if his "You Make It Feel like Christmas" doesn't move you to chuckle just a little bit, well, then nothing's gonna brighten your December.

-- Matt Ashare


THE CHRISTMAS REVELS

(Revels Records)

You wonder whether, when The Christmas Revels made its Cambridge debut back in 1971, people realized that an international holiday classic was being created. The Revels now has its own catalogue full of recordings and other merchandise, but this first release is still the touchstone, chock full of English antidotes to "Holly-Jolly Christmas": the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, the Wassail Carol from Gloucester, the Boar's Head Carol from Oxford, the medieval processional "Nova! Nova!", "Villagers All" from The Wind in the Willows, songs from the mummers' play of St. George and the Dragon. Plus what have become staples of every Revels holiday offering, Sydney Carter's "Lord of the Dance" and the closing benediction of the Sussex Mummers' Carol. It's a joyous reminder of what the season is all about.

-- Jeffrey Gantz


The Beatles

COMPLETE CHRISTMAS COLLECTION 1963-1969

(Yellow Dog/bootleg)

One of the few albums that always makes it into my CD player this time of year is this bootleg compilation of the seven Christmas singles the Beatles made specially for members of their fan club. Although there's nothing of major artistic value here -- just some goofy songs and jokes -- it's a treasure for Beatlemaniacs, not least because of the way it mirrors the band's development. In 1963, they're just four lads standing around a microphone, wishing the faithful fans all the best; by 1965, the humor has become more topical, the voices smothered at the end in ominous reverb. "Everywhere It's Christmas" (1966) and "Christmas Time Is Here Again" (1967) are the creative peaks, with biting TV and radio parodies. Then the fragmentation begins. For the last two years each Beatle recorded his own bit separately and they were edited together. Self-indulgence and Yoko Ono are much in evidence. Oh well, it's just a quick jump back to the happier days of '67.

-- Mac Randall


Johnny Mathis

THE CHRISTMAS MUSIC OF JOHNNY MATHIS: A PERSONAL COLLECTION

(Columbia/Legacy)

I've always felt that Nat King Cole was probably the best holiday singer of them all -- the guy's voice is the very personification of chestnuts roasting on an open fire. But after I get through all the current novelties (Everclear's "I'll Be Hating You for Christmas" and Fountains of Wayne's "I Want an Alien for Christmas" top this year's list), the platter I'll splatter all over the walls is gonna be by that old sock warmer, Johnny Mathis. For one thing, PC angst prevents me from being truly able to enjoy Nat melting over the words "I'm dreaming of a White Christmas." And in the end, like Sinatra, Nat's just too damn limber for Christmas music. Johnny's voice is gauzy and almost eerily sedated, with none of the heavy-handed, tyrannical phrasings of a Burl Ives or a Bing Crosby; comforting in its unshakable, reliable immutability. It's as warm and impersonal as a Hallmark card, as calculated and intimate as Christmas itself.

-- Carly Carioli


James Brown

JAMES BROWN'S FUNKY CHRISTMAS

(Polydor)

This disc compiles the best of three Christmas discs the Godfather recorded between '66 and '70. There's not much straight-up funk here, aside from the brilliant-yet-awful "Soulful Christmas," but you do get to hear the greatest soul singer ever doing some of his most deranged material -- screaming his way through "Let's Make This Christmas Mean Something This Year" and facing the endless strings-and-horns of "Hey America (It's Christmas Time)," in which he desperately ad-libs "This is the United States, you know . . . hava nagila . . . volare, volare . . . " Brown's vocal model for Christmas songs was the great blues singer Charles Brown, whom he pretty much channels throughout these songs. The album's highlight, though, is '68's "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto," a swinging, hard-sung soul number that's something of a standard among bizarro-Christmas-tune aficionados.

-- Douglas Wolk


HIPSTERS HOLIDAY: VOCAL JAZZ & R&B CLASSICS

(Rhino)

You've heard of Christmas spirit? This is Christmas soul -- a complete kit for a swinging and very black Christmas. Louis Armstrong zinging " 'Zat You Santa Claus," "Cool Yule," and "Christmas Night in Harlem." Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby." The Mar-Keys (name misspelled on CD, tsk tsk) doing "Santa Done Got Hip." Mabel Scott's "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" and Pearl Bailey's "Five Pound Box of Money." Miles Davis gets his licks in, jive-talking Tim Fuller drops some words, even Lionel Hampton flies "Merry Christmas Baby" home. And the CD booklet puts the tunes in the context of the artists' careers, so you can accidentally learn something about these hip jacks and janes while digging the seasonal sounds.

-- Ted Drozdowski


HANDEL'S MESSIAH: A SOULFUL CELEBRATION

(Reprise)

Even if you hate pop versions of the classics, this deconstructed Messiah is galvanic, its sacred message told by dozens of African-American music luminaries, who interpret the familiar text in gospel, jazz, rap, big band, evolved barbershop, and Motown. "Comfort Ye My People" (Vanessa Bell Armstrong and Daryl Coley) begins meditatively and ends with a prolonged, ecstatic shout. "Every Valley Shall Be Exalted" starts with a symphonic introduction, then crashes into wild hip-hop, with florid vocal embellishments by Lizz Lee and Chris Willis. Stevie Wonder and Take 6 do a soaring, close-harmony "O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion." The whole production, culminating in a mass, manic "Hallelujah" conducted by Quincy Jones, evokes Christmas in swinging spirals of devotion.

-- Marcia B. Siegel


CHRISTMAS COCKTAILS 2

(Capitol)

Like its predecessor, Christmas Cocktails 2 takes the lounge craze as an excuse to re-introduce the under-30 set to the square pop of their grandparents. The focus is on bouncy, carbonated arrangements and jazzy sophistication gone awry -- sillier takes from a young Nat King Cole, a lascivious Dean Martin, and Lou Rawls, plus exotica arch-enemies Les Baxter and Martin Denny. (Consumer alert: there's also a "Jingle Bell Rock" that is definitely not by Wayne Newton, as it's listed.) RJ Smith's liner notes talk a good game, comparing Christmas to "a trip to a far away land" where "the natives practice numerous baffling rituals, and the whole holiday slips out of your control, following rules you never quite get the hang of." As a send-up of nostalgia it's kinda funny once through, with June Christy's gilded "The Merriest" offering up cheery phrases like "Hope you swing during the season," and some really nice-sounding performances from Peggy Lee and Julie London.

-- Carly Carioli


Chorus of Emmanuel Music

HEINRICH SCHÜTZ MOTETS

(Koch)

I really sympathize with Scrooge when it comes to Christmas music. Handel's Messiah is a great work (though maybe not Handel's greatest), but I'd be happy to shelve it for another 10 years. Christmas carols are lovely, but who wants to wallow in them? So, my favorite Christmas record? I'd choose the two albums of Heinrich Schütz motets by the Chorus of Emmanuel Music, under the loving hand of Craig Smith. Schütz is the greatest German composer before Bach; he ought to be more widely known. His choral music is intensely spiritual and emotionally complex. The Emmanuel Chorus includes such stellar vocalists as Lorraine Hunt, Susan Larson, Karol Bennett, and Jayne West, and their voices make a sublime blend. Then if my palate still needs something evil and savory, I'll put on my favorite Christmas antidote, Lotte Lenya singing Kurt Weill's Seven Deadly Sins (not entirely inappropriate for the season) and Berlin Theatre Songs ("Mack the Knife," "Surabaya Johnny"), which Sony's Masterworks Heritage Series has just reissued.


BUMMED OUT CHRISTMAS

(Rhino)

There isn't a song that better sums up my idea of Christmas spirit than the Dan Hicks jugband ditty that leads off this album: "Somebody Stole My Santa Claus Suit." The hero wakes up Christmas morning to find that his beloved costume has been ripped off, and he's out for revenge: "Somebody took the whole shebang/If I find that roly-poly mother, he's gonna hang!" Despite the disc's title, only a few of the selections are truly bummed out, though the Everly Brothers' "Christmas Eve Can Kill You" has enough bad vibes to last till next summer. More typical are a pair of bratty '60s punk numbers, the Sonics' "Don't Believe in Christmas" and the Wailers' Dylan parody "Christmas Spirit." Or the blues obscurity "Santa Came Home Drunk," by Clyde Lasley and the Cadillac Baby Specials, an audio-vérité masterpiece that turns into a roll call of brand names of whiskey. Assembled from obscure '60s and '70s novelties, Bummed Out plays like a music nut's mix tape. In fact, my own holiday party tapes would have been seriously lacking without the whacked-out trucker number, "Santa Got a DWI," by some guy named Sherwin Linton.

-- Brett Milano


BILLBOARD'S GREATEST R&B CHRISTMAS HITS

(Rhino)

Christmas albums rarely work as well as you hope because they're built around a concept that exists external to the music. So for years my favorite Christmas music was one side of a tape I'd thrown together for myself. Trying to extend that tape to the other side one recent December, I picked up this 1990 hodgepodge, a totally indefensible mix of the sublime and the ridiculous. The latter includes a psychotic 1949 rendition of "Silent Night" sung by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and a 1959 Brook Benton hit featuring one of the most inane lyrics ever written: "Christmas always seems to come/At this time of the year." Much of the rest -- the classic "Merry Christmas Baby" by Johnny Moore's Three Blazers, "(It's Gonna Be a) Lonely Christmas" by the Orioles -- fits in with the R&B tradition of Christmas songs that are at once homy, sexy, melancholy, and quietly rapturous, if not just plain rocking. Not only did the album fit my taping needs perfectly, it matched my private sense of what Christmas should be by creating a nostalgia for a past I never even knew.

-- Franklin Soults


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