“A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra” by Frank Sinatra

Christmas albums, while by definition built around a theme, do not necessarily qualify as Concept Albums, at least by general consensus. Indeed, the vast majority of Christmas albums are far too unambitious to be in consideration for such a lofty title, being at best minor entries in their creators’ catalogues and at worst blatantly calculated cash grabs with little or no effort put into them.

That said, during his tenure at Capitol Records, Frank Sinatra basically invented the Concept Album. Beyond merely having a general theme, his albums from this period were extremely carefully structured and modulated to create a very specific effect, and he applied this approach even to his Christmas album for the label. This was actually his second Christmas album (his third if you count the Christmas-themed singles compilation Columbia put out after he left the label), and he would make at least two more in his lifetime, but there’s a reason this is the one everybody remembers.

The album’s sound is old-fashioned even by the standards of its late-Fifties release date: it seems like a throwback to Sinatra’s Columbia days, particularly in the heavy use of backing choirs. But a little nostalgia seems quite appropriate for the subject, and it fits the mood the album is trying to create, so the result turns out to be the first of many good decisions Frank made regarding this record.

The first half of the album (which would have been the first “side” of the original vinyl release) features contemporary Christmas songs, while the second “side” is devoted to semiclassical Christmas hymns. Fortunately, only one of the endless stable of reprehensible Holiday Novelty songs is represented here (“Jingle Bells”, which opens the album): the rest are fairly respectable Great American Songbook standards, one of which (“Mistletoe and Holly”) was written specifically for this album, and has gone on the become a minor standard in its own right.

Moreover, this might be the only rendition of “Jingle Bells” that I have ever enjoyed. The primary reason for this is that Frank plays around pretty freely with the melody, turning it into a loose, carefree Swing tune, and the result is, if nothing else, far less annoying than the tooth-grindingly simplistic original tune that we all know and hate.

The first side mostly basks in genial, somewhat generic good cheer, as a kind of gradual warmup for the overall experience of the album. Things take a more substantial turn with a glowing rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. Sinatra famously commissioned a change in the lyrics that has hung on as a persistent alternate version, replacing the line “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow” with “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough”. This change has drawn complaints from many people over the years, but Frank knew what he was doing, and, at least for the purposes of this album, the new lyrics fits much better with the overall tone he was going for. It really shouldn’t have propagated to other renditions of the song, but for the original purpose it was written for, it works perfectly.

This more serious choice of song serves as a transition to the solemn ecstasy of the hymns that make up the album’s second side. It starts with a stately, almost regal rendition of “The First Noel” and a clarion-voiced “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. Things become even more intensely beautiful with a serenely triumphant “Adeste Fideles”, before concluding with the sacred hush of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and “Silent Night”, the latter of which features what may be the most beautiful vocal performance I’ve ever heard Frank give. At this point in his life, Sinatra was by all accounts not very religious, but hearing these performances, it’s hard to believe he wasn’t spiritually touched by what he was singing.

The second half of this album is so magnificent that it almost makes you wish Sinatra had just made an album of Christmas hymns (there were certainly many more possibilities for him to choose from). That said, this album holds together so perfectly as an overall experience that I personally wouldn’t have had it any other way. This is almost certainly the greatest Christmas album ever recorded (even Bing Crosby and Nat “King” Cole’s efforts in the field would have trouble competing with it), so I felt that reviewing it would be a good way to honor the holiday at hand and offer a bit of good cheer and inspirational subject matter to my own readers. Merry Christmas.

“My Christmas” by Andrea Bocelli

Andrea Bocelli has gotten some flack for his attempt to bring Classical music into the pop market, but I consider him a positive force in the business and in culture in general. Most of the people who go after him are really trying on some level to keep Classical music a niche market so they can use it as a status symbol, so their opinions are suspect at best.

More than anything else, Bocelli reminds me of a singing Liberace…minus the flamboyant image, of course. But like Liberace, he repackages Classical music into a form that is easily digestible for the general public, and like Liberace he has received a great deal of undeserved scorn in spite of being, by all ordinary standards, an exceptionally gifted musician. And yes, Bocelli isn’t Pavarotti or Domingo, just as Liberace wasn’t Glenn Gould, but it hardly seems fair (or intellectually honest) to make that comparison when you remember that the vast majority of other legit opera singers aren’t remotely on the level of those giants either.

That said, there are times when Bocelli’s willingness to accommodate his mainstream audiences can get a bit excessive, and this album is arguably one of those times. Even many of his fans complained about his singing tired Christmas novelty standards in what seemed like an attempt to pander to the mainstream market, instead of seeking out more esoteric and interesting choices. Granted, this is generally the standard strategy followed by popular singers who record Christmas albums, but given the rich vein of Classical and Semiclassical Christmas music Bocelli had to draw on, the song selection should have been more interesting than it is here.

There are a fair number of legitimate classical hymns performed here, such as “Angels We Have Heard On High”, “Adestes Fideles”, and “Silent Night”, and they certainly show off Bocelli’s voice nicely, but even they seem a little too obvious…Bocelli should arguably have chosen more items like “Caru Geso Bambino”, a lovely Italian Christmas hymn not much known in the U.S., for this album, instead of going almost entirely with the overexposed Christmas chestnuts.

The lead single from this album, a rendition of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”, isn’t the worst performance of this overexposed classic I’ve heard, but the switch from English to Italian mid-song seems gimmicky and distracting. And items like “Jingle Bells” (taken from the album’s accompanying TV special, where he performed it with the Muppets) or “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” are simply unworthy of Bocelli’s talent. To his credit, he tries to treat them with the respect he gives to the rest of his material, but this kind of material neither deserves nor rewards that kind of respect, so the results just sound like an oversung embarrassment.

On top of that, there are three duets here with singers from entirely different genres…a jazzy “The Christmas Song” with Natalie Cole, a heavily Pop-flavored “What Child Is This?” with Mary J. Blige, and a Country-style “Blue Christmas” with Reba McEntire…and none of them is entirely successful. Bocelli’s attempts to modulate his sound to fit these different genres just sound awkward and tentative, like even he knew this was a bad idea, and he pairs badly with Blige’s bluesy Soul contralto and McEntire’s Country twang.

But there are a few glorious moments that justify this album’s existence. “The Lord’s Prayer”, performed with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, is magnificent, with Bocelli performing with incredible feeling and the legendary choir providing a suitably epic and weighty backdrop. This album also features the first studio recording of Bocelli singing “I Believe”, which he reportedly performed for the Pope at one point and which has become one of his signature items. And “God Bless Us Everyone”, the theme song from the 2009 film version of A Christmas Carol, is an absolutely amazing song that makes for a powerfully inspirational and gloriously satisfying album closer.

Overall, there are much better Bocelli recordings out there if you’re just starting to explore his work. This particular album tends to emphasize his worst habits, and he’s usually much more respectable than this. That said, this album does definitely have its moments, and while it doesn’t make for a very good first impression of Bocelli, it’s worth picking up somewhere along the way, if only just for “I Believe”, “God Bless Us Everyone”, and “The Lord’s Prayer”.

“Silent Night” by Franz Gruber and Joseph Mohr

This song is a special case…it’s the only Christmas hymn that routinely gets included on non-Christmas albums, to the point where Barbra Streisand’s A Happening In Central Park live album, which was recorded in June, contains a rendition of it. This is particular impressive given how massively overexposed all the famous Christmas songs are…it’s basically people saying “Not only didn’t we get sick of this song at Christmas, we’re so not sick of it we’re going to trot it out in Midsummer”.

It’s hard to say why this song has such special status, but it might be because it offers such a great opportunity to the performer. When warbled out by a generic band of carolers, it’s actually not nearly as effective a showcase for that kind of singing as “Oh Holy Night” or “Angels We Have Heard On High”, but give it to a talented solo singer or an extremely well-trained choir who can really create a mood of hushed peace, and you’ve got magic on your hands.

Verdict: Good.

“Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney

As you might have picked up on from my entries this holiday season, I have little patience for most Christmas-themed novelty music. This, however, in spite of being as inane as anything else in the genre, is an enormous cut above most of its peers in overall quality. Why? Because even on throwaway musical trifles like this, Sir Paul’s work drips melody almost automatically, the way Irving Berlin used to do. As a result, this song has probably the best melody in the history of Christmas novelty music…hell, many of the Christmas hymns don’t have melodies this good…and that goes a long, long way toward making its repetitive shallowness palatable.

Verdict: A very minor item in the Paul McCartney canon, but still about as good as you’re ever going to get from a holiday novelty song.

“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie

This song is a special kind of awful, even by shitty Christmas novelty song standards. The tune is one of the genre’s most annoying, ultra-simplistic, infuriatingly perky and a brainslug-level earworm, but there’s a deeper problem with the song besides its surface obnoxiousness.

Despite being heard far too often in media ostensibly intended for adults such as mainstream radio stations and shopping establishments, this is for the most part a children’s song, and it instills in children one of the worst messages you could teach them. Essentially, it’s saying, “Be good, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because life will magically reward you for your goodness”. I’ll grant you that mindset is an inherent problem with the Santa Claus mythos in general, but rarely is it spelled out as baldly as it is in this song.

This may seem harmless, except that a surprising number of people grow up without ever growing out of this mindset…you’ll notice that there are several major branches of organized religion that essentially promise the same thing using the exact same incentives. So if you think about it, a lot of the most serious problems of the modern world could conceivably be traced back to childhood exposure to this particular song. I think that in itself is enough to seal the deal on a negative verdict.

Verdict: This song is garbage.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Judy Garland

Hugh Martin and (possibly) Ralph Blane (the record has become somewhat unclear regarding Blaine’s contribution to the songs by this supposed songwriting team) may have written this immortal holiday classic for the movie Meet Me in St. Louis, but Judy Garland pretty much saved it from the scrap heap, and not just because she contributed its definitive rendition.

The melody strikes a perfect note of bittersweetness, but the original lyrics were plot-specific and much more overt in their depressing content than the current ones…not only were they embarrassingly ‘lugubrious’, to use Garland’s description, but to sing them to a young child (which is what is happening in the film at this point) would be unspeakably cruel.

Thanks to Garland insisting on the necessary lyrical changes, the version heard today is mournfully optimistic, and you have to pay fairly close attention to realize just how depressing the sentiments being expressed really are. This sets it apart from both the holiday standards of its time, which tended to be idyllic and joyful, and from most of the later downbeat Holiday-themed standards like “Blue Christmas” that generally display their sadder elements much more openly. In fact, in all the length and breadth of the Christmas music genre, there’s really no other song like it, which is something to treasure in what is otherwise one of the most generic fields of music in existence.

Verdict: One of the few ubiquitous Christmas standards that I will unreservedly stick up for.

O Tannenbaum”/”O Christmas Tree” by Ernst Anschütz

This song occupies a space somewhere between the traditional Christmas hymns and the manufactured novelty crap that has dominated the genre for the last hundred years or so. It worked well enough in its original form as a booming, boisterous quasi-Drinking Song, but its banal melody is not well served by the American tendency to perform it as a sentimental ballad, and that combined with the inevitable overexposure any Christmas standard receives has made most American listeners cringe when they hear it.

Verdict: Decent in the German original, but straight-up bad in most American versions.

“What Child Is This” by William Chatterton Dix

Like all famous Christmas music, this song has been overexposed to a ridiculous degree, but it’s actually one of the better Christmas hymns, although much of that is due to its obviously borrowed music. True, it co-opts a tune that had been famous for centuries, but it’s actually a significant improvement on any vocal version of “Greensleeves” itself. There’s a reason that tune is usually heard in instrumental versions…as indelible as the melody is, the lyrics have definitely not aged well. Not only are they embarrassingly maudlin and banal by modern standards, but they project a mindset that is rather poorly thought of today…essentially, “I was nice to you, therefore you should be obligated to”…well, the singer uses the words ‘love me’, but I think we all known what he means. Granted, the lyrics to “What Child Is This” are basically pastiches of Bible verse, but they’re a pretty convincing imitation of the style, and it has a very dramatic, almost eerie quality that gives it a refreshing element of darkness for a Christmas song.

Verdict: Good

“Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms vs. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee

In the Fifties, during the heyday of early Rock’N’Roll, there were two disastrous attempts to create new Holiday-themed standards in that newfangled music style all the kids seemed to be listening to. And, to my immense confusion, it actually worked, as both are still staples of bad Christmas-season store Muzak to this day. Both are among the genre’s greatest annoyances, but “Jingle Bell Rock” is actually the more tolerable of the two. The song’s combination of the cliche songwriting model of Fifties Rock with a melody suggestive of sleigh bells is almost kind of clever if you think about it, and it certainly has a better melody than the original “Jingle Bells”, not that that’s saying much. That said, this is some of the softest, wimpiest “Rock” music ever composed, and even I as a respecter of Soft Rock as a genre agree that this song’s invoking of the word “Rock” in the first place is dubious at best. Also, the singer, Bobby Helms, bears an unfortunate vocal resemblance to a later, more notorious holiday novelty performer, Elmo Shropshire (of “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” fame).

Still, at least Helms was a one-hit novelty act who’s now basically known solely for this one song; our other attempt at Fifties Christmas Rock was recorded by a genuine living legend of the Country Music genre, Brenda Lee, who had released tons of great music and certainly didn’t need to resort to novelty Christmas tracks (although it did become her biggest hit, depressingly enough). “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is generally classified as Rockabilly, but that term meant several things depending on the music being discussed. Elvis was Rockabilly as it’s understood now…a very early Country-Rock hybrid…but some Rockabilly was just standard-issue Country Music, only trashier. This song came from well before either the polished elegance of the Nashville sound or the gritty honesty of the Outlaw Country movement were thought up, so it has exactly the sound that people who hate Country music used to think all Country Music sounded like. This is the kind of cheap, lazy trash that automatically conjures up images of a seedy, chincy hotel lobby with a tiny, pathetic Christmas tree set out for show, decorated with a little cheap gold tinsel and maybe one cord of electric bulbs, half of which don’t even work properly, with a lopsided plastic star barely managing to stay more or less on top. Say what you will about “Deck the Halls” or “Oh Christmas Tree”, but at least they conjure up reasonably pleasant imagery for the holiday season.

Verdict: Bad and Worse, respectively.

“Jingle Bells” by James Lord Pierpont

I’m mystified by this song’s ridiculous popularity; I’m fairly certain that nobody (or at least nobody past the age of seven) actually likes it, yet it’s become the quintessential Christmas standard, even being routinely recorded by legit musical artists on their Christmas albums. Part of this, I suppose, can be attributed to its simplicity…it’s so easy to pick out on the piano that it makes “Chopsticks” look like Franz Liszt, and almost no-one is so tone-deaf that they can’t sing it more or less correctly. But this is exactly what makes the song so unbearable—this is one of the most banal, simplistic melodies in existence, and that, combined with the gratingly cutesy lyrics, makes it a fairly strong contender for the most annoying song of all time. And given the ridiculous levels of overplay this song receives, even by the standards of overexposed Christmas chestnuts, I secretly suspect we could cut down heavily on the specter of seasonal depression just by banning this one song.

Verdict: This would be one of the worst popular songs of all time on a first listen, so you can imagine how bad it is when you’ve been hearing it 200 times a year since you were an infant.