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.