Reviews

Six Vintage Christmas Albums for People Who Love the Classics

I like my Christmas records old and schmaltzy.
I like my Christmas records old and schmaltzy. Robrt L. Pela
I’ve tried listening to contemporary Christmas music. No, really. I downloaded the holiday collection by CeeLo Green and I’ve streamed Pentatonix’s Christmas is Here. There’s an MP3 file folder on my laptop called Hip New Holiday Music, with a copy of the She and Him holiday collection as well as Ariana Grande’s Christmas and Chill, which I made it through almost half of.

When it comes to holiday records, I’m a failure at keeping current. I want to like Tori Kelley singing “Let It Snow” with Babyface or “The Twelve Days of Brhistmas” by OMB Bloodbath, but to me they sound like they’re playing at holiday cheer. (Conversely, I find nothing but warm Yuletide sincerity in the grooves of Christmas albums of Barbra Streisand and Bob Dylan, both Jewish.) But when it comes to holiday music, I want mine on a slab of 60-year-old vinyl I found in a thrift shop, and not a newfangled 180-gram reissue or a digital download or an MP3. I want some boozy old lounge singer crooning “Adeste Fidelis,” and not an autotuned teenager trying to sell “Silent Night.” Sorry.

My musical holiday taste seems to be mired in the mid-'60s, the heyday of the Christmas album — probably because I was a kid back then, and many of my best holiday memories reside in my childhood past. And it occurs to me that if I’m trying to find a holiday download I like as much as I love 1963’s The Jack Jones Christmas Album, maybe you’re looking for a list of middle-of-the-last-century platters that’ll give your yuletide a new sound. Here, in that holiday spirit, are a half-dozen of my Christmas faves:

The Ventures: Christmas Album (Dolton, 1965). It’s surf-rock sleighbells with a reverb-crazy twist: This influential instrumental group grafted popular hits of the day onto arrangements of familiar holiday tunes. The record kicks off with a reference to the band’s biggest hit, “Walk, Don’t Run” that slides into a kitschy riff on “Sleigh Ride.” Kiddie favorites like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” get groovy backbones from “Wooly Bully” and the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine,” respectively, while “Frosty the Snowman” meets the Champs’ “Tequila” with high holiday style.

Don’t miss: The Nashville-flavored call-and-response of “Silver Bells,” a sleepy duet of Moog and electric guitar.

Lena Horne: Merry from Lena (United Artists, 1966). There are singers whose voices are built for the emotional pitch and campy mischief of holiday songs, and Horne is among their number. Her five-piece combo puts real zip into some Christmas chestnuts, and her rendition of Frank Loesser’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” is rich and warm and maybe second only to Eydie Gorme’s. Horne’s jazzy riff on “Jingle Bells,” renamed “Jingle All the Way,” is a left-of-center blues hall rendition that’s a real winner. She even convinced me to like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” whom she casts as a naughty young buck with a drinking problem.

Don’t miss: Horne’s finger-popping spin on “Let it Snow!” revives that snoozy number.

Bert Kaempfert: Christmas Wonderland (Decca, 1963). Composer and orchestra leader Kaempfert pioneered the genre that’s become known as “cocktail” music, all of it symphonic and arranged around vibes and a signature sound of drunken trumpet solos. Here he goes nuts with holiday fare: “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” done as an upright bass-driven shuffle, “I Heard the Bells” a delightfully jangly brass band party. The maestro’s original work is a one-two punch of Yuletide originality: His “Holiday for Bells” is a joyful jump laced with Yma Sumac-like sirens wailing in the background vocals, and both the crazy-cheerful “Toy Parade” and “Jingo Jango” sound like main title music for every Rankin Bass holiday special ever filmed.

Don’t miss: The title song answers the musical question, “What does an inebriated trumpet sound like?” and should become the official anthem of day-after holiday hangovers.

The Ray Conniff Singers: Christmas with Conniff (Columbia, 1959). It’s all about vocal arrangements with Conniff on this, the first of his several kicky Christmas collections. The virtuoso bandleader brings us a bagful of close harmonies, double-tracked counter-tenors and mezzo sopranos singing scale-jumping fills. He also brings us “Christmas Bride,” the all-time creepiest original holiday composition, a solemn number in which an obviously horny guy asks Santa Claus to bring him a wife for Christmas: "Make her my bride for Christmas/Santa, it wouldn’t cost very much.” Okay, it was 1959, but still: Yikes!

Don’t miss: “Here Comes Santa Claus” is all vibes, echo-chamber vocal tricks, and nutty ad libs. But again: “Christmas Bride”!

Doris Day: The Doris Day Christmas Album (Columbia, 1964). I thought I was tired of “Silver Bells” and sick to death of “Winter Wonderland,” until I stumbled on this stylish collection of Christmas tunes. Day does things with lesser-known beauties like “Snowfall” and “Toyland,” and — ever the class act — skips the kiddie classics altogether; there are no Frosties or Santas here.

Don’t miss: Where did “Christmas Present” come from, and why haven’t other singers covered it? Sydney Robin’s elegant ballad is the perfect showcase for Day’s lovely vibrato.

Glen Campbell: That Christmas Feeling (Capitol, 1968). This collection sneaks up on you, its material divided evenly among holiday classics, little-known charmers, and stunning original compositions, all underplayed by former session guy and recent superstar Campbell. He makes new stuff like “It Must Be Getting Close to Christmas” and “Christmas Is for Children” sound like classics, and sells Roger Miller’s “Old Toy Trains” as if it were his own. Among the standards is a gorgeous take on “There’s No Place Like Home” reworked for Christmas by no less than Sammy Cahn.

Don’t miss: Covering Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper” is a risk that pays off for Campbell here, in an Al De Lory arrangement that turns a schmaltzy waltz into a sonic masterpiece.
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela