Some Holiday Music Favorites

Some Holiday Music Favorites

Written by Rudy Radelic

I might be a bit of an outlier. I typically don’t play Christmas music all that often during the holidays, since we are bombarded with it daily from November 1 onward any time we head out in public – I’m usually burned out by November 2. Despite that, I’ll spin holiday favorites one or two days during the season. Although I’ve collected several dozen Christmas/holiday titles, there is a core group of albums and individual songs I always gravitate to. I grew up with a few of them, others I’ve picked up along the way, and the most recent are only a few years old. There are also a handful of recordings that I spin occasionally (every few years), or include parts of in a playlist.

With that in mind, and in no particular order, here are some holiday favorites of mine that have endured over the years. Links in the article will lead either to further YouTube samples, or an entry on the Discogs site for clarification on which title to seek out. Enjoy!

The Mavericks: Hey! Merry Christmas!
One of my more recent finds, the production on this record is reminiscent of the sound of Phil Spector, and all but two of the songs are newly written by the band’s leader, Raul Malo, and a variety of collaborators. The most infectious track is the album’s lead-off track, “Christmas Time Is (Coming ‘Round Again)” but there are many highlights throughout.

Ella Fitzgerald: Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas
This album is a delight all the way through, with the upbeat arrangements of Frank De Vol backing Ella on a variety of holiday favorites. Considering Ella’s jazz credentials, this is an album you can play for everyone in the family, even those who might not be jazz fans.

Various Artists: ¡Something Festive!
This was an A&M Records Christmas album released through the B.F. Goodrich tire stores. Since the Tijuana Brass was the only group on the label to have released a full Christmas album (below), the balance of the tracks were taken from existing A&M albums, or appear only on this record, such as Pete Jolly’s “It’s The Most Wonderful Time,” Brasil ‘66’s “The Christmas Song,” the Baja Marimba Band’s “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and Burt Bacharach’s own version of “The Bell That Couldn’t Jingle.” This one was never released digitally, but there is an expanded version uploaded to YouTube with the 10 original tracks, plus additional A&M Christmas tracks from the same era.

Vince Guaraldi Trio: A Charlie Brown Christmas
One highlight of my younger years was waiting for the annual showing of the “Peanuts” special on TV. It wasn’t until the early CD era that I realized there was an album of music from the special and bought the very first Fantasy CD version immediately. My most recent copy was the Kevin Gray 33⅓ RPM remastering on vinyl for Analogue Productions – the detail on that record is amazing. (I missed the earlier Hoffman/Gray 45 RPM pressing, unfortunately.) Guaraldi magically captures the feel of Charles Schulz’s creations with these songs.

Nat King Cole: “The Christmas Song”
There may be other versions out there, but for me, this is the definitive one. Cole recorded this a few times during his career, but this version is the one that most of us have heard.

Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass: Christmas Album
I grew up with this album in the house, hearing it annually from the year it was released. In typical Alpert fashion, the songs all have unique arrangements. Herb takes a vocal turn on a Burt Bacharach/Hal David song “The Bell That Couldn’t Jingle,” and the choral introductions were all arranged by the great Shorty Rogers. It’s still a solid album end-to-end. Two of these tracks were included on the aforementioned ¡Something Festive! compilation.

John Pizzarelli: Let’s Share Christmas
I don’t like most jazz Christmas albums I have heard, as I’d rather hear melody than noodling. Thankfully, Pizzarelli is more a crooner in the style of the Nat King Cole trio, and Pizzarelli’s trio is backed by a full big band, making this a perfect holiday album full of Christmas standards and a couple of originals.

The Brian Setzer Orchestra: Boogie Woogie Christmas, Dig That Crazy Christmas, and Rockin’ Rudolph
I’ve been a fan of Setzer’s since the days of the Stray Cats and have long enjoyed his holiday recordings. In fact, of the four times I’ve seen Setzer in concert, two of those were his Christmas extravaganzas with the full big band. (If you aren’t in the holiday spirit, I guarantee his Christmas show will get you there instantly!) One highlight for big band fans from Boogie Woogie Christmas is the Les Brown arrangement of the Nutcracker Suite.

Speaking of the Nutcracker, there are times I really don’t want to hear any of the standard holiday music and will put on something a little different. My favorite version of the complete Nutcracker ballet was recorded around 1958 (?) on the Mercury Living Presence label, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati, and reissued on SACD.

Shorty Rogers: The Swingin’ Nutcracker
This album is for times when I don’t want a classical version. It features an all-star cast of popular West Coast jazz musicians, with tracks split between Shorty’s big band and a saxophone quintet backed by Shorty’s small combo. Like nutty! Here’s the Overture (mistakenly titled “Overdrive”):

Various Artists: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Era: Jingle Bell Rock
I quickly built up a collection of “oldies” on CD when I subscribed to this Time-Life series for a couple of years. They weren’t the best-sounding versions out there, but covered a lot of ground. Little did I know that the contents of the Jingle Bell Rock edition would become perennial favorites, with tracks from the Drifters, the Supremes, Brenda Lee, Jack Scott, the O’Jays, Elton John, and many others.

Michael Franks: Watching The Snow
This is a unique album of holiday and winter-themed songs, complete with Franks’ clever lyrics and his laid-back yet competent jazz combo backing him. It’s a refreshing antidote to the same old same old.

Various Artists: A GRP Christmas Back in the mid 1980s and early 1990s, I was discovering some of the artists on the GRP label like David Benoit, Kevin Eubanks, and many others, and this CD included many of the artists I was listening to at the time. It also includes tracks by Diane Schuur, label co-founder Dave Grusin (the “G” in GRP), Lee Ritenour, Gary Burton, Chick Corea, and plenty of others. Kevin Eubanks’ unique arrangement of “Silver Bells” is a favorite.

Here are some honorable mentions from my collection – I may not choose them every year, but they are still standouts that are enjoyable listens.

Carpenters: Christmas Portrait
The Christmas Portrait album is a brilliantly sequenced holiday program that flows perfectly from beginning to end, complete with an overture. Locate an original vinyl copy, or the rare German CD reissue of Christmas Portrait (recalled shortly after its release), to hear the proper original version of this album. A doctored version, awash in too much reverb, is Disc One of the 2-CD Christmas Collection. The Special Edition CD version mixes up tracks with the weak An Old-Fashioned Christmas album and suffers from the upset in sequencing.

Henry Mancini: A Merry Mancini Christmas
Side one is upbeat, where side two is reflective. The original “Carol For Another Christmas” is a standout.

Peggy Lee: Christmas
This is a CD compilation of tracks from a handful of her appearances on various Christmas albums for Capitol Records over the years. Thankfully it’s a tight selection and each one is a treat. The CD is uncredited, but some of the tracks (originally from her album Christmas Carousel) were arranged by Billy May.

Raul Malo: Marshmallow World & Other Holiday Favorites
While The Mavericks were on hiatus, leader Raul Malo cut a cozy little album of holiday songs.

J.D. McPherson: Socks
The title track is an ode to every kid’s favorite gift, and like all the rest of the songs, is an original written for the album.

David Benoit: Christmas Time and Remembering Christmas
The former album predates his recordings for GRP Records, and contains the excellent “Carol of the Bells.” The latter is from GRP and contains a couple of his versions of the “Peanuts” (Vince Guaraldi) holiday favorites like “Skating” and “Christmas Is Coming.” Great choices if you like jazz piano on the lighter side.

Dean Martin: A Winter Romance
Where else can you hear Dino sing the phrase “Rudy the red-beaked reindeer” in that voice that seems made for wintertime tunes beside the fireplace?

Jack Jones: The Jack Jones Christmas Album
A hip little 1960s album with Jones crooning to a selection of familiar Christmas melodies.

Lou Rawls: Merry Christmas Ho! Ho! Ho!
An album from Lou’s mid-1960s soul-jazz era on Capitol, with a mix of familiar favorites and lesser-known songs.

The Manhattan Transfer: The Christmas Album Their lush four-part vocal harmonies and Johnny Mandel’s arrangements are perfect for the season. Guests include Tony Bennett, Jack Sheldon, Harry “Sweets” Edison, and Pete Christlieb.

The Ramsey Lewis Trio: Sound of Christmas This is one of Ramsey’s albums from his Cadet Records catalog, with the trio on side one of the record, and side two adding a string section arranged by Riley Hampton. Ramsey also co-authored the title track and “Christmas Blues,” the rest being holiday standards.

Let’s hear about some of your favorites in the comments. What do you return to year after year?

From the Rudy Clan to the rest of the Copper staff and our readers – Happy Holidays!


Header image courtesy of Wellington.

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