We’re taking a break from the usual new release record review format this issue to focus on some holiday classics, just in time for the holiday season. My wife (heretofore known as “The Boss”) deems it a strict protocol that the house gets decorated for Christmas the day after Thanksgiving, so mid-November is traditionally about the time that holiday music starts pouring over the airwaves at my house, anyway. Actually, it’s a bit worse than that this year, in particular; I just had a surgical procedure done on my elbow that precludes me from lifting anything (heavier than a pint glass, nudge, nudge!) until very close to New Year's’ So the Christmas tree and all the boxes of decorations have already been brought out on November 1st, prior to my procedure. It’s definitely surreal, almost like being at home, but also like being at just about any department store this time of year.
Gabby Gibb (no relation) of Sony Legacy reached out to me with an offer of new 180-gram vinyl reissues of ten classic Columbia/RCA and associated label Christmas albums from a range of artists like Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams, Elvis, and so forth. Always willing to prostitute myself for the offer of promotional vinyl, I jumped at the chance, and chose four titles that played virtually nonstop in my home as a kid in the early sixties. I still have this kind of nostalgic memory of Christmases from long ago, although, if truth be told, it was nowhere nearly as idyllic as my memories would have me believe. I’m kind of like an android who’s had my memories programmed into my storage banks, but as time has gone on, definitely has begun to question the validity of those memories. Regardless, hearing artists like Johnny Mathis and Elvis sing classic Christmas tunes really helps to keep me believing that those memories were (are) real.
I grew up in a fairly spartan setting in a small, rural North Georgia town, but one thing we did have was a fairly large — if also, fairly old — Philco tube amped stereo console. Which produced surprisingly great sound, especially from the built-in FM tuner and from LPs. My mom had a pretty decent collection of LPs from the fifties and early sixties, and the holiday season had her pulling out records from Johnny Mathis, Elvis, Perry Como, and Andy Williams, among others. While over the years, my tastes in music veered heavily into the rock and roll direction, I still find the Christmas music of my childhood very comforting. So I chose four of the available Sony Legacy LP titles that are either exact replications of music I’m infinitely familiar with (Johnny Mathis, Perry Como), or are collections (Elvis, Andy Williams) that incorporate much of the music from the classic LPs of yore. In retrospect, I probably should have chosen the Phil Spector album along with these, as it (with Elvis, of course) would have given my review a little bit more rock and roll street cred. Maybe next time!
Although these releases are 180-gram LPs, that are (from my observations) pressed on decent vinyl, they all retail for somewhere in the neighborhood of about $27 each — these are not super-premium releases, and the packaging definitely reflects that. The sound quality was consistently good across the board, although there’s no clear information regarding the provenance of the source tapes for the pressings. The LPs drop-shipped from a location near Nashville, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were also pressed at that facility. So, 1) I’m pretty certain they’re probably not AAA (strictly all-analog throughout the chain) pressings, and 2) I have no way of determining where the LP pressings were sourced from. In this day and age of most LP pressings being sourced from digital masters, that’s pretty much come to be expected, anyway. The LPs had uniformly very clean and glossy surfaces, and exhibited very little surface noise.
The other area in which the LPs fell a bit short of super-premium territory was in the packaging; the sleeves are printed on substantial and fairly glossy paperboard that’s of decent weight, but the cover images are obviously sourced from digital scans, and are not particularly of the highest resolution; the Johnny Mathis and Elvis albums were much better in this respect than the other two. A couple of the LPs had very slight warps that didn’t impact playback too much; I use a record clamp, so the warps were generally only noticeable on one side. Pressing plants need to not use the “shrink wrap of death” that often assists in warpage more than any other single factor; I use a razor knife to open LP jackets, and even I had difficulty getting the plastic wrap off these new LPs. Regardless, it’s still really great and nostalgic to have the LPs here in my collection after all these years.
All my listening was done using my Pro-ject Classic turntable setup with its Hana SL moving coil cartridge, playing through the PrimaLuna EVO 300 tube integrated amp (EL 34 tubes!) and my Zu Omen loudspeakers. Let me tell you, nothing helps ring home the holidays like classic performances over tube electronics! I’ve heard most of these performances countless times, and in a variety of formats, but in general — and despite a few hiccups here and there — I don’t really think they’ve ever sounded as great as they do on these new LPs. Happy Holidays, ya’ll!
Johnny Mathis — Merry Christmas
Johnny Mathis’s Merry Christmas is definitely — in my book at least — the ne plus ultra of classic holiday albums. Recorded in 1958, it was Johnny’s first and best foray into a holiday-themed album, and immediately gained instant popularity with the record-buying public. The album made it to number three on the US Billboard charts, going gold in the first year of release, and charted and sold very respectably worldwide, especially in the UK. Over the years, Merry Christmas has shown its continued popularity and staying power, going five-times platinum and selling over five million copies. Easily maintaining its position on the list of biggest selling Christmas albums of all times, the record has charted 28 different times over the years since its release.
Merry Christmas is a mixture of the sacred and the secular, with Side One featuring Johnny Mathis’ inimitable voice as he takes on classic Christmas pop tunes like “Winter Wonderland,” “The Christmas Song,” “Sleigh Ride,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Blue Christmas,” and of course, “White Christmas.” Nat King Cole might get the nod for “The Christmas Song,” and Bing Crosby for “White Christmas,” and who would deny Elvis the crown for “Blue Christmas,” but Johnny’s rendition of all three places him squarely at number two (for me, at least) on each of those tunes. And he imbues them each with his own special vocal stylings that distinguishes his version from those of the other classic Christmas crooners. “Winter Wonderland” and “Sleigh Ride” are definitive readings of each tune, and for me, if I ever feel the need to get somewhat weepy/nostalgic during the holidays, no one can touch the tear-jerk level he brings to “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” It really gets me, every single time.
Side Two is dedicated to traditional Christmas hymns, with Johnny once again offering near-definitive versions of “O Holy Night,” “What Child is This,” “The First Noel,” “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” and “Silent Night, Holy Night.” I don’t think anyone can approach Johnny’s heartfelt renditions of these sacred tunes; the level of power and emotion he instills them with just completely gets me in a way that isn’t quite the same with other performers. A long-time family favorite is Johnny’s version of “What Child is This,” where he powers through the sacred variant of “Greensleeves” with incredible emotion; upon hearing this song for the first time, my five-year-old daughter remarked, “you know, he really shouldn’t belt it out like that!” We’ve been laughing about that moment ever since. The only secular tune that interrupts an otherwise completely sacred Side Two is “Silver Bells,” the Ray Evans/Jay Livingston classic that was definitely my favorite Christmas song as a small boy. Of course, I don’t think anyone else’s version can touch Johnny’s for the very personal emotion reading he gives the song.
The 180-gram LP pressing of Merry Christmas was about as pristine as could be expected, with virtually zero surface noise, and nary a click or pop. Maybe it was partially due to that warm tube afterglow, but the sound quality was so off-the-charts good with this release, I’d swear it was taken from an analog master. This is a classic album, with classic readings of songs that are inimitably Johnny Mathis. Very highly recommended.
Sony/Legacy Recordings, 180-gram LP (download/streaming [24/96] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, Pandora, Deezer, TuneIn)
Elvis Presley — The Classic Christmas Album
The Classic Christmas Album was compiled in 2012 from two different albums; 1957’s Elvis’ Christmas Album (his first holiday-themed album), and 1971’s Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas. Elvis’ Christmas Album is the biggest selling Christmas album of all time, selling over three million records at the time of its release; a 1970 reissue of the same title was certified diamond (ten million units). Elvis has sold over 22 million Christmas albums — not too surprising, since he’s the single biggest selling artist of all time, having sold over a billion records worldwide.
Not surprisingly, the songs from the 1957 release are the real reason for getting this LP, but that’s not to say that the 1970 tracks are without merit; there are definitely some great tunes there as well. But the '57 songs are much more well recorded; a youthful Elvis gives a much more enthusiastic performance, and there’s less of the Vegas headliner Elvis so in evidence in his later years. Probably part of the reason for this compilation’s song selection has to do with the makeup of the original 1957 sessions, which presented one side of secular Christmas songs, with the second side consisting of all sacred hymns — four of which weren’t really holiday-oriented at all. So this LP gives you the best of the 1957 sessions — which are absolutely great, and the real reason to get this LP — along with some 1971 filler. Which gives you some pretty entertaining, if not quite as energetic, performances of the music.
Side One kicks off with two tunes from the '57 sessions, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “Blue Christmas,” which I’d absolutely rate as the definitive performance of this tune. You then segue into an extended montage of 1971 Elvis, with tunes like “Winter Wonderland,” “The First Noel,” “Wonderful World of Christmas,” and “Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees.” Elvis gives serviceable performances here, and maybe he’s phoning it in, but trust me, the best of 1971 is still to come. The tune that makes the 1971 release absolutely worthwhile is “Merry Christmas Baby,” where Elvis seems much more invested in what’s going on, and there’s some really excellent guitar work from James Burton, including a scorching solo that’s the song’s centerpiece.
Side Two kicks off with the last of the 1971 sessions, the highlight of which is “If Every Day Was Like Christmas,” which highlights a really soulful lead vocal from the King, along with great backing vocals from the Jordanaires and the Imperials. We then shift back into 1957, where the rest of Side Two features the classic material from that first album, including rockers like “Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me” and my personal favorite, “Santa Claus is Back in Town.” Elvis is coming down your chimney, but he “Ain’t got no reindeer...got no pack on my back...Santa Claus is coming...in a big black Cadillac!” Elvis effectively delivers classics like “White Christmas” and “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and he also provides soulful interpretations of the two sacred Christmas hymns, “Silent Night,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
This LP package is probably the most perfectly realized of the four albums reviewed here; the cover artwork is really nice and crisp, with good color saturation, and there’s even a printed inner sleeve with song lyrics. The LP was almost perfectly flat, and the surfaces were pristine, with very little surface noise. Yes, there’s some filler here, but overall, Elvis’ The Classic Christmas Album is a worthy addition to your holiday collection. Recommended.
Sony/Legacy Recordings, 180 Gram LP (download/streaming [16/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
Perry Como — Season’s Greetings from Perry Como
My mom — and my wife’s mom — both loved Perry Como. As a teenager, I jokingly referred to him as Perry Coma, because his music might definitely drowse you out. Don’t let his seemingly complacent demeanor fool you; I’ve seen some videos of Perry Como from back in the day that lead me to believe that he was less of the mild-mannered, MOR crooner as he’s portrayed, and maybe a whole lot more of a ladies’ man. Regardless, I have definitely developed much more of an appreciation for his vocal stylings with holiday songs over the years, and his velvety-throated voice is a perfect delivery vehicle for all of the great songs here. Along with Johnny Mathis’ Merry Christmas, this 1959 album, Season’s Greetings from Perry Como, is the only other of the four LPs I received that’s presented in its original catalog form. The original RCA Living Stereo title was his first holiday album, and one of his first albums to be recorded in stereo. This new LP represents the first repressing of the album in over 35 years.
Side One is the more secular side, and kicks off with Perry Como’s signature holiday hit, “(There’s No Place Like) Home For The Holidays”; it’s an undeniable classic and a perfect song for the season, and shows up on countless holiday collections. He follows with really stirring renditions of “Winter Wonderland,” “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “The Christmas Song,” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Side One closes with Como’s version of Irving Berlin’s classic “White Christmas;” he’s in excellent voice here, and really gives Bing Crosby a run for his money on this track.
Side Two consists of mostly classic Christmas carols and hymns, and opens with a rousing “Here We Come A-Caroling/We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Up next is an equally great “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” which is then followed by the sacred hymn “O Holy Night.” The remainder of the album features Perry Como’s narration of “The Story of the First Christmas,” which features vignettes of the songs “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Come, Come, Come to the Manger,” “The First Noel,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” and concludes with “Silent Night.” The entire album features backing vocals from the Ray Charles Singers, but “The Story of the First Christmas” really highlights their contributions. This is a great tune to share with your children.
Even though this album probably shows its age a bit more than the others here, Perry Como is in great voice throughout, and many of the songs here are classics. This LP is superb; the pressing was perfectly flat, while the surfaces displayed an almost indiscernible level of surface noise. Highly recommended.
Sony/Legacy Recordings, 180-gram LP (download/streaming [16/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
Andy Williams — Personal Christmas Collection
The golden voice of Andy Williams is almost right up there with Johnny Mathis in my memories of Christmases past; his music played a lot in my home as a child, and if it wasn’t his classic holiday offerings, it was “Moon River.” This LP, Personal Christmas Collection, was compiled in 1994 from his three Christmas albums on the Columbia label, 1963’s The Andy Williams Christmas Album and 1965’s Merry Christmas, along with three songs from 1974’s Christmas Present. Both of the sixties albums are undeniable classics; The Andy Williams Christmas Album made it to No. 1 on the Billboard charts upon release, reaching gold record status in its first year and eventually going platinum a couple of decades later. Merry Christmas would also reach the No. 1 position on the charts, also eventually going gold, and then later platinum. While his first two Christmas albums were mostly secular offerings that featured some of his most memorable holiday songs, Christmas Present was almost completely a collection of sacred music.
Personal Christmas Collection opens Side One with “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” which is far and away Andy Williams’ signature Christmas song; it makes it onto just about every collection of holiday crooners you’re likely to find. In January, 2020, it landed again at No. 7 on the Billboard charts, and became Andy Williams’ highest charting single of all time! The hits just keep on coming, with “My Favorite Things” — which is the subject of a fair amount of scholarly debate as to whether or not it actually is a holiday song — clocking in at number two on Williams’ list of most memorable songs. Regardless, he definitely made this song his own, and he definitely helped confirm its acceptance into the canon of secular holiday pop music. Following is another pretty great rendition of Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting By An Open Fire)” — again, I’d easily rank Andy Williams’ version in the top five of classic versions. And he helped to popularize “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” a 1920’s pop song that never quite took off until Williams’ owned it in the sixties. The other big Side One hit is Andy’s take on “Winter Wonderland;” he has a very joyous, upbeat approach that rivals Johnny Mathis’ version on my list, and is definitely a worthy alternative.
Side Two of the LP opens with Williams’ take on “Sleigh Ride,” which is also a classically enjoyable rendition of the Leroy Anderson tune; the chorus chants “jing-a ling, jing-jing-a ling” throughout, and it’s a startling contrast to Johnny Mathis’ version. We also get fairly classic versions of “Silver Bells” and “White Christmas,” although the two other big highlights for me on this side of the album are “Christmas Bells,” which is Williams’ fabulous 1974 take on “Carol of the Bells.” Also, “Happy Holiday/Holiday Season,” the Irving Berlin/Kay Thompson medley that Andy Williams has made into a Christmas classic; his version is the one you generally associate with the tune. The classic sacred carols “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night” fill out the proceedings.
The sound quality of Personal Christmas Collection was very consistently good, although the LP had probably the worst warp of any of the group, and there was a fair amount of surface noise on this particular pressing. A deep cleaning of the LP could help to rectify the noise situation. The record jacket image quality was also easily the worst of the bunch; the album cover image scan came from what must have been fairly low-quality artwork that was probably prepared for the much smaller CD format (the compilation came out in 1994, so there likely was never an LP release with correspondingly larger artwork). At the very least, when enlarged to LP size, the resolution is not at all good — there was probably little that could be done to improve upon the situation. Regardless, it’s very unlikely that you’ll ever encounter this LP in any other vinyl form, so I’d still grab one if you’re at all a fan. Recommended.
Sony/Legacy Recordings, 180-gram LP (download/streaming [16/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)