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Five for Friday: Tried-and-True Classic Christmas Albums

Christmas is just around the corner, and by now, the sounds of the season are inescapable. Well, the sounds and the treats and the lights and the lines at retail outlets. Even amidst the seasonal overload, we can find calming joy in the classic music associated with the holiday. While each year dozens upon dozens of contemporary artists attempt to become part of the holiday music tradition, sometimes nothing beats the tried and true – especially at a time of year that so heavily draws from our own nostalgic memories. The five albums below may be varied, yet each is ingrained in the custom we call Christmas.

Various Artists A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector
Considered by some to be the greatest rock n' roll Christmas album ever recorded, and home to the original version of the imitable "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector came about after legendary (and now infamous) producer Phil Spector in 1963 called upon a stable of some of the era's most important acts to craft a rollicking, lush collection of holiday staples. Give the Ronettes' take on "Sleigh Ride" a spin to see what tricks this record has up its sleeve. The song boasts a sexy, rhythm-and-blues spirit and carries a sly sense of fun (reindeer gallops!). The Ronettes also provide a cheery, jangly take on "Frosty the Snowman" while Darlene Love gets caught in the midst of jazzy and upbeat orchestral grandeur on "Marshmallow World." Each track is full of delightful morsels. There's Love's sugary, horn-soaked "Winder Wonderland," the Crystals' clap-along version of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," and the playfully naughty "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," once again starring the Ronettes.

Elvis Presley Elvis' Christmas Album
Christmas standards and holiday hymns get a wallop of early rock n' roll swagger – and bit of rootsy Southern grace – on this classic from the King. Each of the dozen tracks on this work has become a standard, so much so that no holiday season is complete without a few spins of "Blue Christmas," forever memorable for its weeping backing vocals and Elvis Presley's drawn-out, twangy phrasing. Elsewhere, the King is at his swinging, flashiest, bluesy best on the forceful "Santa Claus Is Back in Town" while "O Little Town of Bethlehem" will please traditionalists that hunger for a churchier version of the holiday. "Here Comes Santa Claus" boasts a plucky, piano-driven bop, and Presley's rendition of "White Christmas" is up there with Bing Crosby's as one of the best ever delivered – ornate, dreamy, and tender.

The Ventures The Ventures' Christmas Album
The Ventures' Christmas Album opens with a rush of drums and confident guitars, and it's off and running from there. Surf-rock legends the Ventures put a sunny, uplifting spin on holiday classics, contrasting brash guitars with subtle flourishes throughout. See the bright, xylophone-like chimes of "Snow Flakes," where guitar-slingers Bob Bogle, Nokie Edwards, and Don Wilson capture an array of contrasting emotions. One instrument gets brushed and blanketed like a coming blizzard, another stands tall amid the storm, and all of it taken together brings a sense of warmth. Each musician feels in constant conversation with one another. Vide, the hoof-like drumming "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" clashes with the toying, twisted lead guitar lines to channel the song's teasing nature. And grown-ups, check out the slow-dance that appears to permeate "Silver Bells," where one guitar sounds as if it's flirting with the other.

Vince Guaraldi Trio A Charlie Brown Christmas
This animated special and accompanying soundtrack provided a number of firsts for much of its audience. The show, of course, was a holiday delight that's now as cherished as gingerbread cookies or the stop-motion "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" show. No doubt its television airing in 1965 became something of a first love form many of its viewers – an early exposure to an emotionally nuanced cartoon. The album, likewise, remains a gateway of sorts. Consider it a graceful entry point into jazz, a standing it maintains decades later. Guaraldi and his bandmates embrace the full emotional breadth of the season and the understanding that the holidays may not be unadulterated happiness for everyone. This is work built for reflection, a feeling no more apparent than on the hushed brush strokes and melancholic chorus of "Christmas Time Is Here," one of the most poignantly heartbreaking Christmas standards ever recorded.

John Denver & the Muppets A Christmas Together
Consider this the opposite end of the spectrum from A Charlie Brown Christmas. A novelty record to some, for others A Christmas Together captures the childlike naiveté of the holiday season. Consider it the music equivalent of a five-year-old excitedly waking up mom and dad at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning. Most of the wacky Muppet personalities are represented and acoustic-based singer-songwriter John Denver sounds charmed throughout, especially on the rollicking "Little Saint Nick" (enhanced by Fozzie Bear's cartoonish barking) and playful "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" (bolstered by some back and forth between Miss Piggy and Gonzo). Goofier still is the pitter-pat rhythms of "Christmas Is Coming," on which Miss Piggy can't keep her peers in check, and the opening "Twelve Days of Christmas," featuring the so-grating-it-is-delightful squeals of Beaker.

December 22, 2017

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