A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector
Not just my favorite Christmas album, but also one of my favorite albums of all time -- always in my top five, and this time of year my number-one. This album features all of Spector's early Wall of Sound artists performing Christmas favorites: Darlene Love, the Ronettes, the Crystals, and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. What makes this album so great is that it captures these performers and the stellar team of L.A. studio musicians who backed them at the very peak of the powers. It's sheer joy to listen to Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Steve Douglas, and all the rest of the Wrecking Crew barrel their way masterfully through these Christmas classics. And the one original tune of the bunch, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," has become a classic; Darlene Love and the crew give it perhaps the best performance on the album. I listen to this album all year long, and it should be a must-have for everyone over the holidays.
Vince Guaraldi Trio: A Charlie Brown Christmas
A real sentimental favorite, but justified. I can't believe that this year is the 40th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas -- I remember watching it as a kid, just as if it were yesterday. (I was seven at the time.) A great special, based on a great comic strip, with equally great music. The choice of Vince Guaraldi's cool jazz stylings was inspired; dig the hip takes on timeless tunes like "O Tannenbaum" and the terrific original tunes "Christmas Time is Here" and (of course) "Linus and Lucy." This is what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together
Another soundtrack from a great television Christmas special, this one from the 1970s. The Muppet Christmas special doesn't get repeated every year like the Charlie Brown one, but it should. There's fun stuff here ("Little Saint Nick" by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem) as well as touching performances (Kermit the Frog singing "The Christmas Wish," and Rowlf the Dog's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas") -- and John Denver sings some, too. If you can, search out eBay for the original 13-song Windstar release, instead of the current 10-song Laserlight re-release. For some reason, rights were lost to three of the tunes from the original -- "Little Saint Nick," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and "When the River Meets the Sea" -- which really removes the heart from this excellent little collection.
The Roches: We Three Kings
I love the Roches, ever since I caught them on their first performance on Saturday Night Live back in the late '70s. In fact, my favorite all-time concert was a performance by the Roches at a small club in Bloomington, Indiana, in the mid-'80s. How can you not like their warm but quirky harmonies, and off-kilter sense of humor? Okay, so Maggie, Terre, and Suzzy are an acquired taste -- but if you've acquired it, you'll really appreciate their Christmas album. There's beautiful singing here, and no small amount of quirky humor. (My favorite -- the Brooklynesque accents and attitudes on "Frosty the Snowman.") Yeah, it's a "non-traditional" Christmas album, but sometimes the non-traditional becomes a tradition.
Mel Torme: Christmas Songs
What better way to end my Top Five list than with my favorite male singer of all time, the Velvet Fog, performing smooth and classy versions of traditional Christmas carols. The standout here, as you might suspect, is Mel's very own "The Christmas Song" -- although there are other standouts, including Mel's version of "Christmas Time is Here" from A Charlie Brown Christmas. (Yeah, Charlie Brown again.) Put this one on the old turntable (or CD player) and sit in front of an open fire for a very relaxing holiday evening.
And five honorable mentions...
The top four albums on this list are always there, but on any given day the Mel Torme CD can be replaced with Ella Fitzgerald's Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas (almost as good as Mel's album), Mitch Miller's Holiday Sing Along with Mitch (an old family favorite), Nat King Cole's The Christmas Song, Bing Crosby's White Christmas, or Patty Loveless' Bluegrass & White Snow: A Mountain Christmas (a surprisingly effective traditional country approach). In any case, now is the time of year to check out all these great albums -- and load up the CD changer with the sounds of the holidays!