Well, it’s December. Yeah, I know, I’m not really sure how that happened either. Seems like last week I was putting on flannel shirts and walking around pumpkin patches. But it is December now and along with the cold comes Christmas. And among all the food, shopping, gifts, family, and parties, there is music. Glorious holiday themed music we have heard time and time again since we were all young’uns.
Sure, it’s the same somewhat stupid songs played ad nauseum by different bands in different arrangements, but still it’s all about the feeling! Oh how that holiday music brings us all back to simpler and perhaps happier times. But sometimes you just need something different, and here at Music Mook Review we can’t do without these classic Christmas gems.
Various Artists – Latin Jazz Christmas
With lots of yelps (ayyy!), percussion, horns, and tight latin jamming, this may very well be the most sizzling collection of Christmas jazz ever collected. The album opens up with a huge latin bang sounding a lot like Tito Puente at the Birdland in December. But after that first swell of horns playing a wonderfully high spirited, and almost unrecognizable, rendition of “Jingle Bells,” the album quickly settles into a latin lounge of fantastic medium tempo holiday tunes. Vibes and percussion bounce off flutes and other woodwinds forming a relaxing, yet still energetic, mix of classic Christmas tunes such as “Sleigh Ride,” “What Child Is This,” “Angels We Have Heard on High” and more. This was previously released as Playboy’s Latin Jazz Christmas and you can certainly hear why with the late night lounge feel although I am quite glad they decided to change the title (and the cover…). But don’t let that deter you. This is serious music by serious musicians playing with some serious Christmas soul.
Best Version – Any one that looks like the one shown above. The mastering and sound is full and fantastic with great separation between the instruments.
Jethro Tull – The Jethro Tull Christmas Album
Wow! This seems like such a perfect idea I’m surprised it took almost 40 years for them to get around to making it. Of course, they did record “Christmas Song” back in ’69 or so, and their songs do have a medieval, whimsical, sometimes even cold weather feel. But it doesn’t matter what took so long, just as long as we have it now. This album is so good you can easily start listening to it as soon as the leaves change. It features a fantastic mix of classic Tull tunes interspersed with old holiday classics such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Green Sleeves,” and “We Three Kings.” But what’s really great about this album are the new Christmas themed originals that contain both fantastic music and almost anti-holiday lyrics. Nothing bad mind you, but who else is going to sing “I am the shadow in your Christmas” on a Christmas album? This is insanely good Christmas music for those that like a little spice in their holiday cheer.
Best Version – The original 2003 release came with a bonus DVD and was a great way to go although the DVD has seemingly been replaced by a second CD of live Christmas material recorded in 2007 in England. We have yet to hear it but reports are generally great. Really, you can’t go wrong with this fantastic album!
Without a doubt the best Christmas album of all time. I am being completely serious. From the first song to the last, it’s a non stop funky sleigh ride full of emotion, power, heartbreak, and uplifting holiday spirit. If I could only own one Christmas album this would be it. James sings each and every song with such achingly beautiful power you can hear the sorrow of his missed childhood Christmases shining through every funky crevice. If “Santa Claus, Santa Claus” doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, I don’t know what will. I get choked up every time I hear it. Now that’s powerful. That’s “go power!” These songs were all recorded during the height of JB’s power, from about 1966 through 1970 or so, and it shows as this is just as good as any of his other material from that same period.
Best Version – Easily the best sounding version is Christmas Collection: 20th Century Masters. It has vastly superior sound over the previous Funky Christmas album, and also includes full extended cuts of a few of the tracks. Of course, the newly released two disc set The Complete James Brown Christmas may surpass both in terms of sound and content. We just received it in the mail and will be doing a head to head showdown between the two so be sure to check back soon! Review now available HERE!
Kenny Burrell –Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas
Wow, what a great cover that is huh? Absolutely reeks of late sixties good time cheer! Of course, the album sounds a lot like the cover – it’s very hip guitar driven jazz from a jazz guitar master. The album opens with a stunning rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” where Kenny literally rips the guitar to pieces in jazz fluidity. It is a priceless moment that sets the tone for the rest of the album, which contains a slew of Christmas classics in a variety of tempos and arrangements. The slower songs are nice, late night, sit on the couch by the tree type songs while the faster songs just whip along at an alarming pace. Although this album is a true holiday jazz must have, it is also extremely frustrating. Just when Kenny and his band start to rip into a jam, it fades out. Guess no one wanted a Christmas song over 4 minutes in 1967. But, for the quality of material I can forgive that minor quibble.
Best Version – The remaster from Cadet has some glorious sound with Kenny’s guitar taking center stage.
Frank Sinatra – A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra
Sure, you may have some version of this, but the 50th Anniversary Edition from Capitol Records is one of the best. Sinatra’s voice is right there in the room with you, hovering above the tasteful jazzy orchestral arrangements in the background. Wonderful at parties and appreciated by everyone, you just can’t go wrong with Sinatra singing holiday classics. You can’t beat that cover art either!
Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Charlie Brown Christmas
This may be the quintessential Christmas album. It’s not Christmas until you hear that Peanuts Christmas theme played so lovingly by Vince Guaraldi and his Trio. And really, is there any Christmas song more achingly beautiful than “Christmas Time Is Here?” When that choir of angelic voices comes in…it’s almost too much. But for me the best track on here is “Skating”, a gorgeous, twinkling little number that showcases Guaraldi’s unique talent for sunny sounding piano played so effortlessly it sounds almost easy. In fact this entire album is a great example of his bright, blocky piano style and just might remind people that someone actually wrote and performed this music, and it’s not just some nameless, faceless band delivering this most classic of Christmas albums.
Best Version – The SACD Hybrid is astonishing and even includes a bonus track or two. Essential!