Kat: A point raised in e-mails over the years, a point raised repeatedly in e-mails over the years, is that I don't appear to like Christmas albums from the rock era on forward; otherwise, I'd review them, right?
I don't like them. They sound crass and fake. Case in point, Barbra Streisand sounding like Kate Smith on CHRISTMAS MEMORIES when doing "God Bless America." Bombastic and artificial? That describes not only Streisand's recording of the track but her entire second Christmas album. You read that right. Jewish Streisand has done two Christmas albums because what says sincere more than our Talmudic dabbler doing "O Little Town of Bethlehem" -- you know, the city where, uh, He was born.
I don't believe you have to be the most devout follower of the Son of God to record a good Christmas album -- remember, Jesus embraced and forgave all. But I don't believe even good artists -- really good ones -- have it in them to make a great Christmas album.
One of the finest will always be A CHRISTMAS GIFT FOR YOU FROM PHIL SPECTOR which didn't rely on just one singer. Darlene Love brings the house down with "Baby, Please Come Home" while The Ronnettes and the Crystals and Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans provide real charm. It is a classic and much more heartfelt (and warm) than anything Streisand's churned out. It's a brilliant album. That said, Phil currently resides in a prison in Stockton, California for the murder of Lana Clarkson -- and, barring death, will do so until at least some time in 2028. Like I said, Jesus embraced all.
For most recordings, the truth is an artist can do a track or two. Stevie Nicks delivers with "Silent Night," for example. I'm not sure, however, that -- love her though I do -- I need a full Christmas album from her.
A track or two -- Stevie, for example, ended up doing a great take on "Santa Clause Is Coming To Town" with Chris Isaak in 2004. And her "Silent Night" was from A VERY SPECIAL CHRISTMAS -- an album featuring a variety of vocalists. The only one notching up a classic, though, besides Stevie, was the rock group the Pretenders with "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." In fact, Chrissie Hynde had already proved herself to have the seasonal chops with "2000 Miles" from the band's 1984 classic LEARNING TO CRAWL.
Other than Phil Spector's Christmas album, only two stand out for me. First, there's Carly Simon's CHRISTMAS IS ALMOST HERE and CHRISTMAS IS ALMOST HERE AGAIN (with two additional tracks) which is excellent (especially "12 Gates To The City") and argues Carly should do a non-Christmas album with producer Don Waas. The second success would be Stevie Wonder's SOMEDAY AT CHRISTMAS which qualifies as a classic by any measure.
Some might argue, "Well it's Motown. Of course, Motown can do Christmas." Motown can do many things (or could) but Christmas really wasn't one of them. If you ever doubt that, listen to The Temptation's CHRISTMAS CARD. Maybe it was the pretense that every member was a lead singer (they weren't) and that they all deserved a solo (they didn't)? Maybe. But I really think the problem is what ruins all the Motown Christmas albums except Stevie's: It's just way too upbeat. The same with CHRISTMAS WITH THE MIRACLES and Diana Ross and the Supremes' MERRY CHRISTMAS. It's as though someone (Berry Gordy?) was afraid if things stopped being bouncy bouncy for too long, the teens wouldn't want to buy the albums.
For this holiday season, Motown has, however, issued the finest Christmas album thus far: Diana Ross' WONDERFUL CHRISTMAS TIME.
That's Diana with the title track at Thursday's Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.
If you had to own a Christmas album, I'd certainly recommend this album. If you had to own a great album of any genre, I'd certainly recommend this one.
Motown issued it. Or finally issued it.
For years, I've thought, "I'm getting A VERY SPECIAL SEASON."
That's a 1994 Christmas album Diana Ross did. I've heard this time of year at C.I.'s home and I always want to pick it up. The first two years, I'd dig through the bins at any store, desperate to find it but never finding it. Then I asked. It's a British album. In England, Diana's career's been very different after 1985 than in the US. That was because in the United Kingdom, her label was EMI. While RCA and Motown failed in the US, EMI succeeded. And she was so in demand there that a number of her albums that were big there (A VERY SPECIAL SEASON, GREATEST HITS LIVE) were never released in the US. Now you could order the album from AMAZON UK but that requires planning. If this is the first piece you've ever read by me, planning is not my strong suit. Carly got it wrong, procrastination -- not anticipation -- is what's making me late, what's keeping me waiting.
So Motown's decision to (finally) release A VERY SPECIAL SEASON is a hallelujah moment not just for the season but also for the genre. Franz Schubert's "Ave Marie" is a marvel of excellence and emotion as sung by Diana. "Oh Holy Night" and "Silent Night" also are audio portraits of great beauty. "Amazing Grace" reminds you that Diana's never done a church album but makes you wish she'd do one in the future.
And the choices she makes to keep the album from having the same track list as every other? Her cover of Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed" is both inspired and inspiring. "What The World Needs Now" works so well it should be on every Christmas album.
In fact, all fourteen songs are perfection.
"Uh, Kat, the album has 20 songs."
Maybe that's why Motown didn't call it A VERY SPECIAL SEASON?
1994 was a Christmas time for Diana. Not only did she release (outside the US) A VERY SPECIAL SEASON but she, The Modern Jazz Quartet, The King's Singers and The London Symphony Orchestra released MAKING SPIRITS BRIGHT the same year.
Diana's additional songs on WONDERFUL CHRISTMAS TIME are from that album. The best tracks from that are probably "Go Tell It On The Mountain" and "The First Noel."
I wish they'd reached back one more year, to 1993, to include Diana performing "It's The Most Wonderful Time of The Year." That's from CHRISTMAS IN VIENNA, the live recording she did with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras.
But even without it, WONDERFUL CHRISTMAS TIME is a great album (available on CD as well as digital) and a classic. It's moving and memorable and provides Diana with songs that demonstrate that she is one of the country's -- one of the world's -- finest singers. Babs Streisand may hit 19 different notes in one song and try to amaze you with how long she can hold them, but Diana tells a story, sets a mood. Like Judy Garland before her, Diana makes you feel and when someone does that, they're not just a singer, they're an artist.