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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

The musicians sure know it’s Christmas: the phenomenon of the holiday album

The festive season is upon us but there are no silent nights, as artists of all genres try to cash in with 'the Christmas Album'. We look at the history of the tradition.
Elvis Presley. Courtesy RCA
Elvis Presley. Courtesy RCA

The Christmas album has proved to be a tough roasted chestnut to crack over the years.

Few musicians emerge from the ordeal of releasing a festive single with their credibility intact, so surely only the most foolhardy (or cash-strapped) of ­artists would attempt a whole LP of seasonal tunes.

Yet try they do. From the ­hipster-pleasing holiday grooves of James Brown to the contemporary cheer of this year’s contenders, R Kelly, Neil Diamond and Kacey Musgraves, the list of performers eager to deliver some festive cheer is more bewildering than bedazzling.

The King of them all, in more ways than one, is Elvis Presley, whose 1957 release, Elvis’ Christmas Album, remains the best-selling “holiday album” of all time, with 15 million copies shifted around the globe.

Split into a first side of secular standards (Santa Claus is Back in Town, White Christmas), and a second stretch of popular carols (Silent Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem), Elvis’s vintage offering remains a Yuletide ­favourite (the same cannot quite be said of his 1971 follow-up, Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of ­Christmas).

Remarkably, it fared much better than the other big seasonal releases from 1957 – the markedly more conservative A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra. The ever-sentimental Ol’ Blue Eyes continued to dabble in festive cheer until the final curtain (and beyond – check the 2004 compilation Frank Sinatra Christmas Collection, released six years after his death).

If these heavyweights were following anyone’s example, it would have to be crooner Bing Crosby, whose 1941 recording of Irving Berlin’s dreamy White Christmas is still the best-selling single ever, shifting up to 50 ­million copies.

He cashed in with 1945 long-player Merry Christmas, later expanded for a 1986 CD ­reissue.

Jazz crooner Nat King Cole channelled that same ­chestnut-roasting charm on his 1960 album The Magic of Christmas, which shipped six million copies– still the third-best-selling Christmas album (Kenny G inexplicably outsold Cole with 1994’s Miracles: The Holiday ­Album).

Less well-remembered but more entertaining, jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald’s breezy swing staple Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas was also released in 1960.

The era’s true festive classic came in 1963 in the shape of A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, for which the master producer called in The Ronettes, The Crystals, Darlene Love and Bob B Soxx & the Blue Jeans for some seasonal Wall of Sound treatment.

As the decade continued, the big stars of the day got in on the act. The Beach Boys wrote six original songs for their 1964 Christmas Album, while surf-rock and festive cheer proved to be surprising bedfellows on The Ventures’ Christmas Album the following year.

Groovier still is James Brown, who at the peak of his late-1960s powers released three festive albums – James Brown Sings Christmas Songs, A Soulful Christmas and Hey America It’s Christmas – mixing blustery R&B workouts with soul ballads. They were collected on the utterly essential 1995 release James Brown’s Funky Christmas.

Johnny Cash also proved a Christmas perennial, releasing four seasonal albums between 1963 and 1991. Avoid the chaff by picking up the 2003 compendium, Christmas With Johnny Cash.

Other legends to dabble in festive cheer include Barbra Streisand, with her best-selling A Christmas Album (1967); Willie Nelson, who turned in the mellow Pretty Paper in 1979; and Nobel-winner Bob Dylan, whose Christmas in the Heart (2009) was a shockingly misjudged collection of painfully rasped hymns, carols and pop songs.

The holiday album has also become an essential right of passage for a certain breed of diva, with Mariah Carey and Céline Dion both scoring sales of more than five million with their respective offerings, 1994’s Merry Christmas and 1998’s These Are Special Times. Less successful was Christina Aguilera’s My Kind of Christmas (2000) and last year’s Kylie Christmas from Ms Minogue.

The lads got in on the act, too, with Boyz II Men’s 1993 work Christmas Interpretations, and NSYNC’s 1998 effort Home for Christmas, not to mention Justin Bieber’s Under the Mistletoe (2011). Enough said.

Ironic indie kids will most likely whip out a pair of ironic EPs at this time of year – Weezer’s 2008 six-track power-pop offering Christmas With Wheezer, or the otherwise maudlin Sufjan ­Stevens’s 2006 six-track, Songs for Christmas.

More baffling was Scott Weiland’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (2011) on which the late Stone Temple Pilots growler tried a range of styles, from reggae to crooners.

Louder still, 1980s glam-metal survivors Twisted Sister turned up the volume with 2006’s really quite weird A Twisted Christmas, while heavy metal supergroup Trans-Siberian Orchestra wrote a trilogy of holiday albums, starting with 1996’s triple-platinum debut Christmas Eve and Other Stories.

Hip-hop fans need look no further than Death Row Records’ Christmas on Death Row (1996), which features contributions from Snoop Dogg, Danny Boy and others, while one-hit-­wonder Afroman dialled the parody to 11, with A Colt 45 Christmas (2006), featuring catchy numbers such as Violent Night, O Chronic Tree and Afroman Is Coming to Town.

Who says there is not a Christmas album for everyone?

rgarratt@thenational.ae

Updated: December 18, 2016 04:00 AM

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