Revisiting Christmas | Three CD Reviews

Christmas With_The_Rat_Pack-1-200-200-100-cropIf you’re a fan of the Rat Pack vocalists and the period and don’t already have a Christmas album by them, this one is a fine choice.


beachboys christmas

Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. | Christmas with the Rat Pack (Capitol)
The Beach Boys | Christmas Harmonies (Capitol)
Peggy Lee | Peggy Lee Christmas (Capitol)

Among the ingredients required for a successful holiday gathering, I would put at the top of the list food, drink, and music. And just as most people have special recipes just for the winter holidays, as well as decorations that are stored away the rest of the year, so many of us have a treasured set of CDs we like to bring out of hiding this time of year. All three in this review are distinctly Christmas albums, and lean distinctly on the secular side of the holiday (snow, mistletoe, and all that), but if that’s not to your taste (or if Christmas is not your holiday), there are plenty of other albums to choose from.

In terms of both quantity and quality, Christmas with the Rat Pack has the most to offer. It includes 16 tracks (43 minutes) featuring Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis, Jr. (as solo artists, not performing together as the Rat Pack). All the tracks were previously released between 1957 and 1966, with the expected studio backup of the period (heavy on strings and harmony singers), so while you won’t discover any unknown gems, neither will you be listening to outtakes or tracks kept off the market for a reason. The song selections are pretty mainstream (“Jingle Bells,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, “Silver Bells,” and so on), the performances are all fine (OK, Dean Martin’s sense of pitch can waver, but these tracks were recorded long before Auto-Tune), so if you’re a fan of the vocalists and the period and don’t already have a Christmas album by them, this one is a fine choice.

The Beach Boys’ Christmas Harmonies includes 15 songs (36 minutes), the preponderance of which were released in 1964. The album is aptly titled, as the Beach Boys’ gift for vocal harmonizing is on full display, as is their occasionally shaky sense of intonation (and my previous remark about Auto-Tune applies here, as well). The strongest tracks are those that do a little something with the song, like “Little Saint Nick” (a semi-hit in 1963), which gets a jazzy, proto-Phil Spector treatment, and a complexly harmonized, a capella take on “Auld Lang Syne.” Other songs seem to have been recorded in Krusty the Clown mode (get it done and get out), and as they are among the best-known songs on the album (including “Frosty the Snowman” and “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”), I suspect that’s pretty much what happened. Still, except for some seriously bad intonation on a few tracks, they’re all at least pleasant to listen to (and non-musicians may not even notice the shaky pitch).

Peggy Lee Christmas is the shortest of the three, including only 10 songs and 23 minutes. Miss Lee is at her best when she’s going it along in her sophisticated, slightly jazzy mode (there’s no room for naughtiness on this album, sadly), so the most successful cuts here include “Winter Wonderland” and “Happy Holiday.” She also finds a good sentimental mode groove for “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)” and “White Christmas” (although with a bit of vocal strain on the latter). The songs with heavy use of harmony singers, like “I Like a Sleighride (Jingle Bells),” feel much more dated and tired. Given the album’s brevity and mixed quality, this one is mainly for people who are already Peggy Lee fans. | Rat Pack: A; Beach Boys: B; Peggy Lee: C | Sarah Boslaugh

RIYL: Live & Swinging’: A Christmas Gift to You from Phil Spector

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