By Don Heckman
The Jackson 5
“Jackson 5 Ultimate Christmas Collection” (Motown)
What a great soundtrack for the holidays. The Jackson 5 with little Michael Jackson singing the lead on, among others, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” “Up on the Housetop,” “The Little Drummer Boy” and ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” And there’s a lot more – “The Christmas Song,” “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” among them. The first 11 tracks were originally released in 1970 as “Jackson 5 Christmas album.” Additional tracks include Michael Jackson’s “Little Christmas Tree,” released in 1970. Four other tracks are re-mixes created for this collection, along with a Christmas medley combining excerpts from some of the original tracks. And, as a final bonus, there are spoken Christmas greetings from Michael, Tito, Jackie and Germaine. For Jackson 5 fans it’s the ultimate holiday gift, especially valuable in this year of Michael Jackson’s passing..
“Christmas with Sinatra and Friends” (Concord)
Old Blue Eyes did a number of impressive albums during his long career. This one, however, is a current compilation, assembled and remastered in first rate fashion, featuring some unusual Sinatra performances as well as added tracks from his “Friends.” Among the Sinatra highlights: his lovely renderings of the too rarely heard “Christmas Memories” and “The Christmas Waltz”; a dramatic “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”; and an atmospheric version – with chorus – of “The Little Drummer Boy.”
The off-beat items include Jimmy Webb’s “Whatever Happened To Christmas” as well as “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and Sinatra’s own “Mistletoe and Holly” from a 1957 TV special “Happy Holidays with Bing & Frank.” The “Friends” are well-chosen, especially Mel Torme singing his unique version of his own classic, “The Christmas Song.” Betty Carter and Ray Charles add a soulfully swinging duet on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” Rosemary Clooney finds the heart of “White Christmas” and Tony Bennett teams with pianist Bill Evans on Thad Jones’ “A Child Is Born.”
“The Spirit of Christmas” (Concord)
It may be Charles’ only Christmas album, but this 1985 release was done so well that there was no need for a follow up. For this version, Concord has added the duet with Betty Carter on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” – also featured on the above Sinatra album – as a bonus track.
The opening number, “What Child Is This?” sets the stage for the imaginative approach to the material created by Charles and his arrangers. Starting with a slow, dramatic opening backed by rich horn chords, it suddenly shifts into big band swing, with driving solos from tenor saxophonist Rudy Johnson and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Although some other tracks add different timbres – the chorus on “The Little Drummer Boy,” the voices and strings on “Christmas in My Heart,” – the charts essentially position Charles in a rhythmically upbeat, richly timbred big band setting. The result is an irresistibly appealing set of heartfelt performances by Charles at his best.
“The Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection” (Motown)
“Ultimate” is the right descriptive word for this two-CD assemblage of Motown’s biggest stars having a go at the classic Christmas repertoire – in addition to spoken holiday greetings from the likes of the Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Thelma Houston and many others. With three dozen music tracks, there’s a lot from which to choose, all of it celebrating the season in the uniquely soulful, grooving Motown style.
Among the most intriguing items: Stevie Wonder singing “Ave Maria,” Smokey Robinson and the Temptations doing “Noel” and “The Christmas Song,” the Supremes applying their magic to “My Favorite Things” and “White Christmas” and the Four Tops getting together with Aretha Franklin on ”Christmas Here With You.” But that’s just a brief sampling from a collection that belongs in the holiday music collection of every fan of classic American music.
To read about more Songs of the Holidays click here.