ALL EYES ON WHAT MAKES A GREAT CHRISTMAS ALBUM: Record Executive Jay Landers 'Weighs-in' with Richard Jay-Alexander

Jay Landers in November 2013, Backstage at the
Metropolitan Opera in New York City

Jay Landers has been a record executive ever since I can remember. He grew up around the music business, as his Dad, Hal Landers was somewhat of a legend in the biz. Yes, by all means, GOOGLE away! I first met Jay, while he was at Columbia Records, when we recorded The Original Broadway Cast Recording of FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE.

Jay is an enormous fan of Broadway and all its denizens and has done many Broadway Cast Albums, but he has also worked with every great star of our time in every category of music.

It was Jay who suggested to Barbra Streisand and Marty Erlichman that they meet me, which happened back in 1994. I had met Barbra socially, while I was in AMADEUS, with Amy Irving, back when Amy got cast in YENTL. We had a lovely dinner at Orso, along with Cis Corman and I couldn't have imagined back then what the future might bring.

Jay Landers is a 'human jukebox' and wealth of knowlege and he and I have done many projects, worked with many of the same artists, both together and individually, written various and sundry Liner Notes and even written some songs together.

We are a perfect compliment of worlds and background and constantly go back and forth with each other on information and exchange of ideas. Most of all, Jay Landers has, what I would call, impeccable taste!

This year, as I was pulling out the Holiday Music and Christmas Albums, I noticed how many of them had his name on them, either as A&R, Producer, Exceutive Producer, etc. and I called him to tell him as such and we got to talking and I actually asked him if he would share with (ALL OF) us, what makes a GREAT Christmas Album.

Here, in his own words:

"Faithful friends who are dear to us, gather near to us once more," the immortal lyrics to "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," written in 1944 by Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane are an apt way to describe the very best holiday albums. Like relatives we're happy to visit with once a year (and relieved when they leave!), we gravitate towards the same thirty or so yuletide staples we've grown accustomed to spending time with each December.

With so many recording artists drawing water from the same well, when it comes to Christmas albums, the qualities that separate the insipid from the inspired, are as follows: the careful balance of familiar repertoire - secular and spiritual - the occasional new song that stands easily amidst the evergreens, the occasional non- holiday song recast in a holiday setting, and most important of all, well-conceived arrangements that allow the singer to express themselves in ways that make us feel, understand, believe and dream. While recording artists reinvent this familiar repertoire to make it their own, I'm always wary of arrangements that trivialize the original intent of the songwriters.

As a music aficionado who has overseen the creation of quite a few Christmas albums (once dubbed by an acerbic colleague as "The Jew who saved Christmas"), this balance is something I'm consciously aware of in the Christmas albums I study for inspiration, and is a quality I'm always striving for in my own productions.

Perusing the 1,025 Christmas tracks in my personal iTunes library on this rainy L.A. morning, I'm struck by the fact that only a small percentage hold up as stand-alone albums - meaning collections that are completely satisfying to listen to from beginning to end. More often than not, I find myself enjoying individual tracks from these albums and then making my own compilations - so I'm providing two lists - one of my favorite full-length LPs and the other my favorite individual recordings.

- Jay Landers
Los Angeles, California December 20, 2013

MY FAVORITE CHRISTMAS ALBUMS - great from start to finish!

Peggy Lee - Christmas Carousel Capitol Records (1960)

Arranged by Billy May. Favorite tracks: I Like A Sleigh Ride (Jingle Bells), The Christmas Waltz. Peggy's sublime vocals add a touch of melancholy to even the cheeriest songs!

Johnny Mathis - Merry Christmas Columbia Records (1958)

Arranged by Percy Faith. Favorite tracks: Sleigh Ride, Silver Bells, Winter Wonderland. This album is the benchmark against which all other popular Christmas releases are compared. Timeless.

Bette Midler - Cool Yule Columbia Records (2006)

Arranged by Ray Ellis, Arif Mardin, Jonathan Tunick, William Ross, Patrick Williams & Robbie Buchanan. Disclaimer: I Executive produced this one. Favorite tracks: "Cool Yule" written by Steve Allen (first recorded by Louis Armstrong). Bette duets with Johnny Mathis on "Winter Wonderland"/"Let It Snow" and pays tribute to her home state of Hawaii (and The Andrews Sisters) with "Mele Kalikimaka." - that's Bette!

Elvis Presley - Elvis' Christmas Album RCA Records (1957)

Produced by Steve Sholes. Favorite tracks: Blue Christmas, Here Comes Santa Claus. RCA proclaims this release as the best-selling Christmas album of all-time, and I believe them! His 4th full-length LP is a infused with The King's perfected blend of sensuality, Southern gentility, that ol' gospel feeling, and heartfelt sincerity.

Phil Spector - A Christmas Gift For You Philles Records (1963)

Arranged by Jack Nitzsche. Favorite tracks: Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, Marshmallow World, Frosty The Snowman. Producer Phil Spector gathered his Philles Records artists stable around his legendary "Wall of Sound," for the most fun Christmas album of all time. Including Darlene Love, The Ronettes, The Crystals and Bob B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans. This classic pop album influenced future Christmas releases by Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, The Beach Boys and many, many more.


Arranged by Gene Puerling & Don Shelton. Favorite tracks: Deck The Halls, Night Bethlehem. The genius of vocal arranger Gene Puerling (founder of the "Hi-Los") is captured in these complex and highly appealing a cappella renditions of Christmas classics. The purity (and some might argue slightly "vanilla" tones) of The Singers Unlimited allows you hear these songs in an entirely new way.

Barbra Streisand - A Christmas Album Columbia Records (1967)

Arranged by Ray Ellis & Marty Paich. Favorite tracks: Jingle Bells, My Favorite Things, Sleep In Heavenly Peace (Silent Night). Barbra's first Christmas album ranks as one of the all- time classics. She has a way of inhabiting these songs as though no one had ever sung them before. The inventive phrasing and frenetic delivery of "Jingle Bells" reinvents the usual nursery rhyme meter we're so familiar with, turning it into a swinging toboggan ride that Ella Fitzgerald herself would have been happy to join. Recasting "My Favorite Things" into a tender Christmas song is yet another example of Barbra's genius as the ultimate actress who sings.

THE Andy Williams CHRISTMAS ALBUM Columbia Records (1963)

Arranged by Robert Mersey, Marty Paich, Johnny Mandel 7 George Wyle. Favorite tracks: Happy Holiday/The Holiday Season, Kay Thompson's Jingle Bells, It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year. Like his Columbia label mate Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams turned Christmas music into something of a cottage industry - this was the first of his eight Christmas albums! Kay Thompson's vocal arrangements are brilliantly inventive and Andy's singing is warm and sincere. This one's ranks in the all-time top 5.

Kristin Chenoweth - A Lovely Way To Spend Christmas Columbia Records (2008)

Arranged by Jorge Callandrelli, Bob Krogstad, Jonathan Tunick & Robbie Buchanan. Favorite tracks: Do You Hear What I Hear?, Sing, Christmas Island. Disclaimer: I Executive Produced this one. Kristin's personality embodies everything we love about Christmas music. She infuses each song with genuine sincerity. With her beautiful voice and wonderful acting skills, she's makes you believe that she believes. "Sing" from Sesame Street is recast as a prayer for world peace. I was extremely proud when Kristin recorded "Home On Christmas Day" which I wrote with Walter Afanasieff. (Walter wrote Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You" which is the biggest selling Christmas song of the last fifty years!). It's since been performed by hundreds of local choirs across the country. (Thank you KC!)

Ella Fitzgerald - Wishes You A Swinging Christmas Verve Records (1960)

Arranged by Frank DeVol and Russ Garcia. Favorite tracks:

What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, Sleigh Ride. I've always had slightly mixed feelings about Ella. On the one hand her phrasing and tone are without equal. That said, I sometimes feel she's not as fully invested in the lyrics as say, Sarah Vaughan or Billie Holiday. However, with this Christmas collection, where the lyrics are less demanding, Ella brings a swinging joie de vivre to every song. Recasting Frank Loesser's "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" turned this song into an indispensible holiday classic. Note: I recently A&R'd a Christmas album for Rod Stewart on which he performs a "virtual" duet w/ Ella on "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" Check it out!

FAVORITE CHRISTMAS RECORDS - My personal mix-tape!

  1. What Are You Doing New Year's Eve - Ella Fitzgerald

  2. Marshmallow World - Darlene Love (Phil Spector Christmas)

  3. My Favorite Things - Barbra Streisand

  4. It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year - Andy Williams

  5. Let It Be Me/The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting) - Laura Nyro

  6. Christmas Island - Andrews Sisters w/ Guy Lombardo

  7. Snowbound - Sarah V aughan

  8. Let There Be Peace On Earth - Liberace

  9. Some Children See Him - The Voices Of Jimmy Joyce

  10. Deck The Halls - Singers Unlimited

  11. Silver Bells - The Judds

  12. Old Toy Trains - Roger Miller

  13. Winter Wonderland - Ray Charles

  14. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting) - Nat "King" Cole

  15. Sing - Kristin Chenoweth

  16. White Christmas - The Drifters

  17. Carol Of The Bells - David Foster

  18. Winter Wonderland/Let It Snow - Bette Midler & Johnny Mathis

  19. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas - Judy Garland

  20. The Second Star To The Right - Walt Disney's Peter Pan

  21. Merry Christmas, Baby - Otis Redding

  22. I Like a Sleigh Ride (Jingle Bells) - Peggy Lee

  23. Happy Christmas (War Is Over) - John Lennon

  24. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) - Darlene Love

  25. Remember (Christmas) - Harry Nilsson

  26. Christmas Dinner - Peter, Paul & Mary

  27. Slipping Into Christmas - Leon Russell

  28. The Christmas Waltz - Frank Sinatra

  29. Whatever Happened To Christmas - Frank Sinatra

  30. Carol Of The Bells - Harry Simeone Chorale

Zoey's Playlist on NBC

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