BWW Feature: The Twelve CD's Of Christmas
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. That's a sentiment that has been expressed for many years, sometimes merely through the utterance of the sentence, but usually through the singing of the popular song written by Meredith Wilson in 1951. While many attribute the song to the 1963 Broadway musical Here's Love, it was actually written simply as a Christmas song and singers have been crooning the tune ever since.
The Christmas song and the Christmas record are a treasured and well-marketed part of the music industry, creating sales for singers and producers for years. Every singer seems to want to do a Christmas album, even the Jewish ones who don't celebrate the holiday, and every person who celebrates the season owns at least one Christmas cd. The stores have been playing Christmas music since Thanksgiving, and there are those people who have been listening to their Christmas playlist since Hallowe'en. Some people even keep certain Christmas songs in their phones year round...no, I cannot possibly be speaking from personal experience, and if you look in my phone you would not even find the song Wrapped in Red on my Kelly Clarkson playlist.
Like everyone, I have my favorites, and as a cabaret journalist I have built up a list of the Christmas records by nightclub artists that I am most likely to play the most throughout the holiday. As it is still early in the season and people might be looking to add to their collections, I have put together a few recommendations to assist you in your quest. These are in no particular order, of course, but this Christmas, the CDs you will find playing in my home are:
Nancy LaMott, Just in Time For Christmas. In the '90s Ms. LaMott was the darling of the clubs. Everyone loved her, everyone wanted to see her, and everyone wanted her to release more CDs. Her star was rising and for her fourth offering, she recorded what this writer considers to be the greatest Christmas album of all time. With just enough whimsy, LaMott managed songs suitable for the childish wonder of the holiday but completely lacking in the saccharine possible when recording with a children's chorus, as she does in "Earth and Sky." More of an adult-themed Christmas record, LaMott scored a high note with songs like "Stay With Me" and "All Those Christmas Cliches" while delivering a little spirituality on songs like "A Child Is Born" and "What Child is This/I Wonder as I Wander." Her most famous tracks from the cd, though, are the title song and the incomparable "I'll Be Home For Christmas" both of which benefit from the Christopher Marlowe arrangements that make the entire cd a blessing that reminds us all why Ms. LaMott was so well-loved by all.
A Cabaret Christmas. This group album recorded in 1993 features some of the cabaret greats at the top of their game, including those gentle geniuses Barbara Carroll and Julie Wilson singing "Seasons Greetings" and "Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!" while the special treat on the cd is getting to hear Margaret Whiting sing "The Christmas Waltz" and Mary Cleere Haran perform "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve." It's a super sophisticated and effortlessly elegant Christmas record made particularly so by KT Sullivan's incredible mashup of "Merry Christmas To Me/Hard Candy Christmas." For the cabaret aficionado, it is a must-have for the holiday season.
Daniel Kirkley, Love Is Christmas. This one-time Christian music singer was making a steady transition into the world of musical theater and cabaret when he had a change of heart and entered the medical profession. Before retiring from performing he recorded one of the most enjoyable Christmas CDs you are likely to hear, with a perfect balance of Christmas songs vs. Christmas carols. With his smooth-as-silk voice and gorgeous arrangements by Jamey Ray, Kirkley provides an easy listen that perfectly captures the Christmas spirit we all grew up with ("It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas") and the Christmas we experience as adults ("Love is Christmas"). Surprising to this atheist is how absolutely gorgeous are the spiritual songs on the cd, particularly his "O Holy Night" and "Amazing Grace ( A Christmas Story)." Authentically one of my favorite holiday records.
Karen Mason, Christmas! Christmas! Christmas! Long famous for the annual Christmas concert she created with artistic partner Brian Lasser, Karen Mason made a recording of her 1999 show for posterity...and because the fans basically demanded one. The Christmas Queen of Cabaret's live concert comes across on cd as festive as it is in real life, with that Mason-Lasser-Chris Denny magic that comes from pure joy and musical artistry. Highlights on an album that includes traditional songs like "We Three Kings" and "Silent Night" are Joni Mitchell's "River" and Brian Lasser's BA-RILLIANT "I Eat." This is fun Christmas cd, the one you need to listen to while baking those Christmas cookies...and drinking a big glass of mulled wine!
The Gregory Brothers, Sleigh Ride/Fireside. A new release for 2019, the astounding vocals and inventive arrangements of this record make it a pleasurable listen from start to finish, with old chestnuts like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Jingle Bells" being given treatments that make them fresh and new. The rollicking "Go Tell It On The Mountain" will satisfy the church-goers and the "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" proves that somebody other than Judy Garland can, and should, sing this song. All of that being said, the real treat on this cd is all of the new Christmas songs, destined to become classics - songs like the delightful "I Don't Want Anything For Christmas" and the funnier-than-hell "Cold As Hell." This is the Christmas cd you buy to give as host gifts when attending parties this season.
David Campbell, Baby It's Christmas. The Bad Boy of Cabaret, that Swingin', Singin' David Campbell hasn't graced the stages of New York in a while and he is sorely missed, but he has his hands full with a huge career in Australia (not to mention a happy family life). His Christmas cd is proof positive that he needs to be back stateside and singing in one of our clubs here because he takes the classics, shakes them up and pours over ice a snazzy, jazzy mix of melodies. With his powerful vocals, he jazzes out on "Holly Jolly Christmas" and rocks out with "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." His joyful and smooth "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" is a little sexy but not too sexy for Christmas, and the recordings of "Little Saint Nick" and the title song "Baby It's Christmas" will land on your holiday party playlist.
Maureen McGovern, Christmas With Maureen McGovern. With one of the most glorious voices ever to be raised in song, Maureen McGovern seems to have been born to sing this music. Every song sounds like a roaring fire and an eggnog - it's all so rich and sumptuous. Whatever the type of Christmas song she is singing, be it religious or secular, her ability to make the song emotional and accessible is awe-inspiring. There is less religious, though quite traditional, music - songs like "The Holly and The Ivy/Bright Bright The Holly Berries" and "Coventry Carol," the latter of which actually is from a nativity play, but a mystery play; it certainly has less of a religious feel than "O Holy Night" which, in McGovern's voice, is pure heaven. Among the stellar Christmas songs offered are The Irving Berlin classic "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep" and the best "Santa Claus is Coming To Town" you will ever hear, thanks to the inclusion of Jay Leonhart as Santa. Sublime perfection.
Christmas At Birdland With Billy Stritch, Jim Caruso and Klea Blackhurst. The newly released companion cd to the annual A Swinging Birdland Christmas concert is a welcome addition to the holiday season and to one's CD collection. The most traditional thing about this CD is the tradition of excellence that comes from this trio, their show, and Birdland. With plenty of jazz upbeat group numbers (Sigh, the harmonies!), the collection also features solo numbers that showcase each of the players in their specialties, with Klea taking the lead on comedy ("He's Stuck in the Chimney Again"), Jim giving out with the pep ("You Meet the Nicest People") and Billy getting all velvety with "Manhattan in December." The record does, though, give them a chance to step outside of the box they live in and show off other sides of themselves - please note Klea's peaceful "Silent Night/A Child is Born" and Jim's lovely "Winter Weather/Winter Night" both of which are dreamy and gorgeous. Also gorgeous are Billy's arrangements and instrumental offerings, to say nothing of guest artists Donny Osmond and Dave Koz. This one belongs in all the stockings.
Leslie Odom Jr., Simply Christmas. The voice, the voice, the voice. You could listen to this music every night to send yourself to sleep, so soothing is Mr. Odom's voice on this (sometimes VERY personally sensual) grown-up Christmas cd. Mr. Odom went out of his way to make sure all the arrangements, all the instruments, all the vocals were all lined up to make this the cd you play when having a small Christmas gathering of friends...or just the two of you at home. With horns, and drums, and guitars that all cry out "where's the mistletoe?" you and your loved ones will appreciate every note, be it the sultry "Please Come Home For Christmas" or the tender "Merry Christmas Darling" or maybe the buoyant "Christmas" and the soulful "Winter Song." This CD should be sold with a bottle of cognac and that mistletoe those musicians are looking for.
Ann Hampton Callaway, This Christmas. The reigning Queen of Jazz recorded a Christmas cd that is a mixed blend of jazz-infused classics like "Carol of the Bells" and wistful performances of essentials like "White Christmas" but even though every single track on this recording is a little bit of joy dropped in your lap, the heart of the record is AHC's own compositions. It would be difficult to find a holiday song that better captures Christmas in New York than "Manhattan in December" and her duet with sister, Liz Callaway, says it all when it comes to familial devotion -- "God Bless My Family" is definitely the piece de resistance of the cd. It would go against all of my better instincts to not mention the bliss that is "A Christmas Love Song" -- the Johnny Mandel/Bergmans melody is also featured on the cd A Cabaret Christmas but there is no bad time to hear Ann Hampton Callaway sing this stunner.
Cynthia Crane, Our First Christmas. A surprise to me this year, Cynthia Crane's beautiful voice illuminates the melodies and stories in each number on her Mike Renzi helmed jazz cd of Christmas songs you know and Christmas songs you should know (most, I suspect, will be new to many listeners). Recorded in the early 90s, this CD only came into my hands a month ago and has, rapidly, become one of my favorite listens. Ms. Crane has a musicality that is exciting and enjoyable and that legendary Renzi touch adds even more elegance and sophistication to the cd than it already has, thanks to Cynthia. Particularly fun for this writer are her first and final songs of the cd - the title tune penned by Renzi and the final song, written by Mr. Berlin - it has a surprise that is worth checking out.
Seth MacFarlane, Holiday For Swing. Now, in all honesty, I feel a little funny putting this cd on this list because Mr. MacFarlane is not a cabaret singer. He's so famous, and his platform is so much bigger than that of an average cabaret performer, and every other artist on this list plays the cabaret rooms. But Mr. MacFarlane has played The Carlyle a couple of times and I cannot bring myself to discriminate against him because of his fame -- and the cd is just SO EFFING GOOD. It's classic swing Christmas music sung by a man who, clearly, loves Broadway and the Great American Songbook and singing this music. His voice is creamy and his abilities are dreamy and every note of this Christmas cd is exciting and, frankly, ChristmasY -- from "Everybody's Waitin' For The Man With the Bag" to "Christmas Dreaming" the entire cd is divine. So, no matter how rich, famous and powerful you are, when you have a great holiday cd like this one, it's going to land on my list.
As a little coda to this story, I'd like to give you a truncated version of my iPhone Christmas playlist, in case you'd like to add to yours. These are just some of the songs that make the season a little more joyful - some of these tracks may stray from the cabaret world into Broadway, but who's splitting hairs? I hope you will enjoy them and any of the CDs above you care to check out.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.
Christmas in July -- Dan Tracy
Winter Was Warm -- Jodi Benson
I'm Not Ready For Christmas -- Alicia Witt
Snowfall -- John Pizzarelli
Come Home With Me For Christmas -- Melora Hardin
Feliz Navidad -- Daphne Rubin Vega
Christmastime Is Here -- Billy Porter
I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus -- Jane Krakowski
Hark the Herald Angels Sing -- Vanessa Williams
I Love The Winter Weather/I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm -- Tony Bennett
Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You -- Katharine McPhee
December Prayer -- Idina Menzel
New York State of Mind -- Adam Pascal
Christmas Mem'ries -- Helen Reddy
River -- Robert Downey Jr.
The Greatest Wish -- Anthony Nunziata