If you must own only one Christmas album, Nat King Cole's The Christmas Song is the one to have. The album gets its title from the classic song, penned by the legendary Mel Tormé specifically for Cole. As part of the Nat Cole Trio, Cole first recorded and released the carol in 1946, subsequently recording "The Christmas Song" four more times. The most enduring rendition remains his 1961 solo version, originally included on his album, The Nat King Cole Story and later added to a reissue of his holiday album, The Magic of Christmas. This collection was later retitled The Christmas Song, and has retained that title to this day.
What makes The Christmas Song so special? Cole's warm delivery, understated piano, and the song's lush string arrangements perfectly capture the spirit of the holidays. "O Tannenbaum" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem" are quietly beautiful, while his cheerful voice enlivens "I Saw Three Ships." His elegance shines on "O Holy Night," cushioned by lovely strings. He seemingly effortlessly glides over the notes; hearing him reach the crescendo, "fall on your knees," sends shivers down the spine.
While the album features solemn carols, it also contains exuberance, such as his ebullient version of "Joy to the World." "Caroling, Caroling" will inspire listeners to sing to neighbors, while "Deck the Halls" exudes cheer and the festive spirit. Not neglecting his jazz piano skills, he plays a sublime solo during "The Christmas Song" that, along with his voice, conjures images of sitting by the fireplace, gazing at the tree.
This latest edition of The Christmas Song restores the tracks to their original crystal-clear quality, allowing listeners to experience every bell and string, as well as experience the nuances of Cole's voice. In addition to the superior sound quality, this version includes bonus tracks: "Buon Natale (Means Merry Christmas to You)," a charming Italian-inflected carol featuring a virtual duet with contemporary R&B singer Anthony Hamilton; and "All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)," a cute tune sung from a child's perspective. Previous versions sound too precious, but Cole infuses it with a jazz feel as well as his smooth voice. "The Happiest Christmas Tree" is slight, but Cole rescues it from pure treacle. Finally, the previously released virtual-duet version of "The Christmas Song" showcases daughter Nataile Cole's lovely voice. While not as good as the original, hearing father and daughter sing together (thanks to studio trickery, a la 1991's "Unforgettable") tugs at the heartstrings.
The Christmas Song has been reissued numerous times, but even if you already own an old copy, this newest version is worth the upgrade. The sound quality, along with the interesting bonus tracks (as well as a CD booklet featuring striking Cole portraits) will supplant your presumably well-worn tape or LP. Those who have never experienced Cole's Christmas album will be enchanted with its warmth and perfect encapsulation of the holiday spirit. How could any writer or singer put it better as in "The Christmas Song": "And so I'm offering this simple phrase/To kids from one to 92/Although it's been said, many times, many ways/Merry Christmas to you."