Like fruitcake, holiday compilations can be very good — or awful. The Merriest Time of the Year contains more hits than misses, and 15 songs for $7.99 (available as a digital download only) is a reasonable bargain.
The compilation fares best when sticking with the classics. Dean Martin’s wooing in “Baby It’s Cold Outside” still elicits a smile, while Bing Crosby gamely croons his way through “Frosty the Snowman.” The sultry songstress Peggy Lee recorded an excellent Christmas album, Christmas with Peggy Lee, featuring her unique takes on holiday classics. That album is represented here by “Happy Holiday”; her slightly off-beat singing lends the song a new kind of swing. Hearing the Queen of Scat, Ella Fitzgerald, sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” straight, with no improvisation, is a bit jarring.
Like more jazz with your carols? Look no further than Johnny Mercer’s swinging version of “Jingle Bells,” with catchy horns, and Mercer’s interplay with the background singers charms. And what holiday compilation would be complete without Nat King Cole? The Merriest Time of the Year includes Cole’s inspiring take on “Joy to the World,” an interesting choice over his signature tune “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You).”
The Merriest Time of the Year also includes more modern slants on Christmas classics, such as the Beach Boys’ California surfing-tinged “Little Saint Nick.” Lou Rawls lends his buttery vocals to a bluesy rendition of “Merry Christmas Baby,” one of the few truly sexy carols. Listeners who know Rawls primarily from the disco-era song “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” or the ultra-smooth “Lady Love” may be surprised by his slightly raspy, passionate delivery on this tune. Another unique take on a classic is Deana Carter’s “Carol of the Bells,” which integrates rock, country, and folk into an interesting sonic mixture.
One of the oddest cuts is a young Wayne Newton’s interpretation of “Jingle Bell Rock”— strange because he still sported a falsetto voice, rendering him almost unrecognizable to modern fans. Also offbeat is the Thunderball remix of Kay Starr’s “(Everybody’s Waiting for) The Man with the Bag”— the heavier drums and bass line seem superfluous and add little to the original recording. But perhaps the nicest surprise is Sinead O’Connor’s haunting rendition of “Silent Night,” as her delicate voice adds meaning to the solemn words.
There are a few bland cuts on the compilation, namely Dave Koz’s smooth jazz version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” Celtic Woman’s “O Holy Night,” and Kenny Rogers’ largely generic rendition of “White Christmas.” It’s hard to listen to Rogers, for example, without comparing his vocals to Crosby’s beautifully understated voice. The lyrics to “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” are so beautiful and poignant that it makes little sense to include an instrumental on this album.
Otherwise The Merriest Time of the Year offers bang for the buck, providing a varied selection of Christmas carols as the perfect accompaniment for your holiday gatherings. If you’re looking for a basic collection containing major hits, The Merriest Time of the Year will nicely fill out your holiday library. Unlike fruitcake, you’ll likely want to keep this album for years to come.