An excellent holiday collection leaning toward standards and the gospel-R&B end of the spectrum is Ultimate Christmas. Out of 17 songs only two really don’t work and unfortunately one of them leads off the disc: Boyz ll Men turn in an a capella version of “Silent Night” that combines the worst of wandering, always-slightly-flat R&B singing, along with a jazzy arrangement that manages to squeeze almost every ounce of beauty out of one of the world’s most beautiful songs. Sometimes it’s better to leave well enough alone. (The other dog is Carly Simon’s “The Night Before Christmas”.)
Nat King Cole’s warm, placid “The Christmas Song,” recorded with his trio and Nelson Riddle’s Orchestra and Chorus in 1953, features his own sweet piano, some very fine cocktail jazz guitar from, I assume Irving Ashby, and of course, his own incomparable pipes. (James Knox has a great tribute to the song here – the ’53 version is actually the second recording.)
A very young, high-spirited Aretha Frankin turns in a delightful upper register romp through “Winter Wonderland” with orchestra, recorded in ’64 while she was still with Columbia and before she found her soul groove. This may be her finest recording of th era.
Next, Bing Crosby croons and mellifluously whistles through the ’42 version of Irving Berlin’s classic “White Christmas” – I particularly like Bing’s harmony riff off the melody near the end. By the way, it’s snowing like a mofo right now in Northeast Ohio – a white Christmas is assured.
Elvis swaggers in for his bluesy, soulful “Blue Christmas,” which reveals the other end of the emotional spectrum that the intensity of the holidays often brings forth. When the norm and expectation is of joyous togetherness, its absence is particularly distressing.
Johnny Mathis’s oddly appealing nasal tonality and flawless enunciation make his “Sleigh Ride” a standard. Ella Fitzgerald is her staggeringly flawless, lovably girlish self on a nicely rhythmic pop arrangement of “Frosty the Snow Man.”
And then an epiphany: of all the musical genres I have encountered, I am least amenable to opera. That doesn’t mean I don’t like any of it, but the whole over-the-top grand emoting singing style generally gets on my nerves, especially when the fat lady sings. But Pavarotti’s “O Holy Night,” in English and then Italian, is profoundly moving, his quavering tenor power utterly appropriate to the mood – when he hits, holds and extends the final soaring high note in the last line of the song, I can feel my chest constricting, my eyes watering. The night is holy indeed.
The rest of the way there is much that is very fine: Luther Vandross’s righteous gospel turn on “O Come All Ye Faithful,” Whitney Houston with the Georgia Mass Choir on a rousing, audacious, musical “Joy to the World,” Dionne Warwick’s chipper “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas,” Eartha Kitt’s sultry, purring, clever “Santa Baby,” Herb Alpert and the TJB’s rollicking instrumental “Jingle Bells,” Sarah McLachlan’s sparkling “Song for a Winter’s Night,” and Judy Garland’s ineffably sad “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, recorded just five years after “Over the Rainbow,” the depth of feeling is transcendent.