Merry Christmas from Cole & Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole may have never so much as passed each other in the studio hall when recording the tracks that later appeared on this album, but the cocktail hour legends go dutch on what is, in my mind, the ultimate tree-trimming soundtrack. The feel-goodery of Cole’s \”Joy to the World\” is more than matched with his tear-jerking treatment of \”The First Noel\” (not even a kitschy post-war chorus can drag this man down; Cole has soul, even on Christmas standards). Fitzgerald is one of the few jazz-age chanteuses with the pipes to complement Cole’s caroling; her \”Hark! The Herald Angels Sing\” is off-putting, in that it gives one pause for thought: Should I be stringing lights around the tree, or mixing a dirty martini?

Unfortunately, in transitioning from cassette to CD, the playlist got a bit skewed. It’s no longer a Cole-Fitzgerald-Cole rotation, but two solid sets. Still, if you invite them to the holiday party, you’re just glad they both show up.

James Galway’s Christmas Carol

Sir James Galway, a flute virtuoso that bests even Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, leads the BBC Singers and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for what shakes out to be one hell of a concert. Galway serves as flutist and conductor for a set list that includes yuletide indispensables like \”Silent Night\” and \”We Wish You a Merry Christmas,\” but also incorporates a little Bach with the oddly compelling church fixture, \”Sheep May Safely Graze.\” The album is all-encompassing with an early American ditty, the contemplative \”I Wonder as I Wander,\” and the definitive recording of \”Pat-a-pan,\” which has become a permanent fixture on public radio yuletide promos. It’s a little like listening to a Renaissance chorale pair off with the Pied Piper, and I can’t help but feel nostalgic for a snowy holiday in a whimsical English village — a holiday vision completely manufactured by virtue of the dynamic ensemble.

The Perry Como Christmas Album

When I was a kid, we simply did not approach the tree with a boxful of ornaments without first putting on track four, \”The Little Drummer Boy.\” (It does, after all, have an awesome rhythm solo).

Unlike the aforementioned Nat King Cole/Ella Fitzgerald seasonal collaboration, this Christmas album didn’t spur me to add the performer to my year-round collection, but my impression of Como and the album cover are one and the same: a smiling face popping out from the center of a holiday wreath.

Break out the highball glasses.

Mahalia Sings Songs of Christmas!

Soulful enchantress Mahalia Jackson recorded pure, euphoric gospel that, given the industry standard of bland hymnals, shouldn’t have been allowed inside a place of worship. That said, churches concerned about attendance numbers today would be well advised to blare \”In the Upper Room\” to attract a hesitant congregation.

So it goes without saying that the woman who could go from booming to dulcet in 0.05 seconds could also churn out a decent holiday record. Jackson doesn’t perform seasonal music; she wrestles traditional carols into submission. \”White Christmas\” — almost flippant in the hands of lesser artists — comes off as a tender requiem. \”Silver Bells\” shows her range: She can inspire a lapsed believer to run back to church, sure, but listening to her belt out the standards invites comparison to Dinah Washington.

Rounding it out is \”Sweet Little Jesus Boy\” in the spring-from-the-pew tradition.

It is my firm belief that a straight run-through of this album can wash away the nasty aftertaste of a year’s worth of bad PR for Christianity (see: Jerry Falwell, Ted Haggard).

Dr. Demento Presents: Greatest Christmas Novelty CD of All Time

There are a few songs I can’t get behind here: I hate “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” with a passion, and God knows if you’ve ever had to sit through hold on a customer service line come December, you’ve heard “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth” on loop. Demento’s collection takes some sifting, but a little patience with this album and you’re rewarded with seasonal gold, like Yogi Yorgesson’s pseudo-Scandinavian classic, “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas,” and the understatedly brilliant “Twelve Days of Christmas” by everyone’s favorite Canadian TV co-hosts, Bob and Doug McKenzie. Cheech Marin’s eloquent explanation of Father Christmas to Chong results in some seasonal enlightenment in “Santa Claus and His Old Lady” (“Oh yeah, man! I know that dude! I played with him at the Fillmore!”) and satirist Tom Lehrer’s “A Christmas Carol,” a folksy denunciation of Christmas’s commercialization that seems straight out of radio’s golden age, rounds out the album with a little added credibility.