Thursday, November 06, 2008

Album Review: The Christmas Collection

With the heartbreak of the 2008 elections behind me, I am ready to turn to a far more joyful subject: Christmas. More specifically, Christmas music. It is always difficult for me to put off pulling out the seasonal tunes until November -- and I have been known to listen a time or two to a particular favorite even before Halloween.

The first Christmas after I became a believer, I went out and bought two Christmas albums: a recording of Handel's Messiah and Amy Grant's Home for Christmas. These two became the foundation of what has grown over the years to become quite a collection, indeed. The crowning moment of my Christmas cache was in 2004 when I added the long-awaited album by Carolyn Arends, Christmas: An Irrational Season. But I have many, many treasures, and it wouldn't be Christmas without a spin in the CD player from such artists as Point of Grace, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Connick, Jr., Nat King Cole, Jewel, Chris Rice, and many others. And Amy Grant. Especially Amy Grant.

Some have called her the "voice of Christmas," and that is as fair a designation as any when you consider that she had released three holiday albums by 1999 . Something about that melting, smoky, honeyed drawl just marries well with the songs of the season. My personal favorite of hers is the first, A Christmas Album (1983). It is a pitch-perfect combination of the fresh and fun and the sincere and spiritual. Home for Christmas (1992) is lush and orchestral. A Christmas to Remember (1999) was an album to forget in my opinion -- a couple of good songs mixed into a dull and spiritless compilation. So, in 2008, Amy Grant has released The Christmas Collection, a "best-of" that also includes four new recordings.

Of course, I bought it today.

I was most eager to hear the new stuff, since I've owned the others for years. So, if you are like me and just want the skinny on the new songs, here you go:

1. "Jingle Bells" -- Apparently this arrangement of "Jingle Bells" was originally done by Barbra Streisand. I find it pretty awful. The tempo cannot decide whether to be fast and jazzy or slow and elegant; it tries both, erratically, and fails. Amy's voice doesn't even sound good. Yuck. (P.S. I have independently verified this song's exceeding badness by playing it for my husband last night, and his returning the same verdict)

2. "I Need a Silent Night" -- All the wretchedness of "Jingle Bells" cannot take one whit away from the glorious sublimity of "I Need a Silent Night." Here is a heart's cry for the true meaning of Christmas and against the stress and rush we put ourselves under trying to "buy Christmas peace." This is one of the best original Christmas songs I've ever heard. It is Arendsesque in its art; and my commendation cannot go farther than that. This one song is worth the price of the entire album. Of course, you could just buy this song on iTunes for 99¢.

3. "Baby, It's Christmas" -- This is a slow, soft jazz tune about "adult time" on Christmas Eve. I was surprised to find that I liked it. I read the lyrics before I heard the song, and they sound much better than they read. I guess it needs to be sung by a woman in love to make sense.

4. "Count Your Blessings" -- This song is sweet and quiet and peaceful. It is from the movie White Christmas. My only quibble with it is its position in the middle of the song line-up. I think it ruins the arc, and would have preferred it toward the end.

So, those are the new ones. Now, as far as the selection of what older tunes to include, there is a pretty good sampling of the first three albums. I was very glad, though not surprised, to see such must-hear favorites as "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" (HFC), "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" (ACA), "Grown-Up Christmas List" (HFC), and "Tennessee Christmas" (ACA -- and kind of hard to listen to still, because of . . . you know . . .).

Of course, there were some disappointing omissions. Nowhere to be found is the marvelous "Heirlooms" from A Christmas Album, or Amy's beautiful rendition of "The Christmas Song" from same. "Emmanuel, God With Us" is a hauntingly spiritual offering from Home for Christmas that did not make it. And "Christmas Can't Be Very Far Away," my favorite from A Christmas to Remember was left off as well.

And there were some inclusions I could have done without. For instance, though I know that it had to be included, I am no fan of "Breath of Heaven." In fact, I positively dislike it. And, every female singer under fifty who has recorded a Christmas album has covered it. I just don't get its appeal. OK, I do get a bit of its appeal, but I so absolutely disagree with a line in its lyric that I cannot listen to it. "In a world as cold as stone, must I walk this path alone? Be with me now, be with me now." Hello? Can you say 'Joseph'? I know that's not the point of the song, but it tees me off to no end. I hate to see Joseph marginalized in the Christmas story. Do you think Mary could have survived, let alone raised the Baby without Joseph? Aargh! OK, tirade ending . . . Now.

Another song I do not like, though this really has nothing to do with Amy Grant, since she neither wrote it nor sang it poorly, is "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." I used to like it until I saw Meet Me in St. Louis. Oh goodness, how depressing! Then that weird little girl goes out and takes out the snowmen in her rage -- rather disturbing. Now I have a hard time with the song. Anyway, that song from Home for Christmas is the closer on this new album.

So, if you do not have any Amy Grant Christmas albums, this is a good place to start. It will brighten your season. However, do make sure that you buy her first seasonal offering, A Christmas Album, as well. It is her best one -- not a false note in song selection or arrangement. You'll love those I've mentioned here, as well as the driving "Emmanuel," the fresh "Little Town," the sweet original "Christmas Hymn," the rocking "Love Has Come," the delightful "Sleigh Ride" (also included in The Christmas Collection), and the aforementioned favorites, "The Christmas Song" and "Heirlooms." Wonderful stuff.

And, any write-up of Christmas music would not be complete unless I plugged again Carolyn Arends's album, Christmas: An Irrational Season. Its merit has been written of extensively before here, so I will not belabor my point. Just make sure you add it to your collection this year, so that you do not have to experience another Christmas without its wonder and beauty.

Merry Super-Early-But-Why-Not? Christmas Everyone!


Anonymous said...

Thank You. That is a very down to earth review of an album that I used to enjoy more, until you made me think of some, I suppose, truths.

You should check out my Christmas CD (on my blog), when you get chance.

I'd love to love to hear a review on that.

Vermonster said...

Boy, you really held out on playing the Christmas music. You didn't play Irrational Season in July? I've actually spent the last hour or so loading CA and AG Christmas albums on my ipod so that I can play in the car this season (cold weather and CDs don't mix well).

I heard the samples of Amy's new songs and completely agree with your analysis. Jingle Bells- no a good arrangement but will download the other 3.

My recommendations for your Christmas listening pleasure:

Johnny Mathis: Merry Christmas
Wayne Newton: Songs for a merry Christmas
Twila Paris: It's the Thought
Michael W. Smith: Christmas

and individual oldie favorites:
Little Sandy Sleighfoot
I want a Hippopotamus for Christmas