Carols, everybody loves. But it is because these traditional carols are so irresistible that recordings of them are usually perfunctory; producers trust that their records will be sung along with, not listened to. So, be warned: Unless you choose wisely, and unless you have time to really listen to the record you choose, your money will be wasted on a Christmas record.
But perhaps you expect to be alone on Christmas Eve. Perhaps you're always the first one up on Christmas morning, stuffing the turkey while the family sleeps; you might pick up "Christmas with the Vienna Choir Boys and Hermann Prey" (RCA, ARL 1-2939). Since the Boys sing in German and Prey is the most intimidating of baritones, it's unlikely that you'll find yourself singing along and waking up the kids. You may find yourself unaccountably smiling; "Frau Nachtigall, wach auf" (Mrs. Nightingale, Wake Up) and all the other selections are at once prepossessing and charming.
Albums of contemporary Christmas songs are seldom a good investment. Songs like "Winter Wonderland" and "Silver Bells" are doughnuts: After one or two, you've had your fill, but the damn things come a dozen to a package. Of the 12 songs on "Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas" (RCA, ANLI-1936) only one is fresh. The spirit of "Merry Christmas Baby" may be as far from Bethlehem as is Nashville, but at least this one blues number lets Elvis strut his stuff. As a choir-boy, he is unconvincing.
More palatable is Stevie Wonder's album, "Some Day at Christmas"(Motown, T 281). Little Stevie sounds so little on this re-relaesed record, you can't really scold him for giving himself up to such sticky stuff as "Bed-times his naive genius works for him, a little guy know that, virtuoso as he is, playing the harmonica on "Ave Maria" is bound to sound silly? Sometimes his naive genus works for him. When Little Stevie becomes "The Little Drummer Boy" his urchin nerve gives the song fresh charm.
Considering that kitsch is the rule, Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song" (Capitol, SM-1967) and Bing Crosby's "Merry Christmas" (MCA-15024) are exceptional achievements. Each album contains its classic: "White Christmas" on the Crosby record, and the "chestnuts-roasting-on-an-open-fire" song on Cole's. Granted, Crosby is second only to Santa as Amercia's Mr. Christmas. But as his fiercest admirers will tell you, Crosby is not really at his best, although he is surely at his most edifying, singing in his "Going My Way" voice. Only on "Christmas in Killarney" does he really take his Roman collar off and show us the humor and the vocal agility which made his early years so memorable.
"The Sinatra Christmas Album" (Capitol, SM 894) is the one Christmas album which suggests that it is sometimes justifiable to consider our pop stars recording artists. One would think that "O Little Town of Bethlehem" would be utterly foreign to Sinatra. The material he has recorded in the last 10 years or so has, by caricaturing his personality, allowed us to forget how extraordinarily talented he is. He is talented enough to approach "O Little Town of Bethlehem" not with reverence, but with such a fresh reading of the lyrics, you suddenly understand the song you've been muttering mindlessly since childhood. He does not take liberties with the six carols he sings; he restores their meaning by finding in their melodies the breathing-spaces the lyrics require. Of the six secular Christmas songs he sings, two are among his best recordings ever. He's Sinatra the GI on "I'll Be Home for Christmas"; Sinatra the heart-throb on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Never less than convincing, and often touching, he's Sinatra the artist we ought never to underestimate.