Three of the best Christmas albums of 1984 are rooted in music recorded between 1925 and 1968. That music consists not of run-of-the-mill carols and nativity ballads or even the slew of pop standards that have arrived in the past 30 years, but rambunctious rock 'n' roll, rhythm and blues, cajun, surf music, boogie-woogie and swing tunes celebrating the spirit of the season and the season of high spirits.
This cheery time trip is provided by California's Rhino Records, which continues to solidify its reputation as this country's most tireless fan-archivists with "Rockin' Christmas -- The '50s" (Rhino RNLP066) and "Rockin' Christmas -- The '60s" (RNLP067). Having combed the vaults of more than a dozen departed labels, Richard Foos and James Austin have come up with 27 classic cuts featuring the still-famous-after-all-these-years (James Brown, Aretha Franklin), the fondly remembered (the Moonglows, Santo and Johnny, the Turtles) and the probably just as well forgotten (Three Aces and a Joker, the Trashmen, the Hepsters).
Most of the songs here, recorded between 1953 and 1968, are novelty tunes, like Oscar McLollie and his Honey Jumpers' beatnik anthem "Dig That Crazy Santa Claus," the Youngsters' cautionary "Christmas in Jail," the Turtles close encounter between "Santa and the Sidewalk Surfer" and Barry Richards' rather reluctant "Baby Sittin' Santa." Santa looms large in most of these songs: he's the carrier of bad news, turning white Christmases blue; the repository of wacko requests; and the number one item of defense (Ron Holden's "Who Says There Ain't No Santa Claus?").
Among these delights, there are surprises: Aretha Franklin sweeping through "Winter Wonderland" in 1964, in the midst of her transition from princess of gospel to queen of soul; the talking Dylanesque protest of the Wailers' "Christmas Spirit"; the exuberant street-corner harmonies of the Moonglows and Penguins; and everywhere the genial spirits of performers who made these records for the sheer joy to the world of it.
"The Stash Christmas Album" (Stash ST125) dips even further into the vaults. The moods here include electric country blues (a stark and haunting "Merry Christmas" from Lightning Hopkins); and rough-and-ready urban versions from the mid-'20s like "Santa Claus Blues" by Eva Taylor (with Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Don Redman in the studio band); and "Santa Claus, Bring My Man Back" by Ozie Ware (who hired Duke Ellington's Hot Five for the occasion). Other distaff vocal highlights are provided by Ella Fitzgerald (eternally young) on the absolutely silly "Santa Claus Got Stuck in My Chimney" and Dinah Washington's straight reading of "Silent Night" (and how we miss her).
There are some big-band interpretations of seasonal standards (from Ted Weems, Benny Goodman, Paul Whiteman -- a fascinating "Christmas Night in Harlem" -- and Lionel Hampton; the first three from the mid-'30s, the last from 1950) and four Louis Armstrong cuts, including the convoluted hip lingo of "Cool Yule," the hilarious " 'Zat You, Santa Claus?" and a reading of "The Night Before Christmas" that should be bronzed. Like the Rhinos, Stash improves our present each time it digs into the past.
In a similar vein, Huey "Piano" Smith's 1962 gem, " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas" has just been reissued (Ace 1027). These recordings by the New Orleans rhythm and blues pioneer are about as raw as they can be, with Dr. John leading a funky little backing band as Smith sweeps through nine songs. The scrunchy saxophones and Smith's rollicking piano recall a Saturday night fish fry as much as the season's greetings.
John McCutcheon's "Winter Solstice" (Rounder 0192) is billed as "hammer dulcimer music for Christmas, Chanukah and the New Year's Season," but it is also a brilliant canvas on which McCutcheon and his cohorts from the string band Trapezoid have captured some essential graces. These range from the crystalline Appalachian folk chamber setting of "Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head" to a straight Baroque interepration of Handel's "For Unto Us a Child Is Born," with dulcimers replacing harpsichord, and from hauntingly elegiac readings of a traditional "Huron Carol" and Josef Hader's "Moshe Dor" to the old-timey exuberance of several traditional folk tunes.
McCutcheon shows his wide-ranging tastes with a sinuous "Willie's Waltz," a shaped-note hymn, "Star in the East," and two commentaries, Si Kahn's bittersweet "Detroit, December" and his own "Christmas in the Trenches," one of the most poignant and melodically arresting antiwar songs in years. This album is a gem.
Mannheim Steamroller is one of those New Age electronic eclectics, but "Christmas" (American Grammaphone 1984) is surprisingly acoustic, outside of a synth-heavy "Deck the Halls" and "Good King Wenceslaus" (the latter quite funky). But a 17th-century carol, "Bring on the Torch, Jeannette Isabella," is born in a lute/recorder duet before expanding into a lush romanticism; and the 16th-century "Coventry Carol" arrives at the same destination from a lute/harpsichord beginning. Much of the second side of the album weaves well-worn melodies with Renaissance fervor and Baroque grace, moving to an exquisite finale in the transluscent vocal/synth swirl of "Stille Nacht."
Austin, Tex., is known for the number of bands that champion rhythm and blues, so it's no surprise that a half-dozen of that city's musicians have gathered for "An Austin Rhythm and Blues Christmas" (Austin AR8301). Working mostly with R & B staples like Charles Brown's "Please Come Home for Christmas" and the occasional original like Sarah Brown's "My Christmas Tree Is Hung With Tears," singers like Lou Ann Barton, Angela Strehli, Paul Ray and the Fabulous Thunderbirds acquit themselves quite well, capturing the jumping spirit, if not the manic energy, of the genre that inspired them.
A similar sense of family pervades "A Reggae Christmas" (RAS Records RAS3101), put together locally by Dr. Dread and featuring the RAS roster: Freddie McGregor, Eek-a-mouse, Michigan and Smiley, Don Carlos and others. The best moments are "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," with everyone delivering a personalized greeting, and "The Night Before Christmas" by the only creature stirring all through the house, Eek-a-mouse. Most of the album, however, consists of sluggish, straightforward readings of tunes like "Jingle Bells," "Joy to the World" and "Silent Night."
Nashville has been the most notorious of Christmas record packagers, and this year shows no letdown. The best work comes from Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton's "Once Upon a Christmas" (RCA ASL15037), which benefits from several solid country-pop originals from Parton ("Christmas Without You" and "A Christmas to Remember") and Parton's intriguingly energetic vocals. However, "I Believe in Santa Claus" is ridiculous and the covers of several seasonal chestnuts deserve more than a roasting.
Barbara Mandrell's "Christmas at Our House" (MCA 5519) also benefits from a half-dozen new songs, the best of which are the title song, "It Must Have Been the Misletoe" and "Born to Die." There's also a nice medley of carols, though the overall effect is more pop than country.
"Christmas Greetings from Nashville" (Columbia 39467) and "A Country Christmas, Vol. 3" (RCA PC109) pit those labels' stars against each other. So it's Willie Nelson, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Lynn Anderson, Johnny Cash, the Gatlins and a few others against Waylon Jennings, Alabama, the Judds, Ronnie Milsap, Charley Pride, Deborah Allen and Earle Thomas Conley. RCA has a much younger and feistier lineup. Pick'em.
And some final odds and ends: "Christmas With Zamfir" (Mercury 822 571-1) could have been a thing of beauty had the artist gone it alone with the ethereal mystery of his panpipes. He has, however, wrapped them in turgid orchestrations and arrangements, making everything sound like a gifted artist struggling in an elevator with Muzak.
For pop vocal fans, there's an Engelbert Humperdinck album, "White Christmas" (Epic 39469) -- so so -- and the Carpenters' "An Old Fashioned Christmas" (A&M SP3270). This album was drawn from the same 1978 sessions that produced "Christmas Portrait." It features the late Karen Carpenter's lead vocals on six previously unreleased tracks and on "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," a 1974 single. Although these are not great takes, her voice is still alluring and effective. Brother Richard contributes three syrupy instrumental tracks and a multidubbed a cappella rendition of "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear."
Elmo and Patsy's ridiculous "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" has become a radio favorite since it first appeared in 1979, but its novelty pales before its predecessors. On an album that goes by the same name (Epic 5E39931), this husband-and-wife team shows why no one heard of them before or is likely to in the future by offering several more novelty items (new, like "Percy the Puny Poinsetta," and old, like "Sen or Santa Claus") and dreadful interpretations of standards. If you must, buy the single.
The oddball Christmas album of the year is "A Midnight Christmas Mess" (Midnight Records MIR106), which is a collection of garage bands offering their rather odd insights on the season via vaguely familiar neo-psychedelic and surfadelic sounds. There are bands represented, the best known being Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Plan 9, but also including Suburban Nightmares ("Schizophrenic X'mas"), Nadroj and the Wolrats ("Forget It") and the Cheepskates ("Last Minute Rush"). Wild and woolly and just a bit on the rough side.