American Gramaphone Records, 1984
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 12/20/2000
Chip Davis probably didn't realize it in 1984, but he was about to release an album which would become a holiday standard.
Christmas, the first seasonal release from Davis's personal project Mannheim Steamroller, was unique in that it took New Age music and combined it with both modern influences and old-world carols. Admittedly, the logic of the project doesn't hit you on the first listen, but this disc quickly grows on you.
Most everyone has heard the synthesizer-laden version of "Deck The Halls" by now, with its poppy beat and layered instrumentation. This was a sign of things to come for Davis and crew: respecting the heart of the original while putting their own unique spin on things.
Sometimes this works well, as on their renditions of "We Three Kings" and the group of four old carols known collectively as "Christmas Sweet". By keeping the style of these tracks in a Medieval mindframe, they capture most likely what it would have been like to hear these songs during an English Rennaissance Christmas.
Sometimes, though, it doesn't quite work as well as it might have looked on paper. The full band version of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" and their take on "Good King Wenceslas" are lacking a bit, though they're hardly fall-on-your-face failures. They just don't seem to fit the frame of reference that Davis and crew were most likely aiming for.
The song that seals things for me is their loving touch on "Stille Nacht," which is treated with the utmost of reverence. Best known to many as "Silent Night," Mannheim Steamroller actually has a song here that tries to capture the true meaning of the holidays, and even after all these years, this track brings tears to my eyes.
So what has made Christmas become a standard? Possibly it's because nobody else was doing this when Davis and crew first released this to the masses. Possibly it's the way the band takes so many chances, both by dipping into the past and utilizing the present technology (at least in 1984 standards). Maybe it's because it allowed people to hear the same old carols in a new light.
All I know is that Christmas, despite one or two small slips, has remained a holiday favorite for many people, and is waiting to be embraced by generations to come. I've had my copy of this for 10 years now, and it still gets its share of holiday play in my house.