Ultimate Christmas Collection

Chicago

Rhino, 2012

http://www.chicagotheband.com

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/25/2012

Just in time for the holidays, Chicago has conveniently released a 34-song two-disc Christmas song collection.

The package is actually a repackaging of Chicago XXXIII: O Christmas Three and What’s It Gonna Be, Santa?, which was itself a repackaging of Chicago 25 with six songs added. In short, this new collection is every Christmas song the band ever released…and at 34 songs, it’s plenty of Chicago to go around.

*begin Grinch alert*

But cripes, is it awful. Chicago XXXIII was released in 2011 with several guest stars (Dolly Parton, Bebe Winans, America) and absolutely zero songs worth hearing. It is the most lame, boring, bland Christmas album I’ve ever heard. It actually makes latter-day Chicago hits like “You’re The Inspiration” sound like nuanced genius.

The arrangements try to be interesting by randomly speeding up and slowing down certain parts of each song, but it doesn’t work, nor do the attempts at “rock.” Have you ever been to church during the big annual Christmas show, where the house band is in their fifties and wears green sweaters while trying to be “hip” by playing “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree?” and it’s all a bunch of cheesy fun? This is like that, but worse.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

For those who aren’t sure, Chicago had a string of jazz-rock-pop albums in the early 1970s that were challenging and interesting, integrating horns, vocal harmonies, and guitars for a unique sound. The band moved into a straight pop direction and scored more hits in the 1980s, then sort of drifted into the ether after Peter Cetera left. Almost none of the virtuosity is here, and the horns, rather than enhancing the song, seem to be set to Muzak levels. The best song here isn’t even a Christmas song; “My Favorite Things” is given a degree of emotion and soul that renders it quite decent.

*end of Grinch alert*

What’s It Gonna Be, Santa? is the opposite. Tellingly, it was a gold seller, and musically it is miles away from XXXIII. There is heart and thought and creative energy in these tunes, along with the sense of fun that should be in any non-religious Christmas disc. “Let It Snow” has some muscle and a great horn chart, though Chicago fans will be pleased to note that trumpeter Lee Loughnane sings lead vocals.

According to singer/pianist Robert Lamm, the intent was to keep the arrangements more or less intact and add the Chicago stamp to each song. This is pretty much the case, although the times where the mold is broken are pretty special, most notably in “Little Drummer Boy” and a slowed-down, flugelhorn and accordion heavy “Feliz Navidad,” by far the best version of this song you’ll ever hear. Of course, it doesn’t all work (“The Christmas Song” and “Sleigh Ride” are pretty bland, and the band has a tendency to slip back into their ‘80s sound at times), but the sense of holiday spirit makes these forgivable. Plus, the band changes the lyrics of “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” to ask for new instruments, and you can’t help but smile at that.

If the idea of male vocal harmonies and horn arrangements mixed with light rock music appeals to you this holiday season, as opposed to the usual versions of these songs you hear at the mall, What’s It Gonna Be, Santa? is the way to go. If you can’t find it alone, pick up this collection and use XXXIII for an eggnog coaster.

Rating: C+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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