Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits 1935-1954
Rhino Records, 1999
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 12/21/1999
I'm very picky about what kind of Christmas music I'll listen to during the holidays. While some of the newer albums have really impressed me this season, I still find myself going back to the "classics" to try and capture the Christmas spirit - which, might I add, I still don't feel I have. Don't know why.
And while some people might wonder why I selected a disc with no song younger than 45 years old to review, the reason is simple: there is still something very charming about these versions of the carols we all know and love, almost as if they bring back memories of Christmases past. So, Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits 1935-1954 gets a spin today.
Now, I'll plead some ignorance here, in that I couldn't honestly tell you if Bing Crosby was the first to sing "White Christmas," or if Gene Autry was the first to sing "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer" (though I'm more certain of the latter, for I've been told it was originally the b-side of the original release).But what I can tell you is that there's something special about these versions - something that makes them feel like they're the version of the song that matters.
Some of the songs on this disc might be more familiar to younger listeners thanks to recent renditions. If you ask anyone younger than 25 who did "Santa Baby," they're probably going to say Madonna thanks to A Very Special Christmas. But there's something about hearing Eartha Kitt sing it that makes it less camp and more - well, sultry. (Sorry, Madonna.)
Likewise, Nat "King" Cole will always be identified with "The Christmas Song," even though it also helped define the careers of many a crooner. That said, the version on this disc is a bit disappointing, as it's not the version many of us grew up with and love. Instead, this is a more stripped-down version without the full orchestration, almost as if it was done by a quartet. Cole himself does a wonderful job - the guy could sing the phone book and make it sound convincing - but I did feel let down by this version.
Admittedly, there are some songs on this one that have collected quite a bit of dust - so much so that they have probably been forgotten in the modern Christmas vernacular. When was the last time you heard the Andrews Sisters sing "Christmas Island"? When was the last time you heard anybody sing "Christmas Island"? And it might have been cute once, but "All I Want For Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)" isn't the first track that comes to mind when I think about classic holiday music. Spike Jones & His City Slickers deserve a little better of a fate.
I recognize that every generation has their own music, Christmas and otherwise, and time must allow for some songs to be pushed back into the annals of history. But what a disc like Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits 1935-1954 asks us to do is to dig them out just one time each year and allow them to feel the sunlight they once basked in. For nostalgia, for kitsch... for fun, give it a spin.