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Advent calendar: December 16—Darlene Love, “Winter Wonderland”

Darlene Love, “Winter Wonderland” 
from Phil Spector’s Christmas Album (1963; 1981)

The story goes that the failure of this album on its initial release, on the inauspicious date of November 22, 1963, broke Phil Spector’s heart. I’m not so sure—never mind subsequent events that cast doubt on the existence of his heart or its capacity for heartbreak. There’s only one original song—a great one, to be fair—and the others are largely standards retrofit with existing hooks from the Wall of Sound vault—here, “Wait ’Til My Bobby Gets Home,” elsewhere “Be My Baby” (“Frosty the Snowman”), etc. In short, it  is low on originality even in the dubious context of rock and roll Christmas product. Elvis and the Beach Boys would produce more heartfelt and personal Christmas albums (maybe because, in their guileless way, Christmas actually meant something to them?). Still, as a platform for great singers it can’t be beat, and for once the sleigh bells—a whole rhythm section of sleigh bells—make seasonal sense.

Oh, and as a Christmas gift to you, this is in stereo.

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Advent calendar: December 15—Åke Jelving, “Julpotpourri, Danser”

Åke Jelving with Chorus and Orchestra, “Julpotpourri, Danser” (1957)
from Christmas in Sweden
Capitol T10079

for LST

Growing up, Christmas wasn’t Christmas without the aroma of limpa, pepparkakor, glögg, and (regrettably) lutfisk and the sound of Christmas in Sweden. As soon as I was allowed to operate the record player, this got regular spins—though I was strongly encouraged to dance and stomp with less vigor than the kids in the Skandinaviska Odeon Aktiebolaget studio, where the album was, the notes helpfully tell us, “produced by A. Holmstedt personally.”

I was going to edit this down, but every tune is winner. In a generation or two, when technology has advanced, I am certain that some future musicologist will analyze this sprightly medley and tease out of its DNA the roots of every ABBA song ever waxed.

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Advent calendar: December 14—Claudine Longet, “Snow”

Claudine Longet, “Snow” (1967)
from ¡Something Festive!
A&M SP 19003

¡Something Festive! (love the inverted exclamation marks) contains the expected A&M MOR xmas stuff: marimba music, a Bacharach number, the Tijuana Brass—plus this. (Well, this plus a Liza Minnelli number that is truly beyond category.) For a while in the late 1960s—and before the later unpleasantness—Claudine Longet was a sort of anti–Serge Gainsbourg, infusing everything she sang with a breathy innocence. It shouldn’t have worked: her voice is so small it’s barely there at all, and as Mrs. Andy Williams she could well have been doomed to terminal blandness. But she had a hipper producer in Tommy LiPuma, and she (or LiPuma) had hipper taste. I don’t know if Andy would have covered a Randy Newman song, as Longet does here, in 1967. And maybe you can get away with anything when you have a French accent. (Fountains of Wayne side project Ivy updates the gambit.)

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Advent calendar: December 13—Joan Baez, “I Wonder as I Wander”

Joan Baez, “I Wonder as I Wander” (1966)
from Noël
Vanguard VSD – 79230

My impression of Joan Baez as a kind of schoolmarmish figure was confirmed when I saw her at a 1986 Amnesty International benefit dedicate a clunky version of “No Woman, No Cry” to the victims of apartheid. Nice sentiment, but it came off as a mom trying to relate to the kids. So I was inclined to pass this album over until I saw that the arrangements were by Joan’s Vanguard label-mate Peter Schickele (AKA professor of forensic music at the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople and the discoverer, promoter, and performer of PDQ Bach’s works). With that irresistibly odd pairing as a hook, I dove in. It’s quite lovely, with a nicely sustained mood of quiet anticipation. Two standouts are a Catalan traditional song called “The Carol of the Birds,” which sounds like it could have been written by Villa-Lobos (Baez has recorded his “Bachianas Brasileiras”) and this haunting hymn collected and adapted by folklorist and singer John Jacob Niles.

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Advent calendar: December 12—Ray Charles, “This Time of the Year”

Ray Charles, “This Time of the Year” (1985)
from The Spirit of Christmas
CBS FC 40125

Aside from the ridiculous cover—I mean, come on: between the blighted greenery in the background to the funkytown tux in the sleigh, I’m glad Ray was spared the sight of this artwork—this album is a tonic for most holiday-music excesses.

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