Friday, April 5, 2013

Music Review: The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Wonderful collection of Christmas classics
Cons: Dated production will turn off some
The Bottom Line:
Christmas memories
In this delightful CD
You'll enjoy for years

Christmas Music that Spans the Decades

There are some songs that, no matter how many people sing them, will always be associated with one person. Such is the case with Nat King Cole and "The Christmas Song." While the number of versions of this classic are countless, Nat King Cole's version is definitive.

Of course, the question arises, which version do I mean? For me, it's the version he recorded here. Nat originally recorded it in 1946, however, this version from 1961 is the one I associate with Nat and Christmas. There are no background singers, but Nat's lush, rich voice and the instruments. The strings dominate, but you can also hear piano in there. It's hard not to get the warm fuzzes as he sings "Merry Christmas to you."

Like that song, this disc has gone through lots of changes. I grew up with a record version that included 14 songs. This version was from the 1960's. When I graduated from college and started amassing my own Christmas music collection, I picked up a version on CD that included those exact same songs. The version currently for sale includes extra tracks, including some recorded interviews with Nat and a version of the title song that is a duet with his daughter Natalie Cole. This is the most common version available today. Since I don't have it, I will stick to the 14 songs I grew up listening to. The good news is, the current version includes all 14 of these songs plus additional tracks, so if you want what I describe here, you'll get a bonus.

Most of the 14 songs here are Christmas classics, mainly religious carols of the season. We've got "Away in a Manger" which is a cappella. Nat is joined by a choir, who hum during the first and third verse but sing the second verse themselves. "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" features the choir and a full orchestra and sounds lush. "O Holy Night" features a beautiful 27 string orchestra backing the familiar hymn. And the disc closes with "Silent Night," which is again a cappella.

Even though most of these songs are so familiar, there are some surprises here. I think his is the only version of "Deck the Halls" I have in my entire collection. This version is appropriately fast. In fact, it's by far the fastest song on the disc. "Adeste Fideles" is the familiar song "O Come All Ye Faithful," and Nat sings it in English and Latin. Likewise, "O Tannenbaum" features the original German of "O Christmas Tree." I wish this one included the English as well since I don't have an English version anywhere.

There are a couple lesser known songs on here. "I Saw Three Ships" is another a cappella song with the choir humming along behind. It's a strange English carol about the holy Family arriving by ship on "Christmas day in the morning." "Caroling, Caroling" is a rare song as well that celebrates the fun of the season.

But if we're talking rare, we must mention "A Cradle in Bethlehem." I have never heard this song sung by anyone else, and it's a shame because I really like it. This quiet song reflects on that first Christmas night. It's got the strings and choir again and sounds absolutely wonderful.

The style is very dated. No one today sings with choirs behind them. As a result, it screams late 50's or early 60's arrangements. That probably makes it an acquired taste, but I acquired it early and have no plans to give it up any time soon. What's most amazing to me is that it was years before I even realized that some of these songs are a cappella. If you aren't listening for it, you'll never notice.

I've listened to these versions of these songs every Christmas I can remember. Even now, they make me think of dark nights, wrapping presents, and decorating the tree. It has a special place in my collection. If you're looking to add some tradition to your Christmas music collection, The Christmas Song is a worthy candidate.

CD Length: 31:15
1. The Christmas Song
2. Deck the Hall
3. Adeste Fideles
4. O Tannenbaum
5. O, Little Town of Bethlehem
6. I Saw Three Ships
7. O Holy Night
8. Hark, the Herald Angels Sing
9. A Cradle in Bethlehem
10. Away in a Manger
11. Joy to the World
12. The First Noel
13. Caroling, Caroling
14. Silent Night

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