Arts » Noise

Soul Santa

Two new albums find the holiday groove

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Memorable Christmas albums generally fall into two distinct categories: entrenched classics and temporary favorites. The latter can certainly become the former over time, but it takes years of familiarity, an elusive full-family consensus and a few defining moments—like, say, drunken sing-a-longs—to establish a bona fide classic.

At least the classics can be easily identified. Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," released in 1947, redefined the modern Christmas song, and the entire album by the same name holds up over time. Frank Sinatra's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" stands out as just one classic from his 1957 album, A Jolly Christmas. Maybe Burl Ives' original Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer soundtrack makes the list, along with Ella Fitzgerald's Swinging Christmas. All of these, it should be noted, came out before John F. Kennedy was elected president.

More recent examples are considerably harder to pin down. My family embraced the Very Special Christmas series for a few years, but I haven't seen nor heard of it since the likes of John Mellencamp (Volume 1), Bon Jovi (Volumes 1 and 2), Michael Bolton (Volume 2), Debbie Gibson (also Volume 2) and Hootie and the Blowfish (Volume 3) lost their luster. Joke Christmas albums don't have any lasting effect. Every contemporary diva's prerequisite holiday album sounds the same, except for Sarah McLachlan's Wintersong, which only stands out now because it makes me think of starving one-eyed puppies. Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" always gets airplay this time of year, but it never made it onto a full album. Same with The Kinks' "Father Christmas," which was on an album, just not one full of holiday tracks. In fact, the only two recent albums in the running for entrenched status at my house are Aimee Mann's hushed One More Drifter in the Snow (2006) and the classy 2006 collection of instrumental holiday songs, December's Quiet Joy, from local guitarist John Floridis.

All of which is a long way of expressing the shock, relief and unrepentant bliss of discovering two classic-worthy Christmas albums released this year. Technically they're not "new" like David Archuleta's holiday album is new—one is re-mastered, the other unearthed from a forgotten era—but that's just semantics. These two albums ooze a fresh spirit and celebration of the season.

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Just consider the titles on In the Christmas Groove, Strut Records' collection of obscure 1960s and 1970s soul B-sides: "Santa's Got a Bag of Soul" by the Soul Saints Orchestra, "Soul Santa" by Funk Machine, "Funky Funky Christmas" by Electric Jungle, "Boogaloo Santa Claus" by J.D. McDonald and "Getting Down for X-Mas" by Milly & Silly. Each track opens with the obligatory jangle of jingle bells—a must, really, for traditionalists—before breaking into furiously up-beat Mo Town-flavored merriment. Santa's not just full of cheer here, he's downright feisty.

Despite the heavy party vibe, the tracks that milk the melancholy of the season may be the best. Captain Elmo McKenzie & the Roosters offer a lilting, longing Calypso version of "Home On Christmas Day." The Harlem Children's Chorus, meanwhile, steals the album with a pointed response to Crosby's "White Christmas." "Black Christmas" is about peace on earth, but in the ghetto. It ends with the message—delivered by the sweet tones of a young boy on lead vocals—that "black is just as beautiful as white." For anyone left a little unfulfilled by James Brown's too-slick Funky Christmas, the raw sense of everything—production, writing, emotion—on In the Christmas Groove is your answer.

Raw would be the opposite of how to describe the re-mastered, bonus-track version of Ray Charles' The Spirit of Christmas. For most, the original 1985 album is largely forgotten except for one song—"That Spirit of Christmas," which was the soundtrack to Clark Griswold's home movie viewing while stuck in the attic during National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. A great scene, but hardly the only thing worth remembering about Charles' contribution to the holiday canon.

The Spirit of Christmas features backup vocals from the Raelettes on "The Little Drummer Boy," perhaps the best song on the album. Jazz greats Freddie Hubbard (trumpet) and Rudy Johnson (tenor sax) appear on "All I Want for Christmas." The bonus track, "Baby It's Cold Outside," is a duet with legendary jazz vocalist Betty Carter. Whereas In the Christmas Groove shimmies and shakes its way into the Christmas spirit, Charles' album slides in with the steady hand of seasoned pros.

The holidays are as much about tradition as anything, and music choices are the same as ornaments passed down from generation to generation. My grandparents wrapped gifts for my parents while listening to Crosby and Sinatra, and my parents did the same for me while maybe adding Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas" to the mix. Breaking into such a hallowed rotation ain't easy, but every once in a while an album—or two—deserves a shot. Call them temporary favorites, if you must, but something tells me the funky sounds of "Soul Santa" will be a part of my holiday tradition long after The Taylor Swift Holiday Collection is forgotten.

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