If I could only pick one…

After spending about three days trying to net out a “top five” album list from the seemingly boundless holiday section of the American Songbook, I had to give it up.

There is a vast amount of material from the Classic Artist and New Guard quarters … even the Fresh Face team has been throwing off some great holiday singles and albums. But that wasn’t the real problem with nailing down a “top five” list.

Listening to so much Christmas and holiday fare over the last month, I’ve come to realize that holiday music listening is a very personal and emotional affair … more so than normal music listening.

What and who I like in my studio during the day while writing fervently is all good and proper; but put a glass of wine in my hand, a fire in the fireplace, some steaks under the broiler and my lovely bride padding around decorating for Christmas and my whole perspective shifts … and with it my holiday listening preferences.

The bottom line…

…I couldn’t settle on the order  of a “top five”  list to save my life; and even if I did distill down a list it would be uniquely tethered to my childhood and special holiday memories — having little relevance to anyone else (as opposed to my normally insightful review lists 😉 ).

Oddly enough, throughout my holiday album listening and iterative attempts to set a top five list, no matter my mood or what I happened to be doing at the time, one album always seemed to occupy the #1 slot  — Harry Connick Jr.’s When My Heart Finds Christmas.

As I mentioned in my Dean and Deana post last week, I adore Dean Martin during the holidays and if I had to pick only one ARTIST it would be him.

Frank has amassed a wonderful array of Christmas fare as well … together with Sammy’s lesser in number but equally great holiday offerings, Christmas With the Rat Pack always floats up very (very, very) near the top.

“But When MY Heart Finds Christmas”…

… for me, you can’t do any better than Harry’s first holiday album – When My Heart Finds Christmas. In fact, Harry can’t even do better than his 1993 Sony/Columbia release (re-released in 2007) … as evidenced by his more recent good-but-not-great attempts — Harry for the Holidays (2003) and What A Night! A Christmas Album (2008).

Fine albums both but not even close to the stunning top-to-bottom winner of  When My Heart Finds Christmas where Harry — in his early-prime vocal years — delivers a perfect blend of traditional Christmas carols, wintry standards and truly superb original material.

HCjr comes out of the When My Heart Finds Christmas chute with a jaunty swing’n “Sleigh Ride” number that rides on the back of the great horn section/fabulous studio band assembled for this album. The tradition of this carolish song are preserved in this rendition but Harry’s loose-smooth style melds in perfectly.

Three original works follow…

This is often where things can get dodgy for me with Christmas albums. Sometimes an artist’s attempt at original holiday material can be ham handed and ruinous but that is most certainly not the case here.

The title track is a melodic number that reflects Dino and Frank’s holiday material stylings — the choir and music expertly woven into a big band standard. “(It Must’ve Been Ol’) Santa Claus” brings more of a Christmas carol mood back around in the form of a kid’s Christmas ballad … very cool and very fun (“Happy ho ho ho to you!). In true Christmas carol fashion, “The Blessed Dawn of Christmas Day” is a beautiful song. Here a superb strings chart underpins Harry wonderfully … very classically styled.

Nine of the ten remaining tracks (full track list below) are classic songs of the season. They are all excellent renditions … especially “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”, “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” (not typically one of my fav’s but very nice here), my absolute favorite version of “Christmas Dreaming”, and an elegant and spectacularly sung “What Are You Doing New Years Eve?”.

The arrangements are just rock solid throughout … never too forward, never weak, always hand-in-glove with HCjr’s vocals. This really is a supremely well rendered album.

The true spirit of Christmas…

With two amazing and completely different songs, Connick Jr brings the true meaning of Christmas into focus. I don’t believe anyone pulls off  “Ave Maria” better than HDjr. Harry plays the entire song as a piano solo in what turns out to be an intro for his incredibly well intoned vocal rendering … wonderfully elegant strings and his piano lightly ride along but it’s Harry’s voice and style that rips your soul out and shows it to you with this song.

Connick goes gospel with his fourth original song on the album. This is dangerous ground for me — few things sound worse than white guys doing a bad job singing gospel music … but man, that is not the case here. “I Pray On Christmas” is a joy … just a piano, Harry and a choir bring’n the spirit with this song and it is so fine, so pure.

There are tons of great holiday albums out there…

…but IF I COULD ONLY CHOOSE ONE — it would be When My Heat Finds Christmas. It’s got the fun, the swing and the spirit in perfect measure. Hey, I can’t be too far off the mark — the album has gone triple platinum with over three million records sold … give it a listen.

Oh and … Merry Christmas everyone!



Track listing

“Sleigh Ride” (Leroy Anderson, Mitchell Parish) – 3:44
“When My Heart Finds Christmas” (Connick) – 4:32
“(It Must’ve Been Ol’) Santa Claus” (Connick) – 4:39
“The Blessed Dawn Of Christmas Day” (Connick) – 4:40
“Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” (Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne) – 2:34
“The Little Drummer Boy” (Katherine K. Davis, Henry Onorati, Harry Simeone) – 3:41
“Ave Maria” (Franz Schubert, Sir Walter Scott) – 4:35
“Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” (Ballard Macdonald, Leon Jessel) – 3:27
“What Child Is This?” (William Dix, 16th Century English melody) – 3:11
“Christmas Dreaming” (Irving Gordon, Lester Lee) – 2:40
“I Pray On Christmas” (Connick) – 3:48
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (Johnny Marks) – 2:31
“O Holy Night” (Adolphe Adam, Placide Cappeau) – 6:45
“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” (Frank Loesser) – 4:49