FROM THE DESK OF DAVE RADSTOCK
The Christmas Albums
Christmas songs have been covered like no other genre, by artists as diverse as Bing Crosby, to Elvis Presley, David Bowie to Mariah Carey. The Christmas album is a big market for artists, where each want to bring their own unique twist on songs that have been around for all time.
As we are fast approaching the festive season, it would have been remiss of me not to feature Neil Diamond’s Christmas Albums, a genre of music that Neil stated he always had a love for, and music that was always played in the family home, and at school.
Neil Diamond came rather late on the Christmas album scene, it wasn’t until 1992 that Neil released his first Christmas album, simply titled 'The Christmas Album’ whilst the album was designed almost exclusively for Neil’s adult contemporary constituency, Neil managed to light up most of the obviousness of these Christmas standards, with his trademark rich, deep vocal, making them as warm as a fireside on Christmas Eve. The album opens with the grandeur of
‘O’ Come, O’ Come Emmanuel/We Three Kings’, and a majestic and reverential
‘Silent Night’ where all three songs are treated with utmost respect staying true to tradition. Diamond lifts the beat and delivers a really catchy ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ loosening it up with a harmonica solo and giving it a busy up-tempo arrangement. ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ keeps that liveliness going with an inclusive 1950’s Doo-Wop vibe. There are some fabulous covers on this album, a cover of John Lennon’s ‘Happy Christmas (War Is Over)’ where Neil is joined by a children’s choir. Cat Stevens ‘Morning Has Broken’ although not essentially a Christmas song, strangely it fits into this collection, where it sounds as Christmassy as all the other tracks. Neil penned one track on the album
‘You Make It Feel Like Christmas’ which featured on the ‘Primitive’ album, for me the stand out track is ‘O Holy Night’. I have always loved this Christmas hymn, and Neil delivers it majestically, with no veering from the traditional arrangement, where it is powerful and moving, and captures the very essence of Christmas.
'The Christmas Album’ proved so popular amongst the record buying public that Neil Diamond recorded a second Christmas album, ‘The Christmas Album Volume ll’, an album that in my humble opinion is better than the first Christmas album. Neil’s delivery of these famous carols and songs is quite simply stunning. Neil came up with a stocking full of unique arrangements for these holiday perennials for this 1994 release.
The album opens with a heavenly ‘Joy To The World’ complete with choir, and how joyful it is, where it lifts your spirits, and fills you with that Christmas feel. This is followed by ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ sung with warmth and sincerity, followed by a Barbershop take on ‘Deck The Halls/We Wish You a Merry Christmas’. The album takes on a new majesty with the next two songs
‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’, and ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’, where the listener feels that sense of togetherness of the first song, a nostalgic journey of love, joy and family, where the second arouses that sense of yearning waiting for their love to be home for the holiday. ‘Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer’ is a lovely reading, where one could sit with the children and sing this for them. It has an underlying reggae beat, where the hero, Rudolph saves the day. ‘Sleigh Ride’ follows, and if I’m honest, I always associate the late, great Andy Williams with this song, but Neil’s version is good, and captures the spirit of sleighing through the snow.
‘Acoustic Christmas’ is a great album, particularly if you listen to it on decent equipment, in doing so you will notice the work that has gone into the arrangements and production. It is a very, very good seasonal album, and sits alongside Neil Diamond’s previous Christmas efforts, and in many ways surpasses them, this album was released in 2016, after Neil’s Rick Rubin influenced revival, to which Diamond has learned much. It doesn’t have the arguably heavily enhanced studio production of the 90’s, Neil’s vocals are firing on all cylinders, but not simply trying to knock out his own clichéd versions of well-known Yuletide songs, he and his chosen musicians are presenting new takes on old favourites, introducing some forgotten gems, whilst serving up a couple of originals. Those worrying that Neil is covering material that he has previously visited, can rest easy, with these fresh and sparse arrangements these all sound new, Neil isn’t retreading old ground, in the acoustic idiom, these songs work very well, Neil’s voice is centre stage, and is rich and a fine example of a mature baritone delivery. The two new Diamond compositions on the album are wonderful, typically latter day Neil, but no less solid for that, as they catch your memory instantly. The rest of the material is a celebration of some diverse music, from traditional carols, to childish fun, for the season, delivered where appropriate, with reverence and with humour. The cover photo of Neil Diamond is lovely as an album, I am a male in my mid-fifties, but can appreciate a decent image, in this case, of a man still shaking his tail effectively into his mid-70s, overall the image augments the feeling of happiness the recordings exude.
The next song on the album, ‘Candlelight Carol’ is possibly the most moving, a beautiful song which captures the majesty of Christ’s birth, complete with choir and angelic voices. It stirs the most latent emotions, the album continues with three popular Christmas carols, ‘Away In A Manger’, ‘O Come All Ye Faithfull’, and ‘O Little Town Of Bethlehem’, again all treated respectfully by Neil. ‘Angels We Have Heard On High’, and ‘The First Noel’ give way to the most majestic piece on the album, the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ where Neil Diamond delivers a rousing rendition of this seasonal classic. It is almost pomp and circumstance, as Neil’s almost pious vocals give the song the religious tone it deserves, there are choirs, a full orchestra, and yet, even above the cacophony around him, which threatens to drown him out, Diamond keeps the focus on his famous singing voice, and delivers a most powerful reading of this song, where the listener could be forgiven for genuflecting at the performance.
‘A Cherry Cherry Christmas’ was a mash up of the two previous Christmas albums, with some new added material, the title track, ‘Cherry Cherry Christmas’ cleverly uses titles of some of his biggest hits worked into the song. See how many you can spot. It is a light, catchy ditty about Christmas. ‘Christmas Dream’ is a warm song about the meaning of Christmas, and speaks of family, the melody is beautiful and has that stamp of quality typical of Neil Diamond. ‘Meditations On A Christmas Night’ is an instrumental piece, and truly has that feel of a cold Christmas Eve.
I love this piece of music. Neil’s version of ‘Amazing Grace’ has a wonderful spoken verse, far removed from the Judy Collins version. The album finishes with a rip roaring version of the ‘Chanukah Song’ with a guitar riff midway that will blow your Christmas socks off. All In all, ‘Cherry Cherry Christmas’ is a good album of solid and new Christmas songs, and worth a listen.
This is a fun and joyful album of music, (as are all of these featured Christmas albums) from a man who has been able to enter into the spirit of the season, whatever you believe, the sentiments are of goodwill and hope, and enjoying this music will enhance them. This particular album is more a gift from a singer-songwriter positively approaching his sunset, who appreciates life, and wishes to take us with him.
I hope my ramblings encourage others to share in these musical treats, and to continue spreading a little (heart)light, for all the world to see.