Old/New Albums: Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song”

natkingcoleCheck out other posts in the Old/New Albums series here.

My final entry in this year’s edition of this blog series is a Christmas album. Thought it’d be seasonally appropriate.

I enjoy Christmas music a fair amount. I think this is because I stay away from Christmas radio to the best of my ability between November 15th and December 26th, and because I stick to my oddly specific set of go-to Christmas albums (Martin Sexton, Sufjan Stevens, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, She & Him, the odd Christmas single, etc.). To expand this a little bit, I decided to go back to the source of one of my favorite Christmas songs, redundantly-titled “The Christmas Song.” This is found on The Christmas Song, a holiday album by Nat King Cole.

I’ll get to the title track in a second. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Christmas albums. They’re a bit of an odd duck for me, because 99% of them are just essentially cover albums that have been done a thousand times over by other artists. Martina McBride’s not doing anything with “Silver Bells” that I haven’t heard before. There are some exceptions (namely, Sufjan Stevens) but these are hardly the standard.

That being said, I tend to think the older they are, the better they are. Nobody can record a version of “This Christmas” that is going to top the soulfulness of Donny Hathaway’s 1970 original. And that’s the main reason I chose this record.

“The Christmas Song” has always been one of my favorite Christmas tunes and as I’ve heard it performed countless times by a multitude of different artists, I wanted to go back to the source and study the original. It was written by Mel Tormé and Bob Wells in the summer of 1946, as a way to stay cool by thinking cool. Tormé stated that the song took 40 minutes to write. Crazy that a song nestled so deeply into our cultural DNA was written like a throwaway tune.

The version most well-known was actually the fourth time it was recorded by Nat King Cole. He recorded it twice in 1946, again in 1953, and then finally in 1961, which became the definitive version. There wasn’t much of a difference between the ’53 and ’61 versions except, according to Wikipedia, deeper and more focused vocals. Not sure what that means, but Nat’s voice sure sounds buttery on the tune.

But the instrumentation is the main reason this song is one of my Christmas favorites. It’s got a very jazz lounge feel to it, with a lot of sad seventh chords that are left unresolved and it lends this slightly melancholy feel to the music. On top of that, there is actually a solo break for both the keyboard and the guitar, which is rare, not only on this album, but, I feel, on lots of pop music from this time. The traditional pop music structure (as my generation knows it, anyway) hadn’t really solidified in 1961 so hearing an actual guitar solo is surprising. Both solos are light, brief and tasteful, lending an air of snow falling on Christmas Eve.

But the instrumentation is given a backseat for the rest of the album, and the most notable thing quickly spotlights on Nat’s voice. It is caramel creamy, sounding like an aural cup of rich hot chocolate. I can only really describe it in food terms. It’s very, very good.

One thing I dislike about this album is track order. I feel like stuff like this wasn’t ever given a second thought back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, or right after long-form records were invented. There are two heavily non-English tunes back to back, which is overkill. If you’re going to sing “O Come All Ye Faithful” as the original “Adeste Fideles” AND “O Tannenbaum” in the original German (I think?), you should space those out on your album so the listener doesn’t get a heavy dose of foreign language Christmas music.

But other than those couple tunes, the rest of the album is really pleasant Christmas music. Again, Nat’s voice is so warm, the background choir vocals sound like early Disney movies, the musical arrangements are really nice and traditional, and the whole thing is anchored by one of the best Christmas songs ever written. I’m excited this album is finally in my Christmas music line-up for future years.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. The Christmas Song
  2. Deck The Halls
  3. A Cradle In Bethlehem
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