Last time, I reviewed four new CDs of reissued Christmas music from the late 50s and early 60s from Real Gone Music. Roughly in order of my preference from best to least, they were by Mitch Miller and the Gang, The Robert Shaw Chorale, The Norman Luboff Choir and The Ray Conniff Singers. Today I decided to test drive, so to speak, my favorite carol, one which all four groups perform, "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." I'll be comparing them to my favorite version which is from my favorite carol album, Carols for Christmas by David Willcocks and the Royal College of Music Choir and Brass Ensemble. Their version opens with a nice blast of brass though the accompaniment remains fairly subtle throughout. They also sing all three of the verses. I found I ranked the four albums' renditions in the same order I ranked the albums.
The Mitch Miller version begins with a slight bit of music box-like instrumentation but is otherwise acappella, with the voices vigorous and clear. The Shaw version is part of a medley and is fine if unremarkable. On the Luboff album, it's also part of a medley (and they only sing the first verse) and uses full orchestral backing which occasionally threatens to upstage the singers. Of course, the Ray Conniff version, also in a medley, is the odd one out; the choir sounds almost folksy, like the Kingston Trio or the Brothers Four, with a sort of samba beat. It's not exactly unpleasant but it's, well, weird.
This got me thinking about the Christmas music canon and looking at the very traditional selection of songs for these albums, most all of which we still hear over and over again today. The Mitch Miller album has 13 songs (plus some bonus tracks from later projects) and all of them are familiar carols, including "Joy to the World," "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," "The First Noel," and of course, "Silent Night." For the most part, the same can be said for the Shaw and Luboff albums, though the outlier is "Baloo Lammy," a Scottish carol which I'd never heard before, and which Luboff does two versions of--the CD is a collection of two albums.
Both Shaw and Luboff do lots of medleys which seems like a strange strategy. Mostly, the songs are not melded together, but simply performed separately with a few seconds of silence between them, and they are not typically put together for any logical reason. For example, one of the Shaw medleys consists of the spiritual "Go Tell It on the Mountain" followed by the Ukranian "Carol of the Bells," the British "Here We Come A-Wassailing" (with a slight variant melody), and "Deck the Halls." Nothing seems to connect them except perhaps that they are all more joyful than somber. But Luboff connects "The First Noel" with "Wassail Wassail All Over the Town," and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." Definitely not sure why.
The Conniff CD is the only one in which pop Christmas songs ("White Christmas," "Winter Wonderland," etc.) outnumber carols, as befits his jazzy easy listening arrangements, and again, they are all songs we still hear, except for an original, "Christmas Bride," which is actually a decent little pop tune. So my guess is that, just as the 50s made albums popular, they also set in place the modern pop Christmas canon, which does get added to over time (The Eagles, Mariah Carey, Wham!). But any current-day listener will find little on any of these CDs that he or she can't sing along with.
Lastly, a curmudgeonly rant: Real Gone, do you really sell the bulk of your material in brick and
mortar music or book stores? I bet you don't; I bet you sell primarily
online. Then why do you insist on using that old-fashioned "security"
labeling adhesive strip at the top of the CD that requires such work to
peel off and then requires an application of Goo Gone (or peanut butter)
in order to get the sticky mess off the plastic?? I still buy several
physical CDs a year, and it's been my experience that many if not most
of the majors aren't using this method anymore, or they're using a
cleaner adhesive. Honestly, this will affect future buying decisions of
your products on my part.