Rudolph the Retro Reindeer: A look at holiday albums with a 50's feel
We’ve dispatched with the prospect of Christmas in Margaritaville; now it’s martini time. Let’s just be careful that our little happy hour under the influence of Esquivel doesn’t accidentally overlap into midnight mass. Okay, swingers?
PolyGram Chronicles and Capitol’s imprints both have compilation albums aimed at the sharkskin set, but the latter’s deep catalog makes it the easy winner of the two. Christmas Cocktails starts off with Billy May relighting ”Rudolph” as a mambo and rarely flags through its generous 18 tracks, which extend to the ’50s/’60s likes of Peggy Lee, Ray Anthony, Kay Starr, and, of course, our man Nat. There’s variety enough, but this is a collection that understands that brassiness — literally — is key.
A little less clear on the finger-popping concept, A Bachelor Pad Christmas begins with one of the all-time great Christmas cuts — Ella Fitzgerald’s sublimely swingin’ ”Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” — but then goes on to dilute the titular concept by padding its 10 tracks with unremarkable orchestral instrumentals; it even contains children’s songs that would strike fear into any self-respecting ’50s bachelor. (Best rarity: a youthful Wayne Newton’s take on ”Jingle Bells” that almost makes Christmas in Branson seem like fun.)
Venturing further into eas-oterica listening, Esquivel’s Merry Xmas from the Space-Age Bachelor Pad collects and expands the nutso bandleader’s 1959-62 Christmas sides in full, ex- aggerated stereo for ’90s Jetson wannabes everywhere. At least as unpredictable as good rock, his trademark juxtapositions of the traditional and bizarre in each arrangement liven up any exhausted standard. Plus, you gotta love that he’d rather have his chorus sing ”zu zu zu zu zu-zu zu-zu zu” than ”I’ll have a blue Christmas without you.” Come to think of it: Esquivel’s legendary ”zu-zu” vocal fetish… the pivotal Zuzu, and her petals, in It’s a Wonderful Life … Christmas coincidence? We think not.
One too many of Esquivel’s mind-bending cocktails can provoke a headache in the novice, and for them, mallet wielder Arthur Lyman’s soothing With a Christmas Vibe is just the tonic. ”Mele Kalikimaka” is one of the few up-tempo tracks, with Lyman’s vibraphone-led, tropics-imbued instrumentals tending toward cool breezes, the likes of which Jimmy Buffett can only dream.
Lyman’s ”Kalikimaka” also shows up as one of more than a dozen savvy tracks on the fantastic, newly reissued sampler Christmas Party with Eddie G., finally back in print after a truncated release six years ago. Representing one guy’s idea of a swell Christmas compilation tape and encompassing everything from scratchy big-band vinyl transfers to modern-rock novelties, Eddie G.’s is, by our studied accounting, the finest holiday collection on one disc ever — definitely the one place you’ll find the disparate likes of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Louis Prima, Solomon Burke, Untamed Youth, and NRBQ breaking fruitcake together. Nor will any other collection on the market yield such a swell medley of ”Do You Hear What I Hear?” and ”You Really Got Me.” It’s a truly mele melee. Christmas Cocktails: A- Bachelor Pad Christmas: B- Space-Age Bachelor Pad: A- Christmas Vibe: B+ Eddy G.: A+