DOUG GALLANT: Sounds of the Season from Keys, Armstrong

The holiday season is upon us.

Store shelves are fully stocked with everything Christmas-related, from wrapping paper, gift bags, and greeting cards to seasonal stockings and holiday ties.

The shortbread cookies are in the oven, the fruitcake is on the counter, and the fudge is in bags for sale at the social church.

Miracle on 34th Street, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and A Christmas Story will soon compete for your attention with National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and A Christmas Carol.

But for many of us, nothing says Christmas more than the music that fills our homes, offices, and favorite stores in the weeks leading up to the big day.

And while we all have our favorites from years past, there’s always room for something new.

So what should you add to your Christmas playlist this year?

Here are the top two contenders, one contemporary, one traditional.

Santa Claus Baby – Alicia Keys

Keys puts a soulful, contemporary spin on several much-loved Christmas songs in this set, which also features four original songs she wrote in the spirit of the season.

The 15-time Grammy winner recorded Santa Baby last summer while in the middle of a sold-out European tour. Keys loves the music of the holiday season and says that she chose each song based on her all-time favorites.

As for the new songs, he says they are based on emotions and real vacation stories.

Keys has her own unique way of looking at things. In Favorite Things, for example, she vocalizes the melody but says the lyrics and does so almost in a whisper. She takes you by surprise, but she grows on you with each successive listen. The piano arrangement at times reminds me of the late Laura Nyro.

She takes The Christmas Song in directions no one else has gone before and puts more punch into Ave Maria than we’re used to with a snare drum and some bloated bass lines. She stays much closer to the original versions of John Lennon’s Please Come Home For Christmas and Happy Xmas (War Is Over).

Original songs include soul/R&B gems like December Back 2 June, You Don’t Have To Be Alone, and an ode to Christmas Bygone simply called Old Memories on Christmas.

There is a lot to understand here if you are looking for something fresh and original.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Louis Armstrong – Louis wishes you a great Christmas

Some 50 years after his death, iconic jazz trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong's Christmas recordings have finally been brought together on one album, Louis Wishes You A Cool Yule.  - Contributed
Some 50 years after his death, iconic jazz trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong’s Christmas recordings have finally been brought together on one album, Louis Wishes You A Cool Yule. – Contributed

If you’re looking for something to bring back memories of Christmases Past, you’d do well to pick up Louis Wishes You a Cool Yule, which features nearly a dozen classic Christmas songs from the late Louis Armstrong.

As hard as it may be to believe, this is the first official Christmas album from the legendary trumpeter and vocalist who died in 1971.

Available on CD, red vinyl, and limited-edition vinyl picture disc, this set features Armstrong’s recordings of holiday gems like Cool Yule, Winter Wonderland, ‘Zat You Santa Claus, Christmas in New Orleans, and I’ve Got My Love. To Keep Me Warm, the latter of which was recorded with Ella Fitzgerald. Most recordings feature full orchestra.

Also included here is his endearing recording of What a Wonderful World and a jazzy reading of A Visit From St. Nicholas, better known today as Twas The Night Before Christmas, recorded a few months before Armstrong’s death.

Armstrong’s music has been a fixture of the holiday season for decades, but this marks the first time his holiday songs have been brought together on a single album.

These recordings have been beautifully mixed in immersive Dolby Atmos and Hi-Res Audio, making them sound like they were recorded yesterday.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Doug Gallant is a freelance writer and known connoisseur of a wide variety of music. His On Track column will appear in The Guardian every second Thursday. To comment on what you have to say or offer suggestions for future revisions, please email him at [email protected].

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