#1 Christmas Album

It’s that time of year again. When every pop star on the planet releases a Christmas Album. Artists from Frank Sinatra to the Beach Boys, from Weezer to Snoop Dog, have all recorded Christmas albums. Some, like those from Nat King Cole and Mariah Carey, become perennial best sellers.

But my favorite Christmas album is hard to find on the streaming services. The CD’s out of print. Used copies will cost you $70 on Amazon. My number one Christmas album is The Spirit of Christmas by Ray Charles.

Ray and his sleigh

Recorded in the mid 1980s, when much of his recorded output was less than inspired, it’s one of the few Christmas albums I can listen to anytime, a veritable encyclopedia of Ray Charles’ musical expressions and history all rolled into one.

Swinging big band arrangements mix with What’d I Say electric piano fills, tempo changes and beboppin’ instrumental breaks (Freddie Hubbard plays trumpet on a couple of tunes). The Raelettes backing vocals are there, but so is Nashville-styled schmaltz in the string and chorus arrangements. There’s even a synthesizer solo on one track.

And of course there’s Ray’s incredible singing, never dull, never over-the-top, supporting the original melodies while adding soulful twists and syncopations.

The tempo changes of What Child is This, the walking bass on Santa Claus is Coming to Town and the dueling sax and trumpet solos on All I Want for Christmas are highlights for me, but everything here has an expressive musicality. Baby, It’s Cold Outside (with Betty Carter) avoids the usual winky sleaze. Even a deadbeat tune like The Little Drummer Boy gets turned into something special with bluesy electric piano, pedal steel guitar, and nifty brass arrangements leading the way. You’ll never hear those ba rum pa pum pums the same after you hear Ray sing them.

Christmas don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. And Ray Charles swings it like nobody else.

P.S. After some mucking about, I was finally able to find a version of the album on Spotify.

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