Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Passings: James Brown, my favorite Christmas Crooner

This started out about five days ago as a Blog about my favorite Christmas CD's--recordings that capture the essence of the season so sublimely that they often singlehandedly pull me out of the Stygian depths of Scrooge-ism.

As research--but mostly as a truly welcome soundtrack to the whole litany of commuting, working, shopping, cleaning, and holiday cooking--I found myself listening to these favorites pretty ceaselessly over the last week or two. They include: Dean Martin's incredibly lush A Winter Romance (call me a blasphemer, but I think this 'un's every bit the Rat Pack Concept Album Masterwork that Sinatra's Songs for Swinging Lovers ever was); Billboard's Greatest Christmas Hits 1935-1954 (Ground Zero for the definitive versions of most of the standards, from Nat King Cole's gorgeous 'The Christmas Song' to Eartha Kitt's untouchably sexy 'Santa Baby'); Laserlight Records' Jack Jones Christmas (an ace mix of Vegas schmooze and angelic crooning from one of the most underrated vocalists of the last forty years); Rhino's energetic and deliciously snotty Punk Rock Xmas compilation; and another Rhino multi-artist effort, the Seventies-themed Have a Nice Christmas (which packs Cheech and Chong, Melanie, Bobby Sherman, and a fully-discofied Wayne Newton onto the same disc).

But the one Christmas album that has lived most constantly in my car stereo, home player, and heart ever since Rita and I bought it in the late nineties is Santa's Got a Brand New Bag, a collection of Christmas tunes by the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. It's not just a great Christmas collection, it's an incredible barometer of the magnificence that was James Brown during his artistic peak.

Culled from three albums and several singles recorded between 1966 and 1970, Santa's manages to somehow encapsulate the sentiment, idealism, boundless energy, humor, and reflection that swirl around the season better than any other Christmas CD or LP I've ever listened to. It's also, first and foremost, a seriously ass-kicking James Brown CD.

If all you know of Brown is Golden Oldies like 'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag' or 'I Feel Good', seek out Star Time--likely the greatest CD box set ever released--for an invaluable guide to one of America's most important musical figures. And if you've never heard Christmas music spiked with social commentary ('Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto'), eye-popping screams ('Let's Make Christmas Mean Something This Year'), and fierce organic grooves throughout, Santa's Got a Brand New Bag will flat-out leave you breathless. It's probably the only holiday CD I can literally listen to, any day of the year. And hearing it makes me happy to be alive.

Goodbye, James Brown. I'll miss you. And Happy Holidays, everyone.

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