Legacy Recordings has recently released eight Classic Christmas collections in time for the holidays, unearthing work from artists such as Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond. But do these compilations really warrant the “classic” connotation? Our team of intrepid writers put on their ugly holiday sweaters, roasted some chestnuts and chronicled the highs and lows of each of the eight albums.

georgejonesGeorge Jones & Tammy Wynette

What says Merry Christmas more than spousal abuse? George Jones had one of the great interpretive voices in country music. He also had a reputation for living hard and beating the crap out of Tammy Wynette. Only the excellent opening and closing tracks are duets, the couple splitting the rest of the honors as they would eventually split their lives.

Highlight: “Blue Christmas,” by Tammy Wynette. After several excellent solo tracks by her sometime-husband, Wynette comes in with this heartbreaking song clearly informed by holiday stress and domestic strife.

Lowlight: “Silver Bells,” by George Jones and Gene Watson. Taken just a hair out of the range of these singers, their phrasing suffers because of it.

Classic? No. The sequencing, from the opening duet “Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus” to a series of melancholy solo tracks, could have charted the sad decline of a relationship. After a strong start the performances, taken from different periods in the artists’ careers, decline as well.

andy-williams-the-classic-christmas-albumAndy Williams

The best Christmas albums should fit into the spirit of the holiday season as easily as turning on the coloured lights. Andy Williams’ Christmas Album was the best-selling holiday album of 1963 according to Billboard and it owed that success to the Santa Clause-like approach to delivering something for everyone.

Highlight: This is the first ever appearance of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” That song would go on to become as much a holiday mainstay as “Jingle Bells” and awkward family moments.

Lowlight: “Joy to the World” is as strangely bereft of joy as a snowless Christmas morning and dreary enough to curdle your eggnog.

Classic? Yes. Whether it’s “Jingle Bells” for the raucous Christmas gathering, the gentle warmth of “Ave Maria” for an unexpected moment under the mistletoe, or “What Child is This?” for the resulting post-party regrets, Williams has you timelessly covered for everything the season might have to offer.

cashJohnny Cash

I couldn’t wait to listen to Johnny Cash’s Christmas album. I thought his gravel voice singing timeless classics would become a new tradition in my holiday listening list. My heart broke when I realized that about half the album is made up of new, original Christmas songs. And I hate deviations from the classics. They feel as fresh and memorable as a hunk of Hickory Farms cheese.

Highlight: “Joy to the World” had everything I wanted in a celebrity Christmas song—enough trumpets and fanfare to stay in the spirit of the original, while showcasing Cash’s unforgettable voice. The best of the old and the older.

Lowlight: With “Blue Christmas,” Cash really missed an opportunity to embrace this mournful, melancholy song by adding an accompanying chorus and taking an up-tempo approach. If this was done in the vein of “Hurt” it would have been one of the best depressing Christmas songs of all time. And I fucking love depressing Christmas songs, like “River” by Linda Ronstadt and “Same Old Lang Syne” by Dan Fogelberg. It wouldn’t be the holidays without some hysterical tears, after all.

Classic? No. I’m afraid I’m going to be re-gifting this album, with too many original songs to skip over to get to the hit-and-miss cover classics.

martinaMartina McBride

There is only one time of year I can stand a country music twang ‘n drawl, and that’s when there’s a six-foot fake pine tree taking up my whole living room. A country twist on Christmas carols reminds me of snow-covered cow pasture and John Deere tractors decorated in evergreen wreaths, which is the way I remember Christmas in my small mountain hometown. Martina McBride’s pleasant, understated voice strikes a delightfully perfect tone to this album packed with nothing but the good stuff—old-school, tried-and-true Christmas classics.

Highlight: A beautiful string quartet leads the intro to “Away in a Manger,” a most classic of Christmas carols, which sets a twinkle-light, star-bright mood. McBride’s voice is accompanied by a subtle harp-strum, exactly the right kind of style I want with this tune.

Lowlight: “Blue Christmas.” Again! Why do people keep fucking up this song!? Martina uses the “miracles of modern technology!” to duet with Elvis. I know he’s not there, bitch. This is cheap, cheesy and stupid.

Classic? Yes. This start-to-finish classic Christmas album stays true blue for traditional Christmas sticklers like me. McBride’s heartful, subdued approach has earned her a spot next to Burl Ives, Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby in my Christmas playlist (which will start playing nonstop on November 29th).

alabamaAlabama

Alabama uses Christmas as an excuse to stir up a steaming pot of schmaltz, celebrating the syrupy potential of the holiday in all possible permutations: departed dads, humble families and heavenly hosts, all blessed with a pronounced country twang. Collecting songs from the band’s three (!) previous Christmas albums, this compilation employs a sweet approach that grows unbearably cloying by the third or fourth song, although there’s something pleasingly off-kilter about an odd digression like the forward-looking “New Year’s Eve, 1999.”

Highlight: After 13 tracks bearing mushy good tidings, it’s a huge relief to hear the band return to the standards. The arrival of the familiar “O Little Town of Bethlehem” has the doubly welcome effect of making this elegant little tune sound new all over again. “Christmas in Dixie” isn’t half bad either.

Lowlight: The hokey, countrified aw-shucks style grows oppressive long before the album ends, but hits its deepest level of despair with “Joseph and Mary’s Boy,” a homespun fable that turns Jesus into a modest small-town boy.

Classic? No. The best Christmas albums either present standards in a fresh way or apply the artist’s specific sensibilities toward doing them better. This is just a big pile of country-fried mush with a few charming moments.

Barbra_Streisand_The_Classic_Christmas_AlbumBarbra Streisand

Bringing together the best tracks from Barbra’s back catalog of holiday favorites, A Christmas Album (1967) and Christmas Memories (2001), The Classic Christmas Album practically requires the donning of a cashmere turtleneck whilst enjoying a glass of Cab in front of a freshly stoked fireplace. If you’re a sentimentalist, Streisand’s reverently theatrical renditions of “Sleep in Heavenly Peace (Silent Night)” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” will warm the soul and undoubtedly delight elderly relatives.

Highlight: Her jacked-up classic “Jingle Bells?” sounds like Babs got goofy on some rum balls and conflated the beloved standard with the staccatoed wildness of West Side Story’s “America.”

Lowlight: Lesser known songs like “The Best Gift” and “Christmas Mem’ries” are unfamiliar interlopers that do little to vary the tone or tempo of the collection. And be prepared for the predictably high schmaltz factor, which is either comforting or stifling, you decide.

Classic? No. Overall, this record is drippy, down-tempo and altogether too “special” to be on heavy rotation. You know how a crackling fireplace at first feels all cozy but quickly transforms into sweaty discomfort? You might need to crack a window with this one.

neil-diamond-the-classic-christmas-albumNeil Diamond

When I think “Neil Diamond” I think “spangled jumpsuit” – why wouldn’t I want to add Christmas into that gleeful mix? Alas, properly outfitted on the album cover in a cowboy hat, sheepskin coat and muffler, Diamond looks more of a rancher than a showman, but he still brings that trademark swagger to time-honored holiday favorites. This collection pulls from a pair of holiday albums Diamond released in the early ‘90s. Each of the 12 tracks is public domain material, which makes this a Christmas party I want to fully participate in (not always the case, amirite?).

Highlight: “Joy to the World” offers up some vibrant call-and-response interplay between Diamond and the mighty sounds of a mixed choir. Opener “White Christmas” is far perkier than the sentimental original, in this treatment sauntering along at a clip-clop pace with falsetto doo-wop decoration. Odd but fun to instead sing Diamond’s winking version: “I-yaye-yaye-yaye’m dreaming of a White Christmas.”

Lowlight: “O Holy Night” is a carol that demands some seriously majestic range, and while Diamond’s performance is adequate, he ain’t got nuthin’ on, say, Michael Crawford (I die, every time).

Classic? Yes. High marks for entertainment and endearment value. Diamond’s loungey tremolo makes this record a novel spin.

gladys-knight-the-pips-the-classic-christmas-albumGladys Knight & the Pips

Overview: Listeners barely know her work past the R&B classic “Midnight Train to Georgia,” which is too bad. The best of these tracks have lightly funky arrangements perfect for any Christmas party. But a handful of clunkers bring down the holiday spirit.

Highlight: The gently celebratory disco arrangement of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.”

Lowlight: You would not know that “It’s the Happiest Time of the Year” is a song of celebration. Taken at a dirge-like pace, Knight over-sings on top of a plodding, bombastic arrangement, shocking given the effortless feel of the album’s best tracks.

Classic? No. It starts off strong with endearingly danceable arrangements, but the quality takes a nose-dive.

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