Reviewed by Johan Palme on 31st December, 2015
By pure sales figures alone, the traditional pop crooner, softly singing into electrified microphones, is the king of Christmas music. But strangely enough, on a path littered with platinum records, very few of these crooner Christmas albums manage ro reach the highest levels of quality. The Andy Williams Christmas Album has the eponymous singer struggling and straining his voice. Tony Bennett’s Snowfall is a bizarrely-arranged pomposity. Johnny Mathis and Dean Martin simply don’t have the vocal ability. Nat King Cole’s Christmas album is marvellous but veers heavily into damaged gospel. Bing Crosby is a pioneer and a giant, but his huge Christmas oeuvre is painfully inconsistent and conservative. Most tragic of all, Frank Sinatra’s A Jolly Christmas is maddeningly lazy and uncommitted, by a man who never understood what Christmas was about and hated the holiday.
So what if I suggested that the best crooner Christmas album was by someone who was not a crooner? Mighty Sparrow is one of the Trinidad’s greatest calypso singers, whose talky and brilliantly over-the-top satirical commentary made him a major star from the fifties to the eighties and a legend today. Fascinatingly, his Christmas album Christmas with Sparrow barely contains a trace of calypso and is a complete change of singing style: It’s jazz-inflicted traditional pop, sung with measure and restraint in a distinctly American accent.
And it’s an absolutely fantastic traditional pop album. Mighty Sparrow has an exquisite tenor voice with a massive vocal range and near-perfect pitch control, an impeccable ability to rhythmically vary his delivery, and a breathy warmth that’s flawlessly suitable for Christmas. Delivering heartfelt, emotional Christmas standards against an agile orchestral backing, Mighty Sparrow breathes vital magic into tired tunes, embuing them with a familial glow. It may be outside his normal style, but he really shows the ability to beat the masters at their own game.
The album is unavaliable in digital format except as part of the package Christmas Ballads, rearranged, intermixed with later tracks and missing the recording of “Frosty The Snowman”. The Spotify playlist below restores original play order, again for obvious reasons missing “Frosty”. For iTunes and Amazon, the play order is 3, 5, 9, 17, 13, 14, 11, 7, 15, 1 and 16, excluding the rest.