Reviewed by Johan Palme on 4th January, 2016
What’s the first Christmas album? Well, of course, this would have been before the vinyl record was invented in the late 1940s. Back then, albums were actual, leaf-through albums of 78 RPM shellac records, the main format before vinyl came around. Each could only hold around three minutes of sound per side, but with four or five of them a little collection could be bought together. The market for albums was marginal at best – think that it’s vaguely the equivalent of box sets today – and it took over thirty years from the first albums in 1909 before what seems to have been the first Christmas album: Decca’s repackaged collection of singles, Christmas Music, in 1940.
The next year, in 1941, what may have been the first Christmas album recorded as one set was issued, a choral album on Victor. (That is, unless we count recordings of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, which would take us back another decade. Musical firsts are always complicated.)
Perhaps a better questions is: what’s the first good Christmas album? There’s plenty of novelty and choral releases in the 40s, and a few middling jazz records, but borth recording quality and ambition picks up significantly at the beginning of the next decade. One potential starting point for the Christmas album era is Sammy Kaye’s Christmas Serenade, an album which unlike the quick releases of the forties is ambitious and stylistically coherent. Or rather, it’s got a considered incoherence, a dramatic arc that goes from gentle carols to speedy pop songs and back again, with sensitive arrangements that perfectly complement the thematic changes, swaying from the utterly minimal to the massively overloaded. Sammy Kaye’s musically competent “sweet” big band is far from pushing any musical edges here, but there’s a massive sense of fun that can’t be ignored.
The Spotify link below is to a playlist. The other two links are to a compliation of all Sammy Kaye’s holiday material; thankfully, Christmas Serenade survives intact on it, comprising tracks 7 through 17.