Reviewed by Johan Palme on 14th December, 2017
Are follow-up Christmas albums inevitably cursed to be lesser than their illustrious originals? Can a hit Christmas record never truly be replicated? Sometimes, it seems that way. Mahalia Jackson’s first Christmas album was a tense masterpiece, the second mediocre country-tinged schlock. Ella Fitzgerald’s first was peppy, inventive and energetic, her second sedate, mature and a bit bland. And that’s just when an artist tries to change. Some all-time greats, like Asalto Navideño and The Sound of Christmas, had direct, numbered sequels instead, trying their best to replicate the original recipe for success – but of course, that didn’t work out either. Somehow, the concentrated spirit of the first Christmas album never truly gets matched in a follow-up.
There are probably only a handful of follow-up Christmas records that are better than the first. I may be blasphemous for saying so, but Elvis Presley’s second and Bing Crosby’s… sixth? (I Wish You a Merry Christmas) are both considerably superior to their respective artists’ mega-selling debuts. And then, as an almost exact equivalent from Puerto Rico, there’s Cantares de Navidad, Vol II.
The first album, published some five years earlier, is a bit of a hit monster. Collecting all the biggest Christmas hit songs of the preceding half-decade, it’s a true show-of-force by the mighty Marvela label. The title track and all of Felipe Rodriguez’s contributions are massive, eternal hits. And yet the follow-up, with much the same artists but in a fading phase of their careers, is just a much livelier, more extravagant record. Somehow, the intervening years have only served to make the whole sound more youthful and daring. Like Asalto Navideño, it brings in jibaro-styled parranda cuatro guitars to great effect, and their jumpy, snaking melodies infect every other instrument too. It’s as if the pressure of hits is off, and somehow, joy has sprung forth in their stead.