Saturday, December 22, 2018

Review of Mannheim Steamroller's "Christmas"

I posted this review earlier this evening on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: One of the few truly classic Christmas albums.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra notwithstanding, Mannheim Steamroller has become known as America's number one go-to band for Christmas and Holiday music. And it all started with this album.

Mannheim Steamroller began as a vehicle for composer/record producer Chip Davis. His music combined various genres, primarily classical, new age, jazz and rock. Davis began releasing a series of albums in 1975, known as the Fresh Aire series. While moderately successful, little notice was taken of the project until 1984, when Mannheim Steamroller released its first holiday-themed LP, Christmas (also known as Mannheim Steamroller Christmas or Christmas 1984.) The album featured modern (mostly) instrumental arrangements of famous and lesser-known Yuletide songs. It proved to be hugely successful, eventually going 6x Platinum. This set Mannheim Steamroller on a new career path. Since that time, they have released more than fifteen Christmas-themed LPs, and have sold over 27 million holiday albums worldwide, including 9 million copies of Christmasalone.

Much of this release is quiet and medieval flavored, including a four-track suite in the middle of the LP that includes light, airy versions of songs such as "Wassail, Wassail", "Carol of the Birds", "I Saw Three Ships" and "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen". However, it's the first and last tracks on Christmas that really make it memorable.

The album begins with a high-energy, heavily synthesized adaptation of "Deck the Halls". It's very in-your-face, and maybe even a little garish, but also heroic and effective. This version of the classic carol has come to be used frequently over the last thirty-plus years since its release as bumper music for various radio programs throughout the United States.

As much fun as "Deck the Halls" is, though, the LP saves its best effort for last, with a rendition of "Stille Nacht" ("Silent Night") that is among the most beautiful ever recorded. It begins slowly, with an intro that consists of some tasteful piano and a gentle chorus of male voices humming. This goes on for a full two minutes, until it breaks into the main body of the song, which features lovely, delicate piano, harpsichord and strings. During this section, you can almost see and feel a light snow falling around you. As the song comes to an end, it slows down again, quietly trailing off, before leaving you with a softly-repeated trio of notes by the harpsichord. It's an exquisite interpretation of a song that was already quite comely to begin with.

Over the years, this album and its follow-up, 1988's A Fresh Aire Christmas, have become absolute must-listens for any lover of Christmas and Holiday music. There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of holiday albums released in the U.S. since Christmas was first recorded, but only a handful have demonstrated anything near this LP's staying power.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars