Over the years, my family has amassed quite a collection of Christmas albums. Among them are a few that I’ve deemed the cream of the crop, the Christmas Must List. One of those is Neil Diamond’s Christmas album, so when I heard he was coming out with a third album this year, I realized that meant there was a second album floating around out there that I’d never listened to. I couldn’t let this situation last...
1. Joy to the World - The boisterous Soul Children of Chicago help Neil out on this track, taking the bulk of the song. I like the unique opening and the electric guitar solo in the middle.
2. Mary's Little Boy Child - I love Boney M.’s version of this song, but Neil’s feels a little too lackadaisical. In comparison with their exuberant rendition, his is downright drowsy. Really can’t get into this one.
3. Deck The Halls / We Wish You A Merry Christmas - I love the barbershop-flavored White Christmas from Neil’s first album, and this medley offers more wonderful harmonies. It’s all a cappella, and it all sounds wonderful. Kudos to the 139th Street Quartet here.
4. Winter Wonderland - A very peppy version of the song that incorporates some jazzy horns under the direction of David Campbell and features a slammin’ electric guitar solo by Waddy Wachtel.
5. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - This piano-driven rendition is slow and smooth. It’s not particularly poignant, but Neil sings it well, and Tom Hensley seems to have a good time tickling those ivories.
6. I'll Be Home For Christmas - This one always goes especially well with the previous song; having them back-to-back almost makes them seem like a medley. Tommy Morgan is the standout performer on this track, with his lengthy harmonica solo capturing the song’s melancholy edge. Neil also really gets into the song during the chorus.
7. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer - This is a rather fun version of a favorite among the kiddies. The percussion and organ give the song a really unique, almost calypso-like sound. Neil’s spoken bit encouraging kids not to take teasing to heart is also nice.
8. Sleigh Ride - As somebody who was in charge of shaking the sleigh bells during my high school orchestra’s performance of this song, I appreciate the fact that it actually does feature jingling bells. I hate it when people leave them out. I also like the little “pop” of the chestnuts and the bit of whistling Neil does toward the end.
9. Candlelight Carol - The only song on the album I hadn’t heard before. A very sweet, tender lullaby written by John Rutter. The Ambrosian Singers add a celestial touch to Neil’s earthy vocals. The tune is lovely and reminds me a bit of Rainbow Connection. Probably my favorite track. “Candlelight, angel-light / Firelight and star glow / Shine on his cradle till breaking of dawn / Gloria, Gloria in excelsis Deo! / Angels are singing / The Christ child is born.”
10. Away in a Manger - Neil sings this lively version of the sleepy classic well, but it’s Kenny Blackwell on the mandolin and Brian Mann on the accordion who give the song such an unusual flavor. Excellent instrumentals.
11. O Come All Ye Faithful - A straightforward rendition of the carol that is at its best in the midsection when Neil switches over to Italian and is joined by the Ambrosian Singers, who are on hand throughout the rest of the tracks.
12. O Little Town of Bethlehem - The choir makes a nice contribution again to this basic version of the carol.
13. Angels We Have Heard on High - Some great keyboard work here by Robbie Buchanan, and the chorus members capture the ethereality and majesty of the angels with their singing on the “gloria”s.
14. First Noel - Jon Clarke starts the track out with a gorgeous flute performance, while Carl Smith and Buchanan pitch in later with the lute and harmonium. The choir also add some lovely harmonies toward the end.
15. Hallelujah Chorus - A triumphant way to end the album, though the focus is more on the choir than on Neil, who doesn’t quite blend seamlessly with the Ambrosian Singers here.
I like this album. But I don’t love it. Compared to the first album, it feels like a bit of a rush job, an afterthought just trying to cash in on the success of the first one. Some of the tracks are unique, and almost all are well done, but too few of them bear Neil’s unique stamp. If you want to add to your Christmas collection, Neil Diamond: The Christmas Album II is a perfectly good selection, but if you have to choose between the two, stick with the first.
My Favorite Christmas Songs
This is an entry in Chelledun's "Get Those Holiday Reviews Out" Write-Off. Let's get into the Christmas spirit!