Alongside Irving Berlin, Neil Diamond has to rate as one of the Jewish artists who’s contributed the most to Christmas music. He’s done four studio Christmas albums over the years, plus a Live Christmas CD that appeared in the Stages box set. Each of those albums is very much a Neil Diamond album – they’ve all got big ballads; warm and intimate moments; and bursts of upbeat rock – plus some mischief and humor that you don’t always find on his studio albums. We’ve picked out some of the brightest ornaments.
You Make It Feel Like Christmas (from The Christmas Album, 1990)
Neil Diamond didn’t do any writing for his first two Christmas albums, which were mainly standards and traditional songs. The sole original was revived from the Primitive album a few years earlier, and it’s a classic-model Diamond ballad – but instead of building to a huge peak, he keeps the mood cozy and intimate. It’s a perfect song for snuggling up by the fire. It remains one of his most durable tracks, and the one you’re most likely to hear at Christmas time.
Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (from The Christmas Album, 1992)
Neil Diamond seemed to have moved a long way from rock & roll by the 90s, but the first Christmas album offered a couple of surprises. Along with a jaunty “Jingle Bell Rock,” he included a rollicking version of this standard, giving it a full rock-band treatment with no strings or horns (nice harmonica solo, though). It has the spirit of the early Bang recordings, though the production was very up-to-date with synths and whomping arena drums.
Candlelight Carol (from The Christmas Album Volume II, 1994)
Neil Diamond chose a more reverent mood for his second Christmas album, which was heavier on traditional carols (though it still had one ringer, a reggae version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”). The highlight was this English song, first recorded a decade earlier by the Cambridge Singers and written by their leader John Rutter. Diamond’s version is a thing of beauty, building to an inspirational peak with its choir and strings.
Cherry, Cherry Christmas (from A Cherry, Cherry Christmas, 2009)
Forty years into his career, we finally got a Neil Diamond song about….other Neil Diamond songs. This warm-hearted ballad pulls in titles and catchphrases from all over his catalogue: He not only wishes you a cherry, cherry Christmas and a Holly Holy new year; but also some red, red wine for the toast; and happy tunes to come instead of a song sung blue. It could have been hokey, but it comes out sounding like an affectionate Christmas card to his fans.
O Holy Night (from Acoustic Christmas, 2016)
Ask anyone who’s tried: This 19th-century French song is one of the toughest Christmas carols to sing. Neil Diamond pulled it off twice, first doing it with big production and full orchestration on The Christmas Album. The later acoustic version is our selection, though, with Diamond’s voice front and center, with little more than guitar and piano for accompaniment.
#1 Record for Christmas (from Acoustic Christmas, 2016)
They contain many sweet moments, but the holiday albums are also one of the few places you can hear Neil Diamond air his quirky sense of humor. His cover of Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song” (on Cherry, Cherry Christmas) has to be heard to be believed, since it’s so faithful to the comedic original. On this hidden gem, which appeared only on the Target version of Acoustic Christmas, he reveals what he wants Santa to bring – a big hit that will “make Billboard and others put us on their covers.”
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