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A Motown ChristmasEvery holiday season, I marvel that every record collector - hell, every person - on the face of the planet doesn't own A Motown Christmas. A remastered, expanded (25 tracks!), budget-priced version of a 1973 two-LP set, this CD contains highlights from a variety of Christmas albums and singles released by the Detroit-based rhythm & blues label during their "Golden Decade" from 1962 to 1971 (read more). A Motown Christmas is simply magnificent, but it tends to gather dust in record store bins. Perhaps this is because oldies radio stations play the same handful of Motown songs over and over and over, obscuring the fact that the label was an incredibly inventive and prolific hit factory for more than a decade. Containing nearly all the best Christmas tracks from Motown's vaults, A Motown Christmas qualifies as a consumer's delight, and it is far superior to the rest of Motown's many other various artist Christmas packages, which tend to be brief and random in their selection (more below). I recommend it without reservation.

The important thing to remember about Motown's Christmas songs is that they were more Motown than Christmas, translating the big beat and pop savvy of Hitsville USA into yuletide cheer. To name just a few of the highlights: the Temptations' lush "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer;" the Jackson Five's frenetic "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town;" and Stevie Wonder's earnest "Someday At Christmas." In addition, two tracks are otherwise hard-to-find: Michael Jackson's "Little Christmas Tree" (recorded specifically for the original 1973 LP), and Marvin Gaye's gently pacifist "I Want To Come Home For Christmas" (recorded but not released in 1972, then added to the CD reissue). Even at their most maudlin - the Supremes tracks, for instance - these songs are hipper than almost anything else released for the holidays throughout the 60's and early 70's.

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A Motown Christmas Vol. 2As mentioned, A Motown Christmas culls tracks from a variety of sources. These include six full-length albums, all of which yield their own rewards. Foremost among them is the Temptations' mighty Christmas Card (1970) and the Jackson 5's wonderful Christmas Album (1970). Smokey Robinson and the Miracles contributed two solid albums, Christmas With The Miracles (1963) and A Season For Miracles (1970), followed by lesser efforts from the Supremes (Merry Christmas, 1965) and Stevie Wonder (Someday At Christmas, 1967). Even further, Motown released a handful of non-LP Christmas singles and a 1968 compilation entitled Merry Christmas From Motown. Collectors should note that the latter album was repackaged (literally - the record label remained unchanged) in 1970 as Christmas Gift 'Rap, and then it was reissued on CD in 1993 in a rather bowdlerized version.

And, that's a bunch of Christmas records, despite the fact that such Motown stalwarts as Gladys Knight, the Four Tops, and Marvin Gaye never released formal Christmas albums - not, at least, during Motown's fabled Golden Decade, if at all. Which is to say, a lot of great music remains beyond A Motown Christmas - some of it never even officially released.

Thankfully, the label eventually unleashed a motherlode of such rare treasures, both as bonus tracks on individual CD reissues and on subsequent compilations. The first - and still the greatest - such anthology was Christmas In The City (1993). Consisting exclusively of elusive Detroit pearls, it's a collector's delight. Among the highlights: the Motown house band (aka the Funk Brothers), romping through "Winter Wonderland;" Kim Weston's chimerical "Wish You A Merry Christmas;" an unreleased Supremes track better than anything on their Merry Christmas album; and no fewer than four Marvin Gaye cuts, including his lovely "Purple Snowflakes."

A Motown Christmas Vol. 2In 2001, the astute marketing department at Motown took the best cuts from Christmas In The City, added a few more rarities, and tossed in some leftovers from their catalog. They released this hodgepodge as A Motown Christmas Vol. 2. The inclusion of such heretofore unreleased cuts as the Funk Brothers' "Xmas Twist" (credited to the Twistin' Kings) and the Supremes' "O Holy Night" (featuring a rare Florence Ballard lead vocal) make Motown Christmas Vol. 2 more attractive (not less) to major Motown fans (like me). But, the overall quality cannot compare to the original collection - especially to casual fans. And, at a mere 14 tracks (compared to 25 on the first volume), Motown Christmas Vol. 2 smacks of exploitation. If, like the first volume, Motown Christmas Vol. 2 had been stretched to 25 tracks, consumers could have purchased nearly the complete Motown Christmas catalog in two easy steps.

Instead, Motown Christmas Vol. 2 functions as an imperfect - though perfectly enjoyable - sequel to the 1973 masterpiece. Still, the two discs combined contain about two-thirds of the Motown Christmas songs I consider "essential," and I purchased well over ten CD's to collect them all. Most people have better sense....

But what of all those other Motown Christmas albums - the dozens upon dozens of choices you'll encounter when flipping through the CD racks or browsing sites like Amazon? Motown, you see, has become a master of catalog exploitation, shoddily packaging brief bits of their rich legacy for impulse purchase nearly everywhere - from record stores to truck stops. Take, for instance, the widely distributed, 12-song 20th Century Masters: The Best Of Motown Christmas (2003) (and its 2005 sequel). Those are twelve great songs, but they'll cost you about the same as the 25 great songs on the original Motown Christmas. So, buyer beware.

Motown Christmas CarolStill, Motown's Christmas legacy is almost as deep as it is broad. All those myriad collections are mined from the same rich vein, and at least one, A Motown Christmas Carol (1995), rises nearly to the level of the original Motown Christmas. Consisting of 19 songs (mainly traditional Christmas carols) interspersed with spoken greetings from Hitsville's brightest stars, A Motown Christmas Carol proves what the label can do when they, well, try. Here, they even threw in a previously unreleased Supremes track (later added as a bonus track to the girls' Merry Christmas) to induce holiday rapture in Diana Ross' legions of fans.

All the same, it's no substitute for A Motown Christmas. Besides, at the risk of repeating myself, each individual piece of the Motown Christmas catalog has wonderful moments not included on Motown Christmas or similar albums. For instance, the Miracles' "Christmas Everyday" (1963) - one of the best original Motown Christmas songs - is available only on discs such as the group's highly recommended Our Very Best Christmas (1999). Translated, that means I bought them all. A Motown Christmas will suffice for almost everyone else....

Of course, Motown didn't cease to exist after the "Golden Decade." The Temptations recorded another holiday record, Give Love At Christmas (1980), and the Four Tops finally waxed theirs - Christmas Here With You - in 1995. Gladys Knight and the Pips recorded nary a noel note for Motown, but they ultimately recorded two Christmas albums after they left the label for greener pastures (read more). Then in 1989, the label put together a brand new collection featuring stars from the present day (The Boys, Johnny Gill) as well as from their glorious past (the Temptations, Smokey Robinson). Christmas Cheers From Motown has some nice moments, but it serves mainly to remind us of what once was - and what would never again be.

Postscript. In 2009, Motown released The Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection, a 2-CD, 51-track compilation that pulls tracks from virtually every album described herein. It's great, though less so than it seems. For starters, 16 of those tracks are brief "season's greetings" from the label's roster - charming but inconsequential. Mainly, however, there's just no matching the pure brilliance of the original Motown Christmas. [top of page]

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • Give Love On Christmas Day (Jackson 5, 1970)
  • Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (Jackson 5, 1970)
  • I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (Jackson 5, 1970)
  • I Want To Come Home For Christmas (Marvin Gaye, 1972)
  • It's Christmas Time (Miracles, 1970)
  • Jingle Bells (Smokey Roninson & The Miracles, 1970)
  • Little Christmas Tree (Michael Jackson, 1973)
  • Medley: Deck the Halls/Bring a Torch Jeannette Isabella (Miracles, 1970)
  • My Christmas Tree (Temptations, 1969)
  • My Favorite Things (Supremes, 1965)
  • One Little Christmas Tree (Stevie Wonder, 1967)
  • Purple Snowflakes (Marvin Gaye, 1964)
  • Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (Temptations, 1968)
  • Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (Jackson 5, 1970)
  • Someday at Christmas (Temptations, 1970)
  • Someday at Christmas (Stevie Wonder, 1967)
  • Up On The House Top (Jackson 5, 1970)
  • What Christmas Means to Me (Stevie Wonder, 1967)
  • White Christmas (Supremes, 1965)
  • Winter Wonderland (Funk Brothers, 1965)
  • Wish You A Merry Christmas (Kim Weston, 1962)
  • Won't Be Long Before Christmas (Supremes, 1967)
  • Xmas Twist (Twistin' Kings, 1961)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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