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James BrownOne of the many reasons I love rock 'n' roll Christmas music is how unintentionally hilarious it can be. Now, I love James Brown (read more), and I mean no disrespect to the Godfather - for he was no less brilliant during December than during the other eleven months of the year. But, his Funky Christmas (1995) is an occasional side-splitter. In the name of peace, harmony, and relevance, Mr. Brown bends over backwards musically and lyrically, twisting his songs and logic till they resemble a funky pretzel. Pleading "Santa Claus, don't make me suffer so," Brown admonishes Kris Kringle to go "straight to the ghetto." Then, he inserts "Hava Nagila" into the middle of a frenzied funk jam. He calls for "Go Power At Christmas Time." He tells the hippies ("white, black, blue or green") to put away their peace signs and "fight together." He pushes his latest movie. He pushes his latest single. He shouts out to Hank Ballard.

True, these hard-working shennanigans can be downright amusing, but they are also immensely touching - such is the nature of James Brown. For all his contortions, James Brown succeeded in making Christmas "mean something this year," and that was an significant accomplishment during the turbulent sixties. In one of Brown's best songs, "Let's Unite The Whole World At Christmas" (1966), he makes such a passionate plea for such a hopeless case that - if even for the duration of the brief song - the most hardened cynic would be moved. Such is the power of soul.

James BrownOf course, being the hardest working man in show business, James Brown also jams like a mutha. We came to expect that of him during his momentous decade of funk. This really is a Funky Christmas - the funkiest ever recorded - and James tackles the holiday season with the same ferocity he brought to "Sex Machine" and "Please Please Please." Songs like "Hey America" and "Tit For Tat" can stand toe-to-toe with almost anything in the Famous Flames catalog.

And that's just the original material: James Brown rarely interpreted traditional material without injecting his own unique, unconventional personality deep into the song. On a pair of Charles Brown covers, Mr. Dynamite shows respect for his former King records label-mate. But then, he wails "The Christmas Song," as if someone were roasting his chestnuts on an open fire.

All this funky festivity is culled from numerous Christmas platters that Brown waxed for King over a relatively short period of time (1966-1970). These include three LP's - James Brown & His Famous Flames Sing Christmas Songs (1966), Soulful Christmas (1968), Hey America It's Christmas (1970) - as well as the 1969 single "It's Christmas Time." Sadly, none of the albums have ever been reissued on CD verbatim - and they really should be. More on that later....

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James BrownBut, after we toss out a few extraneous tracks, Polygram's Funky Christmas - similar to Rhino's Santa's Got A Brand New Bag (1988, now deleted) - compiles roughly two-thirds of this material onto one CD. Funky Christmas provides a lingering glance at an often-overlooked facet of the national treasure known as James Brown - and that makes it an essential part of any record collection, Christmas or otherwise.

In an utterly predicatble move, Polygram's parent company Universal deleted Funky Christmas in 2003 in favor of the nearly identical Best Of James Brown: The Christmas Collection - part of their seemingly endless "20th Century Masters" series. A decade later they issued Icon: Christmas, part of another interminable series. Certainly, that's typical behavior for a corporate behemoth like Universal.

Inbetween, however, came The Complete James Brown Christmas (2010), compiled by Universal's generally laudable Hip-O division. The two-CD set culled every single holiday track the Godfather ever waxed for King Records - albums, singles, b-sides, whatever. It is, in a word, perfection. Though perhaps a bit too much for casual fans, The Complete James Brown Christmas is a prayer answered for James Brown or Christmas music fanatics. For fans of both, well, we might need a moment in private....

James BrownLong after his 60's heyday, James Brown released another holiday record, The Merry Christmas Album (1999), on a small regional label. In the intervening forty years, Brown had (to put it mildly) experienced some ups-and-downs. Though revered as the father of funk and progenitor of rap, his record sales had fallen a shadow of their former glory. More infamously, Brown struggled with sex, drugs, violence, and lawlessness - the very things he had long preached against from his funky pulpit.

But he's a fighter so, not surprisingly, Merry Christmas gets an "A" for effort. James cowrote all ten songs, and he clearly put his full heart into his performance. But, the entire album - drums included - sounds as if it was recorded on (cheap) synthesizers, and even Brown's (noticeably older and weaker) voice is often buried in reverb and other effects. The production resembles poorly-executed, out-of-date "new jack swing," and the songs, though well-intentioned, can't hold a candle to the socially-concious soul epics on Funky Christmas.

These days, though, what does? And that's the saddest part - that this proud, embattled man is clearly past his prime. Compared to, say, Fats Domino's Christmas Gumbo, James Brown's Merry Christmas Album is a near-masterpiece. On its own merits, however, it's merely an ill-advised attempt to revisit a glorious Christmas past - a legacy that should have remained unsullied by such mediocrity. (Merry Christmas has been reissued several times, including editions titled Funked Up Christmas and It's A Funky Christmas.) [top of page]

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • Christmas Is Love (1970)
  • Go Power At Christmas Time (1970)
  • Hey America (It's Christmas Time) (1970)
  • Let's Make Christmas Mean Something This Year (1966)
  • Let's Unite The Whole World At Christmas (1968)
  • Merry Christmas I Love You (1966)
  • Santa Claus Go Straight The Ghetto (1968)
  • Santa Claus Is Definitely Here To Stay (1970)
  • Santa Claus Santa Claus (1968)
  • Soulful Christmas (1968)
  • Tit For Tat (Ain't No Taking Back) (1968)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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