A Nondescript Album of ‘Christmas Songs’
The various artists LP ‘Christmas Songs’ lives up to the name, but how good is it?
Last year, when I reviewed the Yen Records holiday LP "We Wish You A Merry Christmas", a reader recommended another Japanese Christmas LP, simply titled 'Christmas Songs.' Released in 2010 by Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Commmons label, 'Christmas Songs' is a various artists LP of then-new recordings mostly of Christmas standards by a diverse range of artists, among them all three members of Yellow Magic Orchestra (albeit on separate tracks). Naturally, I was intrigued; maybe this could be a worthwhile disc of modern Christmas music. After it sat in my Discogs wantlist for a year, I finally ordered a copy just in time for the holiday season.
Christmas Songs is a bit of a mixed bag: some of these tracks are enjoyable if not revelatory, while others feel more like the painfully generic album cover. Aside from her buoyant backing vocals later in the song, actor and singer Tomoyo Harada’s “Frosty The Snowman” is an unimpressive opening track that sounds like anything else you’d hear in a shopping mall right now. Haruomi Hosono’s bossa nova take on “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” fits neatly alongside his later acoustic lounge albums, even if it doesn’t come across as naturally as the material on HoSoNoVa and Heavenly Music. Yukihiro Takahashi’s “White Christmas,” with its mellow electronic drums and keyboards alongside a thick layer of fake record crackle, is certainly passable, but it’s far from his most emotive vocal performance.
Elsewhere on the record, the High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan contributes the fun original “Kabon’s Christmas,” which is followed by Kotringo’s spirited and joyful piano-based version of “Sleigh Ride.” Takako Minekawa’s cover of Yoko Ono’s “Listen, The Snow Is Falling” won’t replace the excellent original, but the sparse keyboard arrangements and warm double-tracked vocals give it a pleasantly dreamy feel. Christmas Songs as an album isn’t paced very well—for example, try catching the transition between Arthur Jeffes’ “Finland” and album producer Goro Ito’s “re-model” of Sakamoto’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence theme—but despite the inconsistency, there’s some solid material here.
The original Christmas Songs CD was mastered by Ian Cooper at Metropolis Mastering, though I’m not sure who cut the 2018 vinyl reissue, which was pressed at Toyokasei on standard weight translucent red vinyl and sold by or distributed through HMV Japan. Like most recordings from the late 2000s and early 2010s, the digital version sounds dry and stale, with most instruments sounding like bits of thick sonic mush that sort of resemble that certain instrument. Acoustic guitars sound enough like acoustic guitars, but they don’t sound lifelike; likewise, pianos here sound like someone’s idea of a piano, but the recording can’t really convince you that it’s an actual piano. The digital mastering is a bit compressed though not unlistenable, but the vinyl clearly comes from the same digital master and, as a result, sounds even more closed in and dead. Some might find that appealingly cozy for this sort of record, though I think it only harms it further. I’m not sure if it was a mediocre lacquer cut or if something happened in the plating process, but whatever it was, it could’ve been better even with the lackluster source recording.
The translucent red vinyl pressing only has the slightest bit of occasional surface noise (translucent red vinyl is usually just as quiet as black or clear), and the tip-on jacket is nicely constructed in spite of the terrible design. I’ll just say that if you saw this while flipping through the bins, you wouldn't have noticed it. The record comes with a double-sided lyrics and credits insert, though there’s no obi strip or hype sticker at all. The HMV shop in Shibuya is selling it on Discogs for ￥4,180, which with the current weak state of the yen works out to around $30 USD plus shipping. If you want it, now is the time to buy, though since Apple Music has the full album (minus the closing Sakamoto track) in lossless CD quality, you can stream it and decide if you really need it.
One last note: the simple title and nondescript cover art make this album very hard to find online. To get any results on Discogs without entering the catalog number, you have to enter “Various Christmas Songs Japan.” On Apple Music, put in the name of one of the included artists followed by the album title. It’s completely unGoogleable, though; aside from a CDJapan listing for the sold out CD and book edition of Christmas Songs, even a search for something like “Christmas Songs album Japan Haruomi Hosono” only turned up the 1983 Yen Records album he was on. Good luck out there!