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Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, "Our Very Best Christmas"Only a handful of Christmas albums came out of Motown Records during their otherwise prolific "Golden Decade" from 1962 to 1971 - a sign perhaps that such things were no longer requisite for popular entertainers. During that span of time, in fact, Christmas albums became rather uncool - a signal that an artist was part of the "establishment." Motown president Barry Gordy not only wanted to join the establishment, he wanted to be the establishment. So, most of Motown's major artists recorded a Christmas album (read more), though the Four Tops and Gladys Knight didn't wax theirs till much later, and Marvin Gaye recorded but one solitary single - and it went unreleased for years! During the Golden Decade, however, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles chalked up two full Christmas albums, including the label's first-ever seasonal release, Christmas With The Miracles (1963).

Christmas With The Miracles is undoubtedly the lesser of the Miracles' two holiday efforts - though some great songs emerge - and it reflects the relatively haphazard approach with which Motown approached long-playing albums. The finest songs and most skillful producers - and the lion's share of the studio time - were reserved for singles. Albums were an afterthought, thrown together quickly from leftovers and half-realized productions. Simply put, singles were art, albums were product.

And, the single plucked from Christmas With The Miracles is fine art, indeed. "Christmas Everyday" is an original composition by Smokey Robinson, who was rapidly developing into a prolific, poetic hitmaker. Smokey loved to develop complex allegories, and "Christmas Everyday" uses the holiday as an extended metaphor for Smokey's abiding obsession - romantic love. Backed by that propulsive Motown beat, Robinson opines, "I wouldn't need a Christmas tree if you belonged to me." We never figure out if Smokey gets the girl, but it's the best holiday song the Miracles ever cut. Sadly, it failed to dent the charts (and even got left off the otherwise stellar 1973 compilation, A Motown Christmas).

Christmas With The MiraclesThe rest of Christmas With The Miracles is devoted largely to predictable holiday standards played without much panache - fun for Motown buffs, but no one else. Happily, each of the Miracles gets a turn in the spotlight, and Claudette Robinson's "Let It Snow!" is one of the highlights. But, it's Smokey's "Santa Claus Is Coming Town" that generates the most heat. Over an incongruous "cha-cha" rhythm, Smokey puts real passion into his performance, making the old carol sound like a dire warning. "You better mind your ways," he growls as the song fades, and he sounds like he means it.

In 1968, the Miracles contributed two songs to Merry Christmas from Motown, a various artists compilation. One was "Christmas Everyday" (in stereo for the first time), while the other, "Christmas Lullaby," was newly recorded. The song is lovely and sweet, but it sounds more like "Brahms' Lullaby" than something belonging in Motown's cacophonous canon. Better things lay ahead.

In the years between Christmas With The Miracles and the group's second full-length Christmas record, A Season For Miracles (1970), Smokey Robinson had been a key player in cultivating the lush, soulful "Sound Of Young America" in Motown's creative hothouse. Not surprisingly, A Season For Miracles is the group's most fully realized holiday effort. Robinson and a team of collaborators (including Bobby Taylor, Stevie Wonder, and staff producer Jimmy Roach) yoke that sound to a strong batch of songs, and the end result is a not just a good Christmas record - it's a good Motown record.

A Season For MiraclesFully half of A Season For Miracles consists of Motown originals, including Stevie Wonder's haunting hymn "It's Christmas Time" and Jimmy Roach's pro-adoption ode, "A Child Is Waiting." Best of all, though, is Smokey's own "I Believe In Christmas Eve," a sly mix of sensuous soul and devout spirituality punctuated by one of Robinson's trademark extended rhyming schemes.

Perhaps even better, the other half of the record sidesteps the usual rote standards, dropping uncommon selections like "Bring A Torch Jeanette Isabella," "Go Tell It On The Mountain," and "The Coventry Carol" alongside more predictable repertoire. That said, the hoariest of all carols - "Jingle Bells" - is one of the best cuts on A Season For Miracles. Smokey's vocals are fine (they usually are), but it's the legendary Motown house band (a.k.a. the Funk Brothers) that makes the track pop. In particular, listen to the percolating bass line, played (probably, musician credits are absent) by James Jamerson. His performance on "Jingle Bells" is compelling evidence as to why he is one of the only session bass players ever inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

So, if Christmas With The Miracles is good, and A Season For Miracles is great, then Our Very Best Christmas (1999) is almost perfect. With 16 remastered tracks, Our Very Best Christmas does an expert job of excerpting just the right songs from the Miracles' two Christmas albums, and it tosses in "Christmas Lullaby." True, Motown could have easily fit the entirety of both LP's on one CD (curses!), but Our Very Best Christmas is an otherwise sterling collection - and one of my picks for the all-time Top 20 Christmas Albums.

Consumer Notes. Our Very Best Christmas has been deleted, but copies aren't too scarce. Further, Motown's parent company Universal issued the nearly identical 20th Century Masters: The Christmas Collection in 2003. Be aware, however, that the Miracles (minus Smokey Robinson) have recorded some vastly inferior Christmas sides issued in a variety of guises, starting (I think) with Soulful Christmas (2001). Stick with Our Very Best Christmas (or 20th Century Masters), and you'll be happy. [top of page]

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  • Christmas Everyday (1963) star Top 100 Song [close]
    Smokey Robinson and his crew were the only Motown act to release two Christmas albums during the label's "Golden Decade" (1962-1971). The first record, Christmas With The Miracles, was a more rockin' affair, recorded before Smokey developed the ultra-smooth style that gave us "Ooh Baby Baby" and "Cruising." The album contained but one Robinson original, "Christmas Everyday." Beginning with the kind of drum crack that prompted John Lennon to query whether Motown's drummer "beat on a bloody tree," the Miracles spin a soulful metaphor similar to William Bell's "Every Day Will Be Like A Holiday": if the singer's girl would just acquiesce, everyday could be a special as Christmas. In his inimitable style, Smokey insists, "I wouldn't need a Christmas tree if you belonged to me." Not receiving satisfaction, he takes serious measures: "I wrote and told Santa Claus I needed you because it would be Christmas everyday." (The best of both Miracles Christmas records is compiled on Our Very Best Christmas.)
  • Christmas Lullaby (1968)
  • Deck The Halls/Bring A Torch Jeannette Isabella (1970)
  • Go Tell It On The Mountain (1970)
  • I Believe In Christmas Eve (1970)
  • It's Christmas Time (1970)
  • Jingle Bells (1970)
  • Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (1963)
  • Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (1963)

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