Barbra Streisand is a polarizing figure, artistically and politically. Everybody seems to have something to say about the renowned singer: Quincy Jones called her a “national treasure” in 1994, George W. Bush begrudgingly honored the living legend in 2008 with a Kennedy Center Honor, in what may have been his most awkward Presidential moment ever. Some even worship her: Richard Simmons, in kind, made a quarter life-sized doll replica of her in the 1990’s, and in 2010, the genre-blending “Duck Sauce,” further immortalized the sixty-something songstress in their techno hit, “Barbra Streisand.” But whatever the inspiration, Streisand stands as the only singer in the history of singers to score a number 1 album in five consecutive decades, including this one. Not too shabby. And in the first decade of that impressive feat, Streisand made the quintessential Christmas album, setting the template for holiday records for decades to come and selling millions of copies along the way.
Up to that point, in 1967, holiday records were fairly rote affairs: a collection of standards, respectfully treated, with a silly photo of the artist covered in fake snow, holding a gift or a holiday ornament, and/or wearing a Santa hat. With A Christmas Album, Streisand created a new holiday album prototype: building a foundation with a few secular songs (“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “The Christmas Song,” and “White Christmas”), adding a few sacred hymns (“Sleep In Heavenly Peace,” “Ave Maria,” and “The Lord’s Prayer”), and throwing-in a few left turns along the way (like the then-new song about her newborn son, “The Best Gift,” the meloncholified iteration of “My Favorite Things,” from the most cheerful movie about Nazi occupation ever made, “The Sound of Music,” or the silly, revved-up rendition of “Jingle Bells?” that opens the record and, no doubt, inspired the clownishly sublime version of the same song, decades later by Canadian rockers, The Barenaked Ladies).
A Christmas Album, in fact, was the only holiday album by a female artist, up to that point, to be the best-seller of the year, and it revolutionized the genre, even today, influencing artists like Shawn Colvin and Shelby Lynn, who took Streisand’s lead in invigorating the oft-lifeless, holiday album genre with fresh arrangements and unusual song selections. Even Susan Boyle, the “Oops, I’m selling a billion albums,” insta-TV celebrity, added a few surprising, innovative song selections to her 2010 holiday outing, which included covers of Crowded House’s exquisite, #2 hit from 1987, “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” and Lou Reed’s equal parts depressing and beautiful, “Perfect Day,” from his 1972 album, Transformer.
Interestingly, Streisand indicates that she is hesitant to perform live these days, because of all the ballyhoo about her “perfect voice.” She feels too much pressure to live up to the hype. This album, recorded while the singer was enduring a seasonal cold, is a big part of the reason for said hype. A Christmas Album is, in a word, stunning, and a must-have for every holiday collection. On a personal note, Streisand’s first Christmas album provided the soundtrack for some of my best holiday memories, growing up: time with family and friends, decorating the Christmas tree, wrapping gifts, the tantalizing holiday smells from the kitchen, and of course, Christmas songs. Streisand’s Christmas album is a perennial favorite at my house during the holidays. Its old-fashioned loveliness is like a cherished friend on cold, December days, especially in years when I can’t make it back to the farm for Christmas.