#MusicMonday – December 7, 2020

Come they told me, Music Monday!

Drag out the Music and Monday (Mu-sic Mon-day!), and it probably works.

At least, I’d like to think it does. I’ve been wrong about these things.

We’re in week two of Allison’s Written Words’ celebration of Christmas 2020, which is trying hard to throw the Christmas spirit around like red and green confetti. We kicked off the season of believing in probably the most observant song of the season, a song about trees in a hotel, a park (as well), and how the prettiest sight to see, is the carol that will be right within your own heart. Oh, and it was the Michael Buble version of the song, even though Perry Como tried it first – and just as beautifully.

Today, we’re listening to a band that combines the jazziness of a three piece horn section (five if you count two of the members playing two different instruments), with rock music, and occasionally, a little Latin flavor thrown in for good measure. They’d been making beautiful music since 1967, but thirty-one years on, they did what any respectable group does during the life of their music – release a Christmas album. And they liked it so much, they did it three more times. As recently as 2019.

They don’t like to stop, friends.

The band, you’ve probably figured out by now, is Chicago, and that first album of beautiful Christmas music is the appropriately titled Chicago XXV: The Christmas Album.

You know they were waiting to get to “25” to do this.

Chicago XXV: The Christmas Album

Chicago XXV: The Christmas Album is Chicago’s 19th studio album (obviously, their 25th overall), released on August 25, 1998 on their Chicago Records label. It is an album of the group’s interpretations of classic Christmas songs, with one original song, co-penned by founding member/trumpeter/flugelhorn player/vocalist Lee Loughnane. The 1990s were an interesting time for the band, who entered the decade amidst changing music tastes and declining record sales, as well as being dropped by their label (Warner Bros.) and seeing their passion project, an album of creatively ambitious music, get shelved. The mid-1990s saw a slight personnel change, as guitarist and vocalist Dawayne Bailey, who joined the group in 1986, was dismissed following the label drop and album shelving, as well as the recording of a new album of Big Band standards. Guitarist and vocalist Keith Howland joined the group in 1995 (he’s still with them), two “Best Of” albums were released (The Heart of Chicago, Volumes I and II – 1997 and 1998, respectively), and they toured. Because that’s what they do best.

The release of the group’s first Christmas album was met with critical and commercial success, reaching #47 on the Billboard 200 for a stay of seven weeks. The album featured thirteen Christmas standards, with one original song. The group employed the help of two choirs – one of adults (that featured – I’m not kidding – United Stated Representative Maxine Waters), and one of children (which included the children of founding members Robert Lamm, Lee Loughnane, and James Pankow, as well as the children of personnel who worked on the album).

From the album’s opening moments, as Tris Imboden’s drumming serves as the lead in for “Little Drummer Boy,” the Christmas music is beautiful and performed with the passion of the best Chicago songs. This was a group that after 30 years, was enjoying the fruits of their hard work and recording and releasing music that was important to them. A Christmas album with the Chicago treatment only seemed like a natural next step for the group, after tackling Big Band standards a few years earlier.

Chicago XXV: The Christmas Album was my first album of Christmas music with the “Chicago Touch,” bought right after I saw them in concert in September 2015. It is the first album I listen to the day after Thanksgiving, to kick off my Christmas music listening. When I’m working on the day, I start it up at 9 am. This year was the first time since 2015 that I didn’t work on the Friday after Thanksgiving this year, and I was a little late starting the album, but I stuck to my tradition and got lost in the beauty of this album.

And as I discovered there were two more (at the time) Christmas albums, I bought them too, as well as the fourth album last year.

Speaking of the three additional albums of Christmas music…

What’s It Gonna Be Santa?

What’s It Gonna Be Santa? is the expanded reissue of Chicago XXV: The Christmas Album (the original was given a re-release in 2002), released on October 14, 2003, and featuring the tracks from the previous album, coupled nicely with six additional Christmas standards, new album artwork and the existing tracks re-sequenced. This release is distinctive for featuring Guitarist Keith Howland’s first attempt at lead vocals, on a re-worked “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.” This album’s release came early in the group’s long-term partnership with Rhino Records (beginning in 2002). This entry into Chicago’s discography reached #102 on the Billboard 200, for a stay of five weeks.

The group took to The Today Show in 2003 to promote the album, and their newest member (he had already been with the group for eight years at that time) showed off his rocking vocals and guitar solo. I especially love the sound of this version of “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” (I memorized the traditional version on piano back in 1994), right down to what the boys in the band want for Christmas.

Wait till you hear what Keith wants!

So, a few years (eight, to be exact) pass, that long-shelved album (titled The Stone of Sisyphus) finally saw the light of day in 2008, and the group saw another personnel change. Bill Champlin, who had provided the blue-eyed soul vocals, as well as keyboards (and the occasional guitar) left the group shortly after The Stone of Sisyphus was finally released, prolific songwriter Lou Pardini joined the group, and Chicago brought back the Percussion sound it had employed in the 1970s, with the addition of Drew Hester (he’d later leave the group, with Walfredo Reyes Jr. succeeding him in 2012 – he’s still with Chicago as their drummer).

Oh, and they went to Nashville and recorded a new Christmas album, emphasizing traditional songs, along with one new song (again penned by Lee Loughnane), and collaborations with Dolly Parton, America, BeBe Winans, and Steve Cropper.

Chicago XXXIII: O Christmas Three

The result was 2011’s Chicago XXXIII: O Christmas Three, released on October 4, 2011, the group’s 33rd studio album, with recording footage documented on the group’s 2011 World Tour Documentary.

This new album of Christmas classics even featured a new children’s choir, this time featuring Keith Howland and Jason Scheff’s children, as well as James Pankow’s younger children (his oldest daughter was in the original choir in 1998, and his younger daughter would help write a song with her dad for the 2019 album), and the group even filmed a short film/music video for “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” to accompany the album’s release, featuring Keith Howland front and center on vocals, Kyle Mooney as a young man dealing with his insecurities at Christmastime, and Joe Mantegna (a longtime friend of the group) as a bartender trying to help the younger man with those insecurities.

Not since Kevin’s ultimate Christmas party in Home Alone have you ever seen such a treatment given to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”

…until you’ve seen them perform it live.

You know, nothing surprises me anymore. I had a feeling the horn section would take the song’s lyrics seriously.

And seriously, I love Keith Howland’s voice – he adds such a great sound to those Chicago harmonies, and stands out on his own! And he totally rocks that guitar!

But of course, Chicago has never been content to rest on their laurels, even after 52 years and three Christmas albums, not to mention all those non-Christmas albums they’d released since 1969. 2019 marked fifty years since the release of Chicago Transity Authority, my second time seeing them in concert, and the release of – you guess it – another Christmas album!

Because why not?

Chicago XXXVII: Chicago Christmas

Released on October 11, 2019, this album had the band’s members composing original Christmas songs, as well as performing three Christmas standards (and re-working “Sleigh Ride,” which was featured on one of the earlier albums).

This was the first studio album to feature several big personnel changes that happened since 2014’s Chicago XXXVI: Now, as Jason Scheff had left the group in 2016, and Tris Imboden and Scheff’s successor, Jeff Coffey, both in 2018. Walfredo Reyes Jr. moved to drums, Ramon Yslas joined as Percussionist, Ray Herrmann moved up to being a full member following Walter Parazaider’s retirement, Brett Simons took over on Bass Guitar, and Neil Donnel took over tenor vocals.

The album was reached #8 on Billboard’s Top Holiday Albums, #72 on Top Album Sales (2019), and #1 on Billboard’s Holiday Albums Sales Chart. The group took to a whirlwind tour of New York City to promote the album – riding on a float at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, performing at the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting, and on The Today Show all in the span of a week.

I don’t know what the future of Christmas music holds for Chicago, or how much more they can possibly cover at this point, but the four albums they have released are full of amazing music, sticking with the tradition of beautiful Christmas while creating some new (and memorable) Christmas music memories, and giving them nothing less than the “Chicago touch” we’ve all come to know and love.

And hey, they make good memories for their audience. So there’s that.

Gotta take those lyrics seriously, right?

Christmas carries on (and on!) on Allison’s Written Words, with more Christmas surprises coming up this week, and the rest of the month, all leading up to Christmas Day!

Have a great Monday, and merrily (merrily merrily) enjoy the music!

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