Looking for great Christmas music? Ignore interchangeable pop tarts, choirs whose near-perfection intimidates all but the bravest carolers, and artists compelled by fine print in their contracts to record mediocre versions of old chestnuts. Listen instead to Kermit the Frog.
As a cultural icon for Americans of a certain age, the excitable amphibian created by Jim Henson rose to stardom hosting "The Muppet Show" between 1976 and 1981. When they weren't taking vaudeville-style sketch comedy to new heights, Kermit the Frog and his fellow Muppets collaborated with John Denver on a Christmas TV special and album whose evergreen freshness still charms people generations after its initial release.
If you think that claim is overblown, you're in good company. My wife thought the same thing. She had never heard of Henson's creations until I introduced her to them. Her tragically Muppet-free childhood had conditioned her to regard Kermit and his friends as little more than potholders. But then she noticed that their album was the only one in our Christmas collection that had us waltzing each other and our children around the living room by candlelight. She has come to see the error of her ways. In fact, as anyone familiar with both recordings can testify, John Denver and the Muppets' "A Christmas Together" rivals the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's groundbreaking "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" in its ability to capture the enthusiasm generated by mutual admiration between strange bedfellows.
Denver's signature tenor never sounded better than it does here. Not to be outdone, Muppet performers Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, and Dave Goelz prove that their talent for vocal characterization extends even to singing. Piano-playing Muppets make the point: to hear Henson as both gravel-voiced Rolf the Dog and showboating smoothie "Dr. Teeth" is to mourn the man's passing all over again.
Building on that wealth of vocal talent, A-list producer Milt Okun gave instrumental chores to sidemen who were good enough to front their own bands (as Dan Wheetman and Herb Pederson then did, and later would again). Up tempo or down, the flute, keyboard, bass, and guitar work throughout this recording is a marvel of economy and taste.
Well-known carols are sung in traditional arrangements, but half the tracks on the CD are devoted to songs you're not likely to hear elsewhere. Even the song sequence seems inspired. By opening with "The Twelve Days of Christmas," Henson and company give each of their distinctively-voiced Muppets a chance to solo. Fozzy Bear, Miss Piggy, and Kermit the Frog sing particularly well (no fair guessing which member of that trio warbles the line about "five gold rings" on the Fifth Day of Christmas).
To their everlasting credit, no one on this holiday project fears the Madonna and Child. Where other artists bowdlerize carols to the point of absurdity by substituting "circus clown" for "Parson Brown," John Denver and the Muppets laugh.
You won't find "Winter Wonderland" or "Jingle Bells" on this album, and you won't miss them, not with the beach party beat of "Christmas is Coming," and Animal yelling "Run, run reindeer!" over a rollicking cover of Brian Wilson's "Little Saint Nick" and "Won't go!" over "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."
Beyond the fun, there is pastoral imagery enough to please even tree-hugging druids -- there has to be, with John Denver involved -- but there are also confident allusions to the Savior King and the wise men who looked for Him. Songs like "The Peace Carol" and "A Baby Just Like You" say what needs saying. Kermit's poignant interpretation of "A Christmas Wish" ("I don't know if you believe in Christmas / Or if you have presents underneath the Christmas tree / But if you believe in love / That will be more than enough / For you to come and celebrate with me") becomes a prayer complemented by the rolling gospel rhythm of "When the River Meets the Sea."
The recording has no throwaway tracks. Even the potentially saccharine spoken-word introduction to "Alfie, the Christmas Tree" segues into a jewel called "It's in Everyone of Us." By the time the Muppets hum softly under John Denver's re-telling of how Christian composer-heroes Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber brought "Silent Night" to a grateful world in 1818, you're not surprised at the love that everybody in the recording studio brings to that carol, singing the first verse in German before they repeat themselves in English.
When you need another reason to count your blessings, want to calm down after your children break the refrigerator door handle by treating it like a rappelling line, or are looking for a Christmas album that appeals to all ages, choose "John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together." If these be potholders, the world needs more of them.
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