Really, Ray Charles can do no wrong. It’s a truism that holds for this, his first ever Christmas album. Released in 1985, The Spirit of Christmas arrived at a surprisingly late date in Charles’ career for a first anything — he was 55 at the time — but it demonstrates a man who still knew how to control his voice and his fingers like few other performers ever could, even if it’s not the perfect Christmas album it perhaps could have been. Most of the blame for such imperfection lies at the feet of its bookends. “What Child is This” opens the album on a somber note but finishes with an upbeat jazz coda that makes little sense in context with its first two minutes. “Christmas Time” closes and is a soup of heavy reverb effects, fatigued vocals, and syrupy production.
Everything in between, however, is golden. Charles knows when to be lighthearted (“Santa Claus is Coming to Town”) and when to slow it down and reflect (the Christmas Vacation-popularized classic “That Spirit of Christmas”), and “Christmas In My Heart” finds him wailing the end in a way that it’s easy to forget he knows how. This reissue of Charles’ Christmas classic is actually the CD version of a 2008 online-only version of the album, complete with a bonus track of a fantastic, understated “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” performed with Betty Carter in 1961. Altogether, it’s hard to imagine a better album for a dimly lit December evening indoors with eggnog and a roaring fire.