Yuletide compilations yield musical gems, novelty tunes
Don’t be fooled: If you think “Motown Christmas” is just another compilation of musty or newly remastered carols, listen closely—in fact, the 16-track album is the first collection of new Christmas recordings from Motown in 46 years!
Produced by Aaron Lindsey, the disc cleverly channels the revolutionary sound nurtured by Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson and the Funk Brothers that played a crucial role in the racial integration of pop music between 1959 and 1971.
When you listen to Ne-Yo and Tasha Cobbs’ gleaming voices in “The Christmas Song,” Sheri Jones-Moffett and Micah Stampley’s stomping cover of “Joy To The World,” and the ravishing jazz-and-R’n’B-infused harmonies in Gregory Porter and Anita Wilson’s medley of “Go Tell It On The Mountain” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” you won’t be able to resist the gospel-tinged, “call and response” singing styles of their interpreters, whose voices soar above the accompaniments’ heady mix of drums, bass and tambourine.
There’s exciting dramatic buildup in The Aaron Lindsey Orchestra’s “Carol of the Bells” and “My Favorite Things” overture, Kem and Janice Gaines’ reverential ballad, “Bethlehem,” and the fabulous vocal coupling of Toni Braxton and Babyface in “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”
The smashing lineup reaches its peak in the stirring “Mary, Did You Know?,” refined to vocal and interpretive perfection by India-Arie and Gene Moore Jr.
‘Christmas Hits, Vol. 2’
Sony Music’s “Christmas Hits, Vol. 2,” which compiles tunes recorded between 1950 to 2013, has its share of musical gems and novelty tunes, led by Whitney Houston’s soulful 2003 version of “The First Noel,” John Denver’s countrified “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” Chris Brown’s 2007 cover of “This Christmas,” and John Legend’s unique take on Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World.”
Cuts you shouldn’t miss: R Kelly’s “Christmas, I’ll Be Steppin’” (for its dazzling R’n’B bounce and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!,” Frank Sinatra’s 1950 collaboration with the B. Swanson Quartet (for its big-band swagger and sensational harmonies).
Exciting selections set Libera’s holiday collection, “Libera Angels Sing Christmas In Ireland,” apart from other Yuletide albums this season.
Robert Prizeman’s all-male, 7-to-17-year-old English choristers put their glorious treble voices to good use by using drama (“Sanctus,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”) and varying dynamics (“Carol of the Bells”) to breathe palpable life into its distinctive, 15-track repertoire.
Top picks: The improvisational melodic embellishments and the medieval Latin lyrics of the sacred 16th century carol, “Gaudette,” the angelic a cappella incarnation of “Danny Boy,” and the musical vivification of the nativity of Christ in the 12th century Irish hymn, “Wexford Carol,” one of the oldest extant carols!
Jose Mari Chan
Even with its occasionally excessive mawkishness, Jose Mari Chan’s 22-track “Going Home To Christmas,” released 22 years after his chartbusting 1990 compilation, “Christmas In Our Hearts,” is guaranteed to win you over with its jingle-like melodies (“Ring In The New,” “Christmas Moments” with his daughter Liza Chan-Parpan and sons Jojo, Michael and Franco), nostalgic vibe (“Christmas Mem’ries,” “Starlight” with Noelle Cassandra) and feel-good cheer (“Song of the Firefly,” featuring his granddaughter, Ramona Isabel).
Top picks: The radio-friendly “Let Love Be The Gift,” with Liza; the Cliff Richard-channeling romantic ballad, “A Christmas Song For You”; the stirring “Christmas Anyway” (with fabulous Hanna Flores); “A Child Again At Christmas,” which recalls the rhythmic patter and sprightly lilt of “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” and “Pagdating ng Pasko,” the toe-tapping Tagalog ditty that exudes the joy, warmth and optimism the holiday season brings!
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