A Diva Christmas Advent Calendar
Christmas seems to start earlier and earlier each year, with holiday music finding its way to radios, shopping malls, and department stores in late October. Record labels also release holiday albums, hoping to cash in on the frenzy.
Christmas albums have been musical events since the mid-century, and mainstream contemporary pop singers have turned to Christmas music to broaden their discographies and to find success during the winter holidays.
Yet there’s nothing as magical – or fabulous – during Christmas time as a marvelous diva Christmas song. Pop divas seem to be born for Christmas: they’re dramatic, emotional, sentimental, campy – everything that’s Christmas.
Below is an advent calendar of diva Christmas albums – 25 by some of music’s greatest divas throughout the years. There are also some special mentions after the list of songs and projects that may not necessarily have it on the list but are worth playing during the holiday season.
Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas
On Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, the jazz great chooses to record an album of secular Christmas pop, eschewing any spiritual music. (She would follow up this holiday album with a religious record of holiday music on 1967’s Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas.) Choosing light, enjoyable fare makes this album a fun, swinging record that is light and effervescent, like bubbly champagne. Though the song selection is fizzy and lively, it’s still a solid jazz-pop record and not just a novelty seasonal album.
Though Ralph Blane’s lyrics on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” have the potential to be devastating (Judy Garland’s heart-wrenching take from Meet Me in St. Louis is still the seminal version), take a spin of Fitzgerald’s casual, relaxed rendition: instead of sounding pressed and desperate, the song becomes a sporty rumination on patience – Fitzgerald sounds confident that even if she cannot see her loved ones this Christmas, she’ll soon…She’ll be fine. With support from band leader Frank DeVol, Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas is a fun, blissful listen.
Of the greats associated with the Great American Songbook, Peggy Lee is an interesting case because she was a world-class singer and performer and an accomplished songwriter. Though none of her original compositions on Christmas Carousel is as memorable as the traditional music on the album, the songs she penned for the album are still very charming and appropriately festive. Lee’s cool, languid voice gives the songs a sultriness to the numbers, making Christmas Carousel a rather sexy holiday album.
Merry From Lena
Lena Horne’s musical persona was one of controlled, contained heat. She epitomized elegance and simmering sensuality. Her voice was a light, lithe instrument, arch and knowing. On Merry from Lena, Horne slips into stylishly-arranged Christmas carols as if they were tailor-made gowns. Instead of being warm and cozy, the album is sexy and playful.
A Christmas Album
Barbra Streisand’s recording career in the 1960s was a bright and exciting part of her music career. It’s an eccentric discography, primarily dominated by the Great American Songbook but also supported by funny, esoteric choices. A genius vocal performer, Streisand lavishes the songs on A Christmas Album with her luxuriously supple and buttery voice. She can be intense, lilting, heartbreaking, and funny.
There are no trendy pop tunes on A Christmas Album, but that doesn’t mean that Streisand has abandoned her kooky persona. On the album’s opener, “Jingle Bells?” she barrels through the silly carol at a breakneck speed, adroitly racing, zigging, and zagging on the quirky arrangement. However, the rest of the album is reverently performed with worshipful performances. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is a soulful highlight, as is the poignant “I Wonder as I Wander.” A Christmas Album has rightly become one of the greatest popular Christmas albums of the 20th century.
Home for Christmas
Home for Christmas plays to Dolly Parton’s immense strengths. Despite being recorded at the height of her 1980s/1990s Daisy Mae in the Hollywood phase of her career, the record is a rootsy, largely acoustic affair that allows for the country legend to train. Dolly Parton isn’t merely a country singer, but she’s a devout and spiritual woman, and the sacred material on the record is beautiful; During this period of her career, a lot of her music felt rote, and as a result, her performances were often perfunctory in the 1980s. But on this album, she seems enlivened, imbued with the holy spirit. Also, because the song choices were Christmas standards, we can revel in the gorgeous beauty of Parton’s beautiful, angelic voice.
The selections of tunes on Home for Christmas are roughly divided into fun, secular Christmas tunes, and gospel numbers. On the kids’ songs like “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, she uses her mega-watt personality and charisma. And on the churchy stuff like “Go Tell It on the Mountain”, Parton gives spirited, lively performances, her voice channeling her deep faith. Parton would become the epitome of goodness and kindness, and as a sparkly, ebullient Fairy Queen of Christmas, she shines.
Christmas with Patti LaBelle, for many, will mean her viral video of a shambolic performance at the National Christmas tree lighting in 1996, in which she was forced to perform solo because her backup singers were MIA. Famously called “Where Are My Background Singer?” LaBelle tersely asks after her backup singers as she soldiers through a rendition of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” that meanders because the poor soul in charge of holding up the cue cards was off, as well.
Interestingly enough, This Christmas could have been a record of holiday standards. Instead, LaBelle chose to sprinkle some old favorites with several originals (including the Hathaway tune, which lends the album its title). Recorded during her MCA comeback period in the 1990s, the record is glossy and slick, but LaBelle’s fiery and powerful voice pierces through the smooth-pop production. As a live performer, Patti LaBelle is a powerful force of nature, able to move mountains with a glass-shattering wail. On vinyl – especially during the late 1980s and early 1990s, she’s (relatively) relaxed. What makes This Christmas so great is that it works as a regular Patti LaBelle album, enjoyable throughout the year.
Christmas Through Your Eyes
Latin-pop and dance diva Gloria Estefan offers a lively and fun platter of Christmas chestnuts that play to her strengths. Even if “Silver Bells” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow” sound a bit too cruise ship crooner, her sterling performance of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is a high point and should be on everybody’s playlist during the holidays. Christmas Through Your Eyes features Christmas favorites – primarily standards, but she also includes the contemporary classic, “This Christmas,” which is aptly turned from a soul tune to a lite jazz-pop midtempo number. With Diane Warren, Estefan also contributes the title track, an A/C-pop ballad. This all makes for a pleasant and lovely listen, especially with Estefan’s calm and serene vocals.
With her massive – and persistent – Christmas hit, “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” Mariah Carey has been crowned – unofficially despite her attempts at trademarking – the Queen of Christmas. The song – a wonderful and canny Phil Spector pastiche – is arguably the only song of the last forty years to become a Christmas standard. Released during her peak superstar years, when Carey dominated the pop, R&B, and A/C charts, the genius of Merry Christmas is that despite its seasonal themes, the album operates as a standard Mariah Carey album: there are some great ballads, mid-tempo numbers, even some dance numbers.
Though Carey is a pop diva, she has musical roots in gospel, and they’re on display on the album. On the hymn, “Jesus Oh What a Wonderful Child,” she takes her listeners to church with a feisty performance. She also employs her famously wide range for a gorgeous “O Holy Night” (I mean, c’mon – that high note is supernatural). Obviously, the album’s centerpiece is “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” and it’s a brilliant homage to 60s girl group pop. Still, there are other lively numbers, too, including her game take on Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and though a touch cynical, her house-pop version of “Joy to the World” (which samples Three Dog Night’s own “Joy to the World”) is mindless campy fun.
A Very Special Season
In the 1990s, Diana Ross had become a larger-than-life, over-the-top diva. The gowns. The voice. The hair. She was a music icon. Her recording career became a bit more sporadic as she released studio albums that sought to return her to the pop charts. That is why her 1994 Christmas album is so sensational – and surprising – because instead of jumping on pop trends, she put together a sterling and shimmery collection of Christmas standards, lovingly sung with those inimitable, silken pop pipes.
The album comprises Christmas standards, including some penned during the rock era by pop musicians like John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, and Stevie Wonder. For the most part, the song list on A Very Special Season is reassuringly familiar – she takes on recognizable tunes like “Winter Wonderland,” “White Christmas,” “Silent Night,” and “The Christmas Song” – she also records some more surprising songs like McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” and Wonder’s “Overjoyed” (which isn’t technically a Christmas song) and these choices make A Very Special Season a slightly more exciting choice than other Christmas albums. The main reason to listen to this album is, of course, Ross’ gorgeous, crystalline vocals – she’s at vocal peak on A Very Special Season and sounds stunning.
Holly & Ivy
Natalie Cole was the most comfortable of all the Baby Boomer pop singers who recorded standards and the American Songbook. It makes sense, after all, her dad was Nat “King” Cole, the wonderful pop/jazz singer of the 1950s and 1960s, who recorded the definitive rendition of “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire).” After a career of recording soul and A/C pop in the 1970s and 1980s, she embraced the songs of the Great American Songbook, releasing a series of jazz-pop albums, peaking with 1991’s hit Unforgettable…with Love. Cole’s Christmas album, Holly & Ivy, is a rich, jazzy record with warm, sumptuous versions of popular Christmas tunes.
Donna Summer was the Queen of Disco, but it was only a matter of time before she recorded a Christmas album. Working with Contemporary Christian pop musician Michael Omartian, Summer opted out of making a dance record for the holidays, instead recording an album of traditional Christmas music. There are two original Summer compositions, but Christmas Spirit is a warm, nostalgic record with some moving renditions of holiday favorites.
Summer’s powerful, ageless contralto sounds lovely on these songs. On “The Christmas Song,” her voice soars, and her singing on “O Holy Night” is celestial. And on a medley that finds Summer belt “What Child Is This,” “Do You Hear What I Hear,” and “Joy to the World,” Omartian creates an empathetic and stirring CCM soundscape for his muse. And the title track is a pleasant A/C pop ballad that would sound on pop radio during any season.
Though Rosemary Clooney wasn’t the major recording star in the 1990s like she was in the 1950s, she found herself enjoying a new, albeit smaller, career, as a nightclub songstress. Joining the Concord label in 1977, Clooney started to record and release albums at a remarkable pace. Because of her participation in the 1954 musical comedy White Christmas (Michael Curtiz), Rosemary Clooney would always have a place in Christmas lore, even if she wasn’t necessarily known as a Christmas caroler. By 1996, Clooney was a pop legend known for being George’s aunt. Her seasonal album White Christmas is a rousing success and one of her best releases.
Despite her age, Clooney’s voice was in remarkable shape when recording White Christmas. She was nearing 70, but her singing was still solid and tuneful. Her round, voluptuous tones had a good slight grit which gave her performances character. And as a lyrical interpreter, she was peerless. Though her work on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” reveals the limits of her range, she connects with Ralph Blane’s lyrics with a moving poignancy. On the flip side, her genial interpretation of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” (from A Charlie Brown Christmas) is warm and friendly.
The brilliance of Vanessa Williams’ Christmas album touches upon the classic Christmas pop records of the 1960s and smooth, urban-pop music of the 1990s. Williams is a singer that bridges those two eras – she’s sultry and beautiful and recalls divas of yesteryear like Peggy Lee and Lena Horne but is also a product of her time. Star Bright is a gorgeous, elegant Christmas album that features Williams at her best. Always a subtle and understated diva, the glossy and relaxed sounds of Star Bright make for a sumptuous holiday listen.
The moody “What Child Is This?” is a high point on the album and shows off Williams’ underrated jazz chops. And on the playful duet, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, the singer trades verses with Bobby Caldwell, their voices slow dancing on a smooth, lite-jazz groove. The light funk of “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” bring some energy to the serene proceedings. Yet, the best moment on the album is Williams’ collaboration with David Foster on the majestic “Go Tell It on the Mountain”, which is mashed with “Mary Had a Baby”. Her warm and inviting tones (Williams’ voice is almost perfect) find surprising spirit and soul in the gospel standard.