Merry Christmas…Have a Nice Life
Icon and New Wave legend Cyndi Lauper released a Christmas record in the late 1990s and it’s the kind of eccentric, odd record that one would expect from the singer. Merry Christmas…Have a Nice Life indulges in Lauper’s musical tastes, including pop, dance, folk, zydeco, ska, and alternative rock. Not only is the sound of the album diverse, but the song choice is dizzying in its breadth: a couple of tracks recycled from her previous albums, some covers of holiday classics, and Lauper’s unique originals. Though stylistically, Merry Christmas…Have a Nice Life is all over the place, but one thing is clear: Lauper is a musical force. Her incredible, powerful voice will always shine (she is one of the best pop singers out there), and the new songs on the record show off her underrated songwriting skills.
Though Lauper’s cartoonish image of the 1980s made her one of the decade’s biggest stars, she proved to be a sensitive singer-songwriter and as wild and fun as she can be. Lauper is also wonderful when she’s more intimate and emotional. So, yes, her zydeco take on “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is good-natured nonsense, and her self-penned original tune, the simple ballad “December Child,” is touching. “Minnie and Santa” is camp, but its lyrics, telling the story of a woman who falls in love with St Nick, are clever and witty, while her take on the traditional folk of “Three Ships” is fantastic. Merry Christmas…Have a Nice Life is a deliciously silly record with some incredible highs.
These Are Special Times
It makes sense that because Céline Dion’s 1990s albums were essentially a blueprint for the mainstream, A/C-pop album of the decade, her holiday album, These Are Special Times, would be a blueprint for the mainstream, Christmas-pop album of the 1990s. Dion worked with some high-end producers, including longtime collaborators Dave Foster and Ric Wake, to make a large, sprawling, extravagant record that recalled when pop albums were showy, expensive trophies for record labels. Clocking in at an incredible 65 minutes (and an eye-popping 16 tracks), These Are Special Times isn’t subtle (but again, neither is Dion). The track list runs the gamut from holiday standards to secular Christmas tunes to contemporary-pop tunes. Dion roars through them with her gigantic voice, wringing every ounce of emotion from every song.
The bombastic pop ballad, “The Magic of Christmas Day (God Bless Us Everyone),” (written by Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider…yes, that’s right, Dee Snider) is an excellent majestic tune that lets Dion do what she does best: warble and hit skyscraper-high notes. Though Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” would sound like an odd fit, Foster recasts it as a jazzy-pop number, and Dion acquits herself well. She also does a good job with the guitar-pop of “Another Year Has Gone By” (penned by fellow Canadian pop superstar Bryan Adams.) Best of all, the choral magnificence and grandeur of “Adeste Fideles” that sounds like it was recorded in a cathedral.
A Merry Little Christmas
Given how successful Linda Ronstadt has been in her career performing various genres, it makes sense that she sounds splendid when she takes on Christmas music on her 2000 album, A Merry Little Christmas. Because so much of Christmas music has been written during the pre-rock era, Rondstadt looks pretty comfortable in that milieu, having recorded a series of successful albums of pop standards. Her prominent, expressive, muscular voice sounds beautiful in this collection of Christmas tunes. The album feels like a nostalgic throwback, recalling the sound of holiday albums from the mid-century. All the songs are beloved old-timey songs, the only track written during the rock era being Joni Mitchell’s introspective “River.”
Since so much of Christmas is about nostalgia, A Merry Little Christmas is a perfect record for the season. If you close your eyes and listen to Ronstadt crooning with the syrupy backup chorus on “The Christmas Song,” you can imagine her on a black & white tv, dressed in a prim dress on the set of some 1950s variety show. And yes, though she chooses a list of tunes that have been sung many times, her voice is so beautiful that even if her cocktail hour “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” isn’t seminal, it’s still a great turn. The best of the lot is her moving take on Mitchell’s “River.”
Diana Krall, one of the best jazz singers of the 21st century, released her Christmas LP in 2005 after a series of successful albums that saw her being celebrated as a significant talent. Possessing a husky, hooded voice and an appealingly sleepy singing style, she seemed perfectly poised for the popularity of cocktail pop/lounge music in the mid-1990s. She transcended the gimmick of that brief trend and proved herself to be a legit talent. On Christmas Songs, Krall uses her talent on holiday standards. The songs are all pop standards, and though none is revelatory, Krall brings a suitably chill attitude to the proceedings. Even on frisky numbers like “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” backed by a big band, Krall is still easygoing and casual in her approach to her singing. On the ubiquitous “Jingle Bells” (which includes a nifty piano solo for the singer), she plays the role of the jazz chanteuse beautifully.
A Classic Christmas
A traditionalist, Wynonna’s approach to Christmas music is to craft an album that sounds like something done in the 1950s. The songs are all holiday favorites, all set to sweeping orchestral arrangements with lush strings. As a song stylist and an interpreter of the Great American Songbook, Wynonna does a great job. During her career as a major country star, one of the most striking things about her was that fantastic, gigantic blast of a voice. Though generally known for her bluesy growl, she sweetens that brilliant voice and croons with the knowing coyness of singers like Julie London and Doris Day. A Classic Christmas is a great diversion from Wynonna’s country-pop, indicating that if she wanted to, she could also record more albums of pre-rock pop.
The organization of A Classic Christmas cleaves the album, with the first half going to secular Christmas pop like “White Christmas” and “Winter Wonderland”. There is also the appropriate amount of holiday kitsch and camp with “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”. These tunes will feel familiar because they’ve been done a million times. The rich production of these songs will also sound recognizable. But Wynonna’s great voice makes these interpretations unique enough to warrant another listen.
The second half of the record is dedicated to sacred music, and it’s here that the record becomes a bit more esoteric but rewarding, as Wynonna’s faith is reflected in her dedicated and devoted performances. Though not an opera singer, her ambitious take on “Ave Maria” is admirable, and she pulls off the challenging piece. And she does a satisfying version of “O Holy Night,” landing that money note with the precision and skill of a true pro.
Strangely, it took Bette Midler so long to record a Christmas album because she seems perfectly suited for a holiday album: after all, she’s a singer that thrives on sentiment, camp, kitsch, emotion, and nostalgia. So, though Cool Yule feels overdue, it’s still a fantastic Christmas record with some choice cuts by the legendary singer-comedienne. The song choice and styles of performances hit upon every side of her musical persona that makes her such a popular performer. There are moving, sentimental ballads as well as nifty, funny numbers. Midler’s expressive voice has different colors and tones, making people laugh or cry – sometimes in the same song.
Midler chooses to record traditional carols for her inaugural holiday album, except for a Christmas-ified version of her classic hit “From a Distance.” Though she has designs on being a rock singer, she shone when singing nostalgia-inspired Andrew Sisters-type tunes like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” So it doesn’t come as a surprise there’s a lot of that kind of 1940s, 1950s big bang pop, like the bopping title track or the finger-snapping “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” Referencing her Hawaiian background, she includes “Mele Kalikimaka,” the novelty-pop song from 1950. Cool Yule is all smiling, good-natured fun, and doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Joy to the World
(Warner Bros. Nashville, 2008)
Listen to the title track of Faith Hill’s Christmas album, Joy to the World and you’ll understand the appeal. Backed by a massive choir and a bombastic orchestra, Hill performs the strong with formidable strength. Her powerful, rock-tinged vocal never dominated nor overwhelmed by the heavy orchestration. Instead, she cuts through the musical squall, victorious. Though celebrated as a commercially successful country-pop singer in her heyday, Faith Hill should also be regarded as one of the finest pop vocalists of her generation, as evident in her various performances on Joy to the World. Her voice has an appealing muscular quality with just a streak of grit and rasp. And when she’s paired with rootsier production, like on “Away in a Manger”, she corrals that giant voice of hers to do modulated and subtle work.
But the word ‘joy’ is in the title, and Joy to the World has many bright moments, too. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” is a swinging, big-band number that benefits from Hill’s lively and hammy performance. “Holly Jolly Christmas” is another light moment in which Hill’s rich voice manages to prance and mince despite its heft. On the album’s sole original number, the A/C-pop ballad “A Baby Changes Everything”, she gets to play the platinum pop diva to perfection.
Wrapped in Red
Kelly Clarkson’s graduation from a mere talent contest winner and pop star to a multi-media superstar means a holiday album is inevitable. (In fact, she has two now) The former American Idol champ-turned-talk show titan has become an Entertainer with a capital ‘E’. As part of her empire, we see Wrapped in Red, a thoroughly likable and jovial holiday record that features a festive mix of classics and pop originals. One of the things notable about Clarkson is that her musical influences are broad, and she can dabble in several popular genres with ease, and therefore Wrapped in Red doesn’t just settle on one style of pop but instead nimbly hopscotches from pop to retro girl group; from country to jazzy-pop, and classic pre-rock pop.
Clarkson has not only the enthusiasm for this grab-bag approach to holiday music, but her big voice is malleable and flexible enough that she doesn’t sound out of her element, whether it’s covering Imogene Heap’s dramatic “Just for Now”, crooning through the countrypolitan “Blue Christmas”, or fronting a full orchestra on the swoony, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. On “My Favorite Things”, Clarkson takes on the guise of the 1960s swinging pop chanteuse a la Petula Clark or Dusty Springfield and eschews her showy bombast for era-appropriate kittenish coyness.
What sets Wrapped in Red apart from many other contemporary Christmas pop records is that the original material doesn’t feel inconsequential compared to the more enduring classic stuff. Clarkson and her collaborators craft some sturdy holiday pop tunes that are solid hopefuls for becoming Christmas standards. The bouncy “Underneath the Tree” shares a lot of charms with its obvious inspiration, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You”. Similarly, the loud, chugging “Winter Dreams” is a Christmassy kitschy lark. And Clarkson takes a stab at “Santa Baby”-esque materialism with the sprightly pop of “4 Carats”.
Mary J. Blige
A Mary Christmas
The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul joins Dave Foster for a luxurious, classy affair with A Mary Christmas, Blige’s first holiday set. There are no modern pop tunes on A Mary Christmas (the closest being her cover of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas”). Instead, Blige chooses to grace her listeners with interpretations of Christmas classics. Many of them have been recorded many times, but Blige’s urgent, soulful wail makes her rendition of these old chestnuts distinct. Foster’s lush production doesn’t try to make these songs radio-friendly pop tunes; instead, he swaths Blige’s gorgeous vocals in giant waves of strings and tasteful synths, making for a distinctly sedate and serene collection.
Though the bulk of Blige’s discography has been hip-hop soul, A Mary Christmas shows that if she’d like, she could pivot a bit in her career and record an album of pop standards or jazz ditties. On a novelty number like “Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer”, Blige chooses to channel the spirits of Betty Carter with a sublime jazz performance (it’s an outstanding performance – hopefully, Blige will follow up this fantastic recording with other jazz work). And on the impressive waltz of “My Favorite Things,” the grand diva offers an incredible, over-the-top performance befitting a superstar like Mary J. Blige.
As with most contemporary pop albums of the 21st century, our headliner is joined by some starry guests, including gospel greats the Clark Sisters, who find a light swinging funk on “The First Noel”, while fellow pop legend Barbra Streisand offers her buttery tones on “When You Wish Upon a Star” (the contrast of the two superstars results in an utterly charming duet). Best of all is when Blige shares the mic with UK soul star Jessie J on a particularly moving “Do You Hear What I Hear”.
Christmas in New York
Opera great and legendary soprano Renée Fleming has made a career of recording art songs and jazz standards that run parallel with her classical career. On Christmas in New York, Fleming indulges in these musical impulses, recording a record of holiday tunes. Like her studio recordings, the tracklist on Christmas in New York is primarily a mixture of jazz and pop standards with a couple of contemporary pop tunes mixed in as well. Christmas in New York feels like a recital or concert that Fleming would put on. Fleming’s voice is a natural wonder: large, strong, and crystal-clear with a round, warm tone. Though she made a name for herself as an opera singer, she finds solid comfort in jazzier moments. The brightest moments of Christmas in New York pair our diva with Wynton Marsalis, especially the vibrant “Sleigh Ride”, which Fleming performs with playful coquettishness.
(Parlophone/Warner Bros, 2015)
Christmas is inherently campy, gaudy, and somewhat ridiculous. And so, Kylie Minogue is the perfect artist to record an album of Christmas music. More so than any other star, she is the personification of camp. And she embraces that camp, which makes Kylie Christmas a must for holiday music collectors. The album is a glittery, glossy Christmas party. The songs run the gamut from familiar standards to Minogue’s take on contemporary holiday tunes – it’s all warm and fun, and none of it takes itself too seriously.
The stylistic twists and turns on the album can feel haphazard – and honestly, Minogue’s not a brilliantly versatile artist: she is so good-natured and cheery that she manages to sell anything. She takes on the 60s rock of “I’m Gonna Be Warm This Winter,” and though she’s no match for original Connie Frances, she barrels through with a pogoing performance. It’s similar to her rushed rendition of “Christmas Wrapping,” originally a punk, No-Wave song by the Waitresses – Minogue doesn’t convince as a punk diva. Still, she’s so endearing and fun that against all odds, she makes it work (and even Iggy Pop’s strange vocal cameo on the tune doesn’t mar its bubbly giddiness).
There is the obligatory “All I Want for Christmas Is You” knock-off, this time in the jaunty “Christmas Isn’t Christmas ‘Til You Get Here” (one of the handful of original tunes on the album). There are some lovely moments amongst the raucous candy-coated ditties: the New Wave Yazzo classic “Only You” is transformed into a sweet lullaby, Minogue matched well with comedian James Corden’s airy tenor; she also does a lilting take on the Pretenders’ “2000 Miles.” Because it’s a Kylie Minogue alum, there are some disco-flecked pop tunes, too, including a duet with sister Dannii on spangly “100 Degrees.”
(Capitol Nashville, 2020)
Country superstar and American Idol alumna does an incredible job with the sacred My Gift, a primarily spiritual record of Christmas songs. Hoping to remind her listeners that Christmas is a religious holiday, Underwood collects some of the most beautiful divine material and performs them with angelic power and passion. Released during the pandemic, it’s an appropriately somber and thoughtful Christmas record as if to highlight what Christmas is all about.
Though most of My Gift is ruminative and ponderous, there are some lively moments, too. “Let There Be Peace” – an original tune co-written by Underwood – jolts the album with excitement as she belts with a heavenly gospel choir. “Sweet Baby Jesus” is a moving midtempo rhythmic-pop number. However, the best moments on My Gift have Underwood sing touchingly on slower, more reflective material. Her impassioned take on “Silent Night” takes the carol and turns it into an urgent plea. And on her duet with John Legend, “Hallelujah” (another original tune), Underwood finds a fiery emotion in the pretty pop ballad. The best moment, perhaps, is her beatific take on Beethoven’s “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” – a stunning way to open the record, with producer Greg Wells’ gentle and soothing instrumentation that supports Underwood’s exquisite voice.
Judy Garland — “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (1944)
The definitive rendition of the song, Judy Garland introduced this weepie of a Christmas tune in the Vincente Minnelli musical, Meet Me in St. Louis. Played during a particularly emotional moment in the film, Garland’s take is unbearably sad and beautiful. Instead of doing her usual, full-throated belting, she sings the song with a quiet intensity, imbuing the piece with the kind of heartbreak that no one could do, like Garland.
Eartha Kitt — “Santa Baby” (1953)
Eartha Kitt was a brilliant and exciting performer for most of the 20th century. She earned immortality with her role as the sensual Catwoman in the 1960s Batman TV series. “Santa Baby” her 1953 novelty-pop hit was as much of a defining moment in her career. It’s a great, hilarious song about an assertive young lady, unashamed of what she wants. Though she may sound materialistic, Kitt’s knowing and witty performance make this song extraordinarily likable and captivating.
Darlene Love — “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” (1963)
With all due respect, Darlene Love is the true Queen of Christmas. This rocking Christmas soul number is one of the greatest holiday songs of the 20th century. Love’s raspy, mighty roar cuts through Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, and she sounds perfect. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Darlene Love.
Aretha Franklin — “Winter Wonderland” (1964)
Before she was the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin was a top-shelf pop and jazz songstress. Her swinging rendition of this old favorite shows off the Queen young and full of confidence, her large, graceful voice gliding with ease on the swaying strings.
Whitney Houston — “Do You Hear What I Hear” (1987)
At the height of her pop success, Houston recorded this version of the Christmas staple on the first Very Special Christmas series. The production feels a bit time-stamped for the mid-1980s, but Houston’s particular genius punches through the 80s gloss with an authentic and genuine performance. Her voice is robust, and she sails through the tune with a churchy passion.
Beyoncé — “Silent Night” (2001)
Recorded when Beyoncé was still part of Destiny’s Child for the group’s Christmas record. Though that album was a cacophony of pop and digital-R&B sounds prevalent in the early 2000s, the album pauses with this magnificent track which featured a restrained and subtle solo performance for Beyoncé.