Christmas music comes into its own

Christmas music has evolved to 2021 standards. Here’s a treasure chest of 10 mostly contemporary holiday releases that will please young ears but won’t (or at least shouldn’t) trigger negative reaction from older listeners.

Leslie Odom, Jr. –  “The Christmas Album” (BMG) 2020

One of Broadway’s hottest vocalists and acting talents turns his attention toward seasonal classics and provides some interesting twists. These include the presence of South Africa’s Mzansi Youth Choir on “The Little Drummer Boy,” and other songs that incorporate both Hawaiian and Jewish influences. He also welcomes other outstanding guests to the session, notably his wife, Nicolette Robinson, and vocal/acting dynamo Cynthia Erivo. Top tunes include stirring versions of “O Holy Night” and “This Christmas.”

Photo: Leslie Odom Jr. via Twitter

Norah Jones – “I Dream of Christmas” (Blue Note) 2021
Whether she’s a country vocalist with jazz influences or a jazz singer with a country edge, Norah Jones has become an international star by successfully blending adaptations of both idioms. Jones continues in that vein on her first Christmas collection, providing some unexpected pleasures. These include her reworked version of “Christmas Don’t Be Late,” a tune originally recorded in much less vocally classy fashion by the Chipmunks. Jones explores with distinction the isolation that’s been forced on so many by the pandemic with a stirring version of “It’s Only Christmas Once A Year.” There’s also ample familiar holiday fare, “Winter Wonderland,” “White Christmas,” and an interesting approach to Chuck Berry’s hit “Run Rudolph Run.”

Mary Mary  – “A Mary Mary Christmas” (Columbia/Sony) 2006
The sparkling duo of Erica and Tina Campbell has proven extremely popular on the contemporary gospel circuit. They’ve brought that same flair and energy to their first Christmas project while also expanding their menu of material. There are songs with a prominent R&B flavor such as “Only One,” “‘Tis the Season,” and  “California Christmas. These stand nicely alongside gospel selections like  “Still the Lamb” and  “Call Him Jesus”, plus more traditional holiday tunes such as  “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and a distinctly updated “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”

Whitney Houston –  “One Wish The Holiday Album” (Arista) 2003

Though it didn’t enjoy the commercial success of her previous five studio releases, Houston’s first holiday LP in retrospect wasn’t quite as bad as some critics suggested. She offered solid versions of holiday standards such as “Joy to the World,” and also less familiar material like “Who Would Imagine a King.” Her cover of Freddie Jackson’s “One Wish for Christmas” did make the Top 20 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary Chart. Some 15 years later, the album finally earned gold status. It also has nostalgic impact for her fans.  It includes a duet with her daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown.

Luther Vandross – “The Classic Christmas Album” (Columbia) 1995/2012
Luther Vandross only recorded one holiday album, the magnificent “This Is Christmas” in 1995. But Columbia decided to get more mileage from the original 10-cut release, and padded a 2012 reissue with four previously unreleased tunes, one a splendid duet with Chaka Khan on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Vandross was in top form for the original LP, and his versions of “Please Come Home For Christmas,” “The Christmas Song,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “My Favorite Things” are spectacular triumphs.

Mariah Carey – “Merry Christmas” (Sony) 1994/2019
Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is her generation’s version of “The Christmas Song” in terms of staying power and popularity. When both it and this LP were initially released in 1994, they immediately became holiday staples. The album included a pair of originals, “Miss You Most (At Christmas Time) and “Jesus Born On This Day, which she co-wrote with Walter Afanasieff. Those three were augmented by Carey’s soaring renditions of  “Joy to the World” and  “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” The 25th deluxe edition of this LP was released in 2019, the same year “All I Want For Christmas Is You” finally topped the charts. It has since become the first and only holiday single to earn a diamond certification (10 million plus copies sold in the United States).

Various Artists – “Christmas Rap” (BMG) 1987After Run-DMC’s enormous hit “Christmas In Hollis,” labels realized rap fans were as eager to get material in that format as any other audience. This is a compilations of old-school rap tunes, as the lyrics and production definitely differ from the jarring beats and sounds of today’s performers. But the greater thing is most of these tunes are delightful, among them “Derek B’s “Chillin’ with Santa,” Sweet Tee’s “Let the Jingle Bells Rock,” and “Dana Dane is Coming to Town” by Dana Dane. For those who were around in the early years of rap, this will bring back fond memories.

Jim Jones – “A Dipset Christmas” (Koch) 2006

This one reflects current directions and trends in rap, which some will find entertaining and others will not. Still, the performers’ intentions were commendable. Rapper Jim Jones, who grew up under hard circumstances, said in the liner notes that he “wanted to make a Christmas album for kids in the hood and s*** like that.” That accurately describes “A Dipset Christmas.” Jones mixes seasonal favorites with originals. A prime example is “We Fly High” remix featuring T.I., Diddy, Lil Kim, Birdman and Young Dro. It’s available in both uncensored and clean versions.

John Legend – “A Legendary Christmas” (Columbia) 2018 

This is as warm, mellow and soulful as modern R&B gets. John Legend had been encouraged to cut a Christmas LP for many years, and finally did so to support a 25-date tour he was doing that season, as well as a television special that also featured his wife, Chrissy Teigen. There’s a  wide range of outstanding performances, especially “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” and “Silver Bells.” 

Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra  – “Big Band Holidays II” (Blue Engine) 2019

Here’s one of America’s greatest jazz orchestras under the leadership of trumpet giant Wynton Marsalis. This is a collection of fine performances done from 2015-18 by the Orchestra in various holiday concerts. The Orchestra also welcomed some tremendous guest vocalists during these concerts, among them Catherine Russell, Veronica Swift, Denzal Sinclaire, and Audrey Shakir. But the guest who tops the list was none other than Aretha Franklin, showing again that she excels in any setting. The previously unissued rendition of “O Tannenbaum” was an instant classic when Franklin performed it in 2015, and the only wonder is why it took so long to finally be released.

Ron Wynn is the sports and entertainment editor for the Tennessee Tribune, a columnist for the Tennessee Jazz and Blues Society and editor-in-chief for the online media company Everything Underground. He is co-host of the radio show “Freestyle” on WFSK-FM and has been nominated for contributions to Grammy-winning music. 

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