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It's Christmas, Of Course, Darlene Love (Shout! Factory)

If Darlene never did anything but sing on Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift To You she'd still be Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame material. Though she's popped up occasionally over the years doing everything from duetting with Ronnie Spector for A Very Special Christmas to acting in the "Lethal Weapon" movies, from singing the "Saturday Night Live" comedy short "Christmastime For the Jews" to performing a Christmas song with the E Street Band, she's been way overdue for a sequel to the Spector album. Well folks, this 2007 set is it. All props to producers Shawn Amos and Kevin Killen for showcasing her historic voice against a strong and eclectic selection of contemporary Christmas tunes. You could pick any record producer out of the phone book who would take one look at Darlene and drop a bunch of strictly R'nB covers on her along with gospelized versions of classic carols -- and face it folks, we'd probably be grateful for that. But Amos and Killen give us a more imaginative selection. Obvious soul covers like "Please Come Home for Christmas" and "What Christmas Means to Me" join with less obvious ones like the Staple Singers' "Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas?" and James Brown's "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto" to play against Christmas tunes from the rock world like Tom Petty's "Christmas All Over Again," the Band's "Christmas Must Be Tonight," Billy Squier's "Christmas is the Time to Say I Love You" and John and Yoko's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)." Darlene, of course, has the talent to pull this off. She takes XTC's "Thanks For Christmas" to church, adds some soul to NRBQ's "Christmas Wish" and remakes the Pretenders' stately "2,000 Miles" with just a hint of jazz. The whole thing wraps up with an original ballad, "Night of Peace."

Christmas Is 4 Ever, Bootsy Collins (Shout! Factory)

The R'nB Christmas sector has been pretty assembly-line to my ears in recent years, so it's way past time a true original in the field stepped up to the eggnog ladle. Bootsy Collins, formerly leader of Bootsy's Rubber Band, teamed up with boutique label Shout! Factory to bring us his vision of a funky Christmas, getting together with former members of the Rubber Band and P-Funk, plus Bobby Womack, his brother Catfish, Roger Troutman, Snoop Dogg (on "Happy Holidaze") and Charlie Daniels (really, fiddle on "Sleigh Ride"). It's like he never left, with his unique voice, "space bass" and cast of thousands putting the beat to a collection of popular carols and originals. The dozens of Merry Christmas shout-outs between and during songs do get a little old, but it's worth having just for Bootsy re-imagining his big smash "I'd Rather Be With You" as a Christmas song with Troutman's help. Other originals include "N-Yo-City," "Happy Holidaze" with Snoop's rapping and the title song, which is a bit of a muddle. An imaginative take on "Merry Christmas Baby" is a highlight, and of course no R'nB artist is allowed to make a Christmas CD unless one of the songs is "This Christmas," which here is a fine performance of a classic tune. The old-school carols also get unique names, like "Chestnutz" for "The Christmas Song," "Boot-Off" for "Rudolph," and "Jingle Belz" for, oh, you know. Definitely a season highlight.

  Bootsy Collins was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. In July 2010, Collins launched Funk University partnering with Cory Danziger on the venture. "Funk U" is an online-only bass guitar school where students can learn at their own pace. The online classes include video lectures, lessons and exercises taught by some of the greats such as P_NUT, TM Stevens and many more. Many thanks to Bootsy for sharing his love and knowledge of the bass guitar. The University also plans to offer other instruments in the future.  

A Christmas of Love, Keith Sweat (Rhino)

The self-professed king of the slow jams gets on the Christmas tip for 2007 with this nine-song CD full of, wait for it, slow-jam Christmas songs. Only the evergreen "The Christmas Song" is a traditional carol, the rest are originals, three of which Sweat co-wrote. Not surprisingly, there's not a lot of variability in tempo or approach -- "Party Christmas" and "Once a Year" are just slightly more uptempo than the rest -- but Sweat does a pretty good job of selling this material. "Point of Christmas" is the "reason for the season" track on this CD, and "Under the Tree" is the makeout song. Near as I can tell, the breakout cut is "Be Your Santa Claus," at least if single-track popularity at iTunes is anything to go by.

"Perfect Christmas," Sisqo (Dragon Music)

The R'nB crooner of "Thong Song" let this slip out for Christmas 2006, a by-the-book modern holiday tune in the current style, complete with spoken intro and full of romantic allusions to the holiday. It's nice work; I wonder if he's testing the waters for a full CD. Apparently he let people download this free from his MySpace page, but it wasn't there at the time I posted this. I found it on iTunes.

I'll Be Home For Christmas, The Isley Brothers (Def Jam)

When older artists from the classic soul era step into the Christmas genre, the results tend to be more easy listening than R'nB, and the Isleys, now featuring just Ronald and Ernie, fall right into that description, even with the production assistance of 80s whizzes Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The originals on here, "I'm In Love" and "What Can I Buy You," are closest to R'nB, the former in a 70s ballad vein and the latter resembling a Jam/Lewis trademark ballad production. The rest is pop with a bit of jazz and soul, and they put together an "Isleys Christmas Medley" of classic carols that is strictly 1970s variety show in execution. If you can download the originals, you'll be ahead of the game.

The 25th Day of December, The Staple Singers (Riverside)

I'm including this more for historical purposes, though some of us are big on authenticity as well. The Staples were always first and foremost a gospel group, but most of us recall them for their secular hits like "I'll Take You There." Similarly, their best-known Christmas tune among us pop-rock Christmas fans would be "Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas," a more secular tune that isn't on this 1962 collection. This is a straight gospel workout featuring songs mainly taken from the gospel repertoire like the title song, "Go Tell It on the Mountain," "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," "No Room at the Inn" and so on. A few more popular carols like "Joy to the World," "Silent Night, and "O Little Town of Bethlehem," songs that emphasize the religious aspect, are also here. Notable for making its CD debut in 2007, and also because at least some of our readers are interested in the roots of our obsession with popular Christmas music. Update: Bob Bailey notes that this album was on CD before, in 1993, as A Gospel Christmas Card, but with several additional tracks by other gospel artists added.

It's Christmas Time Again, various artists (Stax)

There are no dates for the performances on this 1989 compilation, but I'm guessing they are all from the late 60s and early 70s. Little Johnny Taylor does "Please Come Home for Christmas," Rance Allen Group takes on "White Christmas," The Temprees do "The Christmas Song" and Albert King tries "Christmas Comes but Once a Year." There are some originals, too. Isaac Hayes (Chef!) does his Hot Buttered Soul routine on "The Mistletoe and Me" and "Winter Snow," Rufus Thomas comes up with an answer record to Eartha Kitt, "I'll Be Your Santa, Baby," and Albert King and Mack Rice each do versions of Rice's great "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'." And the Staple Singers' "Who Took the Merry out of Christmas" is here too; it also appears on the album Bummed Out Christmas. Almost as good as Soul Christmas. Update: Reissued for 2007 as Christmas in Soulsville.

A Faithful Christmas, Faith Evans (Capitol)

Evans is popularly known as a hip hop diva, but that's just a function of the time she has come up; she could have been a blues, jazz or soul star if she had come up in different eras. This 2005 album is typical in execution for an R'nB singer, with 11 songs, mostly standard carols and pop holiday songs, with a few hip hop moves on most of them to make them sound contemporary. "Mistletoe and Holly" sticks out because it's the only one that takes the pop/show tune approach; the rest are soulful jams of various tempos. "Soulful Christmas" is a faster number that will get you out on the dance floor, and her "Santa Baby" is a worthy performance, giving Eartha Kitt a run for her money. She swings over to blues with the now-standard "Merry Christmas Baby," and hits a traditional note with "White Christmas," "Christmas Song," and "O Come All Ye Faithful." I'm beginning to think there's a law somewhere that states no R'nB artist can do a Christmas album without covering Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas," but Evans' version is just as good as anybody else's.

Soulful Sounds of Christmas, various artists (Rhino)

This is a pretty solid collection of modern R'nB from the early 80s ("Christmas in Hollis" by Run D.M.C., the only rap tune on the CD) up through the present day. Fans probably have a lot of these tunes, but if you're short on latter-day soul you might find this 2004 collection a sweet change of pace. Among the selections are "Happy Holidays to You" by New Edition, "Snowy Nights" by En Vogue, "Let It Snow" by Boyz II Men, "Comin' For X-Mas" by Usher, "Do You Hear What I Hear" by Whitney Houston, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" by Babyface, and we get gospel from Kirk Franklin, Bebe and Cece Winans, along with appearances by Dru Hill, Yolanda Adams, TLC and Xscape.

Christmas Gumbo, various artists (Bayside/Flambeau)

Party town New Orleans (pace Katrina) is always a good place to go for your holiday grooves, and this 2004 compilation carries on the tradition. Songwriter/producers Greg Barnhill and Will Robinson (not the "Lost In Space" kid) had the idea to write a whole CD's worth of fresh Christmas tunes and then recruit some hometown talent to perform them. So we get Beausoleil and their trademark zydeco on "Papa St. Nick," the legendary Allen Toussaint doing a Fats Domino groove on "The Day It Snows On Christmas," Art Neville of the famous Brothers on the title song, brother Aaron showing off his balladeer chops on "Christmas Prayer," Irma Thomas taking it slow on "Christmas Without the Creole," and the Subdudes singing about "Peace in the World." John Hiatt fans will recognize Sonny Landreth's guitar chops, if not his voice, on "Got To Get You Under My Tree," with the help of the Dixie Cups on background vocals. And just in case you thought there was anything dated about a New Orleans Christmas, Houseman funks things up on "Pimp My Sleigh," taking off on the car customizing trend. The final cut is the only tune not written by Barnhill and Robinson, Ingrid Lucia's version of "Zat You, Santa Claus?" Serious holiday party music here, folks.

Ashanti's Christmas, Ashanti (Murder Inc.)

The young R'nB singer swings into the holiday with a short 10-song set for 2003. She picks between standards and some new tunes like "Hey Santa," "Christmas Time Again," "Time of Year" and "Sharing Christmas." The approach is not unlike other singers of her generation, somewhere between pop and R'nB, although the overall effect is much closer to contemporary easy listening. Many of the arrangements are straight pop, with only "Sharing Christmas" veering toward the slow-jam style and "Silent Night getting the gospel treatment. Add points for her overall restraint -- very few diva moments on this CD.

The Spirit of Christmas, Chuck Brown (Raw Venture/Liaison)

If you're not from the Washington, D.C., area, Chuck Brown could be anybody (except holiday bluesman Charles Brown, of course). But if you are, or you're an aficionado of soul music of the 1980s, you know Chuck is the godfather of go-go, a funk-soul offshoot that was regionally popular for its danceability. Chuck gigs fairly regularly to this day, and this 1999 CD is his move into holiday music. He sticks close to what made him popular on this CD, mid-to uptempo funky grooves laid over a selection of well-known covers. If you need a "Silent Night" you can fast-dance to, and a lot of us do, Chuck's your go-to guy. He takes a similar tack on "Merry Christmas Baby," "White Christmas," "This Christmas" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," although the latter is between slow and fast, splitting the difference with the slow-dancers on this nine-cut album. The ballad treatment is given to "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "The Christmas Song" and "That Spirit of Christmas," the last two being duets with the late Eva Cassidy. Chuck has a nice baritone somewhere between Isaac Hayes and Barry White, and the band provides solid support, leading me to believe that the ultimate Chuck Brown experience really is live in front of a crowded dancefloor.

Family Christmas, The Katinas (Gotee)

I stumbled onto these guys the same time I did Relient K, discovering their 2004 holiday CD, but although they share a Christian market heritage, they're a different kettle of fish altogether. Where Relient K is a kind of pop-punk band, The Katinas are more a modern R'nB vocal group. Like other R'nB holiday collections, there's lots of gospel and jazz inflections on top of the beats, lots of close harmony singing. They work this combination well on an uptempo "Joy to the World" and turn "O Come All Ye Faithful" into a slow jam. "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" is a vocal workout with handclaps, and they go completely a capella on "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Their own original "Christmas Is Here" is a 70's uptempo funk sound, very nice. They also cover Michael W. Smith's "Emmanuel" in more of a rock arrangement, another change of pace. R'nB fans should like this a lot, and there's a fair number of cuts that will appeal to a lot of different people.

Merry Christmas, The Supremes (Motown)

The superstars of the Motown stable, recognizable not only in the 60s variation of the "hood" but on Main Street as well, nursed along a secret affinity for schlock and schmaltz during their whole existence. Remember such albums as The Supremes Sing Rogers and Hart? Remember their single of "The Happening?" You can therefore guess how this 1965 holiday album turned out -- sappy. Although all the Motown Christmas albums exhibit a certain amount of excessive wholesomeness, you'd never guess this album had anything at all to do with Motown if you heard it in a vacuum. Liner notes of the 1999 reissue make it clear this is Berry Gordy's fault, as he was obsessed with "crossing over" from a black audience to a general audience and felt the Supremes had the best chance of doing so. I'm guessing the notion that "My Favorite Things" was a Christmas song started with this album, "Twinkle Twinkle Little Me" is the fabled star singing about itself (gag), the "Children's Christmas Song" works in the mandatory kid-singing number (the last two songs were actually a single back in the day) and the rest is mostly failed nightclubbery, 60s style. Only "Little Bright Star" and "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" incorporate much of the Motown sound. Collectors will note the reissue adds four bonus cuts, including an unreleased "Noel" and a remix of Florence Ballard taking the only lead on the album away from Diana Ross on "Silent Night." Update: Re-released in 2004 as part of the Christmas Collection: 20th Century Masters series.

Someday At Christmas, Stevie Wonder (Tamla)

This album was originally released for Christmas 1967, which means Stevie was still 16 and still taking orders from Berry Gordy as to what and when to record. Which explains why this album has more in common with the other Motown holiday albums than it does with Stevie's later, history-making work. It's a full-orchestra pop album for the most part, pretty sappy across the board, with "Andy Willams Christmas Special" styled versions of "Silver Bells," "Ave Maria, "The Christmas Song," "The Little Drummer Boy," and so on. There are some originals from Motown's staff writers, the nadir of which is "Twinkle Twinkle Little Me," which was bad enough on the Supremes album without making Stevie do it too. Of course, as long as Stevie's singing, how bad can this album be, right? Fortunately, this album contributes to the canon "What Christmas Means to Me," the only straight-up Motown-style tune on the album and enough to justify the rest, although I wouldn't mind hearing a more muscular version of "One Little Christmas Tree" sometime from someone, too. Update: The 20th Century Masters edition of this album released in 2004 adds two additional cuts, "The Miracles of Christmas" and "Everyone's a Kid at Christmas Time."

Our Very Best Christmas, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (Motown)

It would be enough if this group were simply the long-running hitmakers they were, from the 1950s right into the 80s. But Smokey Robinson was one of America's greatest singers, songwriters and producers, responsible not only for much of the Miracles' output but many other Motown records on which you needed a reading glass to find his name. This 1999 compilation pulls cuts from two holiday albums, 1963's Christmas With the Miracles (likely the first Motown Christmas album) and 1970's The Season For Miracles. The first six cuts on the compilation are almost proto-Motown, featuring the more ensemble-based sound of the earlier Miracles with just a few hints of what was to come. Star cut from this grouping is quite obviously "Christmas Everyday," widely covered by dozens of artists since then. The rest, from the later album, are produced by a rotating cast of personalities. Some, like Smokey's production of his own "I Believe in Christmas," are obviously mature Motown, while "I Can Tell When Christmas Is Near" and "It's Christmas Time," both written and produced by Stevie Wonder, push the Miracles in the direction his own music was then taking. Whether talking about the individual albums or the recent compilation, however, there is some inconsistency, with the group ranging widely between classic soul sounds and sugary pop confections -- but that's nothing new for Motown in general.

The Best of the Temptations Christmas, The Temptations (Motown)

This 2001 compilation does an excellent job of melding this premier vocal group's two Christmas albums into a single CD, and the liner notes help us sort it all out. The Temps did The Temptations Christmas Card in 1970 and Give Love on Christmas in 1980, and they released "Silent Night" as a single several times in the mid-80s from the latter collection, with different B-sides. Different versions of "The Christmas Song" and "Silent Night" appear on both albums, but a changing lineup and changing times probably inspired the decision to record the second holiday album, which includes versions of Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas," Smokey Robinson's "Christmas Everyday" and The Corporation's "Give Love on Christmas Day," written originally for the Jackson 5ive. The bonus cut on Best of is a version of "Oh Holy Night" from the sessions for Give Love, soulful and snappy but just a little too long. Christmas Card is the classic Temps/Motown sound, although they downtempo some of the tunes a bit too much, but their versions of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" are the most like their classic singles. On Give Love, they revisit "The Christmas Song" with just a bit more snap and the later version of "Silent Night" is more of a slow jams workout than the straight reading on Christmas Card. The lengthy lead-in to "This Christmas" makes you almost think they're singing it to the late Donny Hathaway before they swing into the uptempo version. And though they don't make you forget Smokey on "Christmas Everyday," bass man Melvin Franklin does a great job of selling it. Columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.'s liner notes to Best Of assert that every Christmas needs a little Temptations in it -- a point that's impossible to argue.

Soul Christmas, various artists (Atco)

An early semi-concept album compiled by Atlantic Records from singles and Christmas albums recorded by its R&B roster, which included the folks from Stax Records, which was distributed by Atlantic at the time. Most of the tunes are covers, Otis Redding being Otis on "White Christmas" and "Merry Christmas Baby," Booker T. and the MGs ringing out with "Silver Bells" and "Jingle Bells," King Curtis wailing on "The Christmas Song" and "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve." But there are some originals, like Solomon Burke doing "Presents For Christmas," William Bell with "Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday," Clarence Carter with "Back Door Santa," Joe Tex promising "I'll Make Every Day Christmas (For My Woman)" and Carla Thomas reprising her hit with "Gee Whiz, It's Christmas." A top-notch collection. In recent years, it's been reissued in its original version on CD and in an extended version by Rhino Records, adding several cuts including Luther Vandross and The Drifters' versions of "The Christmas Song"

Santa's Got a Brand New Bag, James Brown (Rhino)

This 1988 album no longer exists, as Polydor has reasserted its rights to the entire James Brown catalog. Fortunately, they've released their own compilation, James Brown's Funky Christmas, and budget compilations with fewer tunes also are available to keep James tight with the holiday. This album compiles a dozen of The Godfather of Soul's Christmas tunes from several holiday albums and singles released by James throughout the 60s; its successor has 17 cuts. There are a few covers, like "The Christmas Song," "Please Come Home For Christmas" and "Merry Christmas Baby," but the rest were written by or for Brown, of which the absolute standout classic is "Santa Claus Go Straight To the Ghetto." This whole album is James at the height of his powers, and that should be enough for most people, although completists may want to track down all the original King albums and singles. By the way, Waxworks Records released a new James Brown Christmas CD, Merry Christmas Album, in November 1999 with 11 songs. Titles are "Sleigh Ride," "Clean For Christmas," "Spread Love," "Not Just another Holiday," "Mom and Dad," "Christmas IS for Everyone," "God Gave Me This," "A Gift," "Reindeer on the Rooftop," "Funky Christmas Millennium" and "Don't Forget the Poor At Christmas." Haven't heard it myself.

In the Christmas Spirit, Booker T. & the MGs (Atlantic)

Originally released for Christmas 1966, this is what the holiday sounds like when it's accompanied by one of rock and soul's most accomplished backup bands. Besides playing behind many of the Stax/Watt hits by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and so many others, they had their own instrumental Top 40 hits like "Hip-Hug Her," a cover of the Rascals' "Groovin'," and "Green Onions." And of course, various members turned up in the Blues Brothers backing band over time. In the modern day this may sound tame, but it's all of a piece with the band's other recordings -- often imitated, once in a great while duplicated. Notice the bluesy playout on "White Christmas," the guitar that kicks it up a notch on "Jingle Bells," the slinky groove of "Silver Bells," and so on. The medley of "We Three Kings" with an unlisted "O Come All Ye Faithful" seems to go on forever, but it's followed by the funky album closer "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." One of the era's classics.

A Motown Christmas, various artists (Motown)

Motown, being a factory label, put out Christmas albums on practically every one of its classic artists of the 60s, and Motown being Motown, a lot of times the backing tracks got recycled from artist to artist. For the best view of a Motown Christmas, an anthology album like this one is the best bet. Some of the renditions here are a little too serious to suit me, but there are quite a few original Christmas tunes with the Motown treatment, making a collection like this worthwhile. Stevie Wonder is the class of this outfit with "One Little Christmas Tree" and "What Christmas Means To Me." Also represented here are Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and the Jackson 5. The 1999 reissue of this album features one of the Marvin Gaye holiday cuts that seldom turn up anywhere.

Christmas in the City, various artists (Motown)

This 1993 German import is another collection of the famous Motown artists, only this one is heavy on items that are previously unreleased. This includes the only four known Christmas tunes by Marvin Gaye, including "Purple Snowflakes," with lots of carol quotes, although the track was later reused on "Pretty Little Baby." The other three are the collection's title song, an instrumental from 1972, his own "I Want To Come Home For Christmas" and a rendition of "The Christmas Song." A pair by Stevie Wonder, the unreleased "Everyone's a Kid at Christmas Time" and what must have once been on a single, "The Miracles of Christmas." Unreleased from Diana Ross and the Supremes are "Won't Be Long Before Christmas," "Silent Night" with Florence Ballard singing lead and "Just a Lonely Christmas" by Harvey Fuqua. Diana Ross solos Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" sometime between 1974 and '78. The Miracles contribute "Christmas Lullaby," which was released in its time. Kim Weston's "Wish You a Merry Christmas" and session aces The Funk Brothers' instrumental "Winter Wonderland" round out the set.

Motown Christmas Volume 2, various artists (Motown)

After years of perfunctory Motown reissues, the newly aggressive Universal conglomerate has set the dogs loose to take better advantage of its assets. In 1999 the first volume of this set was upgraded, and this 2001 sequel offers samples of many great Motown artists and throws in some unissued cuts for sweetener. Three cuts by The Supremes include "O Holy Night" with Florence Ballard on lead, there are two cuts by the Jackson 5, three more by the Temptations, and more with The Miracles, Kim Weston, two by Marvin Gaye, "Purple Snowflakes" and a live at the Apollo "The Christmas Song," the Funk Brothers, and the Twistin' Kings with "Xmas Twist," which has a lick very much like "Peppermint Twist." There's also a bonus cut of spoken word Christmas greetings from a parade of Motown artists.

Have a Merry Chess Christmas, various artists (Chess)

This compilation of Christmas songs covers 1959 to 1969 with artists on the famous Chicago blues label Chess and its various subsidiaries, featuring Chuck Berry's double-sided triumph of "Run Rudolph Run" and "Merry Christmas Baby." Amazing how these two tunes never turn up on any of his greatest hits compilations. Jazz, gospel and soul are also represented with the O'Jays, Ramsey Lewis Trio, Rotary Connection, Salem Travelers, Soul Stirrers, the Moonglows and the Meditation Singers. Good mix of originals and traditional tunes, and great performances.

The Spirit of Christmas, Ray Charles (Rhino)

Part of Rhino's 50th anniversary commemorative reissue series on the Genius, this actually is not among his seminal Atlantic sides but is a latter-day compilation, roughly 1985, originally done for Columbia Records. As such, it's probably a bit too mellow compared with other recordings mentioned on this site; there's more mainstream jazz and soft blues to this than rock or rhythm 'n blues. Still, this is Ray Charles we're talking about; you cocktail music fans out there, this is the kind of music you ought to be listening to. The bonus cut of "Baby It's Cold Outside" is a duet with Betty Carter from a 1962 ABC single, but it fits right in with the later sides. Update: Another Christmas CD, Ray Charles Celebrates a Gospel Christmas With the Voices of Jubilation, is the soundtrack to a Christmas special released on DVD in 2003. Needless to say, it's more in the gospel line, and Ray throws in his highly touted version of "America the Beautiful" too. RIP, Ray.

White Christmas, Al Green (Hi/Word/Cream/Epic)

A lot of folks out there believe Al Green can do no wrong as a singer and musician, and while the pipes are here in this 1983 outing, the results are lackluster. Sharp listeners can pick out Al's original Memphis sound, but they have to wade through late 70s disco arrangements to do so in most cases here -- and that sound was already out of style by the time Al made this album. This album's only about 27 minutes long, too, but it's just as well. Considering that Al still turns in his trademark vocal performances here, it's a shame the production and arrangements aren't up to snuff. For serious Al fans only.

He is Christmas, Take 6 (Reprise)

We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Take 6 (Reprise)

Although I express my bias toward acapella music elsewhere on this site, Take 6's two Christmas efforts, one from 1991 and the other from 1999, also fit my general description of 90s R&B. Their singing is derived mainly from jazz, gospel and modern rhythm and blues, and the performances are more seriously intentioned than is the norm for Mistletunes. That said, these guys can still sing and arrange voices to beat the band -- literally -- and they still sound different enough to leaven any Christmas party that's treading on the white bread side of the street. If there's too much Bing in your holiday, you can do a lot worse than Take 6.

Christmas Interpretations, Boyz II Men (Motown)

This 1993 album is as much Brian McKnight's as it is the Boyz's, since he co-produces, performs and writes songs throughout. It's mostly original tunes in the gospel-slow jams-90s R'nB mold, with only performances of "Silent Night" bracketing the eight new tunes. Nobody doubts the Boyz know how to sing, and the tunes are pretty good, although "A Joyful Tune" isn't all that joyful. The tempos are a little too reverent throughout, in fact, and this could have benefitted from one or two uptempo gospel rave-ups. This is mainly for R'nB fans.

Santa Hooked Me Up, B2K (Epic)

B2K is an R'nB vocal group who put this out in 2002 at the same time they were pushing their album Pandemonium. The title song is mostly rap, the usual check out my bling-bling kind of thing. "Rain and Snow" is a snappy number, but it has to be the only Christmas song where the holiday feast includes macaroni and cheese. They do good turns on classics like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Jingle Bells" and "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town," but this really stands or falls on the original tunes, and they're mostly kind of lame, lots of same old same old rap ready-mades strung together. The "bonus track" is "Santa Baby," featuring Jhene in case you were worried about guys singing it. And they refrain from modernizing the song's Fifties-era bling-bling lyrics, which, as Martha Stewart would say, is a good thing.

Naughty Or Nice, 3LW (Epic)

More modern sounds of R'nB with this platinum-selling female group, with less rapping and more harmony singing. They take an audacious tack by performing all originals, with the exception of album-closer "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," which dispenses with all the beats in favor of solo guitar and singing. Speaking of beats, I was never able to parse the beats behind "Naughty on Xmas," which almost seemed to fall at random and really sank the song for me. I was initially taken aback by "Ahh Hell Now," in which the girls bitch up a storm about a botched Christmas, but when you think about some of the heavy attitude tunes mentioned here under, say, the punk category, you have to give them credit for just putting it out there. "Christmas Love," "Shady Holiday" and "Take You Home for Christmas" are slow jams while "Christmas Party" throws in everything but the kitchen sink in terms of hip-hop production. The album definitely lives up to its title, although I'm not sure it will wear well. They also seem to suffer from Destiny's Child syndrome; at this writing the group was auditioning new members.

Traditions, Bobby Womack (The Right Stuff)

An aptly named album from the leader of the longtime R&B dynasty. Unfortunately, it's a bit short of the Mistletunes standard, in that most of the performances are completely traditional; very little rhythm and blues or rock involved in this 1999 performance. His one original, "Dear Santa Claus," appears in two versions, one for adults and one for kids, and it's a straight pop ballad. The children's version is sung by grandchild Cheyenne Womack, who appears to have the family talent in her. Highlights are snappy versions of the late Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" and the Gamble-Huff chestnut "Christmas Ain't Christmas," better known in the O'Jays version. Aside from these and his own original, however, there are absolutely no surprises in song choices or arrangements. Bobby still has a good voice and the performances are very good, but it would have been interesting to hear what he could have done with an outside producer and some more inspired choices of songs. By the way, rap may be popular, but there's too much talking over songs here that has little to do with the music.

"Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," Darlene Love (Philles)

The only original song on the classic Phil Spector Christmas album, it's arguably more of a Christmas blues song than "Merry Christmas Baby." Darlene Love's singing makes this one tough to cover, but in recent years many new versions have been done, most notably U2's on A Very Special Christmas.

"Another Lonely Christmas," Prince and The Revolution (Warner Brothers)

Leaving aside the obligatory gags about what this guy's name really is, this was the flip side of the song "I Would Die 4 U," from the "Purple Rain" soundtrack, and if you didn't know it was Prince, you still would be hard pressed to guess anybody else. It's one of The Artist's power ballad/melodramas, and while it's not as good as its A-side, it's still a worthy effort for the Christmas season. Given Prince's prolific tendencies, it's kind of amazing he hasn't done another Christmas song since this 1984 effort. Still available on Prince's B-sides compilation CD.

Christmas is a Special Day, Fats Domino (The Right Stuff)

You might think this is something from the 50s, but Fats actually recorded this in 1993. It's pretty much what you would expect, mainly Christmas standards like "White Christmas," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Silent Night," "Please Come Home For Christmas, " "Blue Christmas" and more done in Fats' inimitable style. The giveaway to the modern era is the instrumentation, in which digital instruments occasionally substitute for their real counterparts. There are two Fats originals, "I Told Santa Claus," which is good, and the title song, which is mediocre, a kind of downtempo Sunday school lesson. Oldies fans should get a special kick out of this one.

Christmas All Over the World, New Edition (MCA)

The R&B teen hearthrobs put out this Christmas EP in 1985, and despite its shortness, it still turns up for sale at your favorite record store, possibly since former member Bobby Brown still turns up in the tabloids. Only six songs, you still have to give them credit for not including any obvious choices; in fact, it looks like five of the six tunes were written especially for this project, one by group members Michael Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe. The opener, "Give Love on Christmas Day," is by Jackson 5ive songwriters The Corporation. "All I Want for Christmas (Is My Girl)" is the tune that best references the group's hit sound. The rest have that 80s R&B-pop sheen to them, but the whole CD wears surprisingly well; acts that followed into the Christmas market 10 or 15 years later haven't actually improved on what these guys did way back then. Trivia: Michael Sembello -- remember "Maniac" from the "Flashdance" soundtrack? -- gets a co-producer credit on a couple of songs.

A Creole Christmas, various artists (Epic Associated)

This compilation was recorded in 1990 to showcase New Orleans musicians at a time when Storyville was becoming noticed by the major labels, never mind that New Orleans music has been a big part of rock 'n roll and jazz all through history. The overall effect of the project is to deliver the kind of "New Orleans music" a big-name producer would create for a Hollywood movie set there. The musicians are recognizable New Orleans names like Dr. John, Allan Toussaint, Aaron Neville, Irma Thomas and Pete Fountain, but the production tends to make them sound more mainstream than the title of the album would suggest. But there are some good moments here: Rockin' Dopsie and the Zydeco Twisters do a Cajun "Jingle Bells," Luther Kent's "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" is arranged like a big 60s soul show-stopper, and the Zion Harmonizers stick close to their gospel roots with "Go Tell It on the Mountain." And does Dr. John, heard here on "Merry Christmas Baby," ever cut a bad side? On the other hand, Aaron Neville's "The Christmas Song" is more like his second career as an MOR balladeer and less like his Neville Brothers roots, and the other tunes are well done but not particularly distinguishable as "Creole music." Your call.

Special Gift, various artists (Island)

This 1996 compilation is exactly what I was talking about in the Statement of Purpose when I mentioned rhythm and blues. It's a perfectly listenable compilation of Christmas tunes in that genre, but there's very little of that rockin' spirit in it -- until the last two cuts, anyway, Kurtis Blow's "Christmas Rappin'" from 1980 and "Christmas Time is Party Time" by Luke -- you know, formerly 2 Live Crew's Luke. The latter one has some strategically placed scratchin' to cover up some very Luke-like expletives, but I imagine the original version is on one of Luke's albums. The rest of the album is well-performed modern R&B, alternating between ballads and midtempo numbers by Angela Winbush, The Isley Brothers, Dru Hill, an instrumental "Silent Night" by Ronny Jordan and the Island Inspirational All Stars on "Don't Give Up," which doesn't even really tie into Christmas from a lyrical standpoint. Good if you're primarily interested in that kind of music, but kind of slow going for everyone else -- unless you absolutely can't find "Christmas Rappin'" anywhere else.

"Gee Whiz, It's Christmas," Carla Thomas (Atco)

Another case of adapting the hit to the holiday, Carla Thomas had a hit with "Gee Whiz" and, when Christmas came along, the authors found a way to adapt her signature song. Nice job of it, too.

Christmas on Death Row, various artists (Death Row)

Names like Snoop Doggy Dogg suggest a rap album, but this 1996 CD only has a few rap tunes. Snoop kicks off with his take on "Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto," no relation to the James Brown number, and Operation From the Bottom revisits the theme with "Christmas in the Ghetto." The only other rap tune is Tha Dogg Pound's "I Wish." Danny Boy emotes on "Peaceful Christmas," Nate Dogg sings "Be Thankful," Sean Barney Thomas does "Party 4 Da Homies," and covers of the standards "Silver Bells," "Silent Night," "O Holy Night," "White Christmas," and a few others are all straight 90s rhythm 'n blues arrangements. Danny Boy also covers Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" and Guess takes on Smokey Robinson's "Christmas Everyday," sneaking in a sample of the original along the way. For the most part, this is a pretty straight R&B Christmas album, so if you were expecting mostly rap, be advised, especially since this album does carry a Parental Advisory tag.

Snowflakes, Toni Braxton (Arista)

Toni goes for the holiday market for the first time in 2001, and the album's about what you would expect of an R&B chart diva. A cast of hundreds, just about, put this thing together, including producers like Babyface, Shaggy, Craig Love and others including Toni herself. There aren't any real surprises; the whole point of this CD is to let Toni apply her pipes to the Christmas season. On that level, it's a good album. She takes on standards like "Christmas Time Is Here," "The Christmas Song" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and also floats some originals like "Santa Please," "Snowflakes of Love" and "Christmas in Jamaica," which doesn't have much to do with reggae or anything else tropical. Two versions each of the latter two songs smack of program padding, by the way. Good voice, good sounds, but utterly predictable.

8 Days of Christmas, Destiny's Child (Music World Music)

You've already heard "Opera of the Bells," better known as a carol, underneath the Victoria's Secret commercial. And since this group has become all-pervasive, you probably know just what to expect from this 2001 effort: modern R&B sounds with occasional diva moments. The surprise is that Beyonce Knowles chooses to share them with the other members of her group as well as her sister Solange, given that she snarfs credits for herself as producer of numerous songs as well as author credit for the quite obviously public domain "Opera" and for a not particularly astute rewrite of "8 Days of Christmas." Still, there are some interesting moments, like their versions of "White Christmas" and "Platinum Bells," better known in the silver variety. "A DC Christmas Medley" is about what you'd expect, featuring "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "Jingle Bells," "Frosty," "Holly Jolly Christmas," "Deck the Halls" and "Here Comes Santa Claus." They also do an original arrangement of "This Christmas," heavy on the diva moments.

A Season of Soul and Sounds, various artists (Epic)

State of the art rhythm and blues circa 2001 is the deal here, mostly of the slow jams variety, with artists from the Epic stable. There are a lot of nice moments here, although I'm not one to listen to the whole 52 minutes in one shot, as there isn't a lot of variation in sound and style; mid-tempo is as up-tempo as it gets here. Macy Grey's "Winter Wonderland," available elsewhere, is my favorite of the songs here. Brad Young does an imaginative reworking of Beethoven's "Joyful Joyful," Jordan Brown really stretches out on "Silent Night," Glenn Lewis is good on Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas," and Jhene updates the lyrics on her modern take of "Santa Baby" to take in baby blue SUVs and Rolexes. And Sarai raps through "Here Comes Christmas." For fans of modern R&B, this will go down smooth.

Peace, Rotary Connection (Cadet/Concept)

Record labels specializing in black artists felt a bit left out of the Summer of Love, since it was mainly white artists creating the new "psychedelic" sound. Cadet/Concept, part of the Chess family, thought they had just the thing for the times with Rotary Connection, a multi-racial rock/soul outfit featuring the late Minnie Ripperton, that recorded three albums for the label before breaking up. One of those three albums was this one, a 1968 hippy-dippy concept album for Christmas that, well, has its moments of good music, but those are far outweighed by the dated peace 'n love posturing. Minnie sings mostly backup, stepping out only on "Christmas Love," probably the best song here. Soundwise, imagine The Fifth Dimension if they hung out at the Grateful Dead's house. The psychedelic "Silent Night" that is the second cut on the album is reprised two more times; the last one is followed by a cut called "Silence," which is, in best John Cage fashion, 90 seconds of silence. That probably tells you as much about this album as you need to know.

An All-4-One Christmas, All-4-One (Blitzz/Atlantic)

The biracial vocal quartet best known for the 1994 hit "I Swear" put together this Christmas album in 1995. Coming from the typical 1990s R&B groove, the group was the biggest thing going until it dropped out of sight for a while. This album is what you'd expect; traditional close vocal arrangements on traditional carols like "Silent Night," "O Come All Ye Faithful," "The First Noel" and so on, but contemporary arrangements on the modern classics like "This Christmas," "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," a medley of "Rudolph" and "Frosty," and "Mary's Boy Child," the latter a fairly refreshing reggae groove while "Town" cops just a few licks from the Phil Spector version to combine with the 90s feel. Their original "Christmas With My Baby" is pretty good, but we could have done without one more reverent version of "The Christmas Song." The group mounted a comeback in 2001, unfortunately a little-noted one. Update: Jeff Mullen, who identifies himself as a former keyboard player for the group, says a previous mention of a band member's trip to rehab was inaccurate. He says one singer needed surgery on his vocal cords, causing him to miss a number of shows.

Merry Christmas From Jackie Wilson, Jackie Wilson (Brunswick)

One of the greats in rock music history, Jackie's Christmas album from 1963 unfortunately is an aberration in his sterling track record of soulful hits. I don't know whether this is because some producer or record executive thought they were doing him a favor by getting him to record such a MOR album, or whether Jackie himself wasn't up to rocking the season. Nevertheless, we are faced with a dozen Christmas standards done in arrangements that would have better suited Andy Williams or Perry Como. Jackie does inject some of his personal style into the vocals, so fans can't miss him, but this doesn't rock out in any meaningful fashion. The original vinyl is probably highly collectible, and for that matter Rhino's 1991 CD reissue (shown at left) probably is too, as neither are in print. But there's a new reissue of this out on Brunswick with the original cover art.

A Special Christmas, SWV (BMG)

From 1997, the last original album by the female R&B trio famed for "I'm So Into You" and "Right Here/Human Nature" before they broke up. There are no surprises here; straight 90s R&B, mostly ballad and midtempo arrangements of chestnuts like "The Christmas Song," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "White Christmas," "Silent Night" and "O Holy Night," also including lots of extraneous talking in the beginnings as a sop to their hip-hop roots. Like many R&B acts, they do "This Christmas," and also include the O'Jays' "Christmas Ain't Christmas" and "Give Love on Christmas Day." A slight album, kicked off by, yes, more talking and ended with a self-indulgent "My Favorite Things."


Eras: The Beginning, The Sixties, The Seventies, The Eighties, The Nineties, The 21st Century

Genres: Reggae, Soul/R&B, Rap, Blues, Punk, Surfin' Xmas, Tropical

Novelties: Fifties and Sixties, The Seventies, The Eighties, The Nineties, The 21st Century

Compilations: Regular Comps, Charity Comps, Soundtracks

Special Reports: Recent Releases, Hanukkah, Miscellaneous