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Recently in 1990s Category

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Originally released in 1999, it's been re-released a number of times since then, including again in 2014 on Brownstone Records. The passage of years between his classic holiday sides and this collection might indicate that James was going for a nice middle-of-the-road payday on this collection, but unlike other vintage soul performers, James tried to keep it real. No easy listening gospel versions of classic past tunes are offered here. You'll hear contemporary soul-funk-hip-hop influences as applied to the original James Brown sound on this disc, along with 11 original tunes co-written by the Godfather. "Spread Love" especially leans into the slow-jam realm, "Not Just Another Holiday" swings like crazy, and "Christmas Is For Everyone" is an old-school James raveup with modern bass/drum machine sounds. "Mom and Dad" is a bit preachy about the Fourth Commandment, "Don't Forget the Poor at Christmas" offers the reason for the season with a bit of "Santa Claus Go Straight To the Ghetto" blended in, "God Gave Me This" is a lengthy slow-jam ballad, and "A Gift" is almost reggae-flavored. "Sleigh Ride" is not the familiar tune but a holiday rap, a motif repeated on "Reindeer on the Roof Top," "Funky Christmas Millenium" is very Funkadelic-influenced, and "Clean For Christmas," given James' troubles in the 1990s, is almost too much information. Production does sound low-budget, and you can't help noticing that this album was sung by a much older man than the original classics, but overall this is a pretty strong modern r'nb holiday album, and given its age it doesn't really sound particularly dated.
chbrown.jpgIf 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.

smokey.jpgIt 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.
chrismot.jpgThis 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. This isn't easily found, but at least some of these cuts have turned up on other Motown holiday albums since this import dropped.

motown.jpgMotown, 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 among its additional cuts "I Want To Come Home For Christmas," one of the Marvin Gaye holiday cuts that seldom turn up anywhere. Note that there are numerous Motown holiday anthologies out there, and the songs on this one are certain to turn up on at least some of the others.

take6.jpgtake7.jpgAlthough I express my bias toward acapella music elsewhere on this site, Take 6's two Christmas efforts, one from 1991 (He Is Christmas) 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.
boyz2men.jpgThis 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. Like most Universal-owned holiday albums, this was re-released under the "20th Century Masters" banner, though it's the same album.

womack.jpgAn 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.
fats.jpgYou 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. UPDATE: This disc has also been issued under different covers and titles, including Fats Domino's Christmas Gumbo.
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)

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specgift.jpgThis 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.
deathrow.jpgNames 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.

all4one.jpgThe 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.

A Special Christmas, SWV (BMG)

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swvxmas.jpgFrom 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."

Merry Christmas, Mariah Carey (Columbia)

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mariah.jpgYeah, I used to rail against this 1994 album because of my extreme distaste for this formerly ubiquitous, leather-lunged diva. I decided that was not the mature path to take, about a few minutes before I found a copy of this marked way down in the used-record bin. So let me make up for lost time in being just the tiniest bit fairer to this than I have been. You've read me using the term "diva moments" in other reviews on this site, sometimes in a derogatory fashion, and believe me there are plenty of diva moments here. Essentially Mariah fits in with other R'nB artists in the approach she takes to singing, lots of over-the-top trilling that escalates as the song goes on. So I still don't recommend the ballads on this CD, like "Silent Night," "O Holy Night," "Miss You Most (At Christmas Time)," and especially skip "Jesus Born on This Day," with the obligatory kiddie chorus. But she gets credit for going to the Phil Spector well in covering "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" and his version of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town," and both songs are done well. The closer, "Jesus Oh What a Wonderful Child," is a good gospel rave-up and "All I Want For Christmas Is You" is a solid, and popular, original that has stood the test of time. She returned to the Christmas well in the next decade, and we covered that here at Mistletunes as well.
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The long-standing e-mail address still applies. Inquiries for advertising are now being accepted here, as are offers of review copies. Music questions can still be sent here too, though a comments section is now live as well.