Christmas carols, in a sense, are the original mood music.
Think about it. However much the lyrics might talk about babes born in mangers and angels heard on high, the music in those classic carols conjures up the whole majesty of Christmas. No sooner do we hear the refrain from "We Three Kings" or "O Come, All Ye Faithful" than we're flooded with thoughts of snowy nights, twinkling trees and happy times.
Even contemporary Christmas songs work that magic. Whether as sentimental as "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire ... ") or as silly as "Frosty the Snowman," these tunes play to our sense of what Christmas could -- and should -- be. And so we listen to them year after year, using the music to get us into that holiday spirit.
But buying a Christmas album isn't quite as simple as looking for one that has all our favorite titles. Just as Christmas decorations appeal to every taste, from Kmart kitsch to Martha Stewart quaint, so too do Christmas albums evoke a range of moods. Choosing seasonal CDs, then, becomes a matter of matching your mood with that of the music.
Trouble is, some Christmas albums are more about the stars than the season. While 'N Sync's "Home for Christmas" (RCA 67726) makes some nods to the hallowed holiday sounds -- hushed strings, churchy chimes and a few familiar titles -- its emphasis is on mildly funky beats and soulful vocal harmony.
In other words, the CD's sound is pretty close to that of 'N Sync's pop material (which no doubt explains why the album is selling so well), and that's the problem. Although the album's showpiece, a jazzy, a cappella rendition of "O Holy Night," is a stunning bit of singing, there's absolutely nothing Christmasy about it. Basically, this disc is mostly for those fervid young fans who hope Santa will leave one of these lads under the tree for them.
Now, there's nothing wrong with wanting a funky Christmas. It just takes some effort to balance getting down with getting into the spirit. Jermaine Dupri's "12 Soulful Nights of Christmas" (So So Def 69674) misses that mark most of the time, in large part because his A-list singers (Brian McKnight, Faith Evans, K-Ci and JoJo) are saddled with grade-D material. Only Gerald Levert's pleading "Christmas Without My Girl" comes close to realizing the album's soulful intent.
Fortunately, "Christmas with Babyface" (Epic 69617) succeeds almost as completely as Dupri's "12 Nights" fails. It isn't just that Babyface sticks with the classics ("White Christmas," "Silent Night," "The First Noel" and such); he also takes care that the groove doesn't distort the melody. So even hackneyed fare like "The Little Drummer Boy" -- heard here in a reggae-style arrangement -- seems fresh and fun.
Shirley Caesar also recognizes the value of a good rhythm arrangement, and as such fills "Christmas with Shirley Caesar" (Word/Epic 69614) with thumping bass lines and fatback drums. But the beat really isn't her primary focus. A big believer in keeping the "Christ" in Christmas, she augments her singing with sermonizing, giving this album the feel of a Sunday revival meeting.
R&B-oriented Christmas albums tend to be upbeat and energetic, and not every listener associates Christmas with that sort of exertion. That's why, on the other end of the pop spectrum, we have albums that emphasize hushed balladry, reminding us of the quiet, candlelit side of the season.
Shawn Colvin's "Holiday Songs and Lullabies" (Columbia 68550) takes that approach to its logical extreme. As far as the material goes, the title says it all; from "Silent Night" to "Now the Day Is Over," the album is the perfect thing to play when lighting up the Christmas tree before heading to bed. Colvin's cooing delivery adds to the music's nocturnal aura, giving the album all the sweetness and warmth of hot cocoa.
Celine Dion's "These Are Special Times" (Epic 69523) also starts out quietly, as Dion breathily murmurs "O Holy Night." Don't be fooled, though -- this diva didn't get where she is by playing down the strength of her voice. By the time she gets to "Adeste Fideles," not only have the hushed strings been replaced by a brassy orchestra, but Dion is doing her best to raise the roof.
Despite the occasional vocal overkill, Dion does her Christmas songs right -- mainly because none of the arrangements sound especially modern. If anything, the album seems almost a throwback to the days of Perry Como and Bing Crosby, when Christmas carols were made to seem as big as a Broadway production number.
Nor is Dion alone in trying to recapture the past. Vince Gill's "Breath of Heaven" (MCA 70038) is so fraught with '40s-style sounds, you'd think it was recorded with a time machine. To his credit, Gill sounds completely at home with the jazzy sophistication of Patrick Williams' settings, bringing a crooning confidence to "Winter Wonderland" and "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow." Only his underpowered performance of "O Holy Night" keeps the album from perfection.