by Chris Azzopardi -
SGN Contributing Writer
Merry Christmas II You
Sequels usually suck, but Mariah Carey's not going down with that sleigh on her cleverly titled offshoot to her Merry Christmas behemoth. That 16-year-old album spawned 'All I Want for Christmas is You,' a modern-day classic, whose new 'Extra Festive' version is, well, extra-noisy or something. More obviously, the diva's 'Auld Lang Syne' sounds ready to ring in the New Year on a Gay disco ball, as its slow preface surges into an arms-up thumper. Beats percolate on first single 'Oh Santa!' too, with its old-school bounce and school-yard chant, but this wouldn't be a Mariah album without big, goopy ballads - and Merry Christmas II You is padded with them: 'One Child,' one of two new tracks produced by Hairspray composer Marc Shaiman, builds to a belting climax; there's also opera-singer mom, Patricia Carey, on 'O Come All Ye Faithful' and a live, chill-propelling 'O Holy Night.' But part two is no classic, especially with the awkward Michael Jackson-borrowed 'Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane).' The spirit's there, though - and that goes a long way.
Holly Happy Days
That the Indigo Girls recorded their first holiday album in Nashville is only appropriate - they've never sounded this downright country. 'I Feel the Christmas Spirit,' a bluegrass sing-along, is a toe-tappin' good time. What follows is similar in style but stripped to their much-adored acoustic sound: 'It Really Is (A Wonderful Life),' written by Chely Wright, adds a jazz twist, while 'I'll Be Home for Christmas' is simple and understated, intertwining Emily Saliers and Amy Ray's voices like holiday magic (Janis Ian, Brandi Carlile and Mary Gauthier add harmonies to the album, too). But what's really special about the refreshing Holly Happy Days (besides the cool packaging with lyrics of the three new tunes written on ornament cut-outs) has more to do with the duo's rarely recorded song selection. One of those, Beth Nielsen Chapman's 'There's Still My Joy,' is stunningly bittersweet - just how we like our Girls.
Glee: The Music
The Christmas Album
Before Glee conquers the world (because it will), it's conquering Christmas - the Gay way, with a dude duo doing 'Baby, It's Cold Outside' together (aw, cute!). On the holiday-themed release from the cast of TV's biggest, Queerest drug, Kurt (Chris Colfer) and possible-new-loverboy Blaine (Darren Criss) charm in a refreshingly Gay take on the classic. Otherwise, Glee plugs carols into the show's formula for frothy bouncers and over-the-top ballads: a jazzy, dance-made 'Jingle Bells'; pop fave 'Last Christmas' and a soaring 'O Holy Night,' sung by pipe queen Lea Michele (duh). Even the show's knack for mash-ups gets play on this disc with 'Deck the Rooftop,' a groovy romp. 'You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch' is an odd fit, especially since Glee is known for, you know, singing, but it's the only real coal in this collection - one sure to make the yuletide Gayer.
and Leon Russell
In his illustrious four-decade career, Elton John's done it all: cut classics, inspired generations of performers and been one of the greatest Gay icons ever. For so long, though, the legend's admiration for Leon Russell, a roots-country crooner, went untouched - until now, as the two marry their musical geniuses into a masterfully written, produced (cut live by tunesmith T Bone Burnett, no less) and performed duets LP. Trademark Elton sneaks in on the boisterous kiss-off 'Monkey Suit,' heartfelt ballad 'The Best Part of the Day' and snarling, piano-licked 'Hey Ahab,' perhaps due in part to longtime co-writer Bernie Taupin's contributions. But the Rocket Man is still far removed from his signature classic-rock days, falling closer in line with Russell's '70s Americana records. On The Union, craft ranks over mainstream consumption, and it pays off remarkably with the sarcastic lead single 'If It Wasn't for Bad,' a jaunty, nuanced number; 'Gone to Shiloh,' a moving Civil War narrative, with Neil Young bringing an added ache; and quiet gospel closer 'In the Hands of Angels,' a song that Elton lets his idol have at alone. It's a testimony to the brotherhood felt throughout, where both artists extract each other's individual best and together, as Elton smoothes out the ruggedness of Russell's drawl, sound like each other's yin and yang. Their Union isn't simply a great story of enduring friendship, but one of the best albums of the year.
Even Liza Minnelli knew her decision to embarrass herself, and her legendary career, with a 'Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)' remake earlier this year was a bad move - she sounded grossly awful, like she was hobbling to the finish line. Instead of pushing the idea of older-diva-does-younger-diva through to this studio album, her first since 1996's Gently, she embraces every day of her 64 years of age with a classy covers collection that plays to her strengths and avoids emphasizing her weaknesses. Her voice - more jeans than spandex these days - doesn't go for flash, but is understated and expertly suited for the quiet intimacy that producer and longtime collaborator Bruce Roberts is fetching. The 14 standards are scaled back, never giving Liza's now-husky alto more than it can handle - no orchestras, no showstoppers - with its jazzy, dinner party arrangements. 'Confession,' originally from The Band Wagon and opening the set, perfectly complements her personality, but even with better-known favorites like Frank Sinatra's 'All the Way' and Etta James' 'At Last,' she holds her own, reaching more for the song's soul and less for its vocal cartwheels. The soft-sounding ease of it all could use more oomph, even with the zing of 'You Fascinate Me So,' and is sometimes tediously muddied, but Confessions is still a mature and dignified way to keep Liza's 60-year career rolling. Hell, we'd put a ring on it.
Something weird's to be expected from B-52s' Fred Schneider, whose side project with two other musicians - known collectively as the Superions - is one strange, creepy, horny, electro-fused spin. The perverted 'Santa Je T'aime' answers the question, 'Why did ol' Saint Nick favor Rudolph?' And other novelty songs are just as wacky. If Christmas got punk'd, this would be it.
Christmas Is the Time
& (To Say I Love You)
Back to basics, and out from the trendy trench, is where the American Idol loser lands on her simple 10-tracker. The songs on her third album, mostly made of classic carols, are structured to conjure pre-fad-following McPhee, who sings her little heart out and, with sole original 'It's Not Christmas Without You,' pulls at ours.
The Puppini Sisters
the Puppini Sisters
What did Christmas sound like in the '40s? Like the Puppini Sisters third disc, with 10 tracks as fresh as new snow. The British trio (who aren't really sisters) rework them with a retro twist, jazzing up 'Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!' and putting the breaks on 1980s Wham! hit 'Last Christmas.' Even Mariah's 'All I Want for Christmas is You' is revived - in boogie-woogie style.
Christmas in Harmony
If you held on for one more day, then pay-off's finally here: Wilson Phillips, the all-girl group who ruled the early '90s, are getting into the spirit with their first holiday LP. The title couldn't be truer - harmonies are their thing, especially on songs like opener 'I Wish It Could be Christmas Every Day' - but the album's as safe as giving a gift card.
Lizz Wright's got some voice - a supple, rich contralto that, on her new 'secular gospel' offering, could trigger chills through non-believers. After submerging it into jazz and blues, Wright honors her Georgia roots with emotionally stirring results - impressing with the glorious 'God Specializes,' Eric Clapton's 'Presence of the Lord' and 'Amazing Grace,' made into a minimalistic mover. With help from Sweet Honey in the Rock's Bernice Reagon, and daughter Toshi, Wright's fourth album is a transcendent journey of life, spirituality and deeply felt feeling.
Whoever Shontelle is seems irrelevant on much of her sophomore set, where she's a pop singer left to imitate rather than initiate. Rihanna comparisons - especially on the dancefloor punch of 'Take Ova' - are inevitable, but the Barbadian 23-year-old's also doing her best Estelle impression on 'DJ Made Me Do It.' Even then, and even with a talented production team, she can't find a way to make it her own. Shontelle sounds mostly outdated, cheap and lyrically shallow, but the lead single, 'Impossible,' shows she may still have a shot at defying Gravity.
Reach Chris Azzopardi at email@example.com.
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