When Mary J. Blige was recording her first album in 1992, producer, Sean “Puffy” Combs, made plans to market her as the “Queen of Ghetto Love.” He wanted to distinguish Blige from the other leading female R&B artists of the day by emphasizing her urban roots and her sharper, grittier sound. Combs was ultimately persuaded to change the moniker to the “Queen of Hip Hop Soul,” but he had the right idea. Blige’s debut release, What’s the 411?, ultimately went triple platinum and ushered in a new wave of edgier hip hop artists who changed the face of popular music. Her first holiday album, A Mary Christmas, was released October 15, and while it features a smoother, softer sound than her previous releases, it’s earned strong reviews, topped Billboard’s holiday album chart during its first week of release, and has been selling well since then. Produced by the legendary David Foster, A Mary Christmas features 12 holiday classics and includes guest performances by Barbra Streisand (“When You Wish Upon a Star”), Marc Anthony (“Noche de Paz”), and Jessie J (“Do You Hear What I Hear?”).
Wrapped in Red, Kelly Clarkson
It’s been over ten years since Kelly Clarkson won Fox TV’s first American Idol competition, and she’s continued to enjoy terrific success since then with a string of hit records and sold-out appearances. Her first holiday album, Wrapped in Red was released on October 29 and debuted in the number one position on Billboard’s top holiday albums chart. The album was produced by Greg Kurstin, and it consists of five original songs (“Wrapped in Red,” “Underneath the Tree,” “Every Christmas,” “Winter Dreams (Brandon’s Song)” and “4 Carats”) and nine standards. Country stars Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood appear as guest performers on “Silent Night,” and Ronnie Dunn joins Clarkson for a duet on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
Sending You a Little Christmas, Johnny Mathis
After 57 years of making records, 78-year-old Johnny Mathis knows a thing or two about pop music, and with five previous holiday records under his belt (this is his sixth), he’s got a pretty good handle on Christmas music, too. Bette Midler calls Mathis the “King of Christmas,” and his latest holiday outing more than satisfies the royal standard. Sending You a Little Christmas features three original songs and nine well-worn classics, including duets with Billy Joel ("The Christmas Song"), Susan Boyle ("Do You Hear What I Hear"), Gloria Estefan ("Mary’s Boy Child"), Natalie Cole ("Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), and Vince Gill and Amy Grant ("I’ll Be Home for Christmas"/"White Christmas"). But make no mistake about it, it’s Mathis himself who makes this collection work. His comfy, familiar voice still sounds awfully good with a fire in the hearth and a twinkling tree nearby.
Home for Christmas, Susan Boyle
By now, everybody knows the rags-to-riches story of Susan Boyle, the dowdy Scottish singer who stunned viewers and judges alike with her powerful performance on Britain’s Got Talent in April 2009 and quickly went on to become an international singing sensation. Her first holiday record, The Gift, was released in 2010, topped the charts in the U.K. and U.S., and was certified triple platinum in this country. Her second, Home for Christmas, was released on October 29, and has been lodged in the number three spot on Billboard magazine’s holiday album chart since its debut. Her latest release is rather similar to the first, although it features a notable appearance by Elvis Presley on the posthumous duet “Oh Come All Yet Faithful” and Johnny Mathis joins Boyle for “When a Child Is Born.”
Duck the Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas
Louisiana’s Robertson family has been on quite a roll this year. Owners of a successful duck hunting equipment business in West Monroe, Louisiana, they also star in the A&E reality show Duck Dynasty, which, since its debut in March 2012 has become one of the most popular shows on cable TV. Their first holiday album, Duck the Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas, was released on October 29, and it’s currently the top-selling holiday album in the nation. I’ve never seen their TV show, but the album’s just about exactly what I expected – a mix of touching, down-home sentiments (“Camouflage and Christmas Lights,” “Why I Love Christmas”) and unrepentant Southern pride ("Ragin’ Cajun Redneck Christmas”). I doubt this one will have much staying power, but it’s certainly fun for a listen or two.
Let It Snow: A Holiday Collection, Jewel
Jewel’s second holiday album, Let It Snow, was released last week, and it follows in the footsteps of her first, Joy, which was released in 1999. Both benefit from her sweet, simple style, and neither strays very far from the tried and true – but like Joy, which has enjoyed steady sales during the 14 years since its release, Jewel’s latest effort is the kind of collection that’s likely to become a comfortable standard. Let It Snow includes two original songs ("It's Christmastime" and "Blue Christmas Glow") and ten classics, of which “What Child Is This?” is among the standouts. Vince Gill is a featured guest, adding some welcome country guitar to a rousing version of “Let It Snow.”
The Complete Christmas Recordings, Andy Williams
Few performers are more closely identified with Christmas than Andy Williams, and the wave of nostalgia that followed his death last year seems to have only strengthened that association. This two-disc set contains 42 of Williams’ best-loved holiday songs, and it’s just the thing for someone who’s looking to start a holiday collection of their own. In his day, Williams was an especially prolific recording artist, and this collection includes material from the five holiday albums he released, including The Andy Williams Christmas Album (1963), Merry Christmas (1965), Christmas Present (1974), I Still Believe in Santa Claus (1990) and We Need a Little Christmas (1995). He was always a big favorite in our house, and I'm guessing in many others, too.
The Classic Christmas Album, Barbra Streisand
Released on September 27, Barbra Streisand's The Classic Christmas Album contains 16 songs from her two previous holiday records, A Christmas Album (1967) and Christmas Memories (2001). Streisand’s first Christmas album is among the most popular holiday collections of all time, and this latest release is already selling well this season. While many different styles are represented, it should be noted that beacuse both of Streisand's earlier holiday releases were remastered years ago, most listeners will notice little improvement in sound quality on this new release.
Tomorrow: Part 2 of the 2013 New Release list