Christmas albums, and holiday-themed albums in general, are a tricky business. More often than not, they come off as nothing more than a desperate attempt for labels and marketing wizards to exploit the season and rake in as much cash as possible. However, that’s not to say that good holiday albums don’t exist. While festive music mostly evokes symptoms of rage and stress in many of today’s listeners, some releases still strive to provide an overall ambient enhancement to the season as a whole. This year, Mary J. Blige has filled that void.
Mary J. Blige has been a legend in her own right for years thanks to her success at the top of the R n’ B charts. However, it seems strange that it’s taken this long for the icon to release a holiday album. The title fits so perfectly, and as it turns out, Blige’s soulful voice also carries these traditional holiday songs quite well.
The album begins with Little Drummer Boy. While this song is a classic through and through, the instrumentation used here places the song in a new light. Deep brass instruments, juxtaposed against soft chirping keys carry the song’s melody. What’s really on display though is Blige’s effortless voice, as is made clear throughout the entire album.
The album is a decidedly tranquil one as it flows through jazz influences and smooth sounds. Following Little Drummer Boy is a jazzy and ambient rendition of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. There isn’t much more to say other than that it really is an excellent rendition. It stays true to the classic, but adds a unique spin with cascading strings that build against smooth guitar and piano chords. My Favourite Things is somewhat of a disappointment as it builds more to a ballad than the usual rambunctious mood that the tune usually strikes. Still, it’s clear that Blige is attempting a mix between R n’ B and classic instrumentation with this album, and the track fits in well with that dynamic.
Thankfully, the album’s tempo picks up with This Christmas. No matter how you feel about holiday music, it’s hard not to let this track hit a sentimental chord. The fast-paced ambiance is quickly removed though as The Christmas Song begins. While this rendition is still a nice one, it’s ultimately feels boring and can’t be considered as memorable. This notion is quickly forgotten though with Blige’s unique and captivating take on Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. What starts as a minimalist jazz-inspired cover quickly turns into an elegant romp. The saxophone solo on this song alone is enough for it to be considered a gem.
The second half of the album moves slowly, but this shouldn’t quite be taken as a negative critique. The album moves calmly and purposefully, and Blige’s voice carries the classic tunes well enough on their own. Even as a ballad-oriented holiday album, the guest list that this album boasts is enough to keep it interesting. With collaborations from Jessie J, Barbra Streisand, and The Clark Sisters, the album quickly becomes all about vocal powerhouses, which, along with the meticulously crafted instrumentation, shapes an overall delight to the ears.
Holiday-themed musical releases are now an inevitable aspect to the season that will be found each and every year. This year though, Mary J. Blige has provided listeners with something unique and thoroughly pleasant. This album will undoubtedly remove any notions of stress you may feel about the holidays, and for that reason, along with its stunning instrumentation and impressive vocal range, it deserves to be recognized as a thoughtful and well-crafted holiday album.
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