Willie Nelson, Kenny G, and Mariah Carey all have holiday albums hitting major milestones this year
Willie Nelson’s Pretty Paper at 40: the Red-Headed Stranger Plays It Straight
Willie Nelson became a fairly instant country superstar with 1975’s Red Headed Stranger, and notched up five consecutive top two country albums in less than three years with his traditional-ish sound.
He then made a hard left turn with 1978’s Stardust, a collection of American songbook standards produced by Booker T. Jones, which became a monster smash, hitting #1 and spending, I kid you not, an entire decade on the country albums chart. For his first Christmas album, the following year’s Pretty Paper, Nelson went back to Jones in the captain’s chair — fitting, since apart from Nelson’s own title track (which was a hit for Roy Orbison in 1964) and the closing instrumental “Christmas Blues” (a Nelson/Jones co-write), the album is nothing but holiday standards. They kept the same approach, too, a hushed, acoustic, jazz-combo-meets-country instrumentation: lots of piano, a little harmonica. (By now, it’s nearly a Nelson trademark.) Nelson’s inimitable skills as a singer and interpreter are on sterling display here, as he takes the title track back from Orbison and nearly makes many of these standards his own: “White Christmas,” on which his primary backing is from a church organ, is much warmer than usual, while “Blue Christmas” gets an almost-jaunty Western swing take. Independent of the holidays, even, this is one of the strongest entries ever in Nelson’s massive catalog.
AUDIO: Willie Nelson Pretty Paper (full album)
Kenny G’s Miracles: The Holiday Album at 25: the best-selling holiday album of the Soundscan era
Entertainment Weekly’s David Browne, reviewing Kenny G’s Miracles: The Holiday Album upon its release in 1994:
“Along with Neil Diamond, Kenny G joins the curious ranks of Jewish men performing Christmas songs. The juxtaposition doesn’t jar him a bit. On Miracles, he and his soprano sax worm their way through easy-listening renditions of ”Silent Night,” ”Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — you know the repertoire by now. With the album, G’s transformation into the Mantovani of the digital age is complete. It’s perfect background music for shopping in a mall or wrapping presents. His own personal gift is thanking 143 people by name in the credits. It’s a good thing he sold all those records last year — he’ll need the cash for all those presents.”
What a dick.
First of all, why can’t Jewish artists perform Christmas songs?* (I would ask who the fuck Browne is to suggest they can’t, or shouldn’t, but the answer to that is: he’s a critic. And I can’t really diss that. But I can still think he’s a dick.) And secondly, every age, digital and otherwise, needs its easy listening holiday recordings — not everyone wants to hear the Vandals or Cocteau Twins (the latter one of my holiday favorites) in December.
Speaking of easy listening holiday recordings, when Miracles topped the Billboard 200, 25 years ago, it was the first Christmas/holiday album to do so since the Mitch Miller album Holiday Sing Along with Mitch did so in January 1962. And this album is kind of an analogue to that one: classic Christmas melodies produced inoffensively, perfect for every age to hear at the holidays. It’s not artistically challenging, certainly, but it’s lovely, especially if you’re not opposed to some artificial sweeteners at Christmas. It’s still the best-selling such album of the past thirty years.
*In an interview with Craig Rosen for The Billboard Book of Number One Albums, G — né Gorelick — expressed that he was originally “concerned about” doing such an album (suggested by his then-boss, Arista Records president Clive Davis), but decided that using the term “holiday” instead of “Christmas” would help. Additionally, as G is an instrumentalist, there are no religious lyrics heard on the album, and he co-wrote an original, “The Chanukah Song,” to tribute his own faith.
AUDIO: Kenny G Miracles (full album)
Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas at 25: A Pop-Soul Grab Bag Featuring That Song
Songwriters dream of penning additions to the Christmas canon, the next “White Christmas” or “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” because if you hit that Christmas lottery, you’re set for life — and probably your kids’ and grandkids’ lives, too. George Michael’s legacy is secure less because of “Faith” or “Careless Whisper” and more because Wham!’s “Last Christmas” will be played on radio and streaming as long as there are such things. After 1984, when both “Last Christmas” and Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” busted into the canon, nothing else did (at least in the U.S.), for a decade. Until, that is, Mariah Carey, arguably the pop and R&B queen of the ‘90s, did so with the Phil Spector homage “All I Want for Christmas Is You” (which she herself co-wrote).
Her accompanying album, Merry Christmas, definitely rides its single’s coattails. (Literally, too: as “All I Want” has climbed back into the top ten of the Hot 100 this December, thanks to mega streaming numbers, the album has joined it there.) It’s pretty much just what you’d expect from a 1990s Carey album, uneven-to-mediocre overall. (Save for “All I Want,” which is overwhelmingly brilliant, and deservedly a new addition to the holiday music canon.) She oversings the hell out of “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night,” hitting what I not so affectionately refer to as “notes only dogs can hear.” “Joy to the World” simultaneously interpolates a bit of Three Dog Night’s same-titled song (which I can’t quite decide if it’s a good or bad thing — I mean, I guess it works?) and sounds like a bargain basement Clivilles & Cole production. Basically, Carey overdoes it on the religious numbers and overdoes it in a different way on the secular ones. [A new-in-2019 Deluxe Anniversary Edition of the album adds a second disc with six live tracks from a 1994 performance at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City (nice enough), a handful of songs from her second Christmas album, 2010’s Merry Christmas II You (totally unnecessary), and a couple of hilarious remixes that have no place here.]
AUDIO: Mariah Carey Merry Christmas 25 (full album)