Chris Rice | Fred Hammond | Michael McDonald
Stacie Orrico | Anne Murray | Go Fish
Noel: 11 Elegant Christmas Classics | Vicki Yohe

The 88 Keys of Christmas

The Living Room Sessions: Christmas
Chris Rice (Rocketown)

The award for prolific artist of the year has got to go to Chris Rice, who's released three albums within one year's time. Last April Chris debuted a new series entitled The Living Room Sessions, so named because Chris simply records himself at home noodling on his piano. Following in the footsteps of the first album in the series, which contained 12 beloved hymns, this one explores (appropriately) 12 classic Christmas carols, as well as an instrumental version of Chris's carol-like classic "Welcome to Our World." Some will undoubtedly find an album of instrumental piano pieces nothing special or exciting. However, I like how Chris understates his piano arrangements; they're simple, subtle, and thoughtful rather than showy and overwhelming. The tracks are short (the entire album's only 37 minutes long), and the arrangements are generally less innovative and more simplistic than those on the first Living Room Sessions album. Still, pianists will appreciate the beautiful variations of well-known favorites as well as Chris's technical proficiency. Plus, the intimacy of the solo piano lends itself well to the familiarity of the carols. This one's great for background music during tree trimming and present opening, or quiet Christmas reflection in front of the fire with loved ones.

Radical For Christmas

Just Remember
Fred Hammond (Verity)

Reputed producer and musician Fred Hammond hardly needs an introduction, since he's been one of the key artists who's helped reshape the sound of gospel music in the last ten years. Those familiar with his past work with Commissioned and Radical For Christ can't help but get excited at the idea of Fred doing a Christmas project. Which is why I'm just a tad disappointed with Just Remember, since most of the 12 album cuts have the exact same smooth rhythm-and-blues/gospel feel to them. The songs on Just Remember range from covers of Christian pop and gospel favorites (such as "Christmas Everyday" and 4Him's "A Strange Way to Save the World") to originals by Fred (such as "God Has Been Good" and "We Sing Glory," a worship song that focuses on the miracle of the Word made flesh). However, they all feel like variations of the same style. Though the album is surprisingly homogenous, there are certainly some standout tracks. "Just Remember" cleverly blends the melody of "Carol of the Bells" with new lyrics and smooth jazz. And Fred's soulful half-time gospel cover of "Go Tell It On the Mountain" demonstrates his artistry as a producer and an arranger. If only Fred had varied the album's sound beyond the steady beat of the opener, "His Name Is Jesus," and the hip-hop/gospel shuffle of the closing song, "He Is the Reason." The guest appearance by Radical For Christ on "Go Gabriel" is too little too late, and it might have been a good idea to introduce other gospel artists as he did on his In Case You Missed It project earlier this year. Despite the repetitive sound, I consider Just Remember one of the better Christmas albums this year and appreciate its originality and quality production. Check it out if you'd like to celebrate the season with a soulful blend of R&B, gospel, and pop.

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"What a Fool Believes"

In the Spirit
Michael McDonald (MCA / Provident)

Yes music lovers, it's that Michael McDonald — the legendary singer/songwriter known for his work with Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers in the '70s (including the hit song used as our title above), as well as his solo career in the '80s. Apparently Mr. McDonald is a believer, first expressing his faith musically on 1999's Streams project, on which he sang Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up" with Maire Brennan. Are you skeptical that Michael's foray into Christian music was a one-time incident? Well, besides thanking his pastor and "everyone who seeks to understand God's love for us" in the album's liner notes, In the Spirit is filled with original songs (most of them co-written by Michael) that communicate the Christmas message as well as any other Christian artist, if not better. Many of Michael's songs feature the same signature jazz/blues pop sound he's known for, including "To Make a Miracle," which explores the mysterious miracle of how one child can save all of mankind. Michael re-teams with his friend James Ingram (from their hit single, "Yah Mo B There") for their new song "One Gift," a song that rightfully points out that money and presents don't stand the test of time, unlike the eternal gift from God to all mankind.

There are several other originals, but my favorite is "Peace," co-written by Beth Nielsen Chapman, a gorgeous and gut-wrenching ballad in the vein of Rich Mullins's "Hold Me Jesus." It's a surprisingly confessional song that only relates to Christmas in that Michael prays to the "Wondrous Child of whom the angels sing." As for covers, the album begins with a wonderfully simple and acoustic version of "Angels We Have Heard On High," and there's an exciting jazz/blues medley of "White Christmas / Winter Wonderland" that features popular blues guitar sensation Jonny Lang. Also, be sure to check out the absolutely ripping gospel track, "Children Go Where I Send Thee," which is like a cross between the works of Kirk Franklin and Billy Joel. Because of the abundance of new songs and Michael's generally bluesy and jazzy pop sound, this isn't a particularly Christmas-sounding album — it's the lyrical content that qualifies it as holiday music. But, as the title implies, this album is "in the spirit" of a Christmas album, and I love it for its artistic excellence and originality. In the Spirit is a Christmas album that nails the meaning of Christmas without dipping into cliché or becoming overly sentimental. I highly recommend it to classic pop/rock enthusiasts, as well as to fans of blue-eyed-soul pop by artists such as Bryan Duncan and Bob Carlisle.

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Christmas Baby One More Time

Christmas Wish
Stacie Orrico (Forefront)

I was a little nervous about this one at first, since 15-year-old Stacie Orrico has only one album to her credit. Do people really want to buy a Christmas album from her already? Fear not … this is a reasonably priced six-song EP that's probably an attempt to make a Christmas album for the teen crowd, just as label-mate Rebecca St. James did four years ago. That particular album worked for me because Rebecca's ethereal-pop sound created a gentle and magical Christmas atmosphere. Stacie soulfully warbles like Christina Aguilera on Christmas carols including "O Holy Night" and "O Come All Ye Faithful." Under her voice, there's not much of interest among the standard programmed pop beats. To be honest, most of the mini-album didn't put me in the Christmas spirit. Additionally, the two new songs ("Love Came Down" and the title track) are pleasant, but predictable Christmas pop. Traditionalists may have a hard time swallowing the electric groove of "What Child Is This?" but will appreciate the beautiful cover of "White Christmas" (produced by Michael W. Smith). This, the disc's last track, finally brought some Yuletide spirit to my ears. Regardless, fans of Stacie's brand of R&B-flavored teen pop will eat this up. The younger crowd will probably enjoy Christmas Wish because it's targeted to their tastes … and easy on their wallet.

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Murray Christmas to All!

What a Wonderful Christmas
Anne Murray (Straightway / Sparrow)

This year's award for most comprehensive Christmas album goes to Anne Murray's new Christmas collection, What a Wonderful Christmas, which features a whopping 32 Christmas classics on 2 discs. As far as I can tell, there's nary an original song on the collection, which makes this almost as traditional as you can get. There simply isn't enough space to cover all of the tracks on this album, nor is there much need to. Anne's musical style ranges from light, easy-listening pop to orchestral arrangements, usually opting for a blend of the two on most of the tracks. Acoustic guitars and simple percussion are just as important to the mix as the occasional atmospheric touches provided by the London Symphony Orchestra. Anne hits on everything from sacred ("O Little Town of Bethlehem," "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear"), to secular ("It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," "I'll Be Home For Christmas," "The Christmas Song"), and everything in between ("Little Drummer Boy," "Do You Hear What I Hear?"). There are even some songs for children ("The Santa Medley," "Rudolph / Frosty Medley") and some lesser-known favorites ("Christmas in Kilarney," "Christmas Wishes," "Mary's Boy Child"). Aside from the collection's size, this is exactly what you'd expect of a Christmas album from Anne Murray, so there are no surprises or stumbles here. What a Wonderful Christmas is a traditional-sounding holiday album, but its repetitive easy-listening sound keeps it from being a truly timeless Christmas recording. Parents and grandparents should find it very appealing.

Hooked on Holiday Harmonies

More Than a Story
Go Fish (Inpop)

A cappella group Go Fish is hoping 2001 will be their breakthrough year, thanks to the one-two punch of their Inpop national debut, Infectious, last summer and now this re-release of their 1999 Christmas recording. One might be tempted to think More Than a Story is merely an album filled with a cappella renditions of classic Christmas carols … and one would be greatly mistaken to think so. What surprised me about this disc is how much Go Fish was willing to experiment with the familiar songs and make them fun and clever (two key ingredients in modern a cappella music). In fact, Go Fish's arrangement style is such that you'll forget you're only listening to voices and a drum machine — the bass sounds more like an instrument than a vocalist, and those not singing the solo are eager to accompany rather than share the spotlight. Some of the songs are straight rhythmic pop interpretations of well-known Christmas songs, such as "O Holy Night" and "Angels We Have Heard On High" (which sounds cool, despite their forced attempt to mimic dc Talk). Other arrangements keep the lyrics but alter the melody, such as the soulful version of "Silent Night," the N'Sync-sounding "Go Tell It On the Mountain," and the '50s doo-wop styled "Away In a Manger." Go Fish also pulls off some less conventional covers, such as Mark Lowry's "Mary Did You Know," the jazzy camp of "Grinch Song," and most surprising of all, Bob Dylan's "I Believe In You." The drum machine is occasionally a little amateur sounding, though it's almost as often very impressive, and the vocal production is excellent. More Than a Story easily could have been a routine and simplistic Christmas recording, but Go Fish clearly put some thought, effort, and heart into it … not to mention a lot of fun. All ages can enjoy Go Fish's sound, but fans of boy band pop will especially enjoy this.

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Easy Like Christmas Morning

Noel: 11 Elegant Christmas Classics
Various Artists (M2)

Sometimes its best to keep it simple with Christmas music, and that's basically what Noel strives to do. This is a collection of Christmas favorites done in an easy-listening, inspirational pop style by several of the top studio musicians in Nashville. Since there are no big-name artists on Noel, the focus shifts to the album's sound and arrangements, which are very straightforward and light. The album is a hodge-podge of Christmas carols and popular Christian pop favorites such as "Breath of Heaven" and "Emmanuel" (both made famous by Amy Grant), as well as Michael W. Smith's "Gloria." Though the keyboards and drum programming are occasionally amateur sounding, the overall style is light and simplistic. It's certainly not a badly performed album, but it's not a top-notch production either. Noel is actually very similar sounding to this year's Hillsong Christmas album with Darlene Zschech and company, though almost all of that album is programmed, whereas only some of this one is. There isn't enough to the album for me to highly recommend Noel, but it's a pleasant enough Christmas collection for fans of light Christian pop.

"Hark the Herald Angel Sings … "

Christmas Presence
Vicki Yohe (Aluminum / Audio X)

All right, maybe you don't like puns, but I dig this title — it speaks volumes. This is a re-release of Vicki's Christmas album, originally released on Audio X. Interestingly enough, her new Aluminum Records label-mate Paul Alan contributes the title track to Vicki's Christmas album. For the most part, Christmas Presence is your typical inspirational Christian pop recording, but for every clichéd inspirational arrangement on the album, there's also a beautiful and powerful pop arrangement. Vicki's voice is consistently stunning (coming close to the power of Celine Dion or Barbara Streisand), and there are some very well-performed guitar and saxophone solos sprinkled throughout. Half of the album is comprised of straightforward pop covers of old favorites — "White Christmas," "Silent Night," "O Holy Night," "Do You Hear What I Hear?," and "I'll Be Home For Christmas" (which starts off with a wonderful solo guitar rendition of "The Christmas Song"). The other half features originals and lesser-known Christmas songs, such as Bill Gaither's "What Did You Say Was the Baby's Name?" and the show-stopping pop of "No Room," a song I can't believe I've never heard since its 1978 copyright. Vicki shows strong vocal prowess on the traditional gospel favorite "Jesus Oh What a Wonderful Child." In the end, Christmas Presence is a well done Christmas album that doesn't quite stand out since it pushes so many familiar buttons. We've heard numerous other Christian artists such as Sandi Patty and Amy Grant do the same type of music for years. You'll probably go into this album looking forward to the familiar favorites, and come away remembering it more for lesser-known Christmas songs. Because of that sense of originality, Vicki Yohe earns high marks for her Christmas project. It's not quite as timeless as Jaci Velasquez's Christmas album in sound, but fans of inspirational Christian pop will enjoy it. Currently the album is unavailable through Musicforce, but you can pick up a copy at Vicki's official Web site or a local Christian bookstore.

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