If you had asked me what I thought a potential Gwen Stefani Christmas album would sound like, I’d probably respond with something along the lines of the bratty New Wave of the Waitresses song “Christmas Wrapping,” maybe the synthpop of Wham!’s “Last Christmas” (more on that song later), or the alternative rock of No Doubt’s cover of “Oi the World.” I wouldn’t expect an album of 50s doo-wop and 60s girl group pop. But it’s a pleasant surprise how well her quirky voice can wrap around these sounds, for the most part.
“Jingle Bells” sets us off, and it’s a propulsive blast of old school pop and rock sounds with Stefani’s trademark vibrato riding the waves of the song wonderfully. It’s colorful, it’s quirky, it’s fun, and it sounds like Stefani is as energized here as she was on This Is What the Truth Feels Like. It’s fun to hear her unique voice deliver traditional songs like “White Christmas” or “Let It Snow.” She brings a certain spunk and animated character to them.
Yet the limits of her voice show in “Silent Night,” a song she just doesn’t have the range for. She sounds like she’s pushing hard for some of the bigger, higher notes, and maybe this one should’ve been left on the chopping block in favor of something like “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” or “Blue Christmas.”
While her version of “Santa Baby” can’t hold a candle to Eartha Kitt’s original, it’s still miles better than several other covers. I’m looking at you Madonna! Stefani’s voice has a certain quality that’s Betty Boop-ish at times, and it’s deployed on this song to strong effect. It’s a fun bit of kitsch, and you can practically conjure up a music video for it with Stefani in some glittery naughty Mrs. Claus outfit done up like a pinup girl.
The real surprise of the covers is “Last Christmas.” No mournful synthpop here, instead it sounds like a song the Shirelles might have recorded. It’s a stellar cover where Stefani’s penchant for breakup melodramatics gets to sparkle, and she makes a meal out of it. She mentioned A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector as an influence on the album, and that sound is most apparent here with the layers of background vocals, instruments, and hint of melancholy.
The other half of the album is original material, with the treacle of “When I Was a Little Girl” and love song “Never Kissed Anyone with Blue Eyes Before” being standouts for the wrong reasons. Many Christmas songs are love songs of joy or heartache wrapped up in yuletide garnishes, but these songs have little to nothing to do with the season. A much better example of the combination of Christmas/love song is “My Gift Is You,” which sounds a bit like “Stand By Me” and proclaims the greatest gift isn’t anything material but the love she’s found with her paramour.
Speaking of him, “You Make It Feel Like Christmas” is a sweet little love song that bounces and grooves like a Motown banger. While “Christmas Eve” may be the best of the original songs, as Stefani digs deep into her Catholic upbringing to craft a song that sounds at once like a pop ballad and a hymnal. It’s gorgeous, highly dramatic, and filled with just a hint of sadness and nostalgia that creeps in around this time for all the colored lights and joyful noise. You Make It Feel Like Christmas is a bit of a mixed bag, but it’s a strong, pleasant listen overall.
DOWNLOAD: “Last Christmas”