I may prefer my Christmas music of the distinctively secular kind, and I may generally find the overly reverent standards to be more funereal than celebratory, but I know a solid holiday album when I hear one. Mariah Carey’s pop-friendly R&B-lite has never directly appealed to me, but like any good gay boy worth his wait in diva worship I’ve appreciated a few songs over the years. One of them would be the justifiably famous original she launched into the canon of yuletide classics, where it’s always sounded perfectly at home since its debut.
It doesn’t hurt that Carey keeps the guest rappers, the displays of trend-chasing, and the strange need to function as a distracted disco chanteuse away throughout. She merely plants her feet squarely on the ground, surrounds herself with live instrumentation and a healthy dose of gospel choir backing, and belts towards the heavens. If this isn’t her best collection of vocal performances, then I’m sure one of her lambs would agree that it’s towards the top of the list.
Well, for the most part.
(Screaming) Mimi can’t help herself when it comes to “Joy to the World.” She marries the traditional to the Three Dog Night beat, throws in a bit of club swagger, and over sings like it’s last call at the drag bar and the tips are running low. Then there’s the way that her original songs, you know the ones not named “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” just limp along as ballads whose sole existence to buckle under the weight of Carey’s octave-scaling and vocal tics. “Jesus Born on This Day” even throws in a children’s choir for extra treacle and sogginess. It’s the kind of holiday music that makes an Scrooge out of you.
She’s much better ripping arrangements and material from Phil Spector’s holiday playbook. Not only does she cover Darlene Love’s immortal “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” but takes a spin on the Crystals’ version of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” She sounds positively buoyant and confident on these songs. “Santa Claus,” in particular, features some playful vocal choices that are quite fetching.
It’s when Carey plays it old school that the album soars. Think of how the cover places her as a chaste pinup, and then listen to “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” That one wouldn’t sound out of place on A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector. In fact, one of her music videos for it had her playing Ronnie Spector, and one can easily imagine Ronnie’s voice belting the lovelorn lyrics with gusto. It’s no surprise this song has become a staple as it sounds like it was plopped out of the glut of Christmas songs from the 50s/60s.
When Carey focuses on playing gospel belter or girl group pop princess that Merry Christmas soars. Sure, there’s too many ballads and the Christian material gets a little bit much after a while, but there’s still plenty to recommend here. It’s a reminder of what a gift Carey’s voice once was. Time and overuse may have weakened some of its power, but listen to her tame “Silent Night” or “Jesus Oh What a Wonderful Child” and bow before a titan. Her love for the material shines through, but Merry Christmas remains a testament to the religious power and mystery of Carey’s golden throat.
DOWNLOAD: “All I Want for Christmas Is You”