Christmas with Ms Blige
My halls are decked with boughs of holly, the partridge is nesting in the pear tree, and I’ve been sitting so long beside this open fire that my chestnuts are well and truly roasted.
Such is life when you’ve got to delve into a Santa’s sack full of new albums for Christmas 2013.
As disc follows disc down the years, it starts to feel like there’s an inflexible longlist of about 25 hymns, carols and secular seasonal songs given out to every musician wanting to cash in on the Christmas market. Occasionally you’ll find a shiny new sixpence in this particular pudding (Bob Dylan’s Must Be Santa or, going back a bit, The Pogues’ Fairytale Of New York) but you’re far more likely to end up trudging through the same old snowstorm of Silent Nights and Winter Wonderlands.
In my house, the Christmas kitchen mostly chimes to the pure crystal tones of choirboys or the scattered grit of Bob Dylan. I’ve tried going off-piste, throwing in some Yuletide originality by the likes of, say, Sufjan Stevens, but that tends to be as popular as unwrapping a PlayStation 4-shaped box to discover three-packs of M&S socks inside.
This year it fell to Erasure, on Snow Globe, to offer up some new songs among the more obvious traditional choices. But the flat electro backing, coupled with Andy Bell’s lifeless vocal delivery, renders them all about as frosty as a snowman’s bum.
Better to head to Kim Wilde’s Wilde Winter Songbook, where a nicely jaunty version of Fleet Foxes’ White Winter Hymnal at least fulfils the family get-together obligations as the gorgeous harmonies are performed by Kim, dad Marty, brother Ricky and niece Scarlett.
Duets are staple of the festive diet (Wilde includes a couple with fellow 1980s stars Rick Astley and Nik Kershaw), from the aforementioned Shane McGowan and Kirsty MacColl modern classic to David Bowie and Bing Crosby looking slightly uncomfortable as they crooned Little Drummer Boy together.
This year’s attention-grabber on that front is our own Susan Boyle teaming up with the late Elvis Presley. Death is not the end, as Bob Dylan once sang – although it’s O Come All Ye Faithful that SuBo and The King tackle here. This, it has to be said, is not the gift of sharing but a commercial two-for-one deal. There is better stuff on Boyle’s Home For Christmas album when she retreats to safe church-service and musical-theatre styles.
That same marketing-led match-up accusation can also be levelled at Mary J Blige when she pairs with Jessie J on a misfiring version of Do You Hear What I Hear? (although it’s pretty clear that it’s the Londoner who’s being done the career favour). However, further up the tracklist of A Mary Christmas, Blige delivers a top-class duet with Barbra Streisand, as well as a jazzily customised Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer that would have made Ella Fitzgerald proud. This is the best of the 2013 Christmas album crop, as an artist with a rich and lovely voice brings distinctive interpretations, full of soul, to an over-familiar songbook. And she doesn’t over-ornament the branches of each melody, either.
If, however, all this peace-and-goodwill stuff has only brought out your inner Scrooge, then let Bad Religion serve up the Jägerbomb within the round of eggnog. The LA punk band’s noisy, fast-lane renditions of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Good Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, What Child Is This? and others contained on Christmas Songs may, to an extent, be a one-trick-pony approach to the repertoire. But it doesn’t sound as if it’s the musical equivalent of writing your name in yellow snow: they’re just celebrating the season without any dour devotion. And, with only nine songs on offer, they don’t outstay their welcome, unlike Auntie Gladys on Boxing Day.