24 December 2013

A Very Special Christmas

A Very Special Christmas is Uneven, but with Some Solid Holiday Gems.
By Kristin Battestella

What better way to get one’s charity on then with the festive 1987 compilation A Very Special Christmas? Though dated and uneven thanks to some instant eighties efforts, this multi platinum release has served the Special Olympics well with its offering of a little bit of holiday for everyone. 

The Pointer Sisters ring in A Very Special Christmas with the catchy Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. Some of the grooving style and new harmony rhythms are decidedly eighties dated, sure. However, the old-fashioned verses are all here, and it’s nice to have some length instead of today’s quick and kiddie renditions. We still hear this version on the radio, too - unlike this lesser heard Winter Wonderland rendition by The Eurhythmics. Although the opening eighties beats and Annie Lennox’s effortless vocal delivery carry a fitting ethereal quality, the unusual synthesizers and high tech arrangement are too fast. The music feels jarring as it contrasts Annie’s slower notes, breezy lyrics, and perfect tone. This isn’t un-listenable, but Annie Lennox and no music would have been plenty festive enough. It would have been nice to have a bigger carol that only she can deliver, but Whitney Houston keeps the big notes coming with Do You Hear What I Hear?, the first spiritually themed track on A Very Special Christmas. The tune begins slowly with more hip and pop styled echoes, but Whitney answers each refrain as the backing choir sets the mood with high notes and big gospel feeling.

Bruce Springsteen, of course, has a much cooler seasonal touch with the live recording of Merry Christmas Baby. The E Street Band jams and Bruce opens with some fun before getting to this effortless, infectious, pop ode. Perhaps it’s a touch dated, yet this rendition remains hip in all the right ways. This doesn’t seem like the longest track on A Very Special Christmas, and one can listen to this tune year round without thinking twice. Yes, there’s something about Santa in there somewhere, but couples can dance under the mistletoe with this one for sure. We probably also think of the Pretenders as bigger, edgy rockers, but Chrissy Hinds surprisingly delivers the melancholy merriment of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Her voice may be slightly flat or off key at times, but this is an excellent quirk matching the sad lyrics here. Ironically, the pace is more upbeat than most renditions, but there’s still time to hold all the bittersweet notes. Also one of the longer tracks on A Very Special Christmas, but this one is without any of those of the time bells and whistles and thus remains downhearted and yet so refreshing. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, however, is an erroneous country rock cowbell ditty from John Cougar Mellencamp. It’s fast, happy, and just too weird to rock out to this misunderstood kid’s tune. Wouldn’t a jamming adult such as the Cougar realize what was really going down under the mistletoe?

Unfortunately, lovely as it is, Sting’s rendition of Gabriel’s Message also seems out of place on A Very Special Christmas. It’s a wonderfully moody and medieval chant of solstice miracles and Christ’s birth, but it’s the shortest track here and certifiably squashed in the set listing before Christmas in Hollis. Run-D.M.C.’s head nodding rap single recounts a great story of Santa, family cooking, and good times indeed. Perhaps this is also out of place vintage hip hop among the other decidedly poptastic selections, but it’s all in such cool, festive fun that we don’t mind. U2 also delivers dang fine with Christmas Baby Please Come Home thanks to Bono’s strong, happening vocal. He’s a little bit angry yet edgy enough and perfectly unhappy in his titular plea. My only complaint is this is too short at just over two minutes.  

Also just as big as the original with lots of current airplay, Madonna’s Santa Baby recalls Eartha Kitt’s reissue with perfect bubble gum and kitschy. It’s not quite her usual delivery style, but it fits her then Material Girl persona and the ring a bling bling needed for this Tiffany’s ode. By contrast, The Little Drummer Boy’s low key child perspective isn’t easy to pull off, yet Bob Seger has the soulful rock range required. The rhythmic beats set the mood with increasing intensity while entering instruments finish the rousing carol. Run Rudolph Run doesn’t need to do much to be cool, and Bryan Adams harkens to the Chuck Berry original for this hip, grooving, easy to sing along with titular rift. We feel like we’ve hear this song a lot even if we haven’t necessarily heard Adams’ rendition that often. This version is live, too, with clapping and toe tapping fun to be had.

Surprisingly, Bon Jovi’s Back Door Santa misses with its holiday in full on stadium fashion. It’s tough to understand the naughty lyrics, and clearly more about the guitar set rather than any kind of seasonal sentiment. Since A Very Special Christmas is a decidedly more secular and popular album, it’s also unusual to end the session with two carols. Alison Moyet might not be as famous as the others here, but her The Coventry Carol is likewise all about some dated synthesized echoing. It’s mellow, poetic, and medieval, but also difficult to enjoy the spirituality of it thanks to the strange arrangement. Fortunately, we can count on Stevie Nicks putting the album to bed in style with Silent Night. Her superbly low vocals, backing melodies, and spiritual spins add to this already most inspiring carol. Nicks varies the traditional design just enough for more lift up while she takes her solemn time. The ad libbed confessional refrains are distinctly gospel but also hip at the same time, sending A Very Special Christmas out with a positive spiritual message.

Though readily available on CD or download along with the rest of the A Very Special Christmas charity releases, there are different reissues that swap Back Door Santa for Bon Jovi’s later I Wish Every Day Could Be Like Christmas, a much more pleasant, easy listening, but stirring tune. I’m surprised this series doesn’t go for these types of global and peace loving songs for it’s listings such as Peace on Earth or Happy Xmas (War is Over). Some of the succeeding albums often repeat the same tunes and tracks, and it really seems like there is little rhyme or reason to this debut compilation’s theme or the uneven, nay, all over the place track order. However, this mix of instant of the time singers, pop, rap, and rockers understandably capitalizes on every fan demographic and their need to buy their favorite’s potentially elusive or rare and obscure holiday single. This album ideology is in the best interest of benefitting the Special Olympics certainly, but I’m not sure such a charity model works with today’s individual download opportunities or invisible resale values. A Very Special Christmas is a little eighties preppy with a Members Only style at times, but it delivers some holiday standards and timeless gems – which is perfect for the contemporary listener’s picking and choosing playlist. Older, sophisticated audiences can collect their favorites for a nostalgic party or keep the office merry, mature, and generous with A Very Special Christmas.

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