20 December 2015

Celtic Woman: Home for Christmas

Celtic Woman: Home for Christmas Festive Despite A Few Hiccups
by Kristin Battestella

The 2012 holiday follow up Home for Christmas CD and DVD set from international group Celtic Woman isn't the ensemble's best Christmas fare. However, the songful revelry is nonetheless befitting of the season thanks to pleasing carols and festive fiddles.

I'll Be Home For Christmas is not the best place to start Home for Christmas, either, as newer band member Lisa Lambe provides a generic opener not as recognizable with that distinctive Celtic Woman sound. It makes a long time fan immediately miss the departed Lisa Kelly, and I always say Lisa Lambe in full to avoid confusing myself. Hark The Herald Angels Sing is the longest track at five minutes, and original Celtic Woman stars Chloë Agnew, Méav Ní Mhaolchatha, and fiddler Máiréad Nesbitt make this often upbeat carol a showstopper with rousing choir embellishments. I would think Chloë and Máiréad would do something more mature than the too cutesy and juvenile no matter how you jazz it up Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, but Silent Night and the returned Méav carry the right reverent, mellow, and sweeping angelic notes. Likewise, the ye olde spirit continues with the choir, orchestration, and harmonies in We Three Kings. We Wish You a Merry Christmas makes for an odd middle ode on Home for Christmas – one might expect to hear such well wishing nearer the finale instead of interrupting the carols for some pudding and sassy.

Fortunately, Méav and Máiréad, bring the heartstrings and octaves for the What Child Is This pre-Elizabethan flavor while Chloë adds more medieval revelry with an Adeste Fideles done in full on proper Latin sentiment. Winter Wonderland is again a bit out of place with some jazzy lines and alternating cues so each singer has her moment, and honestly, I would rather have had just Máiréad going all out with the toe tapping medley. The harmonies on Mary's Boy Child are nicer with charming verses and a pleasing chorus taking the tune up a notch, but Lisa Lambe's Auld Lang Syne is a weak denouement. During Celtic Woman's original 2004-2007 line up, even if you didn't know the ladies apart in look when you watched the PBS specials, you could identify each singer's voice on an album when you heard it. Lambe sounds like a stock studio singer, and Celtic Woman's increasing revolving door membership is unfortunately leading to a much more common assembly line sound. Today, you buy an album or tune in for a concert, and you never know what girls you're going to get. Although Joy to the World is a perhaps unusual conclusion, this is a nonetheless merry mix of solos and traditional choir rousing for an all out celebratory finale.

Despite the hiccups, I like listening to Home for Christmas as a CD, however, the companion Home for Christmas DVD concert included with the set isn't always an hour I enjoy. There's no Chloë. How is it Celtic Woman without Chloë? Producer and director David Downes is always nice to see, but with new member Susan McFadden filling in for the tour, Celtic Woman doesn't seem the same. McFadden and Lisa Lambe just seem interchangeable and indistinguishable to me, and neither actress seems capable of being a glass breaking diva like their predecessors. An ominous orchestral start on Winter Wonderland leads off the concert's different track order, but Susan is too pop sounding alongside Méav, Lisa Lambe, and Máiréad. It's also odd that the ladies are holding regular microphones instead of wearing the smaller ear pieces often used today. It's a simple thing, but seeing the mechanics so to speak takes a bit away from the group's previous arms free, flowing ethereal style, and this rendition is a soft, cutesy start compared to the sweeping opening numbers of previous Celtic Woman concerts. Thankfully, the white gowns, silver sparkling accents, and glittering red wardrobe change are fittingly festive for this Home for Christmas concert subtitled Live from Dublin, and Méav and Máiréad are much stronger for the stirring strings and What Child Is This somber for the season – where the vocals are allowed to hold all the spiritual notes.

The four person line up of only Susan, Méav, and Lisa Lambe singing with Máiréad's instrumentals, unfortunately, isn't as solid as the previous five person powerhouse, and the rock out harmonies on We Wish You a Merry Christmas feel off, again as does Lisa Lambe's I'll Be Home For Christmas. Maybe a pop arrangement instead of slow melancholy notes is okay, but this generic hip music machine churning out basic sounds that can be heard anywhere design seems contradictory to when Celtic Woman once brought unique international orchestration to the masses. I honestly don't think some of the new ladies can hit the high notes and thus all the production numbers from Live in Dublin are toned down accordingly. Poor Méav is stuck between the newbies for Hark The Herald Angels Sing, and while not as bombastic as the album recording, the straightforward backing choir makes for a pretty, rousing rendition. Meanwhile, instead of her own solo apart from covering Chloë's album track, Susan goes into the crowd for an awkward Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. Fortunately, the lower harmonies on We Three Kings are better – not to mention bagpipes, people, bagpipes – and in a welcome addition to the concert not on the CD, Máiréad does it again with Carol of the Bells. Why is she the one never going solo to make an album of weeping and rousing fiddlelry?

Home for Christmas' three singing ladies also speak briefly before the concert exclusive O Tannenbaum, and the variety of German, Italian, and English verses invokes more of the expected Celtic Woman mood. Likewise, Méav is again stirring for Silent Night as a woman standing still with nothing but the power of her voice to tell the creche miracle. Thank you! Strangely breaking up the largely carol focused night with kitschy fake falling snow, It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas probably should have started the concert, but I'd love to hear more of the slightly obscure and much more seasonably Celtic The Light of Christmas Morn. Susan also gets her own Live from Dublin solo for It Came Upon A Midnight Clear, and this gospel rendition with a wonderful choir is much nicer than Lisa Lambe's Auld Lang Syne. The poor concert goers are trying to sing along with the almost now unrecognizable tune! Thankfully, the Joy To The World finale is appropriately festive, and what's this? The Home for Christmas DVD bonus content includes another twelve plus minutes featuring all four ladies dressed casually and going a cappella – well, except Máiréad, hehe – around Downes and his piano. Holiday memories are shared, and Lisa Lambe is much stronger for Away in A Manger. Why wasn't this on the album? Susan is also delightful for The Christmas Song, but dang they could have done the entire concert with this relaxed, intimate atmosphere. Released as a bonus track on the Home for Christmas Special Edition, Méav's In the Bleak Midwinter gets everyone choked up, and last but most definitely not least, Máiréad joins in for Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. Golly gee, this set is better than the concert itself!

Celtic Woman die hard collectors can chase several additional tracks and international releases for Home for Christmas alongside the rehashed Silent Night and O Christmas Tree compilations, however the big numbers or the sit back and be awed vocals found in Celtic Woman's earlier line ups or the prior A Christmas Celebration album feel absent here. Despite having a majority of religious carols, the tone is a much smaller, more palatable easy forty five minute session. If you don't compare and accept the sweet seasonal mood here, Home for Christmas is a pleasing listen that does what it says in invoking a soft holiday atmosphere. The familiar carols make the CD a quick December staple to pick and choose for your playlist, and when not nitpicking at the included concert DVD, the video works in occupying the television for a festive background accompaniment to your holiday party, Christmas baking, or tree trimming.

17 December 2015

Winter's Knight

Winter’s Knight Uneven but Seasonably Fitting
By Kristin Battestella

Longtime listeners of the themed Nox Arcana gothic and macabre ambiance will enjoy Joseph Varga and William Piotrowski's 2005 debut foray into Christmas music with Winter's Knight. Yes, traditional holiday music audiences may disapprove of the medieval storytelling here, and the dark concept design is not without its flaws. However, the Gregorian tone and frosty bitter stylings give Winter's Knight a seasonal mood for celebrants not bound by the modern holly jolly constructs of Christmas.

Howling winds, church bells, and the short but spooky monologue of Vigil establish the bleak medieval Yule of Winter's Knight, and the poetic brooding segues into the pulsing, ominous rings and chanting chorale moments in Ghosts of Christmas Past. Period strings provide an enchanting sound for Ebonshire next – a wooded, outdoor chilly to match the creepy isolation and heavy chords of Solitude while the chimes and eponymous twinkle amid Crystal Forest create a glassy, delicate ice ballet. Unfortunately, at four and a half minutes, First Snow goes on too long, padding its harpsichord echoes and angelic, soft mood before Evening Star lulls like a louder escalation on the nighttime bleak from First Snow. Though it's all kind of pretty, we've been listening to the same chimes and chants for over seven minutes. Indeed, the first half of Winter's Knight suffers from too many repetitive tracks refraining one too many unnecessary times. An editor would certainly red pencil a stanza or two here! Reflections of Long Ago changes the atmosphere slightly with a sad, spooky, and bittersweet memory, however it's tough to appreciate our own childlike reminiscing or creepy toy recollections thanks to more of the gothic Specter Sound production laying it on thick. 

The waltzing organ and frenetic storm strings on December Winds create a blustery cool, but the welcome, tempestuous orchestration is again compromised by an incessant aaaahhhhh ahhhhh ahhhhh ahhhh. This same overproduced design carries over on several Nox Arcana albums, as if the duo simply won't let a song alone and must keep tinkering until every session sounds generally the same. Without looking at the tracks, it's tough to tell where one song ends and another begins – much less identify a tune by its opening notes. Outside of a precious few titles, listeners can't randomly put Nox Arcana songs into a playlist rotation, leaving one no choice but to play the entire sixty-three minutes of Winter's Knight in full. Thankfully, the organ start to Phantom Toccata is superb, like a spooky overnight shift at one of those old-fashioned, multi-floor department stores with a big pipe piece and scary Santa displays. Is that just me? Winter's Knight quickly transitions to the church bells and abandoned cathedral sounds of Hallowed Ruins, and while depressing at times, Winter's Knight has a very likable concept. I wish there was a ballet to visualize this lonely winter wonderland journey. It's only an odd minute, but the eerie vocals of Gregorian Hymn fit this ancient theme of music and voices. Yes, it is creepy but the rhythmic sway also makes for a beautiful period refrain. Rather than falling back on their familiar style, it might have been quite interesting had Nox Arcana done an entire album of older carols and traditionals in this medieval manner.

Comparatively, Spirit of the Season again sounds too redundant. Didn't we just hear this same tune five songs ago? Fortunately, the recognition of Coventry Carol helps Winter's Knight heaps. This is the kind of ye olde tune our titular wanderer would hear, and the connection of listening to something we know as old in this new spin is the seasonal smooth we expected all along. Often instrumental or rushed, this rendition provides clearly audible lyrics, creating a desire to minuet in a morbid jig. Lullaby continues this theme, but we just had a well done rhyme – making for another example of how too many similar songs with too many chants and chimes can at times become just background noise. The titular arias of Winter’s Knight, thankfully, are much nicer, providing the album's dark storytelling with somber cords and melancholy mood as well as calling into question the weaker soundalikes on the first half of the album. Slicing fifteen minutes off Winter's Knight would improve this tale in song tremendously, and the Greensleeves invocations, period strings, and Henry VIII source of Past Time with Good Company are simply divine thanks to the lovely female vocals. Here here for an entire album comprised of such revisited historical odes!

Likewise God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman is familiar and done right with a seasonal bleakness and dark times made at ease with a promise of Light. The organ and chant are brilliant, and we can still sing along to the bombastic bells. The second half of Winter's Knight is much more listener friendly and made much stronger by the Gregorian encapsulation of Veni Veni Emmanuel. The ghostly past of the album's theme is felt alongside the longstanding waiting for which we still light candles and sing songs. Though carrying the courtly sounds to match, Redemption feels slightly out of place amid this latter block of known carols – it may have fit better had it been placed before this spiritual denouement, as if our knight has found that titular peace and that is why we hear the subsequent carols. The haunting zest and recognizable Carol of the Bells anchors the Winter's Knight finale yet oddly stops at 3:25 with an unnecessary minute long silence before music box chimes, wind, and ghostly voices conclude the session. It's a stylistic choice I suppose, and while the album strays and wanders like its knight and treads tires in the snow at times, this medieval brooding is how Winter's Knight should be.

Occasionally, uneven sound design makes it tough to hear the lower background bells or echoes, and thanks to a frequent droning redundancy in the first half, Winter's Knight is almost there, but not quite. I like parts of the opening tunes, but not the entire track itself. I like Winter's Knight yet find myself pausing or skipping through the stock gothic sounds in favor of the superior medieval carol recordings. Though they have done numerous albums since, Winter's Knight sounds a lot like Nox Arcana's other macabre work, making for an odd mix of just right ye olde Yule and too much Halloween. The commercial holiday creep likes to combine these two seasons, but Winter's Knight fits better with some brooding October distance. This is an after Christmas album if you will, purely a windy winter mood setter or the soundtrack to a New Year's Eve masquerade. Understandably, that generic seasonal may annoy traditionalists. Despite the carols, there's precious few Birthly mentions here, as Winter's Knight is meant for audiences who don’t prefer the happy Christmas as is nor celebrate its Christian and religious aspects. By freeing itself of that December 25 timetable and the fourth quarter calendar cha ching, the medieval hearkening of Winter's Knight can be enjoyed by those of us who keep our holiday well into January's chill. 


10 December 2015

Songs for Swingin' Lovers!

Songs for Swinging Lovers Delivers
by Kristin Battestella

Frank Sinatra's quintessential 1956 album Songs for Swinging Lovers gets the toe tapping sentiments off to a quick, familiar start with You Make Me Feel So Young, and the spring in one's step continues in It Happened in Monterey. Though this lyrical story is bittersweet, the memory being retold makes us want to raise our glasses and spend the day upon the coast. It can be frustrating when the charm is over so fast thanks to the mid century shorter track times on Songs for Swinging Lovers. However, the one swanky after another tone makes it easier to listen to the entire forty forty minute album on repeat. You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me provides that wistful cheek to cheek – putting us in Ol' Blue Eyes' clutches indeed – and the mellow brass interludes of You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me make more excuses for a breeze across the rug. 
It's interesting for contemporary audiences like us to realize how the tunes comprising Songs for Swinging Lovers were already well known standards from films and the decades prior before Frank's swanky and the arrangements by Nelson Riddle revitalized their charm. The catchy crescendos and complimentary word play layers Too Marvelous for Words, and although it's the first slightly slower and longer ballad on Songs for Swinging Lovers, Old Devil Moon doesn't brood and maintains the danceable mood as the orchestra smoothly ups the pace. Of course, it's easy to sing along to the more famous Pennies from Heaven or sway with the Gershwins and Love is Here to Stay. Songs for Swinging Lovers feels like each melody pours another cocktail, letting the dinner candles burn down to the wick while you're getting lipstick on your collar.

Honestly, who doesn't like I've Got You Under My Skin? No one can ever be tired of Cole Porter, much less Frank Sinatra singing Cole Porter. It's an intimate, whisper in your ear to start before blossoming into a full blown itch that needs to be scratched. I Thought About You likewise carries a jovial mix of sweet crooning and peppy notes. Some listeners may dislike that many of these songs are somewhat the same – I feel as though I reuse the same superlatives sometimes, too. However, that privy concert mood is the point of the album. Songs for Swinging Lovers becomes like one whole song that ebbs and flows over the evening's flirtations. The dalliance, a withdrawal, the sweeping moments through the final hold her tight. Whew! At four and a half minutes, We'll Be Together Again is the longest track on Songs For Swinging Lovers. This mellow ode may seem out of place amid the otherwise up tempo sway, but a brooding breather is needed before another bottle is finished and a new waltz takes things to the next level. 
We may laugh at the dorky politeness of the phrase, but Makin' Whoopee has some delightful lyrical wit and a bemusing wink at the consequences of the night. Swingin' Down the Lane continues the will they or won't they dance with persuading talk of the moon, and Anything Goes reinforces the humble romantic Porter pleas. There's a hint of scandal and it's all so subtle yet remains no less rhythmic and catchy. At first, the wartime balladry of We'll Be Together Again seems like it should be the send off to Songs for Swinging Lovers. However, How About You? wonderfully concludes the session with a suave, shrewd encapsulation of the evening. Though recorded at the heights of a past we perceive as a “Honey, I'm home!” Cleaver chastity with pearls, Songs for Swinging Lovers is a giggly and giddy listen thanks to its nudge nudge naughty intentions and behind close doors baby boom results.

Songs for Swinging Lovers followed the melancholy spectacular of In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning yet nonetheless ingrains our collective consciousness with the quintessential Frank Sinatra hip. Sure, it doesn't have some of the bigger staples yet to come, but Songs for Swinging Lovers does what it says in delivering smooth, sexy charm. When you hear complete albums such as this, it makes one wonder why jazz standards and American songbook recordings ever fell out of mainstream favor – especially compared to today's inferior machine generated pop and controversial for the sake of it contemporary artists. With Songs for Swinging Lovers, modern fans can cleanse their palette, drink champagne, and repeat for all the sweet lyrics, big notes, and swift orchestrations. For longtime listeners upgrading their vinyl collection (like me!) or for those looking for a place to begin a Sinatra hobby beyond the frequent compilation sets, Songs for Swinging Lovers is the place to start. Simply put, this definitive 1956 Frank Sinatra album still makes for the perfect sophisticated party soundtrack or a classy, intimate denouement at home. 


08 December 2015

Frank Sinatra Spotlight!

A Frank Sinatra Spotlight!
By Kristin Battestella

Ring a ding ding! Let's takes some time during this festive season to honor what would have been The Chairman of the Board's 100th birthday. Collectors or completists and longtime listeners can always enjoy these sets, and budding fans can be gifted with some Sinatra education here. Now, on with the swing!

Capitol Collector Series – From “I've Got the World on a String” and “Young at Heart” to “High Hopes” and “Witchcraft,” this 1989 hour is brimming with fifties biggies be they brooding or brassy. Soft notes begin “I'm Walking Behind You” and the earlier, crooning sounds continue with “From Here to Eternity,” “Don't Worry 'bout Me,” and “Melody of Love” featuring bandleader Ray Anthony. “South of the Border” adds some swanky flavor alongside “Three Coins in the Fountain,” but despite its title, “Learnin' the Blues” remains a peppy hit. “Same Old Saturday Night,” “(Love Is) The Tender Trap,” and “Hey Jealous Lover” provide more catchy, and I think just about everyone can sing along to “Love and Marriage” of course thanks to Married...with Children. I must also confess, among other sports connections, my recently late and oldest cat was named after “Chicago.” A cute little dialogue leads into “(How Little It Matters) How Little We Know” while more romance anchors “Can I Steal a Little Love?” and “All the Way” before "Nice 'n' Easy" sends the session out on a breezy, finger snapping note. These twenty shorter tracks make for a great mix of more recognizable Sinatra staples, a few acclaimed film tunes, and songs that ironically carry a whiff of his Swoonatra, pre-Capital era – a fine blend for the veteran fan or would be listener.

Duets – No, this 45 minute later day revisit is not the purest in the titular sense. The stars here are at times practically singing along to Sinatra on the radio thanks to spliced vocals and an arranged production. Thus, I hate to say it, but not everybody can sing how Frank is asking them to do, and Julio Iglesias on “Summer Wind,” “You Make Me Feel So Young” with Charles Aznavour, and gasp Bono on “I've Got You Under My Skin” don't quite match. It's also odd to have men singing together in this uneven, tandem sense – perhaps all ladies would have been a better balance instead. Fortunately, the smooth works with Luther Vandross on “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “Come Rain or Come Shine” with Gloria Estefan, and for Natalie Cole on “They Can't Take That Away From Me.” The breezy ballad “What Now My Love” makes room for Frank's light and Aretha Franklin's big notes while the crooning pace is just right alongside Barbra Streisand in “I've Got a Crush on You.” Carly Simon accompanies more mellow in “Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry/In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” and Anita Baker provides sway for “Witchcraft.” “New York, New York” with Tony Bennett feels a little too strained to start, but I'll be damn if it isn't still rousing as is “I've Got the World on a String” with Liza Minnelli. “All the Way/One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” featuring Kenny G is the longest track here – almost twice as long as most of the other 12 songs. Admittedly, it's an odd choice to go with an instrumental pairing, too. But is this a brooding, befitting last call finale? Heck yeah. Granted, for die hard fans, these versions won't be as good as the originals. However, this session proves that the classics can swing in any era and that today's titans respect such standards – something I'm not so sure the millennial pop artists heavy on spectacle but light on true vocal talent are able to do. Thankfully, there's something for everyone here to pick and choose for their playlist rotation.

Frank Sinatra's Greatest Hits: Volume 2 – This 1972 Reprise compilation gathers some late sixties and early seventies suave, and of course starts with “My Way” – a somber but stirring indication of this session's more mature tone alongside “A Man Alone,” “Cycles,” and “Bein' Green.” Naturally, there's an air of soft, sweeping romance in “Love's Been Good to Me” and “I'm Not Afraid” as well as in the catchy covers of “Going Out of My Head” and George Harrison's “Something.” One of the longer songs of the 11 tracks here, “What's Now is Now” from the Watertown concept album still sounds fresh and swanky good. Though also quite fine, “Star!” feels a little bit too ritzy heyday and out of place both between two more serious tunes and in the set's overall melancholy theme. “The September of My Years” is a slightly earlier song, but a nonetheless fitting ode to wrap this swift but smooth 37 minutes. Yes, the bigger name staples are on the previous 1968 Frank Sinatra's Greatest Hits. However, those grossly uninformed who think Ol' Blue Eyes is nothing more than his fifties hepcat hip may be quite pleasantly surprised by these reflective measures, and Volume 2 matches its predecessor as a slower companion collection. Be it the soundtrack to an empty nest dinner for two or just some toe tapping mellow relaxation, older and wiser audiences will delight here.

Reprise: The Very Good Years – At 67 minutes, this 1991 single CD consolidation of the more extensive 4 disc The Reprise Collection is still relatively chronological and pretty all encompassing with expected Sinatra staples such as “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Strangers in the Night,” and “Love and Marriage,” plus live renditions of “I've Got You Under My Skin” and “The Lady Is a Tramp.” More swanky hits include “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Luck Be a Lady,” and that ritzy Chicago ode “My Kind of Town.”The Last Dance” brings a whiff of earlier wartime suave while “Night and Day” and “The Way You Look Tonight” provide some cheek to cheek alongside “Summer Wind” and “All or Nothing at All.” “The Best Is Yet to Come” adds more breezy while we sing – or at least try to sing along with “That's Life” and “My Way.” There are only a few slow, softer tunes here such as “It Was a Very Good Year,” “Send in the Clowns,” and “Nancy (With the Laughing Face).” Great songs though they are, their melancholy tone may feel out of place compared to the otherwise hip majority present. That always swinging indicative written on the sleeve is indeed compiled here with much of what we've come to know and love from the fifties and sixties Frank heights. Naturally, this hour goes out with a showstopping “New York, New York,” and somehow all is made right with the world because the Yankees won, teehee. This session is both a fix with all the essentials and provides some uniqueness thanks to that live sprinkle – making for a great starter set to get you going down the rabbit hole for more.

01 December 2015

The Essential Now That's What I Call Christmas

The Essential Now That’s What I Call Christmas Does What It Says
by Kristin Battestella

The Essential Now That's What I Call Christmas is a 2008 holiday collection brimming with 25 tracks for nearly 80 minutes of both traditional and contemporary Yule staples for one and all. Yowza!

Ironically, The Essential gets off to a bittersweet start with Happy Xmas (War Is Over) by John & Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band with the Harlem Community Choir – a lovely but sociological somber that feels more like it should be a penultimate track. Of course, Elvis is on hand to serve up everyone's favorite little melancholy in Blue Christmas, and later on Wham! provides some more recent toe tapping sadness with Last Christmas. Fortunately, several mid century classics including It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year from Andy Williams and Dean Martin's Baby, It's Cold Outside set a more lighthearted seasonal mood as does the whimsical Johnny Mathis version of It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas. Burl Ives' A Holly Jolly Christmas adds some more peppy fun for The Essential alongside Little Saint Nick by The Beach Boys, and the kids can have a good time with Gene Autry's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late).

The Jackson 5's version of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town shakes up the merriment and Chuck Berry's Run Rudolph Run creates some groove – don't lie, everyone sings along to Elmo & Patsy's Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer and secretly dances to Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree by Little Miss Dynamite Brenda Lee. Oddly, rather than the Brenda Lee or Bobbly Helms versions, Hall & Oates take on Jingle Bell Rock is included here. However, the Now That's What I Call Christmas franchise is also only repeating a handful of songs or renditions on The Essential that were already included on previous Now That's What I Call Christmas Volumes 1, 2, or 3 – shrewdly swaying listeners to pick up this set to complete their holiday music collection. José Feliciano's Feliz Navidad and Paul McCartney's Wonderful Christmastime fit The Essential's catchy theme, but the Donny Hathaway original This Christmas plays suave alongside Elton John's throwback Step into Christmas.

Two new in 2008 singles Mistletoe from Colbie Caillat and Ledisi's very smooth This Christmas (Could Be the One) feel a little less famous and slightly out of place amid the classic names. Indeed, there are a few songs on The Essential I could do without – some are certainly more perennial or timeless compared to others steeped in their dated era. Too much of the engineered pop saccharin sounds the same after awhile, becoming nothing but holiday background noise. As much as this session provides some titular must haves, there are certainly several big songs missing – cough The Christmas Song and White Christmas cough – not to mention the lack of, you know, Christmas carols. The Little Drummer Boy from the Harry Simeone Chorale is an unusually old fashioned choice for The Essential, and Do You Hear What I Hear? by Carrie Underwood and Amy Grant's Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song) mark a brief spiritual block of longer, reverent ballads before The Essential concludes with a slightly misrepresenting but no less gentle and appropriately fitting Silent Night from The Temptations.

Yes, the numbers, volumes, and titles of these Now That's What I Call Christmas sets can become increasingly confusing. The Essential will repeat hits you already have on other combination collections and original albums. This CD is packed with mostly shorter tracks, and the mix is uneven with some songs being louder or at a lower volume than others. There are precious few powerhouse vocals or ballads and only a handful of religious tunes. However, the catch all by design also makes it easy to skip to your favorites. By and large, these are the original editions we want to hear, not generic covers or instrumentals often found on cheap compilation sets. The Essential Now That's What I Call Christmas is a breezy, safe potluck of secular classics, contemporary rock, and seasonal pop. Be it the office playlist or a fast all in one place download, there's a little something for everyone to be found here.