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.