Not only are there new Christmas albums from Mariah Carey, Kenny G, Natalie Cole and Neil Diamond, but they're being greeted with the same sort of enthusiasm non-seasonal albums by these artists would inspire. MTV gave Carey's first video, "All I Want for Christmas Is You," a high-profile send-off (including a Carey Christmas special), while Kenny G's Christmas album recently nudged the Eagles and Boyz II Men aside to top the Billboard album charts.
The truly astonishing thing about this burst of superstar activity is that some of the albums are really quite good. Perhaps the most surprising of the bunch is Kenny G's "Miracles: The Holiday Album" (Arista 18767), which channels the saxophonist's straightforward melodic approach into a series of tastefully soulful instrumentals that update the standards without ever getting too jazzy. Though, to be honest, it does seem a bit odd that he ends the album with a rendition of "Brahms' Lullaby." Then there's Mariah Carey's "Merry Christmas" (Columbia 64222), which may look like just another attempt to cash in on Christmas cheer, but is actually the work of someone who genuinely loves this music. Granted, Carey's gospel inclinations come through a lot stronger than might be expected on traditional tunes like "Silent Night," but that hardly diminishes the effect of her performance; in fact, her soulful ornamentation adds oomph to the reading of "O Holy Night." But the album's real strength is the conviction she brings to otherwise corny fare like "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town," while the way she augments "Joy to the World" with a bit of the Three Dog Night hit is pure genius.
Too bad Donna Summer's "Christmas Spirit" (Mercury 314 522694) doesn't have that kind of flair; though earnest and well-intentioned, it manages to make Summer's diligent performances seem deadly dull. But deciding just how much style to bring to a Christmas album isn't easy. Natalie Cole is all over the map musically with "Holly & Ivy" (Elektra 61704), an album that can't seem to decide whether it wants to play it straight or jazz things up. As a result, it's hard to follow the thread as the album moves from the big band pizazz of "Jingle Bells" to the cutesy "Caroling, Caroling," to the bluesy "Merry Christmas Baby."