1998 Christmas Album Roundup

We've dusted off our slate of 1998 Christmas reviews again for this year since, of course, these things don't go out of date.

Christmas reviews from previous years are also still available. And there's also a special review page for those classic Christmas albums.

Various Artists
The Real Meaning of Christmas, Volume 2
Verity Records

Real Meaning of Christmas Vol. 2 CD This sequel surprises and satisfies. Contributions come from Fred Hammond and Radical for Christ, Ben Tankard and the Tribe of Benjamin, The Canton Spirituals, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Virtue, newcomer Tarralyn Ramsey, Yolanda Adams (with 2 songs) and others. Highlights include Vanessa doing something contemporary on the original song “The Innkeeper”, Maurette Brown-Clark with an awesome interpretation of “What Child is This” (plus a saxophone instrumental of the same song), and The Canton Spirituals laying down nearly urban grooves on “Go and Tell It”. For the record, the album does not have contributions from Hezekiah Walker or Commissioned this time round. Could this be an even better album than 1996's Volume 1? I hardly thought that to be possible, however that was before I gave it a listen.

CeCe Winans
His Gift
Pioneer Music Group

His Gift CDAfter her recent, still-charting hit album “Everlasting Love”, CeCe Winans came back quickly with this Christmas package of familiar and fresh tunes, each with that familiar CeCe signature sound. With Fred Hammond on production in some cuts, and with Radical for Christ weaved throughout, you know that this collection has a built-in audience. This is one of those albums that although it fits into the Christmas season smoothly, it is also intensely listenable in all seasons. Don’t be surprised to find that it remains in your CD changer into the summer months.

Shirley Caesar
Christmas With Shirley Caesar
Myrrh Black Music

Christmas With Shirley Caesar CDShirley Caesar doesn’t deter from what she does best: soulfully traditional stylings in her downright unmistakable voice. The album is mostly a collection of traditional Christmas music that Caesar sings on her own, with arrangement and production from the ever-capable Steven Ford. Perhaps the surprise of the album is in hearing her sing the classical favorite, Ave Maria.

Various Artists
Christmas Harmony

Harmony Christmas CDThis is another label compilation, with some interesting surprise guests tossed in for good measure. Make that ‘great measure’, because with the quality of the offerings provided here, there will be an abundance of gospel soul around the tree this December. Dawkins and Dawkins give their urban spin to “Do You Here What I Hear”, and Oleta Adams drops a beautifully-written ballad, “A Child Was Born Into My Life”. Kenny Lattimore (formerly with William Becton and Friends and now R&B artist) contributes with “History”, and I.D.O.L. King give a raucous holy hiphop interpretation to “Joy to the World”. The album is rounded out with strong cuts from Darlene Love, BAM Crawford’s Purpose, Deniece Williams, Alvin Slaughter and Nancey Jackson. Many will consider this to be the strongest Christmas set of 1998.

Various Artists
Marxan Records Special Christmas
Marxan Records

This is one of those albums which deserves accolades solely on the merits of one song. Charles Woolfork and Covenant bring their Ohio gospel funk to "Jingle Bells", creating a sanctified, bumpin’, bell-ringing, choir groove. Woolfork and crew have gospelyzed this tune, claiming it for Jesus Christ. But there’s way more to this label sampler that make it worthy of the season. Newcomers Keith Leak and DFW, as well as Donna Summers and Aaron Lindsey (on a keyboard instrumental jam) join Woolfork and Covenant with fresh Christmas sounds, sometimes smooth, sometimes hype, always original and quite ear-grabbing.

Brian McKnight

Bethlehem CDThere's nothing like spending time with family during the holidays. This is especially true if you're from a musical family and the time you spend together is in the studio crafting a Christmas album. On Brian McKnight's first Christmas offering, he joins with his brothers Claude (of Take 6), Fred and Michael and his wife Julie to create an enjoyable holiday album that reflects both the spiritual and social joy of the holiday. The most impressive family cameo, however, comes from his sons Niko and Brian Jr., whose lead vocals on "It's All About Love" not only prove their McKnight pedigree, but also puts to shame many vocalists three times their age. Other guests on Bethlehem include Boyz II Men, Michael Sembello, saxophonist David Koz, and the much missed Tim Miner. The best cut on the album is McKnight's rendition of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," in which he shifts to a lower register. Other standout cuts include the Take 6 sounding "Christmas Time Is Here," the instrumental "Christmas Eve With You" and "Home For The Holidays" which shows an early Winans influence.

The Williams Brothers
A Candlelight Christmas
Blackberry Records

Candlelight Christmas CDThe Williams Brothers invite us to gather around the Christmas tree in Smithsdale, Mississippi with this album of warm, down-home melodies and harmonies. From standards such as “Silent Night”, and “Little Town of Bethlehem”, to originals such as “Celebrate Jesus” and “No Greater Gift”, the trio from Smithdale will delight their many fans, and most probably pick up many newcomers along the way. There’s not much snow down in Mississippi, but (shhhhh!)….don’t tell the Williams Brothers. Lack of snow didn’t stop them from giving us an authentic Christmas sound to round out the bounty of Christmas projects on the shelves this year.

— reviewed by Stan North and Mark Tilles—

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