1999 Christmas Album Roundup

The millenium closed out with a bountiful supply of Gospel Christmas projects to choose from. We covered them all.

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

Various Artists
Blessed Are The Meek...Christmas & Beyond

Blessed Are The Meek...Christmas & Beyond This joyous release contains a generous 17 tracks, ranging from church-vibed cuts to soulful Christmas standards to urban jazz originals. It’s a Meek affair all the way through, as both seasoned (Rev. Clay Evans, Pharis Evans Jr.) and emerging (Neil Roberson, SWV, Trina Davis) artists on the Chicago-based label lay their sounds on the disc. Newly-appointed to A&R duties at the label, Pharis Evans Jr. throws the full weight of his gifted artistic team (Charisma Music Group) behind the project. Although it’s an exercise in futility to choose one track over another on this project, here’s some cuts to check out.

“Precious Lamb” spins a georgeous vocal-based praise, featuring the undefined vocals of CMG (Charisma Music Group peeps, presumably). The Hearn Family offer “Celebrate”, bringing a well-produced island groove to the Christmas festivities, and Maulty Jewell, III lays down some phat inventive keyboard tracks on his instrumental urban jazz take of “Drummer Boy”. Several interpretations of mainstream seasonal classics are included on the project, with Rev. Clay Evans’ “Jingle Bells” standing out as perhaps the most unexpected. The respected preacher’s Fellowship Choir exemplifies solidity on “Sweetly He Lay”, with fine Hammond organ and keyboard accompaniment. And on and on and on you could go. With over 70 minutes of music here, there’s enough to satisfy, and like the title says, plenty of reason to keep it spinning far past the days of turkey leftovers.

Roland Gresham
A Christmas Song
Jubal Records

A Christmas Song CD Smooth guitar-based jazz is the undisputed theme to this soft instrumental project from popular psalmist Roland Gresham. With a capable side team consisting of regulars Elijah Holt on drums, Edmond Charles and Reginald Reid on keys and Larrice Byrd on bass, the jazz gently flows from twelve favorites pulled from both the sacred and the mainstream realm. “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night” are particulary suited to Gresham’s sound, as his delicate rendering emphasizes the meditative unsung lyrics that nevertheless become prominent in the mind due to their familiarity. In fact, the strong points of this project rest predominantly in the arrangements and interpretations of the eight carols. “Little Drummer Boy” and “Angels We Have Heard On High” in particular are standouts, as keyboard and drums add a necessary kick to these more rhythmic offerings. In all, this is a project that sets that smooth Christmas vibe for celebrations with friends and family.

Various Artists
Touched By An Angel: The Christmas Album

Touched  By An Angel:  The Christmas Album The popular TV series, Touched By An Angel, issues a Christmas soundtrack that brings together some diverse talent and sounds. In the mix are some intriguing collaborations, with the obvious being Kirk Franklin’s encore pairing with Crystal Lewis on “I Still Believe”. It’s Kirks’ tune, but it features Lewis’ formidable pipes, with expected ad lib vocals now and again from Gospel’s big name. This is a duo that drew raves with “Lean on Me”, and with this number, there’s proof that the collaboration remains powerful. Series star and veteran Gospel artist Della Reese contributes an inspirational “If I Can Dream”, which has the support of Fred Hammond’s production and arrangement gifts. Winans Phase 2 add some cool vocal backings to “One Silent Night”, which features CCM’s Jaci Velasquez and Burlap to Cashmere. This cut is gentle medley of Chris Eaton’s “God So Loved” and the familiar “Silent Night”. Kenny Lattimore contributes a soulful cut, “Miracle” and Donna Summers works a georgeous ballad, “Christmas Spirit”. There’s plenty more to choose from, both from CCM artists and from those on the outside of Gospel. Take you pick of Charlotte Church, Wayne Watson, Keb’ Mo’, Randy Travis, Amy Grant and others. Give credit to those who put this collection together, since such an artist mix like this could easily give way to a disjointed album. Instead, some choice sequencing makes the cuts flow seamlessly; the diversity of sounds is really more noticeable on paper than on disk.

Mel Holder
A Gift So Special
Friends in Fellowship

A Gift So Special Mel Holder rides his Gospel saxophone into Christmas territory on this thoroughly enjoyable disk. The track list is short one, but sparkles with jewels such as a jazzed “Holy Is The Lamb” (remember Oleta Adams?), and a groovy “Silent Night” (featuring superb guitar work from John H. Smith combined with interspersed phrases of vocals). Holder has always had a knack for letting his work shine amongst the contribution of others, and that trend continues with “A Gift So Special”, where his incorporation of guest vocals adds that extra dimension to his wonderfully expressive sax. The project is rounded out with a beat-heavy “O Come All Ye Faithful”, and the inclusion of “Reggae Hymn Style” from his previous release.

Various Artists
World's Greatest Gospel At Christmas
Frank Music

World's Greatest Gospel At Christmas This one is a trip, and memory lane is the path. Sagging with 19 tracks, you find a veritable treasure trove of Gospel Christmas classics from decades past on this CD, including stuff from Shirley Caesar, The Swan Silvertones, The Stars of Faith, and many, many more. Select highlights must include the relatively recent “Let’s Keep The Christ in Christmas” from Solomon Burke, where he lays down a soulful and humorous lead on top of a raucous kid-chorus. It’s pure fun. The other Burke inclusion is the spoken prayer track, “A Christmas Prayer”. James Cleveland & The Voices of Tabernacle show up on “Child Of The Most High King”, and The Angelics (with Margaret Allison) present ole-time Gospel on “Jesus Christ Was Born”. The Harmonizing Four’s “Silent Night” and The Swan Silvertones’ “When Was the Baby Born” demonstrate quartet harmony and seasonal fervor at their max. The other interesting facet of this project is the inclusion of cuts from relative unknowns (at least today!): Raymond Raspberry & The Raspberry Singers, Rev. Charles Taylor Singers, Brother Rodney. So if you desire a fragment of Christmas past, this is certainly the one for you.

Daryl Coley & Beloved
Christmas Is Here
Verity Records

Christmas Is Here CD Daryl Coley & Beloved present a lovely collection of Christmas inspired music on Christmas Is Here. On this project that has a little something for everyone, Coley shows his stuff, as usual, but also helps introduce us to Beloved, his group of vocalists from his new home in the Carolinas. And Christmas is Here shows us his many faces, giving you a sampling of everything from jazz flows to traditional hymns, with Coley's contribution not always at the mike.

On "God's Only Son" we are treated to a vintage Coley-sounding tune, where he graces us in duet with Deidre Johnson. The song could get by on the sheer prettiness of voice, but also has much more to offer, as Coley writes and arranges, and though the song speaks of the scene on Christmas day, it is really seasonless. "Emmanuel" is another standout where Gwendolyn Townsend leads masterfully. Here Coley is nowhere to be heard, but contributes as powerfully in writing and arranging.

There are two musical interludes that remind us that Coley is also an accomplished pianist. He plays the keys at least as well as he plays his vocal instrument; and the second of the two interludes just might make you cry, as undoubtedly his singing has at some time. There are three medleys on the project. One, "Carol of the Bells/Silver Bells" will leave you baffled as to whoever could have thought to put those two songs together that way. It is nothing short of ingenious. The answer to that question, by the way, is Coley along with Oliver Wells. On another medley "O Come, O Come Emmanuel/God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen", Coley leads expertly as accompanied by Eric Reed.

Perhaps the most astounding thing about this project is Coley's discretion. With one of the undisputed greatest voices out there, he unselfishly doesn't sing on every track. One could even point out that even where he does sing, he doesn't exercise his right to showcase all that we know he is able to do. Exhibiting a maturity and assuredness that apparently (and hopefully) comes with time, Coley shares with us the gifts of others. Ironically as he contributes behind the scenes, he shines just as brightly, with a clarity that can only be matched by his voice.

Various Artists
My Christmas Album
MCA Records

My Christmas Album CD There’s no denying the strong talent on the MCA artist roster. With the label's recent expansion into Gospel music, this CD presents samples from them all: Patti Labelle to Youth Edition, Jesse Powell to Ametria, Mary J. Blige to Pam & Dodi. With a total of 15 artists contributing, diversity is a given. Those cuts that resonate in the Gospel ear include the Percy Bady-produced “Go Tell It On The Mountain / Jesus Is Lord” from Chicago’s Youth Edition (which is a joyous urban jam), and MCA newcomers (and former members of Adoration ‘N Prayze) Pam & Dodi’s “Sweet Little Jesus Boy”, which picks up on a wild groove that doesn’t tear away easily. Jesse Powell finds a comfort zone in “O Holy Night”, while Aaron and Damion Hall light a yuletide fire with “The First Noel”. Ametria’s “O Come All Ye Faithful” is also noteworthy, as is Chanté Moore’s gentle “Christmas Morn”. The project is rounded out with significant number of big names taking a stab at feel-good, compositions which, while seasonal in nature, aren’t Gospel in lyric. These names include Patti Labelle, Rahsaan Patterson, K-Ci & JoJo and Mary J. Blige.

Various Artists
The Real Meaning of Christmas, Volume 3
Verity Records

Real Meaning of Christmas Volume 3 CD It has been touted as the best-selling Christmas series of all time and it's back with another installment. Verity Records’ third volume of The Real Meaning of Christmas is a 12-track project which again features many of their most popular artists, each with varying and sincere Christmas offerings. The combining of a variety of musical styles and genres gives a more seasoned sound than the previous Real Meaning offerings. The project kicks off with an energetic original piece from the “retired” John P. Kee and the New Life Community Choir titled “Last Always”. Other super high energy pieces come from Hezekiah Walker & The LFT Church Choir [“Do You Know Like I Know (The Real Meaning Of Christmas)”], Virtue (“Can You Hear The Angels”), and Verity newcomer Donnie McClurkin (“Hark The Herald Angels Sing”). Other artists with new material featured on this project include Helen Baylor, Fred Hammond & RFC, Ben Tankard and Tarralyn Ramsey. In addition, this project features the first offering from Commissioned in 3 years, in a soft urban number (“God’s Greatest Gift”) that heralds their new-look / new-sound offering upcoming in 2000. To round out the package, three cuts found previously on other projects are included (stuff from The Colorado Mass Choir, Daryl Coley & Beloved, and Richard Smallwood). In total, with nary a weak track, this project upholds the high standard established from the previous offerings in this Christmas series, and will make an ideal stocking stuffer.

Various Artists
Christmas Presence
CGI Platinum

Christmas Presence CD This Christmas grab-bag comes courtesy of CGI Platinum and includes a little bit of everything. Heavily dosed with instrumental tracks, there’s a mix of old and new. Highlights include two original cuts from Steven Ford and Friends (newly signed to CGI), which give a foretaste of what’s to come on future projects from the noted songwriter and producer. Also making a mark is Vickie Winans interpretation of “Mary Did You Know”, and William Becton’s “Light of The World”, which is an urban track laced with Becton’s trademark spoken overlays. Kim Rutherford makes a welcome return on “O Come”, where she adds spoken word to vocals by Devins Prather. When you consider the new cuts by The Mighty Clouds of Joy (“Silent Night”), Terri Carroll (“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”), and the couple of old Allen and Allen Christmas jazz numbers thrown in for good measure, you begin to realize the diversity of this collection. One final note about this album is the stellar cast of guest musicians (including Jonathan DuBose, Jeff Davis, Elijah Holt and saxophonist Tim Green), whose contributions alone make this one worthy of checking out.

Morris Chapman
Bethlehem Morning
Maranatha! Music

Bethlehem Morning CD Morris Chapman, the man with the heart for worship, celebrates Christmas with this collection of tunes that range from inflective and soft, to rousing and brassy. With Stan Endicott producing, the gifted Jason White handling arrangements and on keyboards, and with musicians like bassist Jimmy Neuble lending a hand, the sounds on this Maranatha! Music project are admirable. Tracks to pick are Chapman’s own “Bethlehem Morning”, which starts slowly, swelling unexpectedly to a full throttle chorale masterwork. Chapman takes a breather on the mini-medley of “Away In A Manger / Sweet Little Jesus Boy”, which is given a soft and soulfully treatment by soloist Cassi Davis, with soft string accompaniment in the background. Then Chapman brings his warm and rich tones to “Jesus Born On This Day”, the song first made popular by Mariah Carey, and due for a welcome re-birth here with this magnificent interpretation, which includes a restrained choir support. The album is rounded out with an assortment of familiar carols, making it a praise and worship Christmas must.

Johnny Mathis and CeCe Winans
Listen! It's Christmas
Hallmark Cards

Listen! It's Christmas CD You’ll probably be staring at this project as you stand in line to buy your Christmas cards, as it’s the latest in the annual Christmas music series put out by Hallmark Cards. You don’t expect many surprises with a set positioned like this one is, and indeed, you don’t get many. While fireside crooner Johnny Mathis taking the headline bill on the project, it is CeCe Winans’ contribution that makes the album worthy of mention amongst Gospel choices this season. Backed by the quality sounds of the London Symphony Orchestra, Winans contributes four solo songs —Christmas standards all— each sung with a simple sincerity and a pure sweetness. She also joins up with Mathis on “O Come All Ye Faithful” and a short album opener, “Happy Holiday”. While the selections and arrangements are certainly no match for CeCe’s award-winning Christmas project from 1998 (His Gift), there’s no denying that this is another solid opportunity to catch one of Gospel’s pre-eminent voices in Christmas flava.

Take 6
We Wish You A Merry Christmas
Reprise Records

We Wish You A Merry Christmas CD This is the second Christmas outing for the acappella sensations. Picking up where their 1981 project He Is Christmas finished off, We Wish You A Merry Christmas again puts the spotlight on their re-arrangement prowess. With a mix of traditional carols (4) and winter favorites (6), Take 6 never falters, wisely sticking to an acappella-only format. It’s easy to ask, ‘what more can they do with these songs’, until you listen to the inherent steaminess imparted to their vocal arrangement of “Go Tell It On the Mountain”, or the originality injected into “Joy To The World”. The vocal overlay of the title track with the swinging phrasing of “Carol of the Bells” is another beautiful thing to hear. The Take 6 take 2 on Christmas is definitely worthy.

Various Artists
Trinity Christmas Compilation
Trinity Records

Trinity Christmas Compilation CD Inventive at every turn, and serving as a masterful showcase of the growing Trinity Records roster, this compilation is the musical equivalent of Christmas turkey —delicious, filling and deserving of a second helping. Thoroughly urban, production by Derek S. Clark is sensational throughout, as he puts his production hand to everything on the project with the exception of the two Kenny Smith self-produced cuts. Divine Nature's cover of Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" , the gentle hilarity of the "Christmas Party Interlude", SOUL's remix of "Jesus Gave His Life", Kenny Smith's ghetto-themed "Drummer Boy", new artist Washington DC / Baltimore Children's Choir boisterous island-tinged "Sing Noel", C-ROB's hiphop celebratory "A Party Ain't A Party".... you may as well put a star beside every single track!

James Hall and Worship & Praise
A James Hall Christmas
CGI / Platinum

A James Hall Christmas CD James Hall is back on the recording scene with his first Christmas project. This highly anticipated release has a unique combination of original and popular Christmas tunes with some entertaining arrangements. He kicks the project off with a calming choral arrangement of “We Three Kings”. Other choral cuts include the energetic “The King Has Come” and “Joy to the World”, “Whiter Than Snow”, and “Sweet Little Jesus Boy”. On these tracks, Worship & Praise present their most refined choral sound to date, yielding a listener-friendly project. Hall brings his usual big band/ jazz flair to an original cut titled “What A Miracle” that sees the choir director on lead vocals. And sprinkled throughout the album are progressive spoken word interludes by ‘the voice of James Hall’, and choir member, Dr. Kevin Bond. The project also features an unforgettable bass interlude by Reggie Young.

The intriguing part of this project lies within the progressively urban twist that this album possesses. Hall, known for his intermingling of jazz, classical, and Gospel sounds, departs from that a little by featuring some very urban arrangements of several Christmas favorites including “Unto Us A Child Is Born”, “Away In A Manger”, and “Hark The Herald Angels Sing”, arranged by C.D.Hawkins. The best is saved for last as the project ends with the decidedly urban cut titled “He Trusted In God”. This release is certainly landmark for Hall and Worship & Praise, as it serves as their first Christmas project and introduces a more urban-flavored musical presentation.

Andraé Crouch
The Gift of Christmas
Qwest / Warner Brothers

The Gift of Christmas CD Gospel’s Godfather still has the genius touch. Andraé Crouch presents a Christmas album that soars into mind-boggling realms of excellence. Take your pick from this grab bag: incredible orchestration, searing vocals from guests such as Yolanda Adams, Sandra Crouch, Linda McCrary, Patti Austin, Chaka Khan, top-notch session players (Kirk Whalum, Greg Phillinganes, Nathan East, Abraham Laboriel, Paul Jackson Jr.) and the vocal arrangements of Andraé and Scott V. Smith. Standouts are the original songs here: “Chant”, “Take Me To Jesus”, “Bethlehem” and the exotic re-arrangement of “Mary’s Boy Child”. Crouch’s lead vocals are prominent throughout, with the Andraé Crouch Singers (including Tata Vega, Kristle Murden) and assorted choirs impacting heavily. This stellar-nominated disc demonstrates why Andraé Crouch is a legend.

— reviewed by Stan North, Melanie Clark and Gerard Bonner—

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