Christmas Gospel —The Classics

These aren't recent albums. Yet they merit some very serious attention this time of the year. You may differ in our choice, but we consider these to be definitive Christmas classics from yester-year :

Various Artists
Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration
Reprise Records

  Who's who in Gospel and way beyond gather together for this Quincy Jones-assembled masterpiece interpretation of Handel's famed oratorio, with significant input from Mervyn Warren and friends. Where else can you find Commissioned and The Clark Sisters singing on the same song? ("Lift Up Your Head, O Ye Gates"). This one is also intriguing for the ingenious march through musical styles as outlined in "Overture: A Partial History of Black Music", for the pre-stardom rap entry of Busta Rhymes in front of the The Boy’s Choir of Harlem on "Glory To God".

Also noteable are Chris Willis' contribution, and the 'everyone-join-in' "Halleluiah Chorus". Some strict traditionalists might have gasped, but we think Handel is still proud of this one.

Kirk Franklin

 This is the definitive contemporary classic, and displays the roots of Kirk Franklin's anointed genius: tender ballads infused with awesome melodic hooks and a flair for supple urban edge. The Family is all over this one, with gems such as "Now Behold The Lamb" and the powerful soul of the freshly arranged "Silent Night" astounding everyone who first heard them.

Keyboard maestro Bobby Sparks sparkles, as does everyone else involved on this 1995 keeper.

Various Artists
Real Meaning of Christmas Volume 1
Verity Records

 Considered to be the best of the series, Verity assembled their biggest names for this 1996 collection. Highlighted by the opening cut "Suddenly" with participation from Hezekiah Walker, Fred Hammond, Angelo and Veronica and others, the album then showcases original songs and arrangments from these artists and others.

There's nary a weak cut, with contributions from Ben Tankard, Veritas, Commissioned, Colorado Mass and Gary Oliver.

Sounds of Blackness
Night Before Christmas: A Musical Fantasy

  Ann Nesby lights souful fires under songs like "Away In A Manger" and "O Come All Ye Faithful", and The Sounds get real soulful on "Soul Holidays" and "Oh Holy Night". That’s more than enough to offset the lesser and more commercial takes on secular favorites that round out the last half of the album.

Edwin Hawkins

Christmas With the essence of 70's Gospel soul, The Edwin Hawkins Singers bring out their renowned sound in Christmas form, interpreting familiar carols and some nice originals and re-arrangements done in their own Hawkins style. "Blowin' in the Wind" still sends shivers, and "We Three Kings" embodies so much soul it almost hurts. An oldie, and still very much a goodie.

Various Artists
Christmas Spirit in the Air
601 Music
 The unrivalled Solomon Burke starts things off with his soulful interpretation of "Silent Night" before luminaries that include Rev. Timothy Wright, Donnie McClurkin and the New York Restoration Choir and Bill Moss drop seasonal songs into place.

By the time this compilation finishes spinning, you get to hear the Gospel of old with Marion Williams' "O Come All Ye Faithful" and Margaret Allison's "Glory To The New Born King" setting the pace. The Williams Brothers bring two originals ("This Christmas" and "Family Reunion This Christmas") to top the project.

Thomas Whitfield and Company
The Annual Christmas Services
Sound of Gospel

 The famed Detroit choir's annual Christmas service is put on disk for a genuine taste of live choir excellence that is difficult to match, as Maestro Whitfield ushers in the incredible musical worship.

Various Artists
Gospel Family Christmas
Sparrow Records

  Rev. Norman Hutchins set this 1992 album with his rousing choir interpretation of "Hark the Herald". The West Angeles C.O.G.I.C. Angelic And Mass Choir continued with "Joy To The World". Other contributors from Sparrow Records such as Ricky Grundy, Daryl Coley and Richard Smallwood made this one a treat.

Oh, and Tramaine Hawkins does no wrong on "Oh Come All Ye Faithful". This is another contemporary classic.

Various Artists
Old Time Christmas Favorites
601 Music
 They don’t call it 'old time' for nothing. This 8-song collection brings it waaaay back home with organ fills and plenty traditional swells on well-known Christmas songs from Marion Williams, The Ward Singers and "Away In A Manger" from James Cleveland.

Also here is two great and contrasting cuts from The William Brothers: smoothed out harmonies of "Silent Night" and the uptempo groove of "Glory To The New Born King". Also making their mark is "Come Let Us Adore Him" from Carnell Murrell and the Newark Community Choir, and "Go Tell It On The Mountain" from the Sensational Nightengales.

— reviewed by Stan North—

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