CD REVIEWS: Elvis Presley Christmas Duets / Faith Hill: Joy To The World / Sheryl Crow: Home For Christmas

Now that all of my Christmas shopping is done, and Thanksgiving has come and gone, I will be in a state of hibernation until the New Year – meaning I will not be leaving the house except for work or class. This allows me to avoid the insane traffic and store crowds that start today, Black Friday, and continue until just after Christmas.

Whether you are battling those crowds or, like me, avoiding them, this is a perfect time to play some great holiday tunes. I love Christmas music and collect it by a variety of artists. In fact, I actually started playing my Christmas music a couple of weeks early this year. I normally do not start playing it until today.

For you today, I have mini-reviews of three new Christmas albums: Elvis Presley Christmas Duets, Faith Hill’s Joy To The World, and Sheryl Crow’s Home For Christmas.

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Elvis Presley Christmas DuetsElvis Presley Christmas Duets
Artists: Elvis Presley and Various Other Artists
· “Blue Christmas” (with Martina McBride)
· “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” (with Carrie Underwood)
· “Here Comes Santa Claus” (with LeAnn Rimes)
· “Santa Claus Is Back In Town” (with Wynonna Judd)
· “Silent Night” (with Sara Evans)
· “White Christmas” (with Amy Grant)
· “Merry Christmas Baby” (with Gretchen Wilson)
· “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” (with Karen Fairchild & Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town)
· “Silver Bells” (with Anne Murray)
· “O Come All Ye Faithful” (with Olivia Newton-John)
· “The First Noel” (Remix)
· “If I Get Home On Christmas Day” (Remix)
· “Winter Wonderland” (Remix)

In his lifetime, Elvis Presley recorded exactly two Christmas albums: Elvis’ Christmas Album (1957) and Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas (1971). He recorded less than 25 different Christmas songs. However, hardly a year has gone by since his death in 1977 that these songs have not been repackaged, reordered, or otherwise shuffled around to create at least one “new” Christmas album each holiday season.

Though at least a dozen have been released since then, the last Elvis Christmas album I bought was 1994’s If Every Day Was Like Christmas, an excellent release that contained all of his Christmas songs and even a couple of alternate takes. I have passed up all of his holiday titles since then, until now.

With Elvis Presley Christmas Duets, Sony/BMG finally piqued my curiosity enough to make me bite on a new Elvis Christmas album this year. No doubt inspired by the popular “If I Can Dream” duet by Elvis and Celine Dion that appeared on American Idol last year, Christmas Duets features manufactured duets between mostly modern-day female stars and Elvis. Including Elvis, I am a fan of six of the artists on this release, so I could hardly pass it up. In fact, I have seen two of the featured women in concert, Martina McBride and Carrie Underwood, both of whom gave incredible shows.

With all this going for it, I am sorry to report that Christmas Duets turns out to be a bit of a jumbled mess. From a technical perspective, some of the newer vocals just do not combine very well with the original recordings. The results are often little better than I could achieve in an afternoon at home with an audio editing program like GoldWave.

The effect on some songs is that you are playing two versions of the same song by different artists at the same time. Imagine that you have two CD players in the same room. While playing “Silent Night” by Elvis on one of them, you play “Silent Night” by Sara Evans on the other one. The result is a weird kind of sensory overload that is anything but appealing.

Though Amy Grant recorded a sultry version of “Love Me Tender” in 1992 that I find even better than Elvis’ 1956 recording of the song, she unfortunately seems unable to grasp Elvis’ 1957 take on “White Christmas.” Elvis’ version was really a direct cover of The Drifter’s 1954 version, but Grant seems to want to pull it back to a more mainstream Bing Crosby feel. The two styles just do not work together.

Songs featuring Gretchen Wilson, Anne Murray, and Olivia Newton-John are unlistenable travesties. However, I feel the same way about Gretchen Wilson songs that do not include Elvis on them.

The album does have a few highlights, though, with individual tracks worth downloading from Amazon or iTunes. The best is probably “Santa Claus Is Back In Town,” featuring LeAnn Rimes. The illusion that the two artists actually recorded the song together, rather than 51 years apart, probably works most effectively here.

“O Little Town Of Bethlehem,” featuring Karen Fairchild & Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town, is another winner.

Decent but somewhat disappointing in that they do not blow the rest of the album away are “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” featuring Carrie Underwood, and “Blue Christmas,” featuring Martina McBride. These are two of Country music’s greatest vocalists, but their powers are not used to full potential here.

Since Sony/BMG, like Elvis Presley Enterprises, always prefers to push the 1950s over all other phases of his career, the biggest mistake of this album is using Elvis’ 1957 recording of “Blue Christmas,” an overplayed and overrated throwaway tune, rather than a superior live version from 1968 for combining with Martina’s vocals.

Ironically, the 1968 live version was used for a music video created to promote this album. However, you will not find this version on the album. The overall album certainly does not live up to promise of this video.

In addition to the ten duets, there are also bonus tracks of Elvis’ vocals on three 1971 Christmas songs played against newly recorded backgrounds, leaving me to wonder if three duet artists backed out of this project? The new backgrounds are interesting, but will not replace the originals.

Elvis Presley Christmas Duets Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)

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Faith Hill Joy To The WorldJoy To The World
Artist: Faith Hill
· “Joy To The World”
· “What Child Is This?”
· “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town”
· “Little Drummer Boy”
· “O Come All Ye Faithful”
· “Holly Jolly Christmas”
· “Away In A Manger”
· “O Holy Night”
· “Winter Wonderland”
· “Silent Night”
· “A Baby Changes Everything”

Noticeably absent from Elvis Presley Christmas Duets is Country superstar Faith Hill. Last year, she performed an inspiring version of “Peace In The Valley” for the Elvis: Viva Las Vegas television special and soundtrack, perhaps the best-ever cover of an Elvis song. She also happens to have a Christmas album of her own out this year, Joy To The World.

Though I am certainly a fan of Country music, I do not always like Christmas albums with a Country feel. For instance, though I am a Toby Keith fan, I did not really care for his A Toby Keith Classic Christmas release last year.

When it comes to Faith, my favorite album, by far, is 2002’s Cry, which is actually a modern Pop album with no trace of Country. Since Faith’s single release of “Where Are You Christmas?” in 2000, I have been waiting for a full Christmas album from her. My only concern was, would she overemphasize the Country sound?

Faith’s Joy To The World turns out be an extremely traditional Christmas album, featuring fully orchestrated arrangements, with little or no Country feel. I prefer my Faith without Country, and she delivers that in full here. Every single song on the album is a top-notch performance, rivaling even classic recordings by Nat King Cole or Elvis, that will become part of my life’s Christmastime soundtrack for many years to come.

Faith Hill’s Joy To The World Overall Rating: 10 (out of 10)

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Sheryl Crow Home For ChristmasHome For Christmas
Artist: Sheryl Crow
· “Go Tell It On The Mountain”
· “The Christmas Song”
· “White Christmas”
· “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”
· “Merry Christmas Baby”
· “The Bells Of St. Mary’s”
· “Blue Christmas”
· “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear”/”O Holy Night”
· “There Is A Star That Shines Tonight”
· “All Through The Night”

While Sheryl Crow also was not on Elvis Presley Christmas Duets, she does include a great version of “Blue Christmas” on Home For Christmas. I have enjoyed some of Crow’s songs over the years, but never enough to actually buy one of her albums.

I picked up Home For Christmas on a whim, since it was priced low at Hallmark. This was my Christmas album surprise of the season – you know, that one album you really do not have high hopes for that turns out to be terrific.

With a bluesy feel that certainly means I will soon be taking a second look at Crow’s non-Christmas albums, other highlights on this one include “The Christmas Song,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” and “Go Tell It On The Mountain.”

Whether you are a Sheryl Crow fan or, like me, just a casual listener to this point, Home For Christmas is a must-have for this holiday season.

Sheryl Crow’s Home For Christmas Overall Rating: 8.5 (out of 10)