Music Reviews: Idina Menzel And Anthony Hamilton, Or A Change Is As Good As A Holiday Album

November 17, 2014




Idina Menzel: Holiday Wishes

Idina Menzel could hardly have a higher profile – the Tony winner was also the standout voice in the film Frozen, and thus responsible for some of the biggest singalong earworms of the last few years. But she’s, curiously, countered that by choosing the most generic title possible for a Christmas album (to be fair, she is Jewish) and going for a collection of mostly middle of the road standards that fails to allow her to really stamp her personality on this collection.

“Personality” is not why people will be buying this album, though. Menzel’s strength – her soaring, exhilarating strength – is her voice, equal parts Dion, Streisand and, at times, Aileen Quinn, star of the 1982 film version of Annie. If Menzel leans into a note, it makes your sternum vibrate and helps you to fully understand the concept of joy.

Why, then, does it often feel like Menzel is offering something just short of 100% on some of the tracks on this album? She doesn’t have the range of Mariah Carey (whose All I Want For Christmas is included here), but then, who does? Nobody’s expecting those squeaky upper octaves, but it’s probably fair to anticipate – from an actress well versed in communicating emotion and mood – a little more of exactly that.

Do You Hear What I Hear and Silent Night are two of the few spots in which the elements gel to just about entice the hair on your arms to rise. Elsewhere, Holiday Wishes is classy and elegant and loads of other good things without ever completely capturing the essence of the event it’s celebrating.

  • Do You Hear What I Hear                             7.50
  • The Christmas Song                                      6.75
  • Baby It’s Cold Outside                                   7.00
  • Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas         6.50
  • All I Want For Christmas Is You                     6.25
  • What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?          6.00
  • December Prayer                                          6.25
  • When You Wish Upon A Star                        6.50
  • Silent Night                                                   7.00
  • River                                                              6.50
  • Holly Jolly Christmas                                     6.00
  • White Christmas                                            6.50

Rating: 6.563


Anthony Hamilton: Home For The Holidays

Soul man Anthony Hamilton is a smooth operator, so it’s unlikely that a collection of Christmas songs from him would ever simply be a batch of holiday tunes featuring his vocals. With that in mind, the sleigh-bells that fill the first couple of bars of opener It’s Christmas are a touch perplexing. But then a robust kick and a sparsely strummed guitar usher in a simple piano lick that drives a great groove, the foundation for a committed vocal from Hamilton – a combination that already sets Home For The Holidays apart from much of its festive season competition.

A good portion of this collection comprises originals co-written by Hamilton, meaning that listeners get new Christmas music – always a bonus for collectors of such compositions – and songs in which the performer can fully invest, rather than glorified karaoke laid down to meet a contractual agreement.

Even the interpretations are interesting: James Brown’s Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto might be familiar to fans of the Godfather of Soul, but its inclusion here will expose it to a new audience. And the standards – so often the safe option; the fallback – are transformed into standouts: Little Drummer Boy becomes a funky dancefloor number, the aural equivalent of flares and stack heels, and Away In A Manger is converted into drawled blues with a hint of gospel.

What Do The Lonely Do At Christmas steers the album into Smokey Robinson territory and a jazzy take on The Christmas Song brings the past even more convincingly into the present with a guest vocal from Chaka Khan.

  • It’s Christmas                                                     7.25
  • Spend Christmas With You                               7.25
  • Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto            7.25
  • Little Drummer Boy (Interlude)                         7.50
  • Little Drummer Boy                                          7.75
  • Home For The Holidays                                    7.25
  • ’Tis The Season                                                 6.25
  • What Do The Lonely Do At Christmas              7.00
  • Coming Home                                                  6.25
  • Away In A Manger (Interlude)                          6.00
  • Away In A Manger                                           7.50
  • Please Come Home For Christmas                  6.50
  • The Christmas Song                                        6.00
  • Spirit Of Love                                                   6.00

Rating: 6.839