Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Best of Stevie Wonder - The Christmas Collection: 20th Century Masters (2004)

Christmas with little Stevie

First off, I'm not one to buy Christmas albums -- in fact, this is the first I've ever purchased -- but I am a big Stevie Wonder fan and have most of his post-1970 albums, even the not so essential ones from the 80's. The latter being true, there was almost no way I was going to be dissappointed with this, especially after hearing a track on the radio this past Christmas and really digging it.

This relatively new compilation (2004) includes 14 remastered tracks, originally recorded by Stevie back when he was "Little Stevie Wonder" and sung mostly non-originals under the direction of Motown executives. Tracks 1-12 were in fact originally issued as 'Someday at Christmas' in 1967 -- this new collection therefore trumps that album (which still shows up in the used bins) by adding two additional tracks. Still, the total playing time remains brief at 42 minutes.

The music itself is a bit dated of course -- Stevie croons in an adolescent voice, is backed by an un-funky orchestra with lush string arrangements and vocal choruses, and most of the tunes, if they ever were popular, are now obscurities. There are a some classic carols -- "Silver Bells," "The Little Drummer Boy," the classical piece "Ave Maria" (which Stevie braves in latin), and a Stevie favorite, Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts roasting on a open fire..."). Most of the tunes are slow ballads, until the end when the tempo picks up with "What Christmas Means to Me," a number more in the trademark Motown tradition with sleighbells serving as the rhthym section, and the two concluding add-on tracks. Some of the songs border on smarmy ("Bedtime for Toys" and "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Me" with their spoken interludes), but the opening track "Someday at Christmas," "The Day That Love Began," "The Christmas Song" and "Christmastime" are standouts with Stevie really shining -- the latter two feature a bit of Stevie on harmonica.

I saw Stevie sing a free Christmas concert in Times Square back in the 90's, making me want to hear a modern Christmas album by grown-up Stevie and all his now trademark piano and vocal pyrotechnics, but this album works for me too... as something to put in around Christmastime to break the monotony of well-tread carols on the radio, a conversation piece (peace?), and a good addition to a relatively complete Stevie collection. By Joe Pierre

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