Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Lackluster Compilation: Reba McEntire's Christmas Collection Underwhelms

The Good: Excellent vocals
The Bad: Short, Uninteresting instrumental accompaniment, Incomplete, Nothing original
The Basics: 20th Century Masters: Christmas Collection - The Best Of Reba is a mediocre Christmas album that offers fans of McEntire nothing new from her two prior Christmas albums.

As I am still new to transferring my music reviews into my new blog, it occurs to me that some of my standards might not be well-known to my newer readers. One of those standards is a general disdain for Christmas albums. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against Christmas or most of the artists who release Christmas albums (okay, maybe a little on the latter). I tend to look at most Christmas albums as an obvious cashgrab whereby artists and performers put in minimal effort to try to make a quick buck. So far, the only Christmas or winter holiday-themed review that has made it to the blog is Aimee Mann’s One More Drifter In The Snow (click here for that review!). Sadly, Reba McEntire’s Christmas compilation is not going to fare so well. Unfortunately for Reba McEntire and the concept of the 20th Century Masters collection, The Best Of Reba: The Christmas Collection is almost all of Reba McEntire's Christmas works and includes nothing original.

My real beef with 20th Century Masters: Christmas Collection - The Best Of Reba, outside a persistent belief that the vast majority of Christmas albums are exploitative attempts by artists to cash in on Christmas spending, is that the album is short and culls from only two Reba McEntire albums. McEntire escapes my usual judgmental wrath over performers using Christmas c.d. sales as a safe paycheck by virtue of her being a performer as opposed to a musical artist. Because all of the rest of her albums feature works written and performed instrumentally by others, it is hard to say she is being exploitative when she released a Christmas album. In Reba McEntire's case, there are two Christmas albums: Merry Christmas To You and The Secret Of Giving: A Christmas Collection and both are rather short albums. 20th Century Masters: Christmas Collection - The Best Of Reba culls from those two albums and the collection is uninspired for two reasons: 1. There is nothing original on this album and 2. Both of her prior Christmas albums could have fit on a single c.d. Instead of being The Best Of Reba for Christmas music, 20th Century Masters could have given listeners a real value (and helped save some space on the shelf) by providing a single, 79 minute c.d. of all of Reba McEntire's Christmas music (at least up to that time).

As it is, 20th Century Masters: Christmas Collection - The Best Of Reba has a dozen songs occupying 40:31 on a single c.d. and it is utterly unremarkable in every way I am able to conceive. The song selections are unimpressive in an obvious sort of way (I swear, every female performer who does a Christmas album does "Silent Night" and "I'll Be Home For Christmas") and none are original to express either unique Christmas sentiments or a truly "Country" sense of Christmas or the music in that genre. Like virtually every Reba McEntire album, McEntire was not involved in the writing, instrumental accompaniment or engineering of the songs on this album. She is credited as a co-producer because some of the songs from her second were co-produced by her. Largely, though, this is a very average Christmas compilation, which is made all the more mediocre by the fact that it does not include all of Reba's Christmas music.

Actually, 20th Century Masters: Christmas Collection - The Best Of Reba calls back more to Reba McEntire's Gospel roots and the collection is more Gospel-pop than it is Country-pop in the delivery. While some of the songs employ violins and the steel guitar as accompaniment, most of the songs feature a more traditional string section for backing McEntire. The album is melodic violins (not so much being used as fiddles), pianos and very limited percussion. The intent in the instrumentation is clearly to back Reba McEntire's vocals without smothering them or in any way overwhelming her voice. In this way, the instrumental accompaniment works well. But even there, the album is a bit bland. The musical backing sounds generic enough that this is essentially elevator music backing McEntire's vocals. The muted quality to the instrumental accompaniment makes the entire album mellow in a warm, but monotonous, way. In other words, those looking for something truly energetic or interesting in the instrumental accompaniment are unlikely to find it here.

That said, what the listener will find is the album has striking vocals and here Reba McEntire performs just as the listener hopes she would. What is most striking about McEntire's vocals on 20th Century Masters: Christmas Collection - The Best Of Reba is that in employing McEntire's vocals, the 20th Century Masters capture one of the most striking female vocalists of our time, if for no other reason than her register. While Ella Fitzgerald could bounce through virtually every register and Tori Amos might have a pretty flawless soprano voice, there are very few performers working in the alto register. What this means is that, instead of yet another high-pitched version of "O Holy Night" that shakes the tinsel on the tree and cracks the frost off the window, Reba McEntire presents a lower pitched version of the song. What this does is give the song new life with a different emotional resonance and that is something this collection captures quite well.

Instead of having a dozen songs that are chirpy and cherubic or melodramatically soaring in the upper registers, Reba McEntire breathes new life into songs like "White Christmas" and "The Christmas Song" by performing them lower, which makes them sound more thoughtful and like hymns than the traditional poppy versions of the songs. This is not to say the album is devoid of upbeat songs. McEntire allows a bit of Country drawl in on her vocalizations on "I Saw Mama Kissing Santa Claus" and that is likely to satisfy her Country base (though, to be honest, the base for Country music seems to appreciate the Gospel side of Christmas albums, especially fans of classic Country, which Reba McEntire started in).

Thematically, Christmas is a unifying theme on the album and lyrically the songs reflect just that. There are a few songs that are less well-known than the traditional Christmas carols, but McEntire makes them sound timeless with her soulful deliveries of the lines penned for her. In fact, she owns "The Secret Of Giving" the way she sings the lines "If you offer the best part of yourself / Even when you don't have anything else / Honest and true / It'll come back to you / Love comes back to you / If there's just one secret to living / Whoever you are / It's learning the meaning of giving / With an open heart." McEntire selected new songs that have generally good lyrics and they all present a sense of meaning and value for the season that the audience is likely to enjoy.

But the moment fans learn that both of McEntire's Christmas albums could fit on a single disc is the moment 20th Century Masters: Christmas Collection - The Best Of Reba loses its overall value. Despite having decent vocals, the album is very mediocre and short and fans who want only one Reba McEntire Christmas album can do pretty much as well by selecting either of the two albums these songs are culled from and completists are going to have to buy both of those albums anyway (until McEntire comes out with an ultimate Christmas album, possibly in 2010 or 2011?) in order to get all of the songs. They don't need this one because there is nothing original here.

The best song is "The Secret Of Giving" and I was most unimpressed by "Up On The Housetop."

For other albums by Country artists or strong female voices, please check out my reviews of:
20 Great Years – Kenny Rogers
Little Bit Of Everything – Billy Currington
Tuesday Night Music Club – Sheryl Crow


For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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