The Good: Impressive vocals, Decent song selection, Duration, Instrumental accompaniment
The Bad: Not distinct or superlative in any way
The Basics: Hardly original, but entirely listenable, These Are Special Times is Celine Dion's take on the tried and true for a Christmas album.
To be fair Celine Dion, right off the bat it is worth acknowledging that Christmas albums as a genre have a real tough time surviving my critiques. There are few that have done anything truly new, different and impressive since Elvis' Christmas Album (click here for my review!) and since then, I tend to look at most Christmas albums as a chance for performers (and a few actual artists) to cash in on Christmas spending. While some performers present their Christmas albums with the same level of quality as the rest of their works, this is seldom the case, especially with artists who usually create their own material.
That said, Celine Dion is not one of them. She is a performer through and through and her holiday album These Are Special Times fits in with the rest of her pantheon of works as an expression of her vocal talents. Because Celine Dion's albums are basically her performing the works of others anyway (performing much like Tina Turner, Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra), it is impossible to consider These Are Special Times a sellout album. In fact, the only weird track that might lend one to raise their eyebrows is Dion's duet with R. Kelly, which does seem like a bit of a stretch for the performer who also works with Andrea Boccelli on this album.
That said, the sixteen track, sixty-eight minute These Are Special Times suffers more from mediocrity than anything else. Celine Dion manages to co-write "Don't Save It All For Christmas Day," but the rest of the album is made up of tracks that are traditional or were written by other people. Dion does not play any instruments on These Are Special Times and she is not involved in any of the production of the album. As a result, it is very easy to listen to the album and have it blend into the background; there is little distinctive about These Are Special Times and Dion and her producers seem to tread toward the safety of mediocrity as opposed to creating anything terribly original on the album.
What These Are Special Times has is the voice of Celine Dion and on tracks like "Christmas Eve" and "O Holy Night," Dion shows off her beautiful soprano voice. On "Christmas Eve" she presents the song with enthusiasm and an energy that enhances the song more than any of the lines. Similarly, on "Ave Maria," she emotes her slow, sad vocals with a passion that perfectly characterizes the song and Dion does an amazing job with it (the best version I've ever heard still has to be John Cullum's rendition on Northern Exposure). Celine Dion is gracious in sharing the stage with R. Kelley and Andrea Boccelli on "I'm Your Angel" and "The Prayer," which are unremarkable outside the vocal presentations.
Unfortunately, Celine Dion's very traditional Christmas album is broken up by tracks where Dion's vocal abilities are not highlighted. Dion is drown out in the latter half of "Christmas Eve" by her backing vocalists. As well, she sits out the bulk of "Adeste Fidelis." That track is odd, as her choral accompaniment robustly sings and she . . . does not. For much of the song, Celine Dion lets her fellow singers carry the song and she misses some moments that other singers have shined on in the song and for those looking for a great Celine Dion performance, this feels like a real missed opportunity.
While the high point is the vocals - when Celine Dion actually participates and is in the spotlight with her amazing voice - These Are Special Times suffers on the instrumental accompaniment. The album does nothing particularly wrong with the way the musical accompaniment is presented, but it does nothing especially right, either. "Blue Christmas" sounds virtually like Elvis's rendition and "Happy XMas (War Is Over)" is also presented in a remarkably literal way. Both the instrumentals and vocals are exactly what one expects from the songs - including from backing vocalists - making the Celine Dion versions unimpressive in that she does not make any of the songs on the album her own. Instead, she plods through other people's songs . . . much like they once did.
The result is a mellow Christmas album that Celine Dion performs on and she fails to engage the listener with any sense of originality. Even so, her vocals are impressive enough to recommend and this album skates by with a bare "recommend" as a result.
For other Christmas albums, please check out my reviews of:
A New Thought For Christmas – Melissa Etheridge
Wintersong – Sarah McLachlan
Midwinter Graces – Tori Amos
For other album reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.