Review: “This Is Christmas” by Luther Vandross (CD, 1995)

Today’s POP RESCUE from an uncertain future, is the 1995 album This Is Christmas by legendary soul singer, the late Luther Vandross. Is this album on the top of your Christmas list, or should you keep the receipt? Read on…

Luther Vandross - This Is Christmas (1995) album
Luther Vandross – This Is Christmas (1995) album

This 10 track CD opens with the piano solo of With A Christmas Heart, the first of seven tracks here to be either solely or co-written by Luther. He soon drops in those smooth and rich vocals as he announced that ‘it’s Christmas night’. The synth strings are sometimes a little over-bearing here, in competition with his voice, but you soon hear him seemingly effortlessly soar above them. It’s a little light on lyrics, but it’s a nice and gentle start to the album.

Next we head on to the titular track This Is Christmas. Acoustic guitar, sleigh bells and finger snaps bring the tempo up, alongside some wonderful backing vocals from (amongst others) Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mother) and Cindy Mazelle that add both a soft vocal backing, but also a strong choir tone. This track is a nice upbeat track, with a mixture of modern sound, old-style lyrics, and the beautiful vocal harmonies. It’s a treat.

The sound of party chatter leads us into The MistleTOE JAM (Everybody Kiss Somebody) begins with Luther trying to lure Brenda White-King under the mistletoe – she’s having none of it! This is another nice upbeat track – an RnB beat, a great bass, and it reminds me a little bit of those duelling sounds like Opposites Attract by Paula Abdul and MC Skat Cat. The backing vocals are once again perfectly placed – again it’s Cissy and Cyndi, but also Darlene Love amongst a few others. This is a really nice little Christmas-lite bouncy track, but sadly got no further than a 12″ vinyl promo.

That’s followed by the album’s lead single Every Year, Every Christmas. This is a slower plodding track, allowing Luther to show off his vocal richness against some gentle beats and lurking guitar chords. Synth chimes and bells strike in the distance, but the main focus of this song is Luther’s vocals, and he puts in a great performance. With regards to this having been a single, it’s just too ploddy to have really been on anyone’s Christmas list in the UK, where it faltered at #43, perhaps with the single-buyers focusing on the re-released The Best Things In Life Are Free with Janet Jackson, that peaked at #7 earlier in December.

My Favourite Things is next, and this is a jazzy little cover of the Rodgers and Hammerstein song from the film and musical The Sound Of Music. Luther vocally sounds great here, and he’s joined by some chilled out bass, but his melody lacks variance. It’s very drifty, but the ‘When the dog bites…’ section begins, the track just seems to ignore that there’s any difference, and mostly just bulldozes most of what makes the original sound good, and builds back blander.

Classic Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas is here, and quite frankly, it’s the one you’ve wanted Luther to sing. Luther does not disappoint, and he’s straight in alongside the piano and string section, sounding perfect. This is a really nice, and fairly safe, version of this classic hit, with Luther really seizing several moments to show off those rich and warm vocals. This would have been a great choice for a UK single.

Darlene Love is promoted from backing vocals to full duet credit here for I Listen To The Bells, but not before each person in the studio gets to introduce themselves and then wish you a ‘merry Christmas’. This track drops in a wonderful pop beat, with some underlying sleigh bells. I think the style that’s being aimed for here is the Phil Spector wall of sound style, of which Darlene was a part. You can feel the vocal power in vocals, and this sits well against Luther’s soulful sound. The track has a great sax solo, and the studio crowd all have moments to get in as a chorus. This is a really nice cheerful song.

The mood shifts to the tender heartfelt ballad of Please Come Home For Christmas. It’s a fairly gentle little track, with nice warm backing vocals in the chorus, that sit well alongside Luther’s vocals. This is a great example of Luther ballads, but the track is a little forgettable.

A Kiss For Christmas follows that, opening with some chimes, and what sounds like Mario getting all the coins. Luther suddenly arrives with sleigh bells asking you ‘don’t think about it, don’t think about it‘. Instead, Luther is going to pour you a drink and ask you to forget about how cold it is outside. It’s a bit Baby, It’s Cold Outside in topic (it’s not half as catchy), but smoother and more soulful in the way only Luther could achieve. Once again, the choir of backing singers in the chorus sound wonderful, and pump a burst of energy in.

The album closes with the traditional song O’ Come All Ye Faithful, which I know I’ve had to sing repeatedly (with silent protest) in my primary school concerts. Instead, Luther is bathed in some rich orchestral strings before his flawless powerful vocals join in alongside a piano and choir. It sounds perfect, and is absolutely worth the wait as the layers of instruments build up. It is very Christmassy, and as it reached its crescendo, it put tingles on my spine. An excellent ending.

Luther’s lead single ‘Every Year, Every Christmas’.

Verdict

Over all, this album is a really nice collection of Christmastime songs. It’s also fairly brave to have 7 of the 10 as originals, most of which work well. The magic in Luther’s vocals could make even a turd shine, but thankfully that’s not what we have here.

The highlights for me were This Is Christmas, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, Listen To The Bells, and the magnificently epic O’ Come All Ye Faithful. These allow Luther to show off his voice perfectly, and he is well complimented and lifted by the brilliance of the backing vocalists.

There are a few mis-steps, the dull Please Come Home For Christmas and A Kiss For Christmas, and the irony in the missed opportunity shift of My Favourite Things. These are mostly forgettable rather than uncomfortable or bad.

Maybe if they’d swapped one of the weaker originals for another classic, then this album would be brilliant, but as it is, it’s a pretty good listen.

Rated 4 stars - You're missing a treat!
  • POP RESCUE 2021 RATING: 4 / 5
  • 1995 UK ALBUM CHART PEAK: Did not chart.
  • POP RESCUE COST: £3.19 from an eBay seller.

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