Who’s on your holiday playlist? Mariah Carey? Whitney Houston? Luther Vandross? Holiday albums aren’t for the faint of voice, really. Historically, they are rarely overproduced and often ballad driven. They take a certain amount of vocal prowess to really work. The great holiday albums incorporate the traditional standards that people are familiar with, but are executed in a way that doesn’t sound contrived. The more a vocalist can make a holiday standard their own, the better. The standouts allow you to press play during Christmas dinner and not skip a track until you’re laid out on the couch from overeating with an acute case of the “itis.” Anthony Hamilton includes all of these great holiday album ingredients and more on his seasonal offering, Home for the Holidays.
While Hamilton has always been a fantastic student of the classic soul men, Home for the Holidays shows he’s also a student of holiday soul classics. Hamilton hits the right nostalgic notes on “Spend Christmas Time With You,” conjuring the infectious pop-soul feel of the holiday mainstay, The Jackson 5 Christmas Album.
Hamilton’s also one of the few contemporary artists equipped to do justice to James Brown’s “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto.” While many may view the track from Brown’s Funky Christmas as an example of the album’s campiness, both Brown and Hamilton capture the gravity of speaking to the issue of poverty during a season often too focused on consumption in a way that doesn’t lose the album’s inherent warmth.
His homage to the great Christmas soul classics continues with “Please Come Home for Christmas,” on which the stripped down soul-crooner sound is reminiscent of Otis Redding singing “Merry Christmas Baby.”
“What Do the Lonely Do at Christmas,” a cover of The Emotions‘ classic, is like hopping into a classic soul time machine and arriving in those days when soul men like Bobby Womack used to lay their hearts bare on a track, pontificating the depths of loneliness and isolation — ironically surrounded by a well dressed group of background singers with synchronized dance steps. “What Do the Lonely Do at Christmas” is the classic soul culmination on the holiday album, a brief soundtrack for an eggnog driven self-pity session. But Home for the Holidays is far from a melancholy album.
One of the many reasons Home for the Holidays is a standout album is Hamilton’s refusal to stay in the comfort of his R&B/soul pocket or rely too heavily on traditional execution. He does quite the opposite. The exuberant lead track “It’s Christmas” is decidedly retro funk-rock, along with his uptempo interpretation of “Little Drummer Boy.” The frenetic feel of these tracks is reminiscent of the retro soul sounds present in Raphael Saadiq’s Stone Rollin’ and Janelle Monáe’s “Tightrope.” The way Hamilton’s voice fuses perfectly with the guitar-based sound on “Little Drummer Boy” leaves one fascinated with some of the directions he could go in the future, as it’s a tease of what further collaborations with soul music savvy rockers would sound like. Perhaps we can hope for a Jack White or Lenny Kravitz collaboration in the future?
Hamilton’s holiday album also hits another hallmark of the holiday season: music duets. In the tradition of great holiday duets like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” Home for the Holidays features poignant duet pieces with artists like ZZ Ward, Gavin DeGraw and the iconic Chaka Khan.
On “Away in a Manger,” ZZ Ward is the perfect complement for this this blues-spiritual rendition of the holiday track. On the title track, the fluid harmonizing between Gavin DeGraw and Hamilton make it one of the album’s many high points.
Those yearning for a more traditional holiday sound aren’t left out on Home for the Holidays. Hamilton gives us an elegant version of “The Christmas Song,” featuring the great Chaka Khan. This jazz-standard version pairs these two vocal titans as they deliver smoky and arresting vocals, perfect for playing in front of the fireplace for a Christmas party just for two.
“Coming Home” is signature Anthony Hamilton. Its contemporary soul sound is dynamic enough to appear either on Home for the Holidays or any of his other releases. For those longtime Anthony Hamilton fans looking for something that can play in season or out of season, this is the one for you.
The soulfulness of Hamilton’s baritone is taken to transcendent levels on “Spirit of Love.” Tracks like this are why he gets invited to do gospel awards shows. His ability to sing gospel-themed tracks with a profound spiritual sincerity is highlighted here and is perfectly placed as the final track, as the gospel theme, after all, is the reason for the season.
Most albums people produce for Christmas are safe, overly traditional and overly dominated by sanitized standards only to sound just that, standard. Anthony Hamilton didn’t take that route on Home for the Holidays, and we are all the better for it.