Christmas Candy

I've always been a fan of Christmas music because musicians of every stripe, and singers in particular, are magically drawn to the stuff. From Otis Redding belting out "White Christmas," to The Sonics banging on "Santa Claus," to the immortal Charles Brown crooning his "Please Come Home for Christmas," to Francis Albert Sinatra applying his pipes to any holiday number he took a liking to, Christmas music has teased out a lot of memorable performances. Could it be that singing about happiness, snowflakes and Rudolph is a refreshing change from love, loss and all the other usual subjects of popular music?

To open the Christmas music season, I thought I'd climb down, and in the name of not being a snobby elitist critic, I'd give what's topping the charts these days a chance. Formed in Texas by music-theater majors, the quintet Pentatonix have in the past few years become something of a Christmas music industry unto themselves. Since 2014, this quintet, now a quartet of Mitch Grassi, Scott Hoying, Kirstin Maldonado and Kevin K.O. Olusola, have released three Christmas records. All have been huge hits. has 1536 customer reviews of 2016's A Pentatonic Christmas, and most are unqualified raves. Clearly, listeners respond to their music.

Now, the fourth installment in this very profitable franchise, 2017's Christmas Deluxe, is high on the charts at both iTunes and Amazon. A re-release of the 2016 record with five new cuts added, this new collection is pure sugar—really, really sweet.

Soundwise, "smooth" is too weak a word for what this act—essentially a boy band with a female voice on top—is putting out. Never in the history of the human voice singing have harmonies ever been this clean and even. Though the band tours and sells out Christmas music shows the world over, clearly some modern wonders of the recording studio are at work here. Tracked in studios all over the world, the sound is big, loud, compressed. Everything on this record is tuned and fattened. With a career built on smart marketing–they have a YouTube channel with 13 million subscribers producing 2.7 billion views–this is perky, unthreatening pop, perfect for a meant-to-please-(and sell) collection of Christmas classics.

And to be fair, there is creativity at work on Deluxe. And a capella singing done right is always worth a listen. "I'll Be Home for Christmas,' "Up on the Housetop," and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" all get high gloss, ultra-pasteurized textures. Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," which seems to have become a universal anthem appropriate for every season, is given a dramatic reading. Kanye West's "Coldest Winter" comes and goes pleasantly. Their collaboration with veteran vocal group, The Manhattan Transfer on "White Christmas" has many of the splashy arrangement flourishes that MT has over the years fashioned into a career.

Of the new tunes, the collaboration with Jennifer Hudson on the Swedish hymn, "How Great Thou Art," is drawing the most attention. Recorded by many great singers, this soaring melody probably had its most memorable recording thanks to one Elvis Aaron Presley. The King has nothing to fear from this version. To be frank, in everything she sings Jennifer Hudson is a screamer. Her technique consists primarily of increasing the volume, often to levels that are really unpleasant for the listener and unflattering to her voice in the extreme. It's odd because she seems to have the gifts to be subtle and appealing but instead she prefers to shriek.

Like the genre itself which is an acquired taste, this is Christmas music that will not find favor in every household. Again, Pentatonix makes very, very happy music. See below if it's your style.

brenro's picture