Christmas music is an exhaustingly crowded niche of popular music. Countless artists have attempted to have a place in the Christmas canon, yet it always feels like you hear the same 10 songs over and over for two months straight. With timeless holiday classics such as Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby and Mariah Carey, hearing that John Legend was releasing his own Christmas album made me worry — would he be able to hold a candle in the already-packed genre?
The answer is a resounding yes: Legend’s jazzy and energetic Christmas tunes, bundled together as the aptly titled A Legendary Christmas, feature a mix of standard and original compositions that are filled to the brim with yuletide cheer for all to hear.
The best moments of the album come in the beautiful production, spearheaded by neo-soul aficionado Raphael Saadiq. Opening track “What Christmas Means to Me” is a giant exclamation point of an album introduction, with a groovy and pronounced bass taking the lead against the guitar and piano accompaniments and a simple two-and-four drum. It’s a simple arrangement but it still bounds and leaps with energy. Add in a Stevie Wonder harmonica outro and you’ve got a party staple for years to come.
Other tracks are filled with the same sense of relentless joy, and often with a large number of moving parts. “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” balances drums, a piano, a whole set of strings, the occasional comping guitar and a trombone solo. Oh, and don’t forget Legend’s voice, but we’ll get to that in just a bit.
"While A Legendary Christmas is by and large a jazz-focused album, the variety of styles keeps things fresh over the record’s 49 minutes."
While A Legendary Christmas is by and large a jazz-focused album, the variety of styles keeps things fresh over the record’s 49 minutes. “Purple Snowflakes,” originally by Marvin Gaye, is a sneaky Latin groove that sees Legend turn up his falsetto charm, and “Please Come Home for Christmas” is a blues track through-and-through. “Wrap Me Up in Your Love,” one of the six original compositions that makes its debut on the album, is a sexy modern pop song where Legend is joined by a backing choir. Even more impressive is that through all of these ornate instrumentations, the album’s production never becomes overkill, and every so often, a minimalist ballad will slow things down.
One of these ballads, “By Christmas Eve,” is another original composition. Legend’s songwriting style is distinct on this track, with lyrics like “I’ll cross the deserts and oceans, a river that’s frozen/ I’ll follow the stars just to find where you are,” and a contemporary song structure that is dense with words. Even at Legend’s most modern moments, though, the original compositions still blend into the larger picture of a Christmas album. Some of the original tracks, such as album closer “Merry Merry Christmas,” are so unabashedly Christmas spirited that I would not have guessed they weren’t covers.
"With a vocalist as accomplished and popular as Legend, one would expect nothing less than an amazing vocal performance."
With a vocalist as accomplished and popular as Legend, who is figuratively but also literally the voice of Jesus, one would expect nothing less than an amazing vocal performance. While Legend is obviously in his comfort zone and doesn’t push his limits much, he still covers a large range and takes advantage of Christmas music as some of the easiest listening music on the planet.
From the modern transformation of “Silver Bells” to the dependable instrumentation of “Christmas Time is Here,” A Legendary Christmas is the way Christmas music was meant to be enjoyed: reliably comfortable, but never kitsch, filled with holiday joy, but not overbearing. As someone who never really goes out of their way to listen to Christmas music due to its nearly annoying presence, Legend’s holiday collection is one that I will certainly have on for the next two months. As an album, Christmas music can only go so far in its capabilities, but that doesn’t make A Legendary Christmas any less fun for the holidays.
Final Grade: B+
Carl "CJ" Zabat is a music columnist for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of his work, click here.