Chris Young – It Must be Christmas
There are various approaches an artist can take when recording a Christmas album. There is quite a small ‘gene pool’ of standards available so which ones do you pick? Do you record them in their original 1950’s format or do you modernise and re-arrange? How many originals of your own will be tolerated because when it comes to new or original Christmas songs the buying masses are largely un-interested? One listen to Chris Young’s ‘It Must be Christmas’ album will re-assure you that, when faced with these questions and decisions, he made all the right choices. This is quite simply an outstanding Christmas album, hell, it’s that good that this release can be regarded as an outstanding album, irrespective of its seasonal theme.
Young kicks things off with ‘The Christmas Song’ so the opening line of the whole album is, ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.’ What a great start. His voice, rich, deep and husky suits the simple orchestration and arrangements. Piano, drums and guitar weave seamlessly and it becomes apparent that Young has decided to go traditional – lush orchestration and baritone vocals – the musical equivalent of a steaming mug of hot chocolate.
‘Please Come Home for Christmas’ is next. One of my favourite seasonal songs, often covered by rock bands like Bon Jovi and the Eagles. Sleigh bells begin the song augmented be female backing repeating the word ‘Christmas’ over and over again. Young keeps the song’s rockier edge and there is even a tasteful guitar solo.
Track 3, ‘Under the Weather’, brings us to the album’s first of two original songs. This is where I would hold my breath or maybe get the ‘edit’ button on the playlist ready for a bit of deleting action but it’s completely unnecessary – more Country twang than the first two songs is a good thing as Young sings, ‘the snow is coming down and it won’t be the only thing falling,’ This a ‘let’s stay inside, shelter from the weather and fall in love’ type of song. It has a great guitar solo and irrespective of it being a Christmas song, it’s a lovely Chris Young song first and foremost. Having also recently listened to Kacey Musgraves and Jennifer Nettles’ Christmas albums and been less than impressed with the originals on those, I can confirm that Chris has pulled off the difficult task of placing an original Christmas song amongst a set of well-loved standards with ease.
‘New Kid in Town’ is next, a Country Christmas standard written by Keith Whitley. Alan Jackson helps out on this track that has more of a religious angle than the previous ones. The ‘new kid in town’ is Jesus. This is a simple ballad containing great harmonies with Jackson and a lovely steel guitar twang as we experience the Christmas story through the eyes of one of the 3 wise men.
‘Holly Jolly Christmas’ is another one of my seasonal favourites, being partial, as I am, to versions already recorded by Lady Antebellum and Sugarland. This is lighter and simpler than the previous 5 tracks and it lightens the mood well. Young channels a sort of 50’s rock-a-billiy mood with decent guitar licks and riffs all the way through the song and some well-placed honky-tonk piano in the second half of the song.
Track 6 is another well-loved standard, ‘Have Yourself a Merry Christmas’. Again, Young’s deep, husky, rich voice works brilliantly set against a simple piano. There are times on this album that Chris out-Buble’s Michael Buble and this is one of them. Some nice picked guitar and a lovely solo duel between the acoustic guitar and piano adds to the quality. Things go from strength to strength by track 7 as we come across possibly the highlight of the whole album – ‘The First Noel’ – a duet with Brad Paisley. Their voices harmonise wonderfully, again set against a backdrop of simple piano and guitar. This stirring track even has a well-placed guitar solo from Paisley and it gets louder towards the end as both singers begin to let rip.
Track 8 is ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’, another oft-recorded Country / Rock standard. In Young’s care it is slower, quieter, an almost ‘late night jazz club’ version with the piano running free behind Young’s emotional vocals. ‘Silent Night’, the album’s second hymn follows next. The second quieter, more reflective song in a row. Boyz II Men help out with some gospel-style backing vocals as Young goes all ‘Home Free’ or ‘Pentatonix’ in the second verse. A nice, simple acoustic, picked guitar provides a lovely solo that bleeds into a piano and then the song quietens back down towards its conclusion.
‘It Must be Christmas’ finishes with the title track, the second and final original song included. Here we see Young going back to his more Country style twang and less Rat Pack jazz / swing, which is understandable in an original song. This is a HUGE song containing big vocals and a cracking electric guitar solo – it’s an ANTHEM!! A great Chris Young song full stop, let alone a great Christmas song. Loud when it needs to be, quieter and sparser when the mood dictates, a real gem of a song and possibly the best song (GASP!) on the album, which is really pushing the envelope when you consider who its bedfellows are!!
‘It Must be Christmas’ starts with ‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire’ and finishes with a piano sneaking in a little refrain of ‘Jingle Bells’ inside a surprisingly great original song. It’s quality from beginning to end, evoking all the classic images of scarves, fireplaces, hot chocolate and snow. Young’s rich voice, his lush orchestration and arrangements and his willingness to ‘go big’ when the mood dictates means this is an instant classic, a great album worthy of respect on all levels, irrespective of it being a Christmas album or not. You can tell a lot of love and care has gone into the song selection, the two original songs and the instrumentation. My Christmas favourites list, which comprises of Sugarland’s ‘Gold and Green’, Lady A’s ‘On This Winter’s Night’ and The Ally McBeal Christmas album by Vonda Shepherd has just inherited a new addition because I will be playing ‘It Must be Christmas’ for years to come. It’s fun when it needs to be, quiet in other places. A couple of hymns, two great original songs and a superbly executed group of seasonal standards – all packaged up with guitars, pianos, love and care and a bloody great big bow on the top.
As far as Christmas albums go – this is a clear 10/10