Toby Keith

A Classic Christmas, Vols. 1-2

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OK, bypass that hideous cover, which makes A Classic Christmas seem more like a piece of careless product than it actually is -- Toby Keith is one of the biggest stars in Nashville; certainly Show Dog could have put in a little more effort into the art besides Photoshopping a cartoon Santa hat on an old publicity photo -- and concentrate on the music on this two-disc, 20-track set. Granted, a holiday album of this size may seem like overkill, but this isn't one sprawling, unedited session: it's two distinct albums, the first containing secular seasonal standards, the second religious-themed carols. In both cases, they are certainly "classic" tunes -- there's not an unexpected song in the bunch, whether it's "Winter Wonderland" and "Silver Bells" or "The First Noel" and "Away in a Manger" -- which can almost be read as a reaction to his first holiday album, 1995's Christmas to Christmas, which was most decidedly not a classic Christmas album, relying on 12 newly written tunes, several by Keith himself. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't memorable, where this Classic Christmas often is, especially on the secular disc, as he gives those tunes looser arrangements that allow the band to lie back and have some fun, especially on a lazily loping "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" and a soulful "Please Come Home for Christmas." The carols are, perhaps expectedly, a bit stately but they're done well, and he does give "Go Tell It on the Mountain" a welcome bit of gospel fervor. This shift in tones means that the two halves of Classic Christmas feel like similar but related albums, with the first being better for parties, and the second for quiet nights at home, and both are solid holiday albums, and both are much, much better than that cover art would indicate.

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