Various Artists

Ultimate Soul Christmas

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Given the myriad compilations of Christmas music that have been released over the decades, you'd think it'd be easy to pick a winner. Not so, not so at all. There are just so many collections out there -- and so many that are downright shoddy ripoffs. For every beginning-to-end wonderful Christmas collection like Motown Christmas or A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, there are a hundred -- if not several hundred -- thrown-together budget ones that are anything but wonderful. Ultimate Soul Christmas comes awfully close to being just another thrown-together one, with its questionably compiled and haphazardly sequenced inclusions. (Were the selections drawn from a hat? One might wonder.) Yet, if you don't mind parsing through the songs, there are a great many diamonds in the rough here. After all, how can you go wrong with such a talented lineup of artists? Luther Vandross, Otis Redding, Al Green, Babyface, Boyz II Men, Isaac Hayes, Lou Rawls, Fats Domino, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nancy Wilson are just ten of the featured big-name artists here on this double-disc, 30-song collection assembled by The Right Stuff. As the age-old saying goes, however, don't judge a book by its cover. Granted, there is some seriously first-rate talent here, but few of the compiled songs are actually first-rate. In fact, a lot of them are latter-day recordings, and few are all that canonical. For instance, for every top-shelf classic like Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song," you get a bargain-bin cutout like the O'Jays' way-past-their-prime "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." In other words, you get the good with the bad, not to mention a considerably broad notion of soul music -- one that spans the vocal jazz of Lena Horne and the blues of Charles Brown to the unmistakably '80s urban sounds of Alexander O'Neal and the adult contemporary of En Vogue. Still, there's a darn good single disc's worth of excellent Christmas music here if you don't mind taking matters into your own hands: use your PC or Mac to delete all the '80s-sounding songs with big, synthetic drums, as well as the few oddities that don't belong, and then re-sequence the remaining highlights into a stellar mix of gems. If you don't mind doing so, you'll have yourself one of the best Christmas discs imaginable. As it stands, however, Ultimate Soul Christmas is seemingly just another thrown-together budget collection, albeit one that boasts many great names and half as many great songs.

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