Various Artists – A Very Special Christmas 2 (1992)

FrontCover1A very special Christmas compilation:

A Very Special Christmas 2 is the second in the A Very Special Christmas series of Christmas-themed compilation albums produced to benefit the Special Olympics. The album was released on October 20, 1992, and production was overseen by Jimmy Iovine, Vicki Iovine and Robert Sargent Shriver for A&M Records. Tupac Shakur was supposed to be featured on the album, but due to legal trouble his song was dropped.

On December 7, 2001, A Very Special Christmas 2 was certified Double Platinum for shipment of two million copies in the United States since its 1992 release.[1] As of November 2014, it is the 21st best-selling Christmas/holiday album in the United States during the SoundScan era of music sales tracking (March 1991 – present), having sold 2,200,000 copies according to SoundScan. (wikipedia)

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The follow up to the original, this collection in many ways surpasses the initial effort. Duets seem to rule here, with Cyndi Lauper and Frank Sinatra double teaming on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” while the irrepressible Ronnie Spector shares the mic with Darlene Love for a resplendent “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson give “Blue Christmas” a steamy and sizzling once-over. Vanessa Williams stops the disc, though, with her simple yet stunning rendition of “What Child Is This.” The then-sign-of-the-times inclusion, Michael Bolton, offers a forgettable “White Christmas,” but it’s the only real clunker in the bunch. Always just a tad too country to make it as a cross-over artist, Randy Travis still makes “Jingle Bell Rock” his own in his smooth way. (Steve Gdula)

The value of the “A Very Special Christmas” albums is at least partly to be found in the knowledge that the albums raise money for the eminently good cause of Special Olympics. Accordingly, one can feel good about buying this album, whether for others or for one’s own collection, knowing that the money is going in a socially positive direction, in the spirit of the Christmas season. The first album set the bar quite high, with exceptional contributions by U2, Bruce Springsteen, the Pretenders, John Mellencamp, and Bob Seger, among others, and the second album in the series, logically called “A Very Special Christmas 2,” generally holds up to the high standards set by its predecessor.

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The album starts off very well, with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Christmas All Over Again.” This energetic, cheerful song benefits from the manner in which the distinctive clang of Petty’s Rickenbacker guitar, particularly on the solo, takes on a bell-like sound that blends well with the bells in the background. (I’m not sure why Petty, heard sotto voce in the background at the end of the song, asks Santa for a new Rickenbacker; the old one sounds excellent.) This album dates from 1992, when Randy Travis was the king of country music, so it’s no surprise that he was asked to contribute his own version of “Jingle Bell Rock.” This Nashville-tinged version of the song is fine, if relatively conventional, and taking it up half a step at the end really doesn’t do much to change things.

I like Luther Vandross’s “The Christmas Song.” It has a mellow, optimistic feel, and really takes off when the saxophone comes in. Frank Sinatra and Cyndi Lauper then pair up for a retro-jazz-flavored rendition of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Both are in fine voice, though Cyndi almost sounds a bit star-struck in the presence of the man from Hoboken. I’m glad that Frank got the chance to contribute to one of these albums before his 1998 passing. Frank and Cyndi are followed by Boyz II Men’s “The Birth of Christ,” a smooth and atmospheric narrative song of Jesus’ birth, sung a-cappella with no accompaniment except for finger-snapping — stylish and effective.

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Jon Bon Jovi, who seems to be a really good sport about contributing to lots of holiday albums (along with a wide range of other philanthropic activities as well), provides a fine rendition of Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas,” with a nice guitar solo at the end. I’m partial to the Eagles’ version of this song myself, but JBJ does a good job here. Paul Young’s “What Christmas Means to Me” features upbeat delivery with a Motown sound. Aretha Franklin’s “O Christmas Tree” is slow, stately, and horn-based, and is also distinguished by a spoken-word interlude in which the Queen of Soul takes pains to remind us, “in our gift-giving and our merriment,” of “the real and true meaning of Christmas — the birth of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” How you feel regarding Ms. Franklin’s exhortation may depend upon your own religious and philosophical beliefs. On a less serious note, Ronnie Spector and Darlene Love follow with a fine duet on “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” featuring a 1950’s sound and some lovely saxophone work. Ms. Love’s Christmastime performances on David Letterman’s late-night talk shows have been a holiday staple for many years now, and therefore her presence on this album is doubly welcome.

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And then there is Michael Bolton’s “White Christmas.” What can I say? “Must…not…be…mean…” Mr. Bolton and his work have been so mercilessly savaged by so many critics for so many years that I do not feel inclined to pile on. Besides, doing so would *not* be in the holiday spirit. Therefore, I will simply say that Mr. Bolton’s rendition of this song is not to my taste, and leave it at that. It does sound like something that might have been sung on a 1960’s Christmas variety special — “Rowan and Martin’s Christmas,” “Sonny and Cher’s Christmas,” that sort of thing. If such is your musical inclination, perhaps you will enjoy it.

Run-D.M.C.’s fun and energetic “Christmas Is” reminds me that these hip-hop artists who got their start in the early 1980’s have shown a remarkable degree of staying power. “Give up the dough on Christmas, yo!” After that, Extreme, with “Christmas Time Again,” provides what might be termed a Christmas power ballad. With piano, church organ, and synthesizer being layered atop rich harmonies, it definitely has that big-hair 1980’s “wall of sound” quality, with the band’s request that the listener “pretend that it’ll last all year,” and a bit from “The First Noel” at the end.

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I like Bonnie Raitt and Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby.” It unfolds slowly, with a fine bluesy quality. Both artists are in excellent voice and seem to be having fun, and blues piano and electric guitar provide effective supporting texture. And considering how many, many artists have covered this Charles Brown song, it’s great to hear Mr. Brown singing it himself. Tevin Campbell then offers a relatively gentle, muted, straightforward delivery of “O Holy Night,” something that I appreciate considering how many artists seem to treat this song as an excuse to indulge in high-register wailing until windows start to break.

Former teen-pop star Debbie Gibson’s “Sleigh Ride” has a definite Phil Spector Christmas-album sound to it. Vanessa Williams offers a clear and direct, slightly jazzy delivery of “What Child Is This?” Ann and Nancy Wilson then provide a fine, country-tinged rendition of “Blue Christmas” where piano and slide guitar work well together. I’m not sure why they didn’t call themselves Heart for this recording; was it that their usual backup musicians were not around, or were they concerned that Heart fans would expect a version of “Blue Christmas” that sounded like “Barracuda” or “Crazy on You”? Hard to say.

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Just writing the name “Wilson Phillips” puts one back in the world of early-90’s pop. I wasn’t expecting much from their version of “Silent Night,” but it has clear harmonies and more of a rock-ish sound than I would have expected from Wilson Phillips; so, good for them. A real highlight of the album, for me, is its final song, Sinéad O’Connor’s “I Believe in You.” Recall that this album was released in the same year, even the same month (October 1992), in which O’Connor created controversy by tearing up a picture of Pope John Paul II on “Saturday Night Live” as a protest against sexual abuse within the Catholic Church; consequently, many listeners in the time of the album’s release may not exactly have been listening to it in the full Christmas spirit. That being said, I think O’Connor does a very fine job with this Bob Dylan song. The delivery of the song’s graceful melody is stark, simple, and honest — just O’Connor and a piano, with a clarinet coming in quietly at the end. There’s a fine quality of emotion in the way O’Connor delivers lines like “I believe in you, even though I’ll be outnumbered.” It’s a good way to end the album.

This album has more of a pop quality when compared with the original, more rock-oriented “A Very Special Christmas” from 1987. I’m more of a rock fan, and therefore I tend to like the first album better. Nonetheless, this album will sound fine in the background during your family’s future holiday celebrations, and it is comforting to know that the money goes to help people with intellectual disabilities — something much more important than whether I liked this song or didn’t like that song. (Paul Haspel)

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Personnel:
see booklet

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Tracklist:
01. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Christmas All Over Again (Petty)  4.14
02. Randy Travis: Jingle Bell Rock (Beal/Boothe) 4.00
03. Luther Vandross: The Christmas Song (Tormé/Wells) 4.29
04. Frank Sinatra & Cyndi Lauper: Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (Coots/Gillespie) 2.36
05. Boyz II Men: The Birth Of Christ (Morris/Stockman) 2.49
06. Jon Bon Jovi: Please Come Home For Christmas (Brown/Redd) 2.52
07. Paul Young: What Christmas Means To Me (Gaye/Story/Gordy) 2.53
08. Aretha Franklin: O Christmas Tree (Anschütz) 3.34
09. Ronnie Spector & Darlene Love: Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree (Marks) 2.48
10. Michael Bolton: White Christmas (Berlin) 3.38
11. Run-D.M.C.: Christmas Is (Simmons/McDaniels) 3.19
12. Extreme: Christmas Time Again (Bettencourt/Cherone) 5.06
13. Charles Brown & Bonnie Raitt: Merry Christmas Baby (Baxter/Moore) 4.32
14. Tevin Campbell: O Holy Night (Adolphe/Adam/Dwight) 2.45
15. Debbie Gibson: Sleigh Ride (Anderson/Parish) 3.12
16. Vanessa Williams: What Child Is This? (Traditional) 4.09
17. Ann & Nancy Wilson: Blue Christmas (Hayes/Johnson) 3.48
18. Wilson Phillips: Silent Night (Mohr/Gruber) 3.03
19. Sinéad O’Connor: I Believe In You (Dylan) 5.38

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Liner Notes

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