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By Caryn Ganz
Sixteen years have passed since Mariah Carey released her first blockbuster holiday album, but she hasn’t lost her desire to dress up in a Santa suit or the silky flexibility of her voice. Her take on a new batch of traditionals like “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is straightforward and sweet, full of strings and torchy piano arrangements and outfitted with a cameo from her opera-singer mom, Patricia, on “O Come All Ye Faithful/Hallelujah Chorus.” Half of the disc’s new originals are ballads — including “Christmas Time Is in the Air Again” and “One Child,” both thick with gooey orchestration — but Mariah bops to a schoolyard-chant beat on “Oh Santa!” and digs out a retro groove for “When Christmas Comes.” It’s hard to figure out what’s “extra festive” (as the full song title promises) about her “All I Want for Christmas Is You” update, and far easier to determine what’s wrong with “Auld Lang Syne” (an awkward dance beat), but the LP’s warm heart is in the right place.
By Sean Fennessey
Sixteen years ago, Mariah Carey assured her standing in the pop cultural firmament. Not with a public meltdown or scandalous divorce, but with an increasingly rare and long-lasting contribution: a beloved holiday recording. Carey’s 1994 stopgap album, “Merry Christmas,” was a certified smash, and “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” written with her longtime collaborator Walter Afansieff, became one of the last modern holiday standards.
In the intervening decade and a half, Carey has shape-shifted from coquettish butterfly to flopping film star to cheer-worthy comeback kid. So forgive “Merry Christmas II You,” a somewhat tentative return to holiday form. What this sequel of sorts does for Carey is return her piercing, five-octave vocal range to its glossy, meretricious roots. What it does not do is add an original the likes of “All I Want.”
There are noble gestures — a neo-soul noel from the Roots affiliate James Poyser, “When Christmas Comes,” and “Oh Santa!,” Carey’s hyperkinetic, stomping team-up with onetime career-saver Jermaine Dupri and the underrated modern soul maestro Bryan-Michael Cox. But neither is unselfconscious, let alone canonical. And the less said about the aerobic New Jack Swing update of “Here Comes Santa Claus,” the better. Only “Charlie Brown Christmas,” a clever re-imagining of the beloved Vince Guaraldi composition, smacks of wit — it’s a sly nod to a previous champion of modern holiday fare.