December is over a month away, but John Legend just gave music lovers an early Christmas gift. The talented singer celebrated another religious holiday (and earned an EGOT in the process) with his leading turn in NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” on Easter Sunday this year. He’s kicking off the most wonderful time of the year with his much-anticipated first holiday album, appropriately titled “A Legendary Christmas.”
Legend announced the project in September on Instagram along with the accompanying “A Legendary Christmas” tour, which includes a Boston stop at the Boch Center on Nov. 25. NBC also just announced that Legend will team up with his wife Chrissy Teigen to host the telecast “A Legendary Christmas with John and Chrissy,” airing Nov. 28 at 10 p.m. The couple will be joined on the broadcast by family, friends and a soon-to-be-announced lineup of special guests to ring in the holidays in style.
The album is well worth the hype. “A Legendary Christmas,” produced by Raphael Saadiq, boasts a tracklist of eight holiday classics plus six original songs. It kicks off with a bang with “What Christmas Means to Me,” featuring soul icon Stevie Wonder, who recorded perhaps the most well-known cover of this tune in 1967. Here Wonder nails a harmonica solo at the end of a bombastic big band number. The album’s other guest is jazz artist Esperanza Spalding, whose voice blends beautifully with Legend’s on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
Legend is careful not to experiment too much with the tracks we all know and love. He sticks to the nostalgic jazzy and soulful sounds that grace every cocktail party and coffee shop toward the end of the year, but he does it well. Standouts include “Silver Bells,” which draws on Motown influences for a more upbeat version of the classic track; an impassioned cover of blues standard “Please Come Home For Christmas;” and an impressive mash-up of R&B tune “Merry Christmas Baby” (1947) and The Jackson 5’s “Give Love on Christmas Day” (1970). Legend’s impeccable vocal technique migrates perfectly across genres and moods, making listeners wonder why, exactly, it took him this long to record a holiday album.
Where “A Legendary Christmas” sets itself apart, however, is in the newly penned tracks. Writing new holiday songs is a tricky feat, considering how ingrained the old standards are in the cultural consciousness. But Legend’s originals are some of the best tracks on the album, blending in with the overall mood without feeling like filler tracks. Jazz number “No Place Like Home” invokes the joy of spending a cozy December day indoors, with a playful stepwise melody in the verses and Legend slipping into falsetto in the refrain. His voice shines in the dramatic pre-chorus of “Bring Me Love,” in which Legend expresses his wish to Santa Claus: “Hope he’s bringing me love this Christmas / ‘Cause I deserve you here.”
And of course Legend, who scored his first number one hit with “All of Me” in 2014, includes a couple of tender piano ballads on “A Legendary Christmas.” The best is “By Christmas Eve,” which has lyrics that feel personal. “I’m a thousand miles away / It’s not snowing in L.A.,” he sings, promising his family that he’ll do what it takes to be home for the holidays. It’s a very familiar sentiment, but you can tell it’s written for his wife Teigen by the loving compliments he slips in: “And I know it’s all on you / Keep it together like you’re glue / And everything you do / I notice.”
“A Legendary Christmas” offers everything you could want from a Christmas album: killer vocals, lush instrumentation and a mix of genres wrapped up in a package of nostalgia and sentimentality. If you’re ready to get into the holiday spirit, it’s time to add this record to your yearly rotation.