Various Artists - The Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection (2009)

Various Artists
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One could easily see it as cluttering the markets with yet another Motown compilation. Look closer and you will see a masterful, star-studded assortment of holiday treats taken from some of Motown's greatest artists.

Mostly assembling the best Christmas classics from the label's classic era, The Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection stuffs 51 tracks into a double-disc package that flows like an exhaustive iTunes play list. But the fun and spirited soul from Berry Gordy's labor of love is definitely present like: the Jackson 5's "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town;" the Temps "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer;" and Stevie Wonder's "What Christmas Means to Me." There's also the classy, string-laden, cross-cultural pop of the Supremes' "My Favorite Things" and Smokey Robinson's timeless medley "Deck the Halls." Add in a few obscure works like the Funk Brothers' groovy "Winter Wonderland" and the Chubby Checker action of the Twistin' Kings' "Xmas Twist," and the double-disc album becomes more and more valuable. Most impressive in the deck is the overlooked but quite remarkable inclusions of Marvin Gaye's quiet Vietnam protest, the melancholy "I Want to Come Home for Christmas," and the psychedelic ‘70s instrumental soul of "Christmas in the City."

Some of Motown's more recent holiday efforts from Boyz II Men, the Four Tops, The Boyz and Johnny Gill give the album something of a modern vibe, more less an early ‘90s contemporary R&B feel, but are easily forgotten when placed against the surrounding timeless masterpieces. Sure Boyz II Men's excellent Quiet Storm reading of "Let It Snow" has become one of the most significant slow jams in modern R&B's holiday collections and even Smokey Robinson's silky falsetto captures the hearts of listeners on the ‘90s remake of "The Christmas Song," but the classics are the obvious treats here and should not be ignored.

While not totally obnoxious, the snippet-like ho-ho-ho salutations get in the way of the songs and even make the double-disc collection overly weighty. Their purpose? To give the songs air to breathe and to provide sensible interludes from the overloading holiday workout. But that's what makes Ultimate so special. It assembles the best of Motown's holiday magic and tweaks it with some rare, warm and unpredictable greetings.

Even with its lengthiness, Ultimate leaves out one or two no-brainers while also choosing an earlier version of the Temps' "Silent Night" rather than the endearing 1980 gospel-ish version. If you're already the proud owner of Motown Christmas Vol. 1 and 2, you're in good shape. Still, if you're looking for the perfect Motown holiday album, for now, Ultimate is your best option. Highly recommended

By J. Matthew Cobb

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