As the story goes, three-time Grammy-nominated pop singer Leona Lewis wasn’t planning to record a Christmas album this year, figuring she’d be busy writing the follow up to Glassheart, but her mentor Simon Cowell thought that it was time and she subsequently reconsidered. And, hey, you can hate Simon Cowell all you want, but this album is absolutely fabulous.
Once Leona decided to do a Christmas album, she wanted to do something retro but that would still sound fresh to listeners today. And so she decided to strive for a Motown music sound, something she and producers Biff Stannard and Ash Howes (Kylie Minogue, U2, The Spice Girls) have certainly achieved here. Even the album cover, which lists the song titles and shows nine photos of Leona in squares, evokes the Motown era.
The album consists of ten tracks, three of which are new Christmas originals co-written by Leona, and seven covers. Three of the covers are religious songs. While each track is fantastic in its own right, it’s the originals that shine brightest.
The original “One More Sleep” opens the album and it’s one of the best new Christmas songs to come around in years. It’s such a cheerful and vibrant number. It immediately grabs your attention, not unlike your pile of presents on Christmas morning. Though it definitely captures the Motown vibe Leona was aiming for, it also has an air of Phil Spector-style ’60’s pop. In fact, it’s almost as up-tempo as the Spector-co-written “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” which just so happens to be one of the songs Leona covers here. To that end, her rendition of the beloved song is lively and beaming with as many layers of sound as any vintage version of the tune. And the roaring horns are downright glorious. But it’s the passion Leona emits as she hits every note perfectly — while also injecting her own style and personality — that really makes the song. More than that, it’s what makes the album. The music throughout the record is exquisitely produced, but it’s the way Leona’s sings the songs so joyfully that makes them contagious.
While most of Leona’s versions of the covers stay fairly true to the original versions, her take on “Winter Wonderland” is somewhat different with its deliciously blaring saxophone. I’ve never heard a take on the song that’s quite so bold before. It’s potent and it makes you want to sing and dance, not unlike a few cocktails on Christmas Eve. Or the sugar rush one gets from hot chocolate with lots of marshmallows.
“Someone needs you / Someone loves you,” Leona sings during her mellow, original ballad “Your Hallelujah.” Her vocals here nothing short of precious. It’s an inspirational song, but she sings it delicately, showing a beautiful vulnerability. Listening to it is kind of like basking in a candle flame that could go out at any second but radiates warmth and holds your attention as it burns.
The other standout is the final remaining song, “Mr. Right.” As you might guess from the title, it’s about a woman who wants Santa to bring her a man for Christmas. “Just one thing I need you to bring me for Christmas and that’s my baby,” she sings. I’m not sure if it’s from the point of view of a woman who already has a man and she just wants Santa to bring him to her or if it’s from the perspective of a single woman who’s looking to find her Mr. Right. Perhaps it was written so that you could interpret it the way you want. In any case, it’s a bouncy, infectious delight.
Finally, I must praise Leona for her magnificent rendition of “Ave Maria.” It’s a song that’s been covered countless times and it generally gets on my nerves, but she sings so, so angelically. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a version of it before that’s quite so enchanting. You feel like you’re listening to an angel as she opens up her voice opera-style and hits notes that feel otherworldly. Even if you’re not a fan of religious Christmas songs, it’s impossible to listen to this gem without falling under its celestial spell. And even if you don’t like Christmas music in general, it’s possible that you’d enjoy this album with its dazzling Motown pop and rich Spector-style vibes. It’s an instant classic.