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Jennifer Nettles

To Celebrate Christmas – 2016 (Big Machine)

Reviewed by Andrew Greenhalgh

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CDs by Jennifer Nettles

Christmas is a season that calls into view that old adage that "bigger is always better." Bigger trees, bigger light displays, and bigger presents are, if we're being totally honest, always welcome. When it comes to the music, it's very much the same. While the quiet, jazz-tinged standards of Crosby or Cole go well over a hot cup of cocoa, few things get our holiday juices flowing like a big, joyous Christmas favorite. And who better to deliver those songs from her big personality and big voice than Jennifer Nettles on her first solo Christmas outing, "To Celebrate Christmas."

Setting the pace early, Nettles eschews subtlety and turns to volume up loud from the very get-go with her energetic take on "Go Tell It On the Mountain," a big horn section and the McCrary Sisters providing an extra boost that takes the favorite to new heights. That is followed by the old-meets-new arrangement of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," a track that fuses country, jazz and pop together along with the guest vocals of Andra Day into one of the album's clear must listens. A traditional take on "Little Drummer Boy" is boosted by another guest vocal, this time from Idina Menzel, whose powerful voice melds effortlessly with Nettles alongside the booming percussion while the artist's take on "Celebrate Me Home" delivers a heartwarming kick alongside continued smooth vocals from Nettles.

Nettles is honored to perform a Dolly Parton original, "Circle of Love," perhaps the record's most subdued track with its lyric of praise and worship, is also one of its best, Nettle's voice warm and emotive as "Do You Hear What I Hear" draws from a heartfelt template to deliver the familiar melody and lyric. Nettles' showcases her vocal range on "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep," the sweet lyric melting through her tones while "O Holy Night" finds the artist letting it all hang out, her voice booming alongside a soaring backing choir in a crescendo of Christmas praise.

Swinging for the heartstrings, Nettles' cover of "Merry Christmas With Love" is pitch perfect and poignant, the tale of brokenness and loneliness that finds peace and love on a beautiful Christmas night lending plenty of emotion as Nettles sings, "Merry Christmas to all who may dwell here/Merry Christmas if even just one/May the joy of the season surround you/Merry Christmas with love." Stripping things down to the essentials, Nettles closes out with "The First Noel," accompanied by solo piano on a song that ends things on a high note with its warm sincerity.

Nettles is a big, passionate personality with a voice to match, and it's the perfect combination with these great Christmas favorites. With a stunning original track, some great duets, and plenty of seasonal favorites, this is one present that you should not wait to open.