Most artists treat Christmas albums as toss-offs; something to get into the marketplace and have on the shelf when punters come in and snap up the holiday offerings. There is usually little forethought, production and arrangements are entrusted to studio stalwarts who paint by numbers. Annie Lennox doesn’t fit this mold remotely. She considered aChristmas Cornucopia with all the intuitive care and devotion her other studio albums reflect. Lennox is a classically trained vocalist who spent much of her youth singing in choirs, and that is reflected in both the song selection (all but one of these she sang as a child in choir) and arrangements. Working once more with producer Mike Stevens (who also helmed the sessions for her last offering, 2007’s Songs of Mass Destruction), Lennoxrecorded many of the choral vocals herself by overdubbing. The pair did employ a 30-piece orchestra; they also recorded the African Children’s Choir who are prominently featured throughout, especially on “The Holly and the Ivy” and the French carol “Il Est de le Divin Enfant.” Textures and atmospheres are the name of the game in these interpretations, and they’re employed in unusual ways: note the Middle Eastern rhythms and modalities on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” that collide — albeit harmoniously — with Celtic pipe, flute, and accordion sounds. It’s a fantastic track, though it does engender a minor complaint: why on earth would a vocalist of Lennox‘s caliber use Auto-Tune even momentarily? Other standouts here include the majestic “The Holly and the Ivy,” the sparse instrumentation on “In the Bleak Midwinter,” and the the dramatic darkness in the obscure carol “Lullay Lullay” that tells the Christian story of King Herod’s infanticide in trying to eliminate the threat posed by the Christ child. “Silent Night” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” are given wonderful arrangements and sung with a sincerity approaching absolute devotion, especially with theAfrican Children’s Choir underscoring Lennox‘s voice. The lone original here, “Universal Child,” is the lead single (proceeds are being donated to the Annie Lennox Foundation); it’s a beautifully written and arranged pop song, delivered soulfully and enigmatically; it is worth the price of the album itself. A Christmas Cornucopia is a real contender for best Christmas album of 2010.

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