By my count, Joy To The World is Putumayo’s seventh Christmas collection.
Is this capitalizing on a consumerist holiday- or is it an understanding that Christmas songs are ubiquitous in cultivating a type of self-reflection and serenity? I actually believe the latter because Putumayo, well known for its thematic compilations, has taken us around the world for over two decades, and at this point it’s safe to assume whatever release carries its stamp will be quality.
Joy To The World is a bit of a wild card, however. The theme is much more lax than some of the other collections have been, leaving room among these 10 songs to span whatever works. The album’s slogan is, “Celebrate the season with holiday favorites from around the world,” but half of the songs are from the USA, so this is something of a false statement. The songs, however, cover lots of genre territory, even the stateside ones.
A highlight is Nossa Bossa Nova’s “The First Noel”, which is classy in execution, sung in Brazilian by the incomparable Teresa Levy. The song’s melody is so iconic that the bossa nova twists create a lovely rendition. As this song starts the album, the tone is set: laid back and moderate tempo will abound from here on out.
“Noel Avec Toi” is also also splendid, brought to you by Frederick De Grandpre, who wrote new lyrics to the tune of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. The jazz standard transcription is sincere. A few other songs lean into this mode, including Marina del Gaudio’s “Bianco Natale”, Italian for “White Christmas.” The jazzy version, lush with instrumentation worthy of a gondola ride, is simple but effective. Ines Pupo and Goncalo Pratas stay on the bandwagon, this time taking us to Portugal with an original by the duo who were made famous through their children’s songs and books. Naturally, this song has a lightness and childlike innocence, but that aside, it’s a beautiful and Christmas song.
A bit out of place, “Frosty The Snowman”, performed by The Mighty Diamonds, offers a very roots reggae version of the snowy classic- a juxtaposition that’s lighthearted fun. The Mighty Diamonds are Jamaican legends, and the vocal performance is perfection, even when it vastly disrupts the flow of the album up to this point.
In fact, the album only suffers from two songs. Lynn August’s Zydeco styling on “Christmas By The Barbecue” is well done (pun intended), but the song is just too drawn out and long. Following the Blues lyrical formation that Zydeco oft uses, the song seems kind of fake and forced- even though the accordion is done extremely well. It’s not a terrible song, just not the best. And similarly, Leon Redbone successfully transports us to Hawaii for “Christmas Island”, and the lyrics to this original are exceptional, but it only has two verses, which it recycles repeatedly for three and a half minutes, and the song fumbles, in need of more substance.
Regardless, in a season that has many songs but a finite number found on the radio and over mall loudspeakers, Putumayo offers interesting versions of classics and tasty originals, and Joy To The World has a steady pace, and the type of magic one would hope a Christmas album would be imbued with. This album is a joy.