Diva Smackdown: Mariah Carey vs. Susan Boyle: Who Has the Better Christmas Album?


What do Jessica Simpson, the Indigo Girls, Annie Lennox, the Puppini Sisters, Justin Bieber, and the TV show Glee all have in common? Very little, really—aside from the fact that they all have Christmas albums due out this year. They are but a handful of the dozens of artists who are cashing in on yuletide cheer. A market that at one time seemed cornered by the likes of Burl Ives and Bing Crosby is now wide open to anyone who can string the words “Santa” and “Claus” together. Case in point: one of the top-selling Christmas albums of the past decade belongs to Kenny G. No wonder some folks find the holidays depressing. 

Amid the deluge of holiday music that comes in November and December, Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas II You and Susan Boyle’s The Gift are poised to make all those other seasonal crooners sound like off-key carolers. Mariah’s album is already out, and Susan’s arrives Nov. 9, just in time to unseat her competitor's. But whose album will dominate this holiday season, and infuse the ailing music industry with a much-needed Christmas miracle?

First, we should establish one thing: Christmas albums are big business, even when they’re not by Mariah or Susan. Consider that one of 2009’s top five albums was a holiday record (Andrea Bocelli’s My Christmas), and, according to Nielsen Soundscan, Josh Groban’s Noel was the top-selling record of 2007. Songs loaded with mangers and mistletoe are at least one way to make up for everything else that tanked, or was leaked online, in 2010.

“Christmas albums are a guaranteed seller every year, going back to Elvis,” says Keith Caulfield, associate director of charts at Billboard magazine. “And it does seem like we’re seeing more of them because some recent Christmas albums, specifically Groban’s, have made such a show in the marketplace.”

“Seasonal CDs,” as more serious artists like to refer to them, require very little original material (if any) and the songs are instantly familiar, regardless of whether the listener pitches a tree or lights a menorah each December. Age doesn’t seem to be much of an issue either, since Christmas CDs are aimed at the Nickelodeon crowd as well as eggnog sippers. Still, Caulfield says that “acts who skew older, like Sting, Enya, and those Celtic Thunder–type groups, tend to do better because they appeal to a demographic who still buy full albums.”

Which brings us back to Mariah and Susan, who are both over 40. Though their music caters to very different audiences, if the holiday-album demographic holds true this year, then Boyle will crush Carey in the sales category (she’s a hit with the silver crowd). This is only Boyle’s second album, and it’s a mix of Christmas and secular songs, so it has a potential life past New Year’s Day. It also comes on the heels of her massively successful, rags-to-riches debut, I Dreamed a Dream.

But, as holiday music goes, which one of these divine voices will come up with the better Christmas record? Carey certainly makes it all seem a lot more fun. Produced by Antonio L.A. Reid, her album includes five new songs as well as classics like "Here Comes Santa Claus" and Vince Guaraldi’s "Charlie Brown Christmas." Carey takes a lot of liberties here with traditional fare, opening her CD with an instrumental interlude of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” and later singing an “O Little Town of Bethlehem/Drummer Boy” medley.

The traditional numbers work, thanks to her still quite amazing voice, and the fact that she now infuses a lot of her personality into her singing—a soul and depth that were absent on a lot of her early work. Her own hip hop/R&B number, “Oh Santa,” is so catchy and joyous it could become a new standard, just as “All I Want for Christmas Is You” was for her in 1994. Sample lyric from “Oh Santa”: “Santa come and make him mine this Christmas. I promise I won’t forget the milk and cookies. I’ve been really good this year, except for those pretzels and that can of beer.”

Sure, there are some cheesy moments (it’s a Christmas album, after all), but they are few and far between. The mix of traditional Christmas songs with high-energy R&B, orchestral arrangements, and even gospel keeps the CD feeling fresh and diverse. As for spiritual content, she sings “The First Noel" with reverence and soul and even includes Bible verses on her album booklet. Like any urban artist worth her salt, she also thanks God on her CD sleeve.

Who does the devoutly Catholic Susan Boyle thank first in her liner notes? Simon Cowell (who might be more powerful than God). But clearly, Boyle’s faith played a big role in the imagery and songs she chose forThe Gift. Her album cover is a head shot of her staring off longingly toward the Northern Star, except her gaze is a little off, so it looks as if she’s squinting into headlights instead. The holiday numbers here include “Hallelujah,” “O Holy Night,” and “Away in a Manger,” while the inspirational numbers are Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” and Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” Interestingly, though, all boast the same ambience—lofty, pristine, and pure, backed often by an angelic-sounding choir.

Boyle’s voice is of course stellar, if not a little too perfect. The album lacks a personality of its own, making it pleasant but often boring background music for tempered holiday parties or shopping at the upscale mall. It’s so placid, in fact, it almost feels sad in spots, perhaps to cater to all the people who feel blue over the holidays. Or maybe listeners can project whatever emotion they would like onto it and make it their own (clearly I need antidepressants), because, after all, isn’t that what Susan Boyle is all about?

Though Mariah delivers a much more jolly, and joyous, Christmas album, thankfully there is more than one talented diva to pick from this year. All we can ask Santa for now is: please, no more Kenny G albums.