Various Artists: I’ll Be Home for Christmas, Track-by-Track EP Review

I’ll Be Home for Christmas must be the poster for diversity. We’ve got pop, folk, ballad, and ‘20s sounds morphing into light rock and some R&B. I guess Epic wanted to live up to their name and epically traverse every genre possible. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such an eclectic combination of styles and songs put together, even on other Christmas compilations. That’s not to say it’s a bad EP album; it’s just a strange mix.

We start out with the queens of pop girl groups, Fifth Harmony (you’ve come a long way, baby). They follow closely in Mariah Carey’s shoes with an R&Besque pop version of “All I Want for Christmas.” It’s actually quite nice (and, apparently a little better than the Diva herself can muster these days). While it doesn’t bring anything really new to the song, their execution is top notch and is a nice opener.

Meghan Trainor’sI’ll Be Home” is clearly the standout song of the EP. Not only did Ms. Trainor write the song but it provides a beautiful vehicle to show off her singing chops. So much of what we’ve heard from Ms. Trainor are light and fun songs with a quick beat (with a few exceptions like “Close Your Eyes”), which haven’t allowed us to hear her full range. “I’ll Be Home” puts to bed any question if she can really sing. Sweet, albeit not particularly deep, writing matched with beautiful singing; it’s a lovely sonic recipe: “Santa called to make sure I’m prepared/He said Winter love is spreading everywhere/Summer came and took off with the Spring/So now we start the Christmas Caroling/I’ll find my way back home/And light up every tree.”

Fiona Apple’s rendition of “Frosty the Snowman” sounds like someone captured an Appalachian belle in the ‘20s including a bit of a vibrato. Even the close, simple recording evokes the image of singing on the porch.

We slide from folk to a bit of R&B-touched “Sleigh Ride” with Tamar Braxton. Just as we would expect from her, the vocals are velvety smooth and textured with a light back beat as she rides up and down the song. While I’m sure there’s a starker juxtaposition of songs somewhere, it stands in strong contrast with Ms. Apple’s Frosty.

Now we move to Sara Bareilles’ lovely “Winter Song” which she wrote and performed with the delightful Ingrid Michaelson. I don’t think this genre exists but it strikes me as an urban-folk ballad. It has elements that are reminiscent of a folk song, but with more sophisticated backing through violins and other instruments and a slightly more pop-oriented beat. However you characterize it, it’s soft, light lyrical beautiful touches our ears like broad, fluffy snow. While it raises the specter of the storm, ultimately, it holds out hope: “Is love alive?/… This is my winter song to you/The storm is coming soon/It rolls in from the sea/My love, a beacon in the night/My words will be your light/To carry you to me.”

Now, just in case we haven’t switched things up enough, it’s time to switch languages in “Noche De Paz“ (Silent Night). I’m a little surprised, at this point, that we didn’t have a Noche De Pas/Stille Nacht/Nuit de Paix medley. What’s another language or two amongst friends? That said, Fifth Harmony shows once again that they’re not just pretty faces. They perform admirably here.

You might think that since Fifth Harmony began the EP, they just provided the bookend to the album. Not so much. We haven’t had quite enough thrown at us in this brief set of songs, so here’s comes A Great Big World singing “I want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.” Moreover, we need to add some change-up within the song, so it starts out sounding like a scratchy, old album then breaks our into a driving beat with piano and drums. Fun even if fairly frivolous. I admit that, for me, the EP could have ended with Fifth Harmony. This isn’t taking a shot at Messrs Axel and Vaccarino, no one can make this song sound good.

I suspect that most will separate out these songs to include in their favorite playlists. Overall, it’s a good EP, even with its interesting mix. For me, Ms. Trainor’s “I’ll Be Home” is the highlight of the EP not only because it’s the only new, original work but because we hear her lovely voice ring out through a nice ballad.