Boyz II Men’s second album, Christmas Interpretations, is the best, most complete, Christmas album of the modern era—and it’s not even close. Sure, there have been more popular songs—like the dreadful, ubiquitous, over hyped Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” comes to mind (more on that later)— but as for a flawless and seamless album, you don’t need to look any farther than this 1993 release from four boys from Philly.
Dubious? Let me explain why.
1. This is an R&B Album that just happens to be about Christmas
I was listening to Quiet Storm on some station on a cold, December night in 1993 when I was introduced to this album. This matters because that kind of program would never play traditional Christmas music, but the reason they played songs from this one was because it was an R&B album through and through. Christmas music being played during Quiet Storm was unfathomable until Christmas Interpretations. They did not try to go mainstream and appeal to the masses; they knew their audience and made the Christmas album they knew was lacking.
2. These are four of the best singers…ever
I’m not going to belabor this point, but it is an undeniable truth that Nathan Morris, Shawn Stockman, Wanya Morris, and Michael McCary are four of the best singers that black culture has ever produced, and this album shows them at the peak of their powers. Individually, they are not that impressive, but put them together like Voltron, and you have a group that is hard to beat.
3. This is a disciplined effort
Coming in at just over 42 minutes for a 10-track album, Christmas Interpretations shows Boyz II Men at their most restrained. They have powerhouse vocal ability as is shown on other albums, but on this one, they let the words and the harmonies do all the work. They understood that Christmas is a laid-back time of the year, so they cut back on the modulation and shouting (Can you imagine what a Christmas album by Jodeci would sound like?) and just sing beautifully.
4. Song Choices
Instead of doing all the classics and throwing in an original song at the end (which is usually par for the course on Christmas albums), they do the opposite. They hint at a Christmas classic at the beginning, do eight original songs centered on the Christmas theme, and then end with a virtuoso acapella rendition of “Silent Night” that I would put up against any rendition of the song—including the legendary Temptations cover. This allows for them to not just make a Christmas album, but, instead, they make an album about Christmas. The former is a series of covers that is not exceptional; the latter is unique and risky. If done poorly, it can be a cringe-inducing affair (just listen to Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart). If done well, it becomes a classic.
5. The Feel
While this is certainly a series of songs dedicated to the holidays, there is a sense of melancholy that pervades the album. Save “Let It Snow,” each song is sung with a hint of longing and sadness. That provides a seamless, flowing feel to the album, but is also perfect for when you want to watch the snow fall silently while drinking your favorite brown liquor because you’re sad that Trump is running for the Presidency again.
6. “Let It Snow”
OK. This is a big one.
I know that most are celebrating Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” And that song is, unquestionably, a juggernaut. (An overrated one, if you ask me. It is beloved by white people, and that is why it became a classic, but it lacks a soul sensibility that any true ‘black Christmas song’ should possess.) It has been covered endlessly in movies (Love Actually), by rock bands (My Chemical Romance), and soul singers (the best cover of it I’ve heard: PJ Morton). But if you’re asking me—and you must be since you’re reading my words—“Let It Snow” featuring Brian McKnight is the better song. No question.
The harmonies; the longing; the words; the unapologetic commitment to making this an authentically black R&B song—it just sets the song apart. It is as good Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” but freaky. (“Come over here and help me trim the tree”—he ain’t talking about no damn tree.) This unspoken competition between these songs lays bare the fact that there are Two Black Americas.
“This Christmas” is beloved by an older generation who fought for civil rights and love the Temptations. “Let It Snow” is the favorite contemporary Christmas song of people who take their egg nog without the white stuff and just drink the brown liquor.
Boyz II Men accidentally made the best Christmas album in 50 years, and I don’t see any competition.