By Sean Fennessey
Sixteen years ago, Mariah Carey assured her standing in the pop cultural firmament. Not with a public meltdown or scandalous divorce, but with an increasingly rare and long-lasting contribution: a beloved holiday recording. Carey's 1994 stopgap album, "Merry Christmas," was a certified smash, and "All I Want for Christmas Is You," written with her longtime collaborator Walter Afansieff, became one of the last modern holiday standards.
In the intervening decade and a half, Carey has shape-shifted from coquettish butterfly to flopping film star to cheer-worthy comeback kid. So forgive "Merry Christmas II You," a somewhat tentative return to holiday form. What this sequel of sorts does for Carey is return her piercing, five-octave vocal range to its glossy, meretricious roots. What it does not do is add an original the likes of "All I Want."
There are noble gestures -- a neo-soul noel from the Roots affiliate James Poyser, "When Christmas Comes," and "Oh Santa!," Carey's hyperkinetic, stomping team-up with onetime career-saver Jermaine Dupri and the underrated modern soul maestro Bryan-Michael Cox. But neither is unselfconscious, let alone canonical. And the less said about the aerobic New Jack Swing update of "Here Comes Santa Claus," the better. Only "Charlie Brown Christmas," a clever re-imagining of the beloved Vince Guaraldi composition, smacks of wit -- it's a sly nod to a previous champion of modern holiday fare.
Recommended tracks: "Oh Santa!," "Charlie Brown Christmas"