If you have yet to see God and learn what it feels like to witness her in all of her preternatural, eternal glory, then presumably you have not listened to a Celine Dion Christmas album. Christmas music is a subgenre so replete with artless drivel, so seeping with sugar-drenched rehashes of other rehashes that it takes unimpeachable talent to raise it to an art form worthy of more than passing acknowledgment. With These Are Special Times, Dion’s 1998 Christmas record, the Canadian Queen achieves what so few of her contemporaries have been able to do: craft a respectable holiday album that includes rich originals and covers that far surpass the original recordings. Mariah Carey, Josh Groban and Kenny G may hold leads in holiday album sales, but none attained the critical acclaim that Dion rightfully received with These Are Special Times, a record that deserves far more airplay than it gets. Here is why.
The album was not Dion’s first Christmas recording. The star’s discography includes two 1980s records: Celine Dion Sings Christmas and Christmas Songs and Tales, that are part of her oeuvre of French-language records. Like much of her early work, these albums gave us gorgeous glimpses at the vocally powerful pop machine that would soon become a staple in the States. These Are Special Times arrived a couple of years after hits like “Because You Loved Me” and “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now,” tracks that entrenched Dion as an unforgettable star on this side of the Atlantic. Yet in many ways, Dion’s first and so far only English-language Christmas album was a clear progression for the artist.
These Are Special Times sounds far more classical than much of Dion’s work, as nearly every song includes some form of orchestral arrangement. True to form, Dion flexes her considerable vocal clout at every turn, giving tired Christmas tunes a much-needed injection of “don’t touch that dial” power. “Blue Christmas,” “The Christmas Song” and the John Lennon classic “Happy XMas (War Is Over)” are all here, as is a rousing rendition of “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Even “Feliz Navidad,” which could have been a disaster, manages to be not just tolerable, but downright entertaining as Dion balances the flair of the original with a slowed-down acoustic guitar, a healthy dash of poppy pep and an energetic vocal performance. She even cedes control to a slew of background singers for a moment, before resuming her rightful place at the head of the mic, belting, “We’re just getting hot!” and jumping into the chorus. It is almost as if Dion is winking at the audience, saying, “I knew you’d thought this would be ridiculous, but isn’t it so damn fun?”
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Of course, as is the case with many a superstar, Dion got by with a little help from her friends. Longtime collaborator David Foster helped produce the record, as did Ric Wake. Dion’s collab with R. Kelly has not aged well, but her spine-tinglingly powerful partnership with Andrea Bocelli has. Try listening to “The Prayer” and being a Scrooge; I dare you.
The song is just one of the many originals Dion added to what could have easily been a day in the studio and a lucrative trip to the bank. “Don’t Save It All For Christmas Day” is a compelling call to take that seasonal spirit and spread it throughout the other 11 months of the year, and “Another Year Has Gone By” revels in restraint and soft vocals before building to a subtle yet irresistibly soulful climax. “Christmas Eve” had the potential to be overlooked as mere filler, but Dion ascends and descends vocal scales with the ravenous rapidity of Spider-Man on cocaine, creating a can’t-miss tune that practically demands a spot on any and every office holiday party playlist.
Dion follows that ditty with “These Are the Special Times,” which encapsulates what the artist does so masterfully. The lyrics are nothing special and would make for a forgettable tune in a lesser artist’s hands. But Dion’s gonna Dion, and on this song, she infuses Diane Warren’s words with so much heart and soul that, if you listen closely, you can even hear the Grinch humming along. When she recites, “These are the moments when heaven is so close,” you may find your heart fluttering and your head nodding, as your mind, body and soul are subsumed by the seasonal tour de force that is Dion’s Christmas album. Don’t fight it; embrace it.
Mariah may own the airwaves, and the endless debate about “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” may sour your appetite for any Christmas music. But if you’re looking for something, anything, to save you from yet another replay of “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” look no further. Throw on Celine, close your eyes, and let her ethereal, otherworldly voice transport you to a world far away from irksome uncles and intolerable aunts, a land where every waterfall brims with spiked eggnog. She’s right: Heaven is so close.