Gwen Stefani returned to her solo career with her first album in a decade last year when she released This Is What The Truth Feels Like. After a brief reunion with No Doubt in 2012, her third solo record was a welcome return to her pop throne. It came after a flurry of inspiration hit her in 2015: Her marriage with Gavin Rossdale came to a screeching halt, and months later, she found herself in young love all over again with none other than country star Blake Shelton. It was an unlikely pair, but her creativity had certainly returned in full force. Now, only one year later, Gwen is back with her first holiday album, You Make It Feel Like Christmas.
Her festive new record is divided into two halves: six covers mixed with six original compositions. The choice of covers is at times unexpected. The record starts with “Jingle Bells” and “Let It Snow,” songs that are juvenile enough to appeal to young audiences. But as simple as the songs may be, these cover recording exceed expectations, offering up retro fun to liven up any party. The horns are excellent on “Jingle Bells” and throughout the record. Gwen shares a fine version of “Silent Night,” though she doesn’t reach the high notes as clearly as she could. The normally solemn song is a bit more sprightly, but without detracting from its gentle themes.
“Last Christmas,” originally by Wham!, is the best song makeover on the album. The song has never been a standout among the vast holiday music selection, feeling repetitive and drawn out. But Gwen’s new arrangement and heartfelt vocals breathe life into the song, transforming it into a highlight among the holiday classics. “Santa Baby” is another standout remake. Gwen’s sultry vocals blend perfectly with the swingy arrangement. Rounding out the covers is “White Christmas,” another track that benefited from Gwen’s personal flair. It’s more buoyant than most versions of the song, complemented by jazzy “zoot zoot zoo”s in the background. The exuberant horns are an excellent touch.
Gwen’s six originals make up the other half of You Make It Feel Like Christmas. First up is “My Gift Is You,” a midtempo love song disguised in seasonal references. Gwen croons about feeling thankful for the new love she has in her life. She doesn’t need those other frivolous presents (“Santa Baby” notwithstanding) – the only gift she needs is her new beau. “When I Was A Little Girl” follows similar romantic subject matter, this time from the vantage of Gwen’s younger self. As a child, the thing that topped her wishlist wasn’t a toy, but true love. Now all grown up, Santa has finally answered Gwen’s pleas in this reflective ballad.
Besides inspiring most of the new songs here, Blake Shelton co-wrote and appears as the only guest artist on the album on its title track. His vocals overpower Gwen’s, and his taking the lead on the verses makes “You Make It Feel Like Christmas” feel more like a Blake song than a Gwen song. It’s the most festive original tune on here, and it would be nice to hear a solo version, or at least one in which Gwen takes the lead.
“Under The Christmas Lights” is the best new song yet, starting with low piano, bells, and silly lyrics about running out of tape while wrapping gifts. The upbeat chorus is a 1960s throwback, making for a festive highlight on the album. “Never Kissed Anyone With Blue Eyes Before You,” in spite of its mouthful of a title, is another fun new track. Gwen is, of course, raving about her boyfriend again, but it’s a cute song that sounds seasonal enough. The album closes with its best song, “Christmas Eve.” The original ballad already sounds like a holiday classic. It’s a hymn that finds Gwen hoping for mercy and saving, lost in darkness against a piano-and-strings background. It’s a lovely song and a perfect end to Gwen’s Christmas album.
All in all, Gwen’s original songs don’t always feel that Christmas-y. Apart from the jingle bells, horns, and holiday flourish, the lyrical themes are heavily focused on her romance with Blake more than anything else. They’re wrapped in festive imagery and concepts, but at their hearts these are love songs. This is not necessarily a bad thing; “Last Christmas” was written in the same vein. It’s not really a Christmas song, but its December setting makes it work anyway. Of the original tracks, “Christmas Eve” sounds the most true to the holiday spirit, adopting the tender sound of the most traditional songs.
You Make It Feel Like Christmas is a fun album that walks a fine line between contemporary and time-honed. Sonically, it fits into the retro soundscape of soulful pop that birthed many of the holiday classics we still enjoy today. It’s a lighthearted record that the whole family can enjoy. It’s not Gwen’s best album, but it is one that’s worth of the yearly listen for decades to come.
- “Jingle Bells”
- “Let It Snow”
- “My Gift Is You”
- “Silent Night”
- “When I Was A Little Girl”
- “Last Christmas”
- “You Make It Feel Like Christmas” (featuring Blake Shelton)
- “Under The Christmas Lights”
- “Santa Baby”
- “White Christmas”
- “Never Kissed Anyone With Blue Eyes Before You”
- “Christmas Eve”
Highlights on You Make It Feel Like Christmas include: “Under The Christmas Lights,” and “Christmas Eve.”