James Taylor was the archetype for the gentle, inward-looking singer/songwriter movement of the early '70s. The easy lilt and timbre of Taylor's voice belies the complex emotional content of his songs, which aren't merely carefree folk-based odes, but instead look unflinchingly at a flawed man's journey through life. It's a tribute to his knack for making great pop records that he managed a long, decade-plus string of big hits.
Looking for a smart, never-out-of-style singer who turns in a perfectly solid collection of Christmas songs, including a few surprises? J.T. is your man on James Taylor at Christmas
, which is nicely balanced between pop and jazz selections, with more stately hymn-like fare and balladry. Always fine in his charmingly understated voice, Taylor and company try out the old gospel standard "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and the memorable "Some Children See Him." He smoothly cuts through "Winter Wonderland" and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" with a bit of jazz flavor, and reprises Joni Mitchell's increasingly popular Christmas song (even though it's about getting away from the holiday), "River." One of the album's most satisfying delights is Taylor's funky version of "Jingle Bells," sung in a kind of barroom stomp with the most intriguing phrasing since Barbra Streisand sang it in the '60s. Soulful and bright and moody as well (when Taylor sings "In the Bleak Midwinter," you believe it's indeed rough), there's barely a clinker here. -- Martin Keller