Kelly Clarkson, “Wrapped in Red” (RCA Records)
The goal of any artist making a holiday record is to put their own signature on these time-honored songs. On “Wrapped in Red,” Kelly Clarkson does so with about five exclamation marks. Clarkson's booming voice provides the jolt for this collection of Christmas classics. True, you probably didn't think “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” needed any spark — but then you've probably yet to hear Clarkson's voice take it to a soaring crescendo. It may not have been needed, but it sure is a welcome change from the sweet but often staid renditions heard at this time of the year.
She gives the same kind of jolt to songs like “Blue Christmas,” conveying the melancholy of the song like a torch singer or on “Run Run Rudolph,” where she rocks out more than the guitars. Even when she's not showcasing the full power of her vocals, she's giving a powerful performance, such as on “Silent Night,” delivered with sweet, haunting harmony with Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood.
Clarkson wows throughout “Wrapped in Red.” She shows her versatility and influences as a performer, jumping from jazz to pop to soul to country, yet still delivering a cohesive album that will be entertaining to all. “Wrapped in Red” should be unwrapped quickly for this holiday season.
— Nekesa Mumbi Moody, AP Entertainment Writer
The Robertson Family, “Duck the Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas” (EMI Records Nashville)
It looks like the enterprising Robertson clan has found a new market for their signature product, with Jase turning his duck calls into a “musical” instrument, replacing the “Fa la la la las” with quacks on the title track sung by three generations of Robertsons.
This critic-proof Christmas album has already hit No. 1 on Billboard's country chart, offering a mix of new Robertson-themed Christmas songs with more traditional holiday tunes in a package designed to appeal to fans of the top-rated “Duck Dynasty” TV reality show. The Robertsons get a little help from some friends too — country stars Alison Krauss, George Strait, Luke Bryan and Josh Turner.
Willie Robertson cuts loose on the country rock “Ragin' Cajun Redneck Christmas” and “Hairy Christmas,” a duet with Bryan that extols “duck season and holiday cheer. Curmudgeonly Uncle Si is a perfect fit for the humorous “You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and recites Willie's reworked version of “The Night Before Christmas” in which he mistakes Santa for his rotund nephew.
It's left to the Robertson women to offer more traditional holiday fare. Missy Robertson, a music teacher, is the family's most polished singer, offering a tender version of the ballad “I'll Be Home for Christmas” and engaging in a flirtatious duet with droll husband Jase on “Baby, It's Cold Outside.” Willie's teenage daughter Sadie shows some natural vocal talent on “Away In a Manger” and “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.” After Missy leads the entire family in multi-part harmonizing on “Silent Night,” it's left to family patriarch Phil to close the album as he does the TV show with a prayer.
Fortunately, the Robertsons don't set their sights on “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” That partridge in a pear tree wouldn't stand a chance with these erstwhile hunters.
— Charles Gans, Associated Press
Mary J. Blige, “A Mary Christmas” (Interscope)
Yes, Mary J. Blige is the reigning Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, but she can do a lot more than that — and she certainly proves it on her gem of a Christmas album, “A Mary Christmas.”
While the album is certainly soulful, it's best to describe this as more of a jazzy, adult contemporary take on holiday music: Mellow is the vibe of Blige's album. But don't think that equals yawn-inducing renditions of the classics. Blige is playful on the bass-driven, jazzy “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”; nearly matches Barbra Streisand's majestic vocals on the heavenly-sounding “When You Wish Upon a Star” (which also features Chris Botti); and builds from steady warbling to power gospel on “A Christmas Song.”
Though she does it with less vocal gymnastics than usual, Blige still gives an emotional performance throughout, like on “My Favorite Things,” with its dramatic arrangement, and on “Do You Hear What I Hear,” where she harmonizes beautifully with another big-voiced singer, Jessie J.
“A Mary Christmas” is a merry one indeed.
—Nekesa Mumbi Moody, AP Entertainment Writer
Bad Religion, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (Epitaph)
Good Lord, Bad Religion has made a Christmas album.
Actually, it makes a lot of sense for a punk band to sing about the greatest agitator ever, and it's a bit disappointing these tunes aren't more abrasive. They're closer to power pop than punk, starting with the handsome a cappella harmonies on the opening cut, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
Singer Greg Gaffin remains faithful to the melodies on the eight traditional carols included, and layered vocals and chiming guitar chords make the set surprisingly sweet. Tempos are brisk throughout, even on “What Child Is This?” Among the other highlights are a thunderous “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and the original tune “American Jesus,” where the music turns political. It's all over it 19 minutes, making the set a perfect companion for quaffing a cup of eggnog.
— Steven Wine, Associated Press Writer
Trace Adkins, “The King's Gift” (Caliburn)
Admit it, your holiday music collection is missing this: Traditional Celtic Christmas carols sung by the lowest baritone in Nashville who also happens to be the reigning “Celebrity Apprentice.”
But before you dismiss it as a seasonal cash grab, give it a chance. The renditions here of “Tannenbaum,” ”Away in a Manger” and “O Holy Night” manage to sound fresh thanks to that oh-so-deep voice and new arrangements heavy on the soaring strings, flutes and mandolins.
Adkins is at his best when he stays in the low register. Have fun trying to match his bass as he belts out the “parum pum pum pum” refrain of “Little Drummer Boy.” The weaker songs are when he goes up an octave, as on “I Saw Three Ships” featuring the Chieftains.
There are other collaborations here, including a surprisingly tender rendition of “Silent Night” featuring Kevin Costner – yes, that Kevin Costner — and his daughter Lily.
All in all, if you're the type who likes to freshen up your holiday music annually, you could do a lot worse than these 10 tracks. Just be sure to crank up that subwoofer.
—Rob Merrill, Associated Press.
Marvin Sapp, “Christmas Card” (RCA Records)
Marvin Sapp provides a soulful cheer with his new holiday album, “Christmas Card.” It's the first Christmas album by the Stellar Award-winning and Grammy-nominated gospel singer, who has topped the charts with “Here I Am” and “I Win.”
Sapp is impressive on the 13-track offering with guest appearances from R&B singer Joe and Sapp's children, The Sapp Kids (Madisson, Mikaila and Marvin Sapp II). He also reunites with gospel super-group Commissioned (Fred Hammond, Keith Staten, Mitchell Jones, Karl Reid, Michael Williams and Marcus Cole).
There are a renditions of classic holiday melodies like “Home for Christmas” featuring and “Honor the King” with Commissioned. But as co-producer, he makes them his own, calmly singing with his soaring vocals that are backed with fresh-sounding tracks.
Sapp and his children show appreciation for each other on “Thank You.” Other true nuggets on the album that'll uplift with the holiday spirit are “What Child Is This?” with Commissioned, “Love at Christmas” and “Holy.”
— Jonathan Landrum Jr., Associated Press
Nick Lowe, “Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family” (Yep Roc)
Nick Lowe gives Christmas a hip twist in “Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family,” using a variety of musical styles to liven up the sometimes staid holiday music scene.
Lowe, best known for penning classic 1970s tunes like “Cruel to Be Kind” and “(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” turns in 12 new recordings including three he wrote himself for the seasonal release.
Thankfully, Lowe picks lesser known Christmas songs like Roger Miller's touching “Old Toy Trains” to give the record a fresh sound. And his take on the more traditional tunes, like “Silent Night,” still swings.
One of his originals, “Christmas at the Airport,” is classic Lowe, setting the scene and mood perfectly with an economy of words that resonates with anyone who's found themselves on the road around the holidays.
The clever liner notes, written like a Christmas card letter catching people up on the past year, are an added bonus.
— Scott Bauer, Associated Press
KEM, “What Christmas Means” (Universal Motown Records)
If there's any space in your stocking stuffer, then KEM's “What Christmas Means” could be the filler. The album was originally released last year, but the Grammy-nominated singer tacked on four more additional songs for this well-crafted piece of work.
This time, KEM brings along a couple of legendary singers to accompany him — Patti LaBelle and Ronald Isley. The album was also co-written by KEM, his daughter Troi and Melanie Rutherford.
KEM's silky smooth voice glides over each of the 14 songs, making this project an appealing piece of work. Each song easily flows from one to the other with the ability to touch the soul.
His inspirational messages of faith are strong on “Jesus,” with LaBelle and Isley, “Lullaby Noel” and “Bethlehem.” He sings about obtaining holiday love on the piano-driven “Be Mine for Christmas” with Ledisi.
KEM also delves into the meaning of the holiday with songs such as “What Christmas Means,” ”Christmas Time is Here” and “Doo Wop Christmas (That's What Christmas is All About).
— Jonathan Landrum Jr., Associated Press.