Pop CDs for the holidays

Kelly Clarkson, Mary J. Blige, Bad Religion and Nick Lowe chime in with Christmas releases


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Kelly Clarkson, who can wail with the best of them, has gift-wrapped the slickest and sure-to-be-most-popular holiday collection of 2013.

She is joined by Mary J. Blige, Gretchen Wilson, the "Duck Dynasty" crew and more.

Kelly Clarkson, "Wrapped in Red" (RCA): If you're only buying one, this is it -- at least, for the pop lover. But you know that, because it already debuted at No. 3 on the charts. This is a bright, pretty package with the original "Idol" winner applying her powerful pipes to sparkling arrangements that harken back to classic carols of every genre. There's Motown sound ("Underneath the Tree"), vintage country ("Blue Christmas"), rock 'n' roll ("Run, Run, Rudolph"), lounge jazz ("Baby, It's Cold Outside"), gospel ("Silent Night") and big band swing ("My Favorite Things"). She mixes in five originals, including the soul-drenched title track and "4 Carats," a breezy rocker in the Lily Allen vein. For the occasion, all the "Since U Been Gone" angst is set aside.

* A Robertson Family Christmas, "Duck the Halls" (Capitol Nashville): The "Duck Dynasty" boys give you an alternatively campy and sentimental redneck Christmas with special guests George Strait, Alison Krauss and Luke Bryan. Willie shows he can carry a tune on the original "Rajun Cajun Redneck Christmas" and Uncle Si shows he can't on "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." The true vocal talent in the family is Missy, who sounds like a Nashville pro duetting with Jase on "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and Josh Turner on "Why I Love Christmas."

* Bad Religion, "Christmas Songs" (Epitaph): Raise your hand if you saw this one coming. The veteran punks, led by former choirboy Greg Graffin, tear into Felix Mendelssohn and Irving Berlin at the expected speed and volume. It's over in less than 20 minutes. If you want to hear "White Christmas" sounding like "I Wanna Be Sedated," this is your holiday album. Twenty percent of proceeds go to Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

* Susan Boyle, "Home for Christmas" (Syco/Columbia): You shouldn't have trouble finding this one in the Wal-Mart check-out line. The diva from "Britain's Got Talent" 2009 delivers her second Christmas album in three years (40 percent of her catalog is now holiday music) and it's, well, traditional and heavy on sacred music for Christmas Eve. It's nicely sung but too bland for more adventurous tastes.

* Gretchen Wilson, "Christmas in My Heart" (Redneck): The first holiday release from the Redneck Woman is a mostly lively affair with a rollicking boogie-woogie feel. We don't really need her versions of hushed carols, but "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" is the kind of fun novelty track that could find a spot on your playlist.

* Mary J. Blige, "A Mary Christmas" (Matriarch/Verve): For her holiday album debut, the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul hooked up with mega-producer David Foster (Josh Groban, Michael Bublé) for a collection with a coat of super-high gloss. The emphasis is on her elegant voice, but's these carols do tend to drag a bit and you'd hope for better chemistry on the Barbra Streisand and Jessie J duets.

* Nick Lowe, "Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family" (Proper): The venerable British pub-rocker who gave us "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" and "Cruel to be Kind" offers a typically unique and clever collection with three originals (one co-written with Ry Cooder), ranging from the folky nativity story "I Was Born in Bethlehem" to the rockabilly-fueled "Children Go Where I Send Thee?" There's also a new song from his buddy Ron Sexsmith, holiday favorites by Roger Miller and Wizzard (the pre-ELO Roy Wood band) and old chestnuts, one of them a rockin' "Silent Night." According to Mr. Lowe, they held to a simple rule: "We tried to make it a sleighbell-free zone."

* Erasure, "Snow Globe" (Mute): The holiday outing from veteran synthpop duo Vince Clarke and Andy Bell establishes its secular credentials on track one, "Bells of Love," with them singing, "I don't believe in your religion/I only know what I can see." It has to be the Christmas first album with a club track sung in Latin ("Gaudette") and a synth-rocker called "Blood on the Snow." They set out to balance darkness and light, and do succeed at that. A lot of its too mechanized, though, like the hideous version of "The Christmas Song." "Silent Night," heavily layered and beautifully sung, is a winner.

* Bright Eyes, "A Christmas Album" (Saddle Creek): Indie fans are directed to the reissue of a charity release from the Omaha hipsters available online since 2002. With Conor Oberst, you get lots of self-conscious weirdness moments -- a distorted "Little Drummer Boy," creepy "Away in the Manger," drony "Silent Night" and a "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" direct from the afterlife. Maria Taylor's girlish "White Christmas" is lovely.

* Trace Adkins, "The King's Gift" (Caliburn): The Nashville stud and reigning "Celebrity Apprentice" applies his bottomless baritone to traditional Celtic carols, with help from the Chieftains and, surprise!, Kevin Costner.

* Kool & the Gang, "Kool for the Holidays" (ATO): It only took Kool and the Gang 50 years to get around to making a Christmas album. The Jersey crew celebrates with six originals and eight standards, mixing their signature R&B/funk/jazz/gospel jams.

* Kim Wilde, "Wilde Winter Songbook" (Wildeflower): Seasonal collection by the British pop singer features four standards, six new songs and covers of Sara Bareilles' "Winter Song" and Fleet Foxes' "White Winter Hymnal."

* Tamar Braxton, "Winter Loversland" (Epic/Interscope): The third album from R&B star Toni's little sister, one of the hosts of "The Real," is a jazzy soul record that features the original single "She Can Have You."

* Il Volo, "Buon Natale: The Christmas Album" (Interscope): The Italian pop vocal trio's first full-length Christmas release is accompanied by a new PBS special. Guests include "American Idol" star Pia Toscano (on "The Christmas Song") and Mexican singer-songwriter Belinda (on "Mis Deseos/ Feliz Navidad").

* Marvin Sapp, "Christmas Card" (RCA Inspiration): The gospel star and pastor from Michigan reunites with the Commissioned on two tracks.

* Leona Lewis, "Christmas With Love" (RCA): British pop-soul singer Leona Lewis brings a Motown vibe to a holiday set that includes the original single "One More Sleep."

* "Musical Gifts From Joshua Bell and Friends" (Sony Masterworks): The classical violinist Joshua Bell is joined by an all-star cast, including Plácido Domingo, Renée Fleming, Chick Corea, Branford Marsalis, Kristin Chenoweth, Gloria Estefan and Straight No Chaser.

* "A Family Christmas," The Piano Guys (Sony Masterworks): The Utah-based classical-pop group, known for its YouTube hit of New Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful," applies its formula to Christmas classics and a few new ones.

* "Mad Men Christmas: Music from and Inspired by the Hit TV Series": This cool Target exclusive features iconic '60s Christmas tracks (including Dean Martin's "Baby It's Cold Outside," Rosemary Clooney's "White Christmas," Tony Bennett's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas") and a remix of the French pop tune "Zou Bisou Bisou" performed by Megan Draper (Jessica Paré) in the Season 5 premiere.


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