Kelly Clarkson, Wrapped in Red
* * * * (out of four), RCA Records
• Song selections: Fourteen tracks some originals, some classics by the Grammy Award-winning pop vocalist and American Idol alum.
• Ear candy: Clarksons powerful voice adds a fresh twist to several holiday favorites. But the real highlights of this album are the original tunes, particularly the title track, the Motown-inspired Underneath the Tree, and Winter Dreams, a shout-out to new hubby Brandon.
• Lumps of coal: Nothing too terrible, but the bring me a little something from Tiffanys motif on 4 Carats is a bit tired.
• When to play it: If youre looking to recharge your holiday music collection.
Suzanne Perez Tobias
Mary J Blige, A Mary Christmas
* * * , Verve
• Song selections: Producer David Foster rolls out Mary J Blige for his annual Christmas CD (she made presentimental appearances on previous Foster seasonals by Andrea Boccelli and Rod Stewart).
• Ear candy: Bliges contempo vibe heightens the drama where its least expected on a stirring and spirited Little Drummer Boy and a Do You Hear What I Hear? duet with Jessie J. The French carol Petit Papa Noel and Spanish Silent Night (Noche de Paz) with Marc Anthony strike sweet chords.
• Lumps of coal: Since when is When You Wish Upon a Star (a duet albeit beautifully done with Barbra Streisand) a Christmas song? It apparently hijacked the same sleigh as My Favorite Things yep, its here, too, and none too jolly.
• When to play it: When you need a groove break.
Duck Dynasty, Duck the Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas
* * * Universal
• Song selections: Thirteen holiday songs from the camouflage-clad stars of A&Es hit reality show, along with special guests Alison Krauss, George Strait, Josh Turner and Luke Bryan.
• Ear candy: Fans of the show will appreciate Ragin Cajun Redneck Christmas and Hairy Christmas (Like Jesus and Santa Claus / Weve got love behind these beards / Wishing you a hairy Christmas / And a happy, happy, happy New Year ). And Silent Night might inspire a family sing-along.
• Lumps of coal: The Duck Dynasty version of The Night Before Christmas, written by Willie Robertson and read by Uncle Si, seems superfluous.
• When to play it: As youre readying the duck calls, cleaning your shotguns or making up a batch of boudin sausage for the family Christmas get-together.
Suzanne Perez Tobias
Joshua Bell, Musical Gifts from Joshua Bell and Friends
* * * Masterworks
• Song selections: This CD by Grammy-winning conductor and violinist Bell includes 15 holiday songs featuring him on strings and other famous vocalists and musicians such as Branford Marsalis, Chris Botti, Alison Krauss and Straight No Chaser joining in. The songs are of the more restrained variety God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Silent Night, O Tannenbaum and such.
• Ear candy: Bell and jazz pianist Chick Corea team up for an amazing instrumental rendition of Greensleeves, and Kristin Chenoweth delivers an uncharacteristically restrained vocal on a beautiful O Holy Night.
• Lumps of coal: Not a single song is un-listenable, but Bells audible inhalation as he plays his instrument can be distracting and rather disconcerting. Its not as noticeable on the songs with vocals.
• When to play it: As a reward for your children completing their holiday instrument practice time.
Jewel, Let It Snow: A Holiday Collection
* * * REFLECTIONS
• Song selections: A dozen seasonal songs, including two sprightly originals, Blue Crystal Glow and Its Christmastime, from the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter.
• Ear candy: Jewels crystal-clear, childlike voice lends just the right tone to favorites What Child Is This? and Do You Hear What I Hear? And the Latin hymn Panis Angelicus is a lovely change of pace from everyday holiday fare.
• Lumps of coal: Fans of Jewels acoustic pop may not appreciate the country-infused flavor of several tracks, particularly White Christmas, which features Vince Gill on guitar and vocals.
• When to play it: Cozied up at home by the fire, watching the snow fall.
Suzanne Perez Tobias
Various artists, Now Christmas
* * * Universal Music Group
• Song selections: Two discs. Sixteen songs each. One a compilation of classic carols from greats such as Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. The other a collection of holiday tunes performed by more recent artists, ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Maroon 5.
• Ear candy: Disc one, which has all the classics on it, is a must-have for anyone who likes holiday music to sound like it used to. Nothings better than the buttery beauty of Nat King Cole singing The Christmas Song and the smooth delivery of Bing Crosbys White Christmas.
• Lumps of coal: Its difficult to transition from the Burl Ives calm of disc one into the Justin Bieber, Alvin and the Chipmunks mayhem of disc two. Send that one off with the kids and hope it does not return.
• When to play it: Disc one is ideal background music for your family gift exchange or holiday cookie bake. Disc two should remain safely in the package.
Barbra Streisand, The Classic Christmas Album
• Song selections: Streisand is one of many artists who has a Classic Christmas Album on the market this year. Neil Diamond, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Alabama and Andy Williams are among the others whose past holiday recordings have been repackaged into new releases. Streisands offers some recognizable carols such as O Little Town of Bethlehem and Ill Be Home for Christmas. But its more populated by adult-contemprary Christmas originals with titles such as Snowbound and A Christmas Love Song.
• Ear candy: Streisands voice is pure ear candy, but her holiday songs are cringe-worthy and hokey. Many of the 16 tracks are difficult to differentiate, but most are weighed down with dopey chimes and melodramatic violins.
• Lumps of coal: Most of the non-classic songs are fairly unbearable. And Streisand might be slightly guilty of overacting with her vocals, such as when she hollowly giggles about the tiny tots with their eyes all aglow on The Christmas Song.
• When to play it: When youre feeling desperate to wallow in unrequited holiday love or if you just love Babs enough to bear it.
Gretchen Wilson, Christmas in My Heart
* * 1/2 Redneck Records
• Song selections: Ten holiday tunes from country musics self-proclaimed Redneck Woman.
• Ear candy: Santa, Ive Been Naughty and If You See Rudolph are signature Gretchen. The delightfully upbeat Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is charming as well.
• Lumps of coal: Grown women should not sing Nuttin For Christmas. Ever.
• When to play it: When you want to hear holiday classics with just a touch of country-western attitude.
Suzanne Perez Tobias
Celtic Thunder, Christmas Voices
* * Celtic Thunder Limited
• Song selections: Fifteen holiday staples sung both solo and in ensemble by six members of the Irish group, backed by a 90-piece orchestra.
• Ear candy: The album opens with Carol of the Bells, a moving group rendition matched only by later ear-pleasing performances of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Midway through, Fairytale of New York adds a fun, pub-inspired sound to the mix.
• Lumps of coal: A recurring absence of expected, impressive harmonies makes the album a disappointment overall. Member Ryan Kellys In the Bleak Mid-Winter, with its strained vocals and odd piano-flute intro, leaves one feeling especially Grinchy. Avoid Christmas Medley entirely.
• When to play it: Mix tracks from Christmas Voices with better-loved holiday classics to create a party CD. Play as background music only after guests are full of eggnog-induced cheer.
Amy Renee Leiker
Susan Boyle, Home for Christmas
* * * 1/2 SYCO Music/Columbia Records
• Song selections: Twelve slow-paced Christmas classics by the Britains Got Talent underdog who wowed the world with her powerful, unexpected performance of Les Miserables I Dreamed a Dream on the show in 2009.
• Ear candy: Boyles voice shines in traditional hymns The Lords Prayer and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, and her sweet, upbeat rendition of The Christmas Waltz delights.
• Lumps of coal: While Boyles voice is pretty and precise, most of the songs lack the deep emotion and artist ownership that make music truly stirring. She is sadly overshadowed in duets O Come, All Ye Faithful with Elvis Presley and When a Child Is Born with Johnny Mathis.
• When to play it: Slide the album in your CD player as your family quietly reflects on its blessings this holiday season.
Amy Renee Leiker
Andy Williams, The Classic Christmas Album
* * * Sony Legacy
• Song selections: Sixteen classic Christmas tunes sung by the classic crooner.
• Ear candy: Not a bad recording in the bunch. Especially enjoyable are Joy to the World and the upbeat favorite Its the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
• Lumps of coal: Absolutely none.
• When to play it: Driving around looking at Christmas lights or wrapping gifts on Christmas Eve.
Johnny Mathis, Sending You a Little Christmas
* * * 1/2 Columbia
• Song selections: A mix of Christmas songs featuring collaborations with favorites including Billy Joel, Jim Brickman and Susan Boyle.
• Ear candy: The beautiful Ill Be Home for Christmas/White Christmas sung with Vince Gill and Amy Grant and the lovely Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep) are not easily forgotten. Seventy-eight-year-old Mathis sounds as good as ever.
• Lumps of coal: None.
• When to play it: Whenever you want a relaxing and refreshing break in your busy holiday schedule.
Trace Adkins, The Kings Gift (Tiodhlac An Righ)
* * 1/2 Caliburn
• Song selections: A mix of Christmas, Celtic and country featuring the soothing voice of Trace Adkins, interesting instrumentals and a cast of friends.
• Ear candy: Classics O Holy Night, We Three Kings and What Child Is This? shine in this 10-song assortment of Christmas joy. Lily and Kevin (yes, that Kevin) Costner join Adkins on a rendition of Silent Night that would bring the crowd at the Field of Dreams to its feet.
• Lumps of coal: If you dont like country or Celtic sounds, pass. A love of Christmas alone wont cut it.
• When to play it: Break it out with your third batch of eggnog.
Heart, Heart Presents A Lovemongers Christmas
* * Sony Music
• Song selections: A combination of 12 original and traditional Christmas songs in a mix of musical styles ranging from acoustic to synthesized.
• Ear candy: Christmas Waits has a well-executed Burt Bacharach, Carpenters-esque sound to it. Ave Maria gets a traditional acoustic treatment and the welcome, powerful voice of Nancy Wilson.
• Lumps of coal: How Beautiful relies too much on the synthesizer and feels more like an under-produced rock ballad of the 90s than an original Christmas song with staying power.
• When to play it: When only Christmas music for background matters.
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, It Feels Like Christmas Time
* * * * Savoy Jazz
• Song selections: A big-band extravaganza of Christmas classics.
• Ear candy: The Frank Sinatra-inspired Jingle Bells and Chuck Berrys Run Rudolph Run are standouts, as is the original Christmas Is Starting Now. The albums Deluxe Edition is worth getting just for What Are You Doing New Years Eve?
• Lumps of coal: An instrumental version of We Three Kings lacks the verve of the rest of the album.
• When to play it: Groggy from eggnog? Pull this one up and youll be swinging in no time.
Bad Religion, Christmas Songs
* * * Epitaph Records
• Song selections: Eight Christmas staples and one original track in the thinking-persons punk bands signature style.
• Ear candy: The whole album is remarkably consistent, but Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and O Come All Ye Faithful are the first ones to hear. Bonus: Theyre the first two tracks.
• Lumps of coal: O Come, O Come Emmanuel has the power, but not the soul, of the rest of the tracks.
• When to play it: If you like to hear shredding tunes while you shred wrapping paper, you cant go wrong with this.
Straight No Chaser, Under the Influence (Holiday Edition)
* * * Atlantic
• Song selections: Eight a capella versions of seasonal songs, including duets with Colbie Caillat, CeeLo Green, Otis Redding and Paul McCartney.
• Ear candy: Of the duets, Caillat blends the best with the group, though all four offer their pleasures. Of the rest, the original tune Home by Christmas Day plays up the groups strengths. If youre a fan of their Christmas Can-Can, be sure to check out Nutcracker.
• Lumps of coal: Amazing Grace sounds nice but lacks gravitas.
• When to play it: When youre looking for pleasant diversion.
Erasure, Snow Globe
* * Mute Artists
• Song selections: Four Clarke/Bell originals and nine covers in Erasures distinctive synthpop style.
• Ear candy: For those expecting a traditional Christmas sound, the haunting Silent Night is your best bet. For those expecting a traditional Erasure sound, shimmy forward to Therell Be No Tomorrow. For a perfect blending of the two, Gaudete, sung in the original Latin, is cant-miss.
• Lumps of coal: The repetitive music-box-meets-electronica soundscape in The Christmas Song and Midnight Clear can grate after a short while.
• When to play it: When youve had your fill of standard-sounding Christmas albums.
Il Volo, Buon Natale The Christmas Album
* * * Interscope Records
• Song selections: A trio of young Italian singers (introduced to the American masses on American Idol in 2011) tries to widen its American reach with a Christmas CD. (Il Volo means flight.)
• Ear candy: Any CD that begins with Ave Maria and O Holy Night and contains two versions of Silent Night (English and German) and Panis Angelicus is to that extent inspired.
• Lumps of coal: The Italian accents of Ignazio, Piero and Gianluca dont ring true on American secular standards. Jack Frost knitting at your nose just hurts. And we dont need a dramatic love song (Notte Stellata) to steal Christmass thunder at the end of the disc.
• When to play it: You want to fly to Roma for Natale but are stuck in Wichita.
WOW Christmas: 30 Top Christian Artists and Holiday Songs
* * * Capitol Christian Music Group Provident Label Group
• Song selections: 30 Christmas songs, both traditional and contemporary.
• Ear candy: Rockin Around the Christmas Tree, sung by Amy Grant, has a rockin tune and makes you want to jump up and get that tree decorated.
• Lumps of coal: Newsboys All I Want for Christmas Is You sounded like most other versions of the song.
• Listen to it: Disc one is great music for driving to the mall, and disc two is good background music for wrapping up those gifts.
Judy Collins, Christmas With Judy Collins
* * * * Cleopatra Records
• Song selections: Sixteen original and traditional Christmas songs including Ill Be Home for Christmas, Away in a Manger, and Joy to the World. The CD also includes one of Collins most famous songs, Amazing Grace. Her clear voice is always a treasure.
• Ear candy: Silent Night and The Blizzard are true Judy Collins style, a treat for any child of the 60s and 70s.
• Lumps of coal: None. This CD is a winner.
• Listen to it: In the car, at home wrapping presents or going to sleep at night.