By the time December arrives there’s no getting away from the thick, impenetrable layers of Christmas music. The holiday hits swirl around us in endless variety, countless versions of classic carols along with novelty tunes and pop nuggets galore. It happens every year.
What doesn’t happen every year, or very often at all, is the arrival of a new, truly lasting holiday standard. Bruce Springsteen’s version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” come to mind as two of the very few such additions from recent decades. With Wrapped in Red Kelly Clarkson and RCA are trying awfully hard to slot something into that category. I doubt they’ll succeed. But they’ve produced a fine Christmas album.
With the bombastic music and in-your-face lyrics of her pop hits, Clarkson has proved herself one of our greatest active singing talents in the decade since she became the first American Idol winner. On Wrapped in Red, her first Christmas album, she and producer Greg Kurstin have wisely arranged the numbers – a mix of traditional holiday songs and new ones – to focus on her huge pipes and soulful delivery.
Clarkson channels Aretha on the power-ballad “Every Christmas,” while on tracks like “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (a duet with Brooks & Dunn’s Ronnie Dunn) and an understated “White Christmas” she proves herself adept at interpreting the Great American Songbook, trading the oncoming-train power of her pop vocals for an airy glide. Her vocals on an otherwise spicy big-band take on “Favorite Things” sound too careful for the deeply swinging arrangement, despite some melodic variation at the end. But her take on “Run Run Rudolph” is the best and most substantial version I’ve ever heard of that usually lightweight treat, and her sweet version of “Blue Christmas” is just plain charming.
R&B melisma and the melodic sweeps of traditional country-western combine to gently cloak a cool “Silent Night” with guest vocals from Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood. A fairly tame “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is enlivened by a towering vocal reach at the climax. And “4 Carats,” which Clarkson co-wrote (as she did many of the new songs), has a memorable pop hook. But my favorite unfamiliar track is Imogen Heap’s delicately intriguing “Just for Now,” a great song in any season.
The album opens with two original songs that are the strongest candidates for lasting popularity. The title track echoes Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” production and showcases the emotional power of Clarkson’s singing, while “Underneath the Tree” evokes the Motown sound via Springsteen. Whether these are strong enough to enter the canon, time will tell, and probably very soon.
Regardless, anyone looking for a brisk if unchallenging Christmastime pop treat from a top-notch talent couldn’t hope for much better than this enjoyable and well-crafted album, in this or any given year.