Musically, this just might be the year Kelly Clarkson stole Christmas.
Clarkson’s sixth studio LP, Wrapped in Red, opened at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 earlier this month — embarrassingly, just barely pulling ahead of the Robertsons’ Duck the Halls
Pennsyltucky-pandering cringefest debut album. But don’t confuse those numbers as a reflection of quality: Clarkson’s album is easily the strongest Christmas release since Michael Buble’s ’50s-channeling, 2011 addition to the genre. And, to its credit, Red also boasts (in addition to being RuPaul-approved) the biggest opening numbers for a female Christmas album since Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas II You in 2010.
Cue the Mariah comparisons.
The record's lead track, "Underneath the Tree," is (debatably) the closest any contemporary Christmas single has come to matching the holiday euphoria of Carey's grocery-store-playlist-ubiquitous "All I Want For Christmas is You." Its wall-of-sound production lends itself well to the stratospheric pop choruses Clarkson is known to churn out, while being careful to not lose its sense of holiday warmth by including everything in the Christmas-album playbook: sleigh bells, bell chimes, a jazz solo, etc. In fact, at least three of the five Clarkson-penned tracks on the album -- particularly the Love, Actually-inspired title track and "4 Carats" -- sound like songs that, sans the Christmas-time lyrics, could easily have found a home on any standard Clarkson pop album. (It's no surprise in the case of the latter: "4 Carats" was originally written as a song for her 2014-slated pop album, but had its lyrics changed to fit the theme of Red.)
To boot, Clarkson's first Christmas endeavor is also surprisingly secular for a gal straight out of a Baptist family from Burleson, Texas. The only song on the album that touches religion is the album-closing, sonorous "Silent Night," which features Trisha Yearwood and new mommy-in-law Reba McEntire. Consequently, it's the only song on the album that doesn't feel like a Kelly Clarkson track -- there's an impression left that Clarkson acquiesced a little too much to Reba's feedback in the studio, considering the country songbird, with all of her over-enunciated singing, takes up the entire second half of the song.
Other tracks are surprising by their very presence on the album: Imogen Heap's "Just for Now," for example, is transformed into a holiday track by being fused with the "Carol of the Bells" instrumental, an experiment that sounds whacky in theory but is executed with precision, a testament to Clarkson's above-average musical instincts. It's also a testament to how diverse the album is: ladies and gents who are crying into their eggnog on Christmas morning will feel equally at home with this record as those who, like Clarkson, have discovered marital bliss -- which, I might add, is gloriously represented in "Winter Dreams (Brandon's Song)," even if it is a total cheesefest.
Obvious-choice classics on the album, meanwhile, are incredible showcases of the strength (and weighty post-30 maturity) of her voice. "White Christmas" serves up some subdued Rosemary Clooney realnesss, and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" melts the soul, issuing goosebumps with the slight twist of a high-note belt toward the end of the track. Weaker -- but respectable -- Christmas covers are "My Favorite Things," which is predictably over-the-top, and "Baby, It's Cold Outside," which strangely features an utterly bored-sounding Ronnie Dunn ... who is also twice Clarkson's age. (Creepy, much?)
Time will tell if the solid efforts of Clarkson's Red will go down in the holiday-music canon as classics, but the album's certainly done a damn good job trying. And if nothing else, it's the best the 2013 season has to offer.
Put simply: It sleighs.
Download: "Underneath the Tree," "Winter Dreams (Brandon's Song)," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"
Throwaways: "Baby, It's Cold Outside," "4 Carats"
1. "Underneath the Tree"
2. "Winter Dreams (Brandon's Song)"
3. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"