Trisha Yearwood (left) and Reba McEntire (right), who harmonize with Kelly Clarkson on her holiday album, will repeat the performance on her NBC Christmas special airing Dec. 11. | JUSTIN LUBIN/NBC
Updated: January 4, 2014 6:10AM
It appears easy, but Christmas music is deceptive. Play it straight and you seem like a stodgy traditionalist. Ply the songs with experimentation, and suddenly cries of sacrilege ring out. The best holiday music finds that middle ground: formal without feeling unbending, playfully irrelevant without total deconstruction.
Here are a few of the brighter new offerings:
Kelly Clarkson, “Wrapped in Red” (RCA)
This all-star vocalist presents a wide variety of classics, but her original songs beat them all. “Underneath the Tree” and the title song, both co-written by Clarkson, stand on their own merits, with Clarkson channeling Ronnie Spector — not a surprise since much of this album can be compared to the Phil Spector classic “A Christmas Gift for You.” Otherwise, the Memphis soul, swing jazz, and country — Trisha Yearwood and Reba McEntire harmonize on “Silent Night” — deliver true enjoyment the season demands.
Trace Adkins, “The King’s Gift” (Caliburn)
Any Christmas album in which Kevin Costner is a guest vocalist might deservedly raise an eyebrow. Yet what is most unorthodox about this holiday album from Nashville’s most reliable male crooner is the brogue that replaces the twang. The Celtic arrangements of religious traditional songs, from “Away in a Manger” to “What Child is This,” transform them into folk carols, thanks to Irish ensemble the Chieftains and guests including Scottish vocalist Alyth McCormack. The sound freshens up these songs, especially “Little Drummer Boy,” a breakout moment for renowned Nashville drummer Kenny Aronoff.
Nick Lowe, “Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family” (Yep Roc)
The pop craftsman’s breezy collection skips over the requisite holiday standards to present such sparkling originals as “Christmas at the Airport,” playfully reporting on a modern reality (“I took a Santa sleigh ride on the baggage carousel”); “I Was Born in Bethlehem,” which retells the nativity story with hymnal warmth, and “Dollar Short of Happy,” a clever dose of seasonal blues (“city sidewalks, busy sidewalks/turn a darker gray/than any Russian playwright would allow”). Unlike other fare this season, sleigh bells are absent; instead, Lowe and band tread lightly, offering folk gospel, martini-era swing, and most likely the only version of “Silent Night” that features chugging horns and a Hammond B-3.
Erasure, “Snow Globe” (Mute)
A guaranteed first thought when pressing play of this holiday album: “Erasure made a Christmas album?” Indeed. British synth-pop duo Andy Bell and Vince Clarke offer traditional songs (“Silent Night” is a beauty, with multilayered harmonies and digital sparkles) and originals like “Blood on the Snow,” which tag seasonal despondency. The minimalist bounce of songs like “There’ll Be No Tomorrow” makes this the album to grab after ditching the family following dinner and meeting friends in clubland.
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, “It Feels Like Christmas Time” (Savoy Jazz)
Those big band Christmas albums not working for you anymore? Here’s an alternative, although not as fresh. This brassy septet works over the best-known pop songs from those annual animated classics featuring Frosty, Rudolph, Santa and Mr. Grinch. A female vocal trio called She, Her & I animates a chirpy version of the Andrew Sisters, interacting with singer-guitarist Scotty Morris channeling Sinatra on these faithful, deftly arranged covers. The single original song, “It Feels Like Christmas Time,” soaked with strings and bass, doesn’t douse the cheer.
Mark Guarino is a Chicago freelance writer.