By SEAN DALY • Times Pop Music Critic
Certain singers were born to croon Christmas carols. Some singers you just want to hear belt Joy to the World. It's why Josh Groban's 2007 album Noel was the No. 1 seller — in any musical genre — that year. You may dislike his poperatic gush, but the wavy-haired dreamboat sure sounded divine unloading O Come All Ye Faithful, didn't he?
The perfect Christmas singer is well-voiced yet puckish, someone who celebrates both the reality and the fantasy of the holidays. They can be naughty; they can be nice; they can be brutally honest. Frank Sinatra understood that with a wink, a highball and a shattered heart for Ava Gardner. R&B piano player Charles Brown — whose 1994 masterpiece Cool Christmas Blues is in my Top 5 — picked us up, or at least joined us, when we were feeling low-down.
Of course, having the necessary pipes and personality hasn't stopped pretty much everyone else in tunedom — your William Hungs, your Scott "Stone Temple Pilot" Weilands, your Twisted Sisters (yes, really) — from unloading yuletide merriment as well. Some of the weirder ones have been surprising. Bob Dylan's Christmas in the Heart (2009) is like Norman Rockwell on peyote.
Still, there's nothing like a classic singer making you feel warm 'n' Christmas cozy. This year's Santa bag of tinsel tunes features two pop vocalists who were made to bust out the hosannas: Kelly Clarkson and Mary J. Blige. Their albums aren't perfect, but as you're about to read, they're still darn good. As for the cast of Duck Dynasty cutting a Christmas LP, well, let's just say that Mssrs. Groban and Sinatra have nothing to worry about.
Wrapped in Red (RCA)
These are swell days for the very first, and very best, American Idol champ. The perennial lonely heart got hitched to music-biz manager Brandon Blackstock. She's expecting a baby. She's considered one of the top belters in both pop and country. And now the 31-year-old star enters the Christmas canon with Wrapped in Red, which sassily combines original cuts and classics. Some of the fresh stuff zips; the title track and Underneath the Tree, both co-written by Clarkson, are sh-booming Phil Spector-sized throwbacks. (Clarkson would have made a swell Ronette.) That said, a couple of newbies on Side B, including the surf anomaly 4 Carats, get stocking-coal status. As for the oldie-but-goodies, she sexily slow-drawls a honky-tonk Blue Christmas, and her epic Please Come Home for Christmas finishes with heartache fireworks. Man, can she wail or what? That said, it would have been nice to hear Clarkson and those million-dollar pipes head to Midnight Mass. Even thinking about her tackling the churchly oomph of Joy to the World gives me goose bumps.
Mary J. Blige
A Mary Christmas (Verve)
Last year, schmaltzmeister David Foster gooped up a Christmas album for Rod Stewart, producer and rock star hamming it up on HSN and selling the heck out of Merry Christmas, Baby. This year, Foster follows that same model, all the way down to the HSN drive-by, with Mary J. Blige, the queen of hip-hop soul. That's a curious pairing for sure: She's an intense hip-hopper who doesn't suffer fools; he makes music for my mom and her Red Hat Society pals. Sometimes it works beautifully. Little Drummer Boy blends her world and Foster's, attitude and grandeur; she's feeling every note on that one, her free, hands-to-heaven wail a complex blend of polish and raw. My Favorite Things is tied up with a nice bittersweet edge. Foster is a big shot, so he gets his way too, bringing in Barbra Streisand for an odd duet on When You Wish Upon a Star, which Stewart inexplicably covered as well. He also tries to make Blige a jazz swinger on an awkward Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The album ends on a relatively spare, lovely note, with Blige and guest Marc Anthony giving a bilingual reading of Noche de Paz (Silent Night).
Duck the Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas (Capitol Nashville)
In a landslide victory, the hirsute "happy happy happy" reality-show quackers from West Monroe, La., win this year's Wackiest Christmas Album. That's right: They sing, too. "Like Jesus and Santa Claus, we've got love behind these beards," the fellas goof on Hairy Christmas, which gets a cameo from country superstar Luke Bryan, who, it should be noted, isn't that hairy at all. But hey, if you're firing up this one up for anything but a snort and besotted midnight sing-along (George Strait and Phil Roberston bust out decent Western swing on Christmas Cookies), you'll be disappointed. That said, look for a spinoff record from Jase's wife, Missy, who has the sweetest voice of the bunch.
Trace Adkins, The King's Gift (Caliburn)
Kudos to the 6-foot-6 Honk Tonk Badonkadonk singer for curbing his party-country instincts and trying something different, honoring his Celtic heritage with dire, smileless readings of The Wexford Carol and I Saw Three Ships. Despite appearances by the Chieftains (hooray) and Kevin Costner (wait — what?), this album reminds me of being at my grandmother's house with nothing to do except stare at her creepy Hummel figurines. Some folks are going to absolutely love this, though — when they hear it playing in the Cracker Barrel gift shop. Try the hashbrown casserole; it's delicious.
Bad Religion, Christmas Songs (Epitaph)
The urge is to label this unlikely release from the longtime L.A. punk outfit a "novelty record." But the approach — although drenched in raging guitars, heart-palpative drums and Greg Graffin's authority-tweaking snot-nosed vocal — is altogether straight-faced, grunting Christmas classics for the pierced-eyebrow set. Still, a little mayhem goes a long way, although I just might keep the militaristic head-bang of Little Drummer Boy on the playlist for a few years.
Susan Boyle, Home for Christmas (SYCO)
The down-to-earth Scottish gal who, thanks to Simon Cowell's Britain's Got Talent, became an overnight phenom has shied away from the fame machine lately. But she can still blow your hair back, that crystalline mezzo-soprano that surprised, and delighted, the globe in yowza form. Her multiplatinum 2010 Christmas album The Gift is still superior, and more daring (Lou Reed's Perfect Day), than this one. But if you crave earnest, solemnly serious tunes for those somber winter nights — her version of The Lord's Prayer is a feat of reverence and ranges — here you go. Fair warning: They wake up Elvis Presley for a "duet" on O Come, All Ye Faithful. It's not great, but it is fascinatingly bizarro.
Johnny Mathis, Sending You a Little Christmas (Columbia)
This is the seventh (!) Christmas album from the Chances Are icon, and why not? Like Sinatra and Groban, Mathis, now 78, is another one of those singers born to deck the halls. And yes, he still has that heavenly, teen-angel vocal range. This LP has a nice twist too, as the Texas native invites a host of stars to celebrate his career longevity: Billy Joel (The Christmas Song), Natalie Cole (Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas) and Gloria Estefan (Mary's Boy Child). The orchestration is straight-forward but classically rich, Mathis getting the job done just like always.
Straight No Chaser, Under the Influence: Holiday Edition (Atlantic)
This puckish a cappella group formed at Indiana University — Glee before Glee was cool — ooh-aah out their larynx-wiggling acrobatics as guests including Paul McCartney (an improved Wonderful Christmastime) and Cee Lo Green (a funky White Christmas) show up on the eight-song EP to add a playful lead vocal. It's arch stuff, grating at times, and you can fully expect to hear it played at your uppity lawyer friend Rance's stuffy soiree. My advice? Sneak in some Bad Religion and shake that shindig up.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.