We've made a list of new holiday-music albums, dividing them into stocking stuffers, lumps of coal and gifts for your eccentric relatives.
Nick Lowe, "Quality Street" (YepRoc) — The veteran British popmeister is witty with his wordplay and inventive with his sounds on this season's best collection. "Children Go Where I Send Thee" gets a soulful rockabilly reading while "Silent Night" defies its title and just rocks with cheesy organ, surf guitar and somber horns. The standout original is the retro-sounding "Christmas at the Airport," a tart take on being snowbound at the terminal.
Jon Bream, Star Tribune
Kelly Clarkson, "Wrapped in Red" (RCA) — The first "American Idol" champ enters the Christmas canon with a sassy combination of 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. That said, a couple of newbies, 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.
Sean Daly, Tampa Bay Times
Susan Boyle, "Home for Christmas" (Syco) — The down-to-earth Scottish mezzo-soprano can still blow your hair back. 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. 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.S.D.
Various artists, "Just One Angel Vol. 2" (Yellow Tail) — Put together by New York singer/songwriter Christine Lavin, this 20-song compilation of originals is perfect for public-radio listeners. These are smart, warmly crafted, folk-styled tunes about fruitcake, mistletoe and no room at the inn. Highlights include the accordion-fueled "Chelsea Boys" by Spottiswoode & His Enemies, the saucy jazz ditty "Ho Ho Ho" by Bernice Lewis and the vintage-styled "I Want an Old Fashioned Christmas" by Amy Speace. Other than Tom Paxton and ex-"Dukes of Hazzard" star Tom Wopat, none of these artists is a household name, but you'll want to listen to their tunes around the tree or in front of the fireplace.J.B.
Lumps of coal
Mary J. Blige, "A Mary Christmas" (Verve) — Blige gets positively jazzy on a swinging big-band take on "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," replete with some bona fide scatting on her part. Mostly, however, she's operating in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir end of the musical spectrum, with arrangements emphasizing massed orchestral and choral forces often overwhelming the songs. Her musical collaborators include Barbra Streisand, Marc Anthony, Jessie J., the Clark Sisters and Chris Botti.
Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times
Trace Adkins, "The King's Gift" (Caliburn) — Kudos for curbing his party-country instincts and trying something different, honoring his Celtic heritage with dire, smile-less readings of "The Wexford Carol" and "I Saw Three Ships." Despite appearances by the Chieftains (hooray) and Kevin Costner (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, however, when they hear it playing in the Cracker Barrel gift shop.S.D.
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. 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.S.D.
Duck Dynasty, "Duck the Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas" (Capitol Nashville) — 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 isn't that hairy at all. But hey, if you're firing up this one for anything but a snort and besotted midnight sing-along (George Strait and Phil Robertson bust out decent Western swing on "Christmas Cookies"), you'll be disappointed.S.D.
Erasure, "Snow Globe" (Mute) — The first words we hear from the veteran British duo are "People hiding in the shadows / People stumbling in the dark / Angry shouts and accusations / broken dreams and broken hearts." But fear not: Vince Clarke and Andy Bell don't disappear down the rabbit hole of morose feelings. They look to the spirit of the season for redemption, and put their percolating electronics to smart use on a mixed bag of carols, contemporary pop songs (their take on Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song" is a quirky trip) and five originals.R.L.