It’s become trendy for artists to put out Christmas songs and albums as the season rolls around. Some are serious, some are silly, some are cheesy—mostly it’s an opportunity to have a little fun and do something different. And yet, making a truly good Christmas record can actually be a challenge. By their nature, holiday tunes can be over the top, novelty and more than a little schmaltzy. One exception to the rule is Kelly Clarkson, who seems to have found the right formula to get Christmas just right. Wrapped In Red (2013) came out of nowhere to be a surprisingly excellent holiday record. Could Clarkson match that mark on her follow-up effort, When Christmas Comes Around…?
Kelly Clarkson must have an affinity for the holiday season to record 15 holiday tracks, including some original numbers. The impressive part is just how well she fuses traditional with contemporary to create something fresh and listenable. Let’s face it: Original Christmas songs can also be a minefield, and still Clarkson hits all the right notes.
Take, for example, opening track “Merry Christmas Baby,” a tongue-in-cheek track about love gone wrong. The song is soulful and expansive, and Clarkson’s vocals shine right off the bat. She then flips the script with a throwback version of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” in a completely traditional arrangement.
Clarkson brings back the sass on “Christmas Isn’t Canceled (Just You),” again not hitting on the usual notes for holiday material. It’s tough to review a Christmas album in mid-October, but one thing the artist exceeds at is making the album sound like a Kelly Clarkson record. It’s oddly listenable this time of the year.
“Merry Christmas (To The One I Used To Know)” brings back the somber feelings in ballad form before the fun returns on the funky, Big Band stylings of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” a track that aptly shows her vocal versatility. This time around, she isn’t going at it alone, recruiting some famous friends for a handful of duets. Chris Stapleton (who’s making a guest appearance on his second album in less than a week) duets on the funky yet southern “Glow.” Stapleton’s excellent vocals make for the perfect complement to Clarkson’s. Fellow “The Voice” judge, Ariana Grande, joins for the bouncy “Santa, Can’t You Hear Me.” Finally, country artist Brett Eldredge appears on a rockabilly throwback of “Under the Mistletoe” (a bonus track).
While “Santa Baby” has been done a million times, Clarkson still brings a fresh vocal take and renewed energy. The track requires an expressive vocal to really make it work, and she delivers with a nuanced performance. “Last Christmas” is another popular retread, but once again Clarkson takes it in an entirely different direction. She gives the Wham cut a smokey jazz club feel.
She plays it straight on the most traditional songs. “Jingle Bell Rock” stays pretty well within its lane. It works to Clarkson’s advantage that she fuses fresh takes on familiar tracks with the more traditional versions, creating a dynamic listening experience.
Clarkson slows things down for original piano ballad “Blessed,” which doesn’t seem like much of a Christmas song, before closing things out with another original in “Christmas Come Early,” an orchestral cherry on top of her holiday gift.
Whether you love Christmas music or despise it, Kelly Clarkson turns in another impressive effort worthy of your time.
Follow writer Mike DeWald at Twitter.com/mike_dewald.