CD reviews: Old, new Christmas carols

By Jackie Dosmanos

Posted at Dec 22 2013 11:54 AM | Updated as of Dec 23 2013 06:50 PM

Kelly Clarkson
"Wrapped in Red"

Right at the album title, former "American Idol" Kelly Clarkson announces she views Christmas from a different lens. There is no reference to the Yuletide season except on the sticker at the top corner of the plastic case.

Clarkson opens the album with the title track , an original pop-soul number with ‘60s girl-group trappings, then rocks full throttle with another original composition, “Underneath The Tree,” complete with a joyous sax solo near the end. She gives country music her best shot in “Blue Christmas” and does an even better job doing an ethereal cover of “Silent Night” with country stars Reba and Trisha Yearwood. Some cool jazz actually colors her poignant rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

Clarkson’s secular outlook on Christmas allows for the inclusion of “My Favorite Things” and “Just For Now.” For all intents, “Wrapped in Red” is one more chance for this Idol to showcase the varied shades of her great-sounding pipes.

The Piano Guys

"A Family Christmas"


Band pianist and percussionist describes the making of their first Christmas album thus: “It’s an opportunity to jam and dance around the house while decorating the tree as well as the chance to sit back with somebody you love and look at the fireplace.”

 

The overall feel of the album is just that—background music to soundtrack your preparations for Christmas at home and to soothe nerves frayed by the holiday rush. It’s almost akin to new age, with the group’s gentle performance of classics like “Angels We Heard on High” and “We Three Kings” unobtrusively spilling from the speakers.

Two tracks, the “Carol of the Bells/God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” mash-up and Sarah Schmidt’s child-like vocals on “Where Are You At Christmas” will raise a few eyebrows, Other than those, it’s business as usual for the piano-meets-cello explorations of the Piano Guys.

Bad Religion

"Christmas Songs"


This quaint release from pop-punk pioneers Bad Religion deserves its own place in your iPod if only to give more life to your Christmas playlist. What’s not to like? You get three-part harmonies in time with lead singer Greg Graffin’s everyman vocals. You also get to hear in Christmassy context the roaring sound of the likes of The Ramones and The Jam.

 

Early in their career, the band expressed a love for the Beatles and despite the speed of the delivery, traditional Christmas songs in this collection retain the beloved hooks and melodies of the original compositions. Except for the inclusion of “American Jesus,” there’s none of the slob and slop of most pop-punk remakes.

They may not be songs for everyone but those looking for kick-ass music that’s true to the contemporary spirit of the season will find it in this 9-song package,

Various Artists

"Smooth Jazz for X-Mas"


The idea of a “Silent Night, Holy Night” for modern times is all over this compilation. The singers pay a reverential tone to classic Christmas tunes and the players provide support in hushed tones and rhythms without detracting from the attractive melody of the material.

 

There are classy music from Ella Fitzgerald and Jimmy Smith, as well as from modern artists like Chris Botti and Dianne Schuur. The fusion trappings go from groovy to funky to quietly moving to give the album a touch of modern jazz for the holidays.

Barbra Streisand

"The Classic Christmas Album"


The recently released album consists of selections from two earlier Streisand Christmas-themed offerings: "A Christmas Album" (1967) and "Christmas Memories" (2001).

Those familiar with Streisand’s seminal diva voice won’t find anything new to rave about. What this new compilation will do is put in place the likes of Mariah Carey and even Celine Dion in the pantheon of pop greats.

Streisand’s versions are faithful to the original and she contributes a warm tone throughout. Each song sounds new again without the diva ransacking the outer fringes of reinterpretation. Classic, indeed.