If nostalgia warms a room (in a delusional sense), is it any wonder that the chilly winter holidays rely on the same ancient Yuletide carols year after year? The familiarity of the songs ramp up their comfort-and-joy factor.
Many of this season’s holiday releases cheekily rock around the Christmas tree in a “new” old-fashioned way, skipping the standards in favor of originals engineered to emulate the mid-’60s girl-group sound. With Darlene Love as the year’s spirit animal, the best of the new albums belt forlorn romance to the rafters. Who needs nostalgia to heat up a room when Santa brings you Mr. Right?
From Kelly Clarkson and Leona Lewis to Mary J. Blige and Barbra Streisand, here's six of this year's albums to help you spread the Christmas cheer.
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Wrapped in Red (RCA)
Pop darling Clarkson credits Rosemary Clooney with inspiring her stellar holiday album, but its catchy first single, “Underneath the Tree,” sounds suspiciously like a love letter to Motown’s Wall of Sound era.
The same applies for the epic title track, “Wrapped in Red,” a breathy anthem of yuletide longing and what might be a stalker situation. The narrator confesses to “always watching, never reaching” her crush, but she’s “going to risk it all” at Christmas by wrapping herself in red. Do you mean velvet or blood, Kelly? (Come to think of it, Kellebelle’s previous advice, “You’ve just got to turn it up loud when the flames get higher,” may also be a cry for help.)
Christmas, With Love (Simco Limited)
While Clarkson flirts up classic Motown, Leona Lewis goes all the way with her much-anticipated holiday effort. The “Love” in the title must be Darlene Love, whose bouncy 1964 interpretations of “Winter Wonderland” and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” Lewis replicates with fanatical accuracy. Two infectious new songs—“One More Sleep” and “Mr. Right”—channel The Shangri-Las and countless other sister acts, returning to the perennial theme of December loneliness due to be sated on Christmas Day. (When did Santa become such a pimp?) Another original, “Your Hallelujah,” doesn’t immediately sound like a Christmas song, but it’s a spare and powerful reminder of the dismissed diva’s original X Factor star power.
Winter LoversLand (Epic/Streamline)
I bet Tamar Braxton hates it when folks call her “Toni’s baby sister” and luckily this effervescent Christmas collection proves that Tamar is a gifted chanteuse in her own right, not just another piña colada-swilling drama mama on Braxton Family Values.
Her sultry “Santa Baby” favors naughty over niceties, stripping the usual comedic overtones and saving the chuckles for “The Chipmunk Song” (featuring bizarre skreet talk from sister Trina). The best track, Tamar’s bubbly, syncopated update of “Sleigh Ride,” could live in retail rotation for generations to come. Now who’s the boss?
Broadway’s Carols for a Cure 2013: Volume 15 (Broadway Cares)
It’s as reliable as re-gifting and more colorful than the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, though perhaps not as buoyant as the latter this year. Broadway’s Carols for a Cure, the annual fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, taps talent from current musicals to croon old chestnuts and witty adaptations from the festive songbook. Standouts include a solid “Cherry Tree Carol” from the cast of Pippin, “Bad Girls Need Christmas, Too,” by the Jersey Boys um, girls, and the Kinky Boots queens camping it up on “Carol of the Boots.” But who invited Perez Hilton? His abrasive “Holiday Dishlist” drops a big, stinky “bah, humbug” on Disc 2. Oddly enough, the 2-CD set isn’t available on iTunes or Amazon. Maybe Broadway Cares doesn’t care for digital downloads.
Mary J. Blige
A Mary Christmas (Verve)
What’s the 411, Mary? The “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” plays it way safe on this solemn collection. Not that we expected Elton John or The Young and the Restless, but just a flash of MJB da MVP might breathe some life into somnambulistic standards like “Silent Night” (a Spanish-language duet with Marc Anthony).
Barbra Streisand and Chris Botti pitch in on “When You Wish Upon a Star,” which isn’t technically a Christmas song, but it might be a miracle cure for insomnia.
The album’s finest moment comes when Blige scat-sings a horn-heavy “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” — even if we don’t quite believe her closing exclamation, “That was fun!” Oh, Mary.
The Classic Christmas Album (Sony Legacy)
Bad news, Babs fans. These 16 classics may be as gorgeous as ever, but they’re second-hand roses. The new compilation rounds up keepers from Streisand’s untouchable “A Christmas Album” (1967) and “Christmas Memories” (2001). With most performers, a mishmash of recordings separated by three decades would make for a holiday horror story. Not for Barbra, whose million-dollar vocals melt like buttah on material old and new. Admittedly, the ’60s flashbacks are the main event. “My Favorite Things” evokes the best of Dame Shirley Bassey’s Bond themes, while the lyrical tour de force of “Jingle Bells?” could be the soundtrack for a mid-winter amphetamine binge. Guilty pleasures? More like evergreens.