Hear Me Out ... For The Holidays

By Chris Azzopardi

Kelly Clarkson, 'Wrapped in Red'

In 1963, background-singer-turned-soloist Darlene Love got with big-time producer Phil Spector to turn out the December perennial "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." Love was in a class all by herself, singing that song with so much emotion, her baby better have got his butt back to her. Even today, few have that soul, that range ... that thing that Kelly Clarkson has. The songstress, on her first Christmas release, seems to have enjoyed those Spector sessions as much as everyone else - "Wrapped in Red" follows in their footsteps. It's to its benefit that the title track, a bouncy throwback boosted by Clarkson's mighty boom, sounds like a song you've heard before. With a nostalgic Love-inspired performance, it could have been released a half century ago. "Underneath the Tree," basking in the glow of Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You," has the fixings of a classic too: the jazzy big-band feel, those chiming sleigh bells, a sax solo - all that, and Clarkson's cheery vocal, crystallizes into an invigorating burst of holiday happiness that even the Grinch couldn't pass up. And the brassy number "Every Christmas" - a lovesick heartbreaker also co-written by Clarkson, her voice carrying the song into the starry night - is another welcome addition to the Christmastime tradition. Takes on "Silent Night," with Trisha Yearwood and Reba McEntire, and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" are - in Clarkson's vintage style - gifts under the tree, wrapped in red, just waiting to be opened. Grade: B+

Mary J. Blige, 'A Mary Christmas'

Fifteen years ago, before the soul diva was crying out for "no more drama," a Mary J. Blige album of all Christmas carols would have spread less cheer and more tears. I mean, she'd have your face in a pillow of giant sad tears with a cover of Mariah's "Miss You Most (at Christmas Time)," and don't even get me started on Amy Grant's "Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song)," a song so Mary J. it has her name right in the title. But no, Blige and producer David Foster ain't going down that chimney. Though always in impeccable vocal form, this is all fairly standard stuff: No one needs to hear the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul "pa-rum-pum-pum-pum"-ing on "Little Drummer Boy," and "This Christmas" doesn't go anywhere that it hasn't already been. Surprisingly, "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" - a song that should be beneath someone of Blige's singing stature - builds into a cool big-band number with Mary letting loose, playfully scatting over the bass-driven jazziness. Blige has never recorded an album this not-urban, and her shift into full-fledged adult-contemporary includes "When You Wish Upon a Star," with Barbra Streisand, and "My Favorite Things," so orchestra-propelled you expect Blige's next career move to be Broadway. It's certainly festive, but all of it, albeit a glorious recording of the 1945 French song "Petit Papa Noel," is just ... fine. "A Mary Christmas," an ornament hanging low when it could've been the star on top of the tree, would've been more successful if Blige was as distraught and dramatic as she looks on the cover. Grade: C+

Also Out

Erasure, 'Snow Globe'

You know that Erasure Christmas album you've been waiting for? No? Yeah, that's because no one could have predicted that the '80s synth-pop duo would get in on the yuletide action. And yet here it is, in all its fantastically original and out-there glory. Not just giving electro life to standards like "White Christmas" and a truly lovely "Bleak Midwinter," Andy Bell and Vince Clarke also cut five new songs for the album, including bittersweet "Make It Wonderful" and the hopeful prayer "Bells of Love (Isabelle's of Love)." It's no Christmas miracle that Erasure's surprising venture into the merry-time market is a remarkable standout. This is just what talent sounds like.

Matthew Morrison, 'A Classic Christmas'

It's too bad Matthew Morrison still can't settle on a sound that's all his own. Had he, the covers on this humdrum holiday EP might be less like deja vu. Morrison's old soul and musical-theater mojo suits him for classics like "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," "Let it Snow" and "Jingle Bell Rock," but I've heard more interesting versions by people in my mom's church congregation. A mashup of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" with "Mele Kalikimaka" is a gay ol' time, but otherwise, get in your sleigh and keep going. Nothing to see here.

Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at http://www.chris-azzopardi.com.

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