The holiday season seems to arrive a little bit earlier each year; before you know it, we'll be decorating our pumpkins in garland and dressing our scarecrows in Santa suits. And for the music critic, Christmas comes even sooner thanks to an annual deluge of holiday albums released before the leaves have even turned, our plight eclipsed only by the poor studio engineers forced to endure an artist's newly recorded contributions to the bottomless canon of predictable yuletide chestnuts during the sweltering doldrums of summer.
Thankfully, much of Kelly Clarkson's first holiday album, Wrapped in Red, makes a grinch's job a little less arduous. It's a surprisingly secular effort for a singer who prides herself on being a good Southern Christian, with the only mentions of Jesus coming during a country-inflected rendition of the obligatory "Silent Night," featuring Clarkson's buddies Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood, and the understated "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," relegated to the Target edition of the album. Clarkson agilely rips through a series of nonreligious standards and original tunes, as well as a cover of Imogen Heap's "Just for Now," whose reference to "that time of year" appears to be the sole justification, lyrical or otherwise, for its inclusion.
While Chuck Berry's "Run Run Rudolph" gives Clarkson an excuse to rock out, and thus sticks out like a glowing red nose on a snowy night, Wrapped in Red largely offers a respite from the pop-rock template she's been relentlessly pursuing since Breakaway, with less shouting and more of the varied range and texture on full display that helped coronate her the winner of the inaugural season of American Idol. For better or worse, a decade of recording and touring has roughed up the edges of her voice, lending a lived-in quality that imbues lyrics about love and longing with an authenticity that might have otherwise been missing had she recorded these songs just a few years earlier.
Of the classics, the orchestral "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is a highlight, marred only by a showy octave leap at the song's climax. But it's the five new compositions, all co-written by Clarkson, that elevate Wrapped in Red above just another holiday-industrial-complex cash-in. Though the bouncy "Winter Dreams (Brandon's Song)" borders on a commercial jingle, it's ultimately a sweet (but not too saccharine) tribute to her new husband, while the "Santa Baby"-by-way-of-"Since U Been Gone" rocker "4 Carats" provides a modern update on the proverbial Christmas-list song. Any of these, as well as the retro title track, would make welcome additions to shopping-mall playlists, but it's the album's lead single, "Underneath the Tree," which recalls Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" in theme, tone, and structure, that's likely to become Clarkson's very own contemporary standard.