Well, well, well — it’s finally happened! Kelly Clarkson has finally made a long-awaited Christmas album! And it just might be the best Christmas album since Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas. In other words, it’s nothing short of iconic and it’s quite possibly the best Christmas album released by any artist during the past 19 years. I realize that’s saying a lot, but don’t discount my words until you’ve heard it. It’s truly made of awesome.
First of all, the entire album was produced by none other than Greg Kurstin, who produced some of the finer tracks on Kelly’s album Stronger. He’s also done marvelous stuff with Sia, Lily Allen, The Shins and over 100 artists during the past several years, this in addition to being one half of the amazing electro-pop duo The Bird and The Bee. Whereas a lot of today’s pop music producers are hacks who constantly steal from each other, Kurstin is the real deal, a truly inspired guy who’s always dedicated to producing the highest quality music he possibly can. He’s also a fantastic songwriter — and he’s co-written some original Christmas gems with Kelly here. In my never humble opinion, Kurstin is a genius, plain and simple. Only nothing about anything he does is plain and simple. Well, except for when it calls for it, such as when he worked with The Shins, who didn’t need all kinds of fancy electro-embellishments to make their music sound brilliant. And that’s another reason Kurstin is so brilliant: he knows when to lay it on thick and he knows when to back off and let the artists shine sans bells and whistles.
If there’s one complaint I had about Kelly’s album Stronger it was that she didn’t write more of the songs, but she more than makes up for it here, having co-written all five of the album’s original Christmas songs. And kudos to her for doing so many originals. Any artist can slap together an album of Christmas covers, but you’ve really got to be dedicated to making a fantastic Christmas album to whip together some original songs. Of course, a lot of artists write Christmas songs that are just plain terrible, but all five of Kelly’s originals are truly fantastic gems that are sure to warm your heart this holiday season. Unless you’re one of those assholes who hates Christmas music.
The album opens with the very uplifting title track, “Wrapped in Red,” which Kelly wrote with Ashley Arrison, Aben Eubanks and Shane McAnally. (McAnally is a famous country songwriter. Not familiar with the other two collaborators.) Kurstin has said that one of his sources of inspiration for the album was the album A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector and it really shows here, the production having a great big Spector-style wall of sound that truly makes it leap out at you, shining like a glass Christmas ornament. Which isn’t to say that the production overshadows Kelly’s voice because it doesn’t. Her voice remains front and center and entirely gorgeous and glorious throughout the instant classic. If I had to compare it to an existing classic, it would be “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” It has a similar vibe, particularly in terms of its almost galloping beat and wonderful energy.
Speaking of energetic Christmas numbers, the second track is another original, this one written by Kelly and Kurstin, entitled “Underneath the Tree.” Usually Christmas albums — like many quote unquote normal albums — open with the liveliest song. Not so here. “Underneath the Tree” is just as vibrant and catchy as “Wrapped in Red.” There’s no point in saying which song is better because they’re both super amazing. If you put a gun to my head and made me pick a favorite, it would probably be this one for the sole reason that I love the brief but potent sax solo. But, really, both tracks are truly flawless, Kelly’s voice shining as brightly and boldly as it does on any of her previous work, making it clear that she poured her heart into this project entirely. This is definitely not a case where an artist has made a Christmas album just to sell a few more units. One gets the feeling Kelly would have made this album even if she didn’t make a dime off of it and I’m pretty sure that she’ll always consider it a career high point regardless of how many copies it sells. Of course, if there’s any justice remaining in the world of music, it will go on to sell millions and millions of copies like Celine Dion’s classic Christmas album because it’s easily just as magnificent.
From there, things slow down with the classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Kelly has stated that the artists whose Christmas music inspired her to make this album were Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney and you can especially hear the latter’s influence during this emotive, heart-warming track, which is perfect for snuggling up in front of the fireplace with your special someone. Or for decorating your Christmas tree to. Of course, this whole album would be the perfect music to listen to while decorating your tree this year, so I highly recommend you get a copy before you do that. And don’t wait until after Thanksgiving to get your copy either because you’ll regret it if you do. In all seriousness, you’re going to want as many days to listen to this masterpiece as you can get, so don’t buy it two days before Christmas and wish you’d gotten it sooner. Just take my word for it and buy it now.
Writing an original Christmas ballad is quite possibly even more difficult than writing an up-tempo Christmas tune, but Kelly and Aben Eubanks have written an endearing one with “Every Christmas.” And, wow, it’s quite the instant classic. You’ll swear you’ve already heard it a thousand times before because it captures the vibe of the best classic Christmas ballads so expertly, Kelly asking Santa to bring her baby home for Christmas and all that good stuff. “Maybe this year will be different and I won’t be alone again,” she sings, her voice sounding as gorgeous as ever and even a bit haunting. If you’ve liked any of the previous ballads she’s done, like “Because of You” and “Already Gone,” then you’re sure to fall quickly in love with this one. And it has some uber-vibrant, colorful horns that help render it all the more potent.
I wasn’t sure what I’d think about Kelly’s rendition of “Blue Christmas” because the Elvis version is such a masterpiece that he still owns that one today even though it’s probably been covered by over 100 artists since he recorded it, so much so that everyone who covers it usually sounds like they’re trying to mimic his voice when they do so. To Kelly’s credit, she does *not* try to sound like the king. You’ll probably still think of him when you listen to it the first few times since the music is similar to his version’s, but kudos to Kelly for simply sounding like Kelly, her voice sounding as heart-warming as ever here.
One of the more interesting tracks on the album is “4 Carats,” an original written by Kelly and Kurstin along with hit songwriters Cathy Dennis and Livvi Franc. The song starts off with guitars that sound a bit like surf rock, if I’m being entirely honest. But by the time it hits the chorus, it sounds like vintage ’50’s Christmas music, Bing Crosby’s influence shining through, and it’s nothing short of fantastic. I think “Wrapped in Red” and “Underneath the Tree” are the obvious singles here, but I could see “4 Carats” doing quite well on pop radio, too, and it would be a shame if they don’t release it to radio.
Another interesting inclusion here is a cover of Imogen Heap’s “Just For Now.” Technically, that’s not a Christmas song, but Kelly and Kurstin cleverly interpolate some music from “Carol of the Bells” and turn it into one. Besides, with the line “it’s that time of year,” it’s not a stretch to think of it as a Christmas song anyway.
The normal edition of this album is 14 songs — the Target edition has two bonus tracks, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel” — and there’s not one lackluster track in the bunch. Each of Kelly’s covers rival the best versions of the songs that have come before. And all of her originals rival all of the classics, each of them being instant classics themselves. Whether you’re a fan of Kelly and/or Christmas music, this is one masterpiece you simply must own. And, hey, you can easily order it from Amazon or Target online if you consider yourself too much of a badass to walk into a store and buy a Christmas CD, so you have no excuse. Even if you’re an atheist, you could simply look at it as amazing pop music and should be able to enjoy it accordingly. It really is that damn good.