If American Idols are ready for anything, it's that industry standard, the Christmas album. It is to Kelly Clarkson's credit that she waited a decade to deliver a seasonal platter, but 2013's Wrapped in Red is worth the wait; a testament to her confidence as an interpreter. Generally, the 14 songs here emphasize Clarkson's skills as a full-throated diva -- the arrangements are bold and brassy, as is her delivery -- but when the tempo slows and the arrangements scale back, she's perhaps even more alluring, turning "Blue Christmas" into a sweet fireside crawl and effortlessly overshadowing the overmatched Ronnie Dunn on "Baby It's Cold Outside.
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.
Nothing says Yuletide more emphatically than an American A-lister ripping into seasonal standards with the dial cranked to "joyous". Kelly Clarkson, though, has learned from the many imitations spawned by Mariah Carey's 1994 blockbuster, Merry Christmas, and her first Christmas album is a little more nuanced. The tracklisting is orthodox – classics, new co-writes and one true leftfielder in Imogen Heap's Just for Now – but Clarkson takes the view that Christmas is as much about wistfulness and unfulfilled wishes as it is unbridled joy.
For someone who owes her career to a starmaking TV show, Kelly Clarkson has earned an awful lot of goodwill. American Idol, of course, is devoted to creating an automaton, a Johnny Bravo-type who fits the jacket. But Clarkson, the show’s first winner, never really played by their rules. She churned out massive hits, of course, but she also delighted us with category-defying records that managed to showcase her tremendous ability to jump genres, to placate her label while retaining her “I do what I want” individualism.
The holiday music floodgates are officially opened with this seasonal offering from the inaugural “American Idol” victor. “Wrapped in Red’’ should prove a welcome gift to fans of the powerful pop star as Kelly Clarkson mixes classic carols and hymns with several originals co-written by the singer. The best of the new is a bouncy, cooing number called “Underneath the Tree,” tailor-made to soundtrack sleigh rides.