ATLANTA — It isn’t every year that a hirsute family from Louisiana, a brassy R&B diva from Yonkers and three handsome boys from Italy share space on the new Christmas music playlist.
But this year’s holiday offerings span the globe, debut potential new classics and, in some cases, provide renewed renditions of songs that have deteriorated from “well-worn classic” to “please don’t make me hear about Rudolph ever again.”
Here’s a look at some of the new sounds of Christmas 2013.
Mary J. Blige, “A Mary Christmas”
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For her first Christmas album, Blige goes big.
With the help of super-producer David Foster — who has handled the Christmas releases of such luminaries as Andrea Bocelli, Celine Dion and Josh Groban — Blige spares no musical flourish. And, through it all, she manages to maintain the very Mary-ness that has made her such a sassy R&B success for two decades.
Blige conjures her inner Aretha on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which is filled with her trademark vocal runs and propped up by a full, soulful arrangement. Then she adroitly reins herself in for “The Christmas Song,” which features a gliding jazz guitar solo from Andrea Varady.
What Foster brings to these dozen songs is an ear for both originality and aural grandness. Of course we’ve all heard “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” 7,000 times, but this bass-propelled, jazz-scat rendition actually escalates it to a new level of freshness.
Likewise Blige’s decision to include a sumptuous version of “My Favorite Things” and a duet with Barbra Streisand (with some help from trumpeter Chris Botti) on “When You Wish Upon a Star,” which is every bit as lush as a Disney ballad should be.
Her duets with British pop singer Jessie J (“Do You Hear What I Hear”) and Marc Anthony (“Noche De Paz/Silent Night”) cap a triumphant first attempt in the Christmas genre.
Kelly Clarkson, “Wrapped in Red”
First marriage, first baby on the way, first holiday album. It’s been an eventful year for one of the most successful “American Idol” alums.
As with most of her output, Clarkson shimmers and belts with fervor, emotion always dripping from her voice.
She handles the customary tunes (“White Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) with tenderness, but two of the four originals (which Clarkson co-wrote) — the title track and “Underneath the Tree” — are highlights.
“Underneath the Tree” has “All I Want for Christmas is You” potential. Like that 1994 smash from Mariah Carey, “Underneath” manages to sound classic with giddy hand claps, ’60s-era instrumentation and Phil Spector-ish production, yet is still completely modern.
A duet with Ronnie Dunn on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” sometimes struggles to find the right balance between Sinatra-esque lounge suaveness and country twang, but her collaboration with Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood on “Silent Night” is beautifully haunting.
Il Volo, “Buon Natale: The Christmas Album”
The guys in this Italian pop-opera trio continue to prove their undeniable talent.
Their solid grasp of English infuses “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” with a woozy ache, and their sprightly medley of “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow” and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is wisely backed by a traditional big band arrangement to enforce familiarity.
While the threesome harmonizes with startling clarity, just try not to be impressed by baritone Gianluca Ginoble on “O Holy Night.”
The group also stays true to tradition not only by keeping their native language in the album title (“Buon Natale” means Merry Christmas) but also by tackling “Silent Night” in its original German incarnation, “Stille Nacht.”
Ginoble and tenors Piero Barone and Ignazio Boschetto pull in pal Pia Toscano for “The Christmas Song,” which is given a pensive gloss thanks to some French horn. The duet will go a long way to remind people about Toscano, an “American Idol” also-ran who deserves her own spotlight.
All around, “Buon Natale: The Christmas Album” is bellissimo.
“Duck the Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas”
At some point, the dynasty around the Robertson family and their Duck Commander business will dissipate.
But for now, who can blame the stars of the crazily high-rated A&E show “Duck Dynasty” for cashing in? Since its late October release, the clan’s Christmas album has sold more than 200,000 copies, so it’s hard to argue with their saturation of the pop culture market.
There are certainly goofy moments — Willie Robertson wrote the opening “Ragin’ Cajun Redneck Christmas,” a rollicking harmonica and boogie-woogie piano romp that eventually leads to a thoughtful message. But Missy Robertson’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is perfectly pretty and Sadie Robertson’s duet with Alison Krauss on “Away in a Manager” (prefaced by a Scripture reading) contains a sweet rustic quality.
Surely fans of the show will find something to love about Luke Bryan singing with Willie Robertson, Phil, Uncle Si, Jase and Jep on the banjo-driven “Hairy Christmas,” which suggests that folks “round up your redneck family.”