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Clarkson, Duck Dynasty and more make holiday cheer

Saturday - 11/23/2013, 8:44am  ET

This CD cover image released by Epitaph shows "Christmas Songs," by Bad Religion. (AP Photo/Epitaph)

KAREN MATTHEWS
Associated Press

Kelly Clarkson, "Wrapped in Red" (RCA Records)

The goal of any artist making a holiday record is to put their own signature on these time-honored songs. On "Wrapped in Red," Kelly Clarkson does so with about five exclamation marks. Clarkson's booming voice provides the jolt for this collection of Christmas classics. True, you probably didn't think "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" needed any spark -- but then you've probably yet to hear Clarkson's voice take it to a soaring crescendo. It may not have been needed, but it sure is a welcome change from the sweet but often staid renditions heard at this time of the year.

She gives the same kind of jolt to songs like "Blue Christmas," conveying the melancholy of the song like a torch singer or on "Run Run Rudolph," where she rocks out more than the guitars. Even when she's not showcasing the full power of her vocals, she's giving a powerful performance, such as on "Silent Night," delivered with sweet, haunting harmony with Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood.

Clarkson wows throughout "Wrapped in Red." She shows her versatility and influences as a performer, jumping from jazz to pop to soul to country, yet still delivering a cohesive album that will be entertaining to all. "Wrapped in Red" should be unwrapped quickly for this holiday season.

-- Nekesa Mumbi Moody, AP Entertainment Writer

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The Robertson Family, "Duck the Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas" (EMI Records Nashville)

It looks like the enterprising Robertson clan has found a new market for their signature product, with Jase turning his duck calls into a "musical" instrument, replacing the "Fa la la la las" with quacks on the title track sung by three generations of Robertsons.

This critic-proof Christmas album has already hit No. 1 on Billboard's country chart, offering a mix of new Robertson-themed Christmas songs with more traditional holiday tunes in a package designed to appeal to fans of the top-rated "Duck Dynasty" TV reality show. The Robertsons get a little help from some friends too -- country stars Alison Krauss, George Strait, Luke Bryan and Josh Turner.

Willie Robertson cuts loose on the country rock "Ragin' Cajun Redneck Christmas" and "Hairy Christmas," a duet with Bryan that extols "duck season and holiday cheer. Curmudgeonly Uncle Si is a perfect fit for the humorous "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" and recites Willie's reworked version of "The Night Before Christmas" in which he mistakes Santa for his rotund nephew.

It's left to the Robertson women to offer more traditional holiday fare. Missy Robertson, a music teacher, is the family's most polished singer, offering a tender version of the ballad "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and engaging in a flirtatious duet with droll husband Jase on "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Willie's teenage daughter Sadie shows some natural vocal talent on "Away In a Manger" and "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer." After Missy leads the entire family in multi-part harmonizing on "Silent Night," it's left to family patriarch Phil to close the album as he does the TV show with a prayer.

Fortunately, the Robertsons don't set their sights on "The Twelve Days of Christmas." That partridge in a pear tree wouldn't stand a chance with these erstwhile hunters.

-- Charles Gans, Associated Press

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Mary J. Blige, "A Mary Christmas" (Interscope)

Yes, Mary J. Blige is the reigning Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, but she can do a lot more than that -- and she certainly proves it on her gem of a Christmas album, "A Mary Christmas."

While the album is certainly soulful, it's best to describe this as more of a jazzy, adult contemporary take on holiday music: Mellow is the vibe of Blige's album. But don't think that equals yawn-inducing renditions of the classics. Blige is playful on the bass-driven, jazzy "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer"; nearly matches Barbra Streisand's majestic vocals on the heavenly-sounding "When You Wish Upon a Star" (which also features Chris Botti); and builds from steady warbling to power gospel on "A Christmas Song."

Though she does it with less vocal gymnastics than usual, Blige still gives an emotional performance throughout, like on "My Favorite Things," with its dramatic arrangement, and on "Do You Hear What I Hear," where she harmonizes beautifully with another big-voiced singer, Jessie J.

"A Mary Christmas" is a merry one indeed.

--Nekesa Mumbi Moody, AP Entertainment Writer

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Bad Religion, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" (Epitaph)

Good Lord, Bad Religion has made a Christmas album.

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