This October, Kelly Clarkson dropped her latest Christmas album, “When Christmas Comes Around…”; then, on Dec. 1, the artist released an NBC special to accompany the album. Over the course of 12 album tracks and three bonus tracks, Clarkson masterfully combines old elements with new ones, delivering original songs and traditional Christmas carols with equal amounts of heart and flair.
Clarkson’s album serves as a follow-up to “Wrapped in Red,” the singer’s first Christmas record. Released in 2013, “Wrapped in Red” received positive critical reviews and warm audience reception, allowing Clarkson to tap into jazz, rock and country more in-depth. The album also accompanied a shift in Clarkson’s non-Christmas-themed music, which transitioned to having a more soulful musical influence and intricately personal subject matter.
“When Christmas Comes Around…” is another step in Clarkson’s personal and musical development. Prior to its release, Clarkson expressed her desire to write music for the unique times people are living in, having been isolated from their family and friends for almost two years at this point. She also released the album in light of personal hardship: Earlier this year, Clarkson divorced her husband, Brandon Blackstock, and has spoken openly about the pain it has caused her family. She may be spending Christmas single, but she is sure to be keeping a lot of people company this holiday season.
One highlight from the album comes in the form of a duet with pop singer Ariana Grande. Grande is no stranger to Christmas music: She released an extended play in 2015 called “Christmas and Chill” and teamed up with Mariah Carey and Jennifer Hudson to remix “Oh Santa!” just last year. Grande’s skillfulness shows in “When Christmas Comes Around…” too; “Santa, Can’t You Hear Me” pairs Grande’s light, airy vocals with Clarkson’s full, husky sound to dazzling effect. Their voices complement one another nicely, and the little vocal flourishes on the song elevate it above other Christmas tunes. Since they became friends as fellow judges on “The Voice,” it is nice to see these two collaborating with one another.
Chris Stapleton brings out a different side of Clarkson’s voice on “Glow,” an original song about missing somebody on Christmas. The melody and the chorus are soulful and catchy, making it a standout on the album. It is beautifully performed, serving as a thoughtful and tender ode to loneliness. When the two sing “Nothing has changed / I wish you could be here,” it is easy to believe them.
The album’s solo breakup anthems are rather hit and miss. “Christmas Isn’t Canceled (Just You)” served as a catchy lead single when the song was first released back in September, but the shallowness and occasional corniness of its lyrics feel out of place among the other ballads. It also rings hollow, offering bravado in a time when many people are still lonely and struggling to get back to normal.
As is the case with most of her solo material, Clarkson is at her best when she performs with sincerity and conviction. On “Blessed,” she manages to offer both sentiments, expressing gratefulness for her children and openly admitting she’ll “never be perfect.” She chooses heart, and it pays off beautifully, picking up the middle of the album in terms of quality.
Clarkson’s covers of traditional Christmas carols make “When Christmas Comes Around…” a keeper. On “Santa Baby,” Clarkson’s full, assured voice nicely contrasts with the coy, teasing tone of the song’s lyrics. She flirts with Santa with confidence and personality, drawing listeners in and subtly putting the emotional nuances of her vocals on display. “Last Christmas” also features a memorable performance: It’s been converted to a piano-driven, jazzy number, and it’s wonderful. She sings it with a sad inflection, which honors the tone of the original lyrics while also offering a fresh interpretation.
At the end of the album, Clarkson included three bonus tracks: “Under the Mistletoe,” “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and “Christmas Eve.” Unfortunately, “Under the Mistletoe,” which features Clarkson’s third duet partner, Brett Eldredge, is the most forgettable song of the bunch. It is neither catchy nor particularly thoughtful, blending into the bunch in a predictable and disappointing way.
“All I Want for Christmas Is You” is the most surprising and enjoyable. She subverts audience expectations — namely, that it will be a pale imitation of Mariah Carey’s iconic version — by instead opting to write and perform another original song. She replaces the sheer power and fast tempo of other Christmas songs with an interesting mix of musical genres. She dips into doo-wop for this number, and it ends up sounding like a song to which couples would slow dance. It’s the type of song that people want to play at the end of a long night out — or a long night in — and it fits perfectly with the atmosphere the album is trying to create.
Whether listeners are looking for an ode to tradition or a trendy addition, Clarkson’s album offers more than enough to enjoy. She explores the unknown and captures the yearning for familiarity with the same amount of clarity and care. “When Christmas Comes Around,” this is the album people will want to have playing in the background, acting as the soundtrack to both their happy and sad times.