13 Albums That Revisit (and Redefine!) Holiday Classics

Holiday music is big business: Just take a look at the Billboard charts every December, when the Top 10s fill up with Christmas (and more religion-neutral) albums that are both new and nostalgic. Our pop and jazz critics surveyed the latest releases and picked out 13 worthy of a seasonal spin.

Kelly Clarkson, ‘When Christmas Comes Around …’

The standards on Kelly Clarkson’s second Christmas album are almost unfair to other interpreters — she is that nimble a singer. (See “Last Christmas,” especially, rendered here as a vivid roller coaster.) However, it’s Clarkson’s originals — which she sings with the kind of verve most singers not named Mariah Carey don’t bother putting into their holiday releases — that make “When Christmas Comes Around …” truly stand out. “Santa, Can’t You Hear Me” with Ariana Grande is pure Motown, and “Glow” with Chris Stapleton is a worthy howl-off between two powerhouse vocalists. It’s also striking just how uncelebratory some of these songs are: “Merry Christmas (to the One I Used to Know)” is haunting; “Christmas Isn’t Canceled (Just You)” is a blissful tsk-tsk; and “Merry Christmas Baby,” about sloughing off a deadbeat partner, is deliciously icy: “Have yourself a merry Christmas/Hope it’s not as cold as you.” JON CARAMANICA

Nat King Cole, ‘A Sentimental Christmas With Nat King Cole and Friends: Cole Classics Reimagined’

Nat King Cole isn’t the only dead-and-gone genius having his voice scraped off original recordings and given the reinstall. But why is it that producers seem to feel especially entitled to pick up Cole’s voice in particular and move it around as they please? The original recordings, after all, leave almost nothing out of place. But a couple of Christmases ago, Cole got slapped together with Gregory Porter on a rewiring of his classic take on “The Girl From Ipanema.” This year, it’s an album of Cole’s old vocal tracks pasted over flamboyant new orchestrations. A few tracks also feature manufactured duets with living vocalists: a full-frontal synth-and-strings assault on “Deck the Halls” and “Joy to the World,” combined together and sung “with” Johnny Mathis; a more tender read on “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” with Gloria Estefan; and “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),” with John Legend. GIOVANNI RUSSONELLO

Kat Edmonson, ‘Holiday Swingin’! A Kat Edmonson Christmas Vol. 1’

This is the first Christmas-themed album from Kat Edmonson — a dapper young nostalgist, equally beguiled by Blossom Dearie and Norah Jones — but we doesn’t need the LP’s title to tell us that it won’t be her last. The shoe fits. On Saturday, she’ll do a Christmas version of “The Kat Edmonson Show,” her livestream series; it will be the first episode to feature her full band, which will play tunes from the album at a studio in New York. RUSSONELLO

Brian Fallon, ‘Night Divine’

As the leader of the Gaslight Anthem, Brian Fallon had often been a full-tilt, Springsteen-style rocker. But “Night Divine” is restrained and devotional. The thoughtful arrangements, recorded at his home, are mostly folky and acoustic, and the song list leans toward hymns and the more reverential carols. Fallon digs out less frequently heard verses of songs like “O Holy Night” — “Chains He shall break, for the slave is our brother/And in His name all oppression shall cease” — and stays humble before the messages of the songs. JON PARELES

Vince Guaraldi Trio, ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ (limited edition silver cassette tape and vinyl)

A four-time-platinum talisman of American Christmas culture, Vince Guaraldi’s piano-trio soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas” has arguably become even more iconic than the animated TV special it accompanied. Now that album — with its coolly swinging, West Coast-jazz renditions of “O Tannenbaum” and other seasonal fare, plus Guaraldi’s classic “Linus and Lucy” — is getting a limited-edition reissue on both vinyl and cassette; both the LP and the tape are a gleaming silver color. The LP version includes an embossed foil jacket and a vinyl album with a Charles M. Schulz illustration pressed onto it. RUSSONELLO

José James, ‘Merry Christmas From José James’

A severely tasteful album of standards from the jazz singer José James. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is slick and steady. “The Christmas Song” is slick and steady. “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” — also slick and steady! James has such an authoritatively resonant voice that even his two originals sound decades old. CARAMANICA

Clockwise from top left: New albums from Nat King Cole, Steve Perry and Pistol Annies are joined by a reissue of the classic soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” 

Norah Jones, ‘I Dream of Christmas’

Norah Jones is slyly understated, as both a singer and pianist, on “I Dream of Christmas.” The album intersperses new songs of her own with tunes like “Blue Christmas,” “Christmas Time Is Here” and “Run Run Rudolph,” which she borrows from Chuck Berry and turns into a slinky rumba. Yet behind the poise of her own new songs, like “It’s Only Christmas Once a Year” and the gospelly “You’re Not Alone,” there’s a tinge of genuine loneliness and longing, hinting at the toll of pandemic isolation. PARELES

Steve Perry, ‘The Season’

Steve Perry, formerly of Journey, must be proud of his high notes. On “The Season,” he pushes a familiar repertoire — “Winter Wonderland,” “Auld Lang Syne” — down to slow tempos and up into the range where his tenor verges on falsetto. The arrangements take a vintage 1950s approach, jazz-inflected piano with a backdrop of strings. But Perry’s voice no longer soars as smoothly as it did in the “Don’t Stop Believin’” days. It hits grainy, shaky patches so often that songs built for reassurance are strained and filled with tension instead: Is he going to make it through the take? PARELES

Pistol Annies, ‘Hell of a Holiday’

Pistol Annies — the songwriting and vocal-harmony alliance of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley — wrote 10 new songs for “Hell of a Holiday,” dipping into retro styles like Western Swing, girl-group rock and Laurel Canyon pop-folk. Their scenarios encompass holiday cheer, faith and flirtations (“Come on Christmas Time,” which confesses to a “crush on Santa”). But they also recognize that the holidays can be a strain. Among the handful of covers is Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December,” a stoic song from 1973 about a laid-off factory worker, while Pistol Annies also wrote about seasonal depression (“Make You Blue”) and family strife. Over the Southern rock of “Harlan County Coal,” a wife struggles to get through Christmas with a drunken husband and “47 dollars in the gol-durned bank.” PARELES

Joe Robinson, ‘Christmas au Chalet’

Joe Robinson, an Australian guitarist, delivers an assortment of familiar Christmas songs — among them “Silent Night,” “Let It Snow” and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” — with self-effacing virtuosity on “Christmas au Chalet.” His versions are real-time acoustic guitar solos, filled with so much springy counterpoint that sometimes it’s hard to believe he’s playing alone. PARELES

She & Him ‘A Very She & Him Christmas: 10th Anniversary Deluxe Edition’

As She & Him, the actress and vocalist Zooey Deschanel and the sepia-tinged singer-songwriter M. Ward have always wanted to sound like they were coming to you from another time. Now they can: She & Him’s holiday album is 10 years old, and that’s seemingly reason enough for Merge Records to reissue “A Very She & Him Christmas” in a new set of throwback-themed packaging. The 10th-anniversary-edition vinyl includes a bonus seven-inch single featuring new covers of Wham!’s “This Christmas” and Madonna’s “Holiday.” “Holiday” is a highlight: Deschanel and Ward add some synth, pick up the tempo and loosen up on the carefully cultivated aesthetics just a bit. RUSSONELLO

Amanda Shires, ‘For Christmas’

The Nashville-based songwriter Amanda Shires rewrote “Silent Night” as a despondent, minor-key dirge — “Nothing’s calm/nothing’s been right” — on her album “For Christmas,” which includes nine other songs of her own. They often revolve around holiday romance, whether it’s going well (“Blame It on the Mistletoe”) or not so well (“Home to Me”). With her reedy, tremulous voice and a piano-centered band, Shires works mostly for high drama. But she allows some comedy, too, as in her cheerful shuffle, “Gone for Christmas”: a wish list capped by “I want you gone for Christmas.” PARELES

Bryson Tiller, ‘A Different Christmas’

“Checked the fireplace and your stocking’s missing,” the R&B star Bryson Tiller sings on “Be Mine This Christmas,” a woozy, clenched, lightly sensual hymnal full of regret. On “A Different Christmas,” Tiller’s first holiday release, his vocals are heavily processed and the production is contemporary and varied, all in service of a range of holiday moods: a tender duet with his daughter on “Winter Wonderland”; snappy Atlanta bass energy on “Ain’t a Lonely Christmas Song”; and on “Lonely Christmas,” about a post breakup holiday, his guest Justin Bieber moodily recalling how “we used to get our lights from Walmart.” CARAMANICA

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