In theory, Christmas albums can accomplish anything.
They can reinvigorate the careers of those who attempt them. (Though they usually don’t.) They can launch new classics into the world. (This hasn’t happened since “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” in 1994, but still.) They can, and often do, serve as a lucrative source of income for decently voiced mainstream singers on the downward slope of their careers. (You can look forward to “A Very Bieber Christmas,” its cover art depicting Justin Bieber posing on a bearskin rug in front of roaring fire in 2019.)
There are rules, mostly artistic ones, that every singer attempting a holiday album seems to instinctively know: There’s no way to sing “The Little Drummer Boy” without sounding awkward, but you should do it anyway; one should choose either “The Christmas Song” or “White Christmas” (there’s no need for both); avoid “Away in a Manger,” as it’s difficult to sing.
Because there are other, less obvious rules that any artist contemplating making a holiday album should consider, we’ve assembled a list of Christmas album Do’s and Don’ts using some of the year’s top holiday collections as examples.
1. Do not attempt to make a holiday album if you are under 30.
Holiday songs are one thing. Ariana Grande’s great new cover of “Last Christmas” is the stuff tween Vine soundtracks are made of. But full-length holiday albums are worse than uncool — they’re helplessly corny, even more so than Christmas sweaters. They’re blunt instruments made for the likes of Susan Boyle , not Selena Gomez. Boyle’s “Home for Christmas” is her second Christmas album — she’s made only five albums total — and it’s virtuous and bland and, in its own cautious way, perfect. This is holiday comfort food: songs you already know, arranged in a familiar fashion, sung by someone with the voice of an angel and the heart of a strict constructionist.
2. Take it seriously.
“Duck the Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas,” in which members of the phenomenally popular “Duck Dynasty” clan awkwardly sing-speak seasonal tunes, is both terrible and endearing. It’s rambunctious but respectful, cute but not precious, and lighthearted but wholly earnest, the latter in keeping with one of the most inviolate rules of holiday album-making: It’s fine to mock yourself, but never, ever give the faintest suggestion you are mocking Christmas. “Duck the Halls” is not exactly destined to be an enduring classic, but everyone sings credibly well, with guest stars doing most of the heavy vocal lifting. George Strait turns up on a barely altered version of his classic “Christmas Cookies,” and Luke Bryan does what he can with “Hairy Christmas” (“Like Jesus and Santa Claus/We got love behind these beards”). It’s worth noting that “Duck the Halls” is one of the fastest-selling holiday albums of the past decade despite being the 2013 equivalent of that wall-mounted novelty fish that sang Al Green covers.
3. Guest stars are a must, preferably heavyweights from genres other than your own.
Veteran guest stars, especially ones associated with Christmas, are a good way for the novice seasonal album maker to let everyone know he’s come to play. An appearance by Christmas music Hall of Famers Josh Groban or Michael Bublé is invaluable. Alison Krauss, the Cate Blanchett of country music, can make even the iffiest of endeavors seem rarefied and noble just by stopping by. This year, she helps elevate “Duck the Halls” into something more than reality star karaoke. Enlisting superstars can also backfire: On her new album, “A Mary Christmas,” Mary J. Blige loses a diva-off with Barbra Streisand on “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Even attempting this was a rookie mistake. Barbra owns Christmas.
4. If you do use guest stars, make sure they’re still alive.
This one is pretty important. Boyle duets with an Elvis Presley sample on her album-opening rendition of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” It should have been sweet — Boyle means well, and Elvis probably really liked Christmas — but it’s just weird.
5. Know your audience.
“Christmas Songs,” the first seasonal release from punk vets/holiday music aficionados Bad Religion, serves up breakneck but otherwise straightforward versions of holiday classics. It’s a strange creature: Not cutting enough to be satire, not reverent enough to be homage. In a news release, guitarist Brett Gurewitz said the group wanted to prove that holiday songs could be still be powerful once they were “stripped of God and religion,” which is true of many Christmas carols, just not these. Much of “Christmas Songs” consists of centuries-old hymns (“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “What Child is This?”) not known for their secular subtext. The only non-carol is a new mix of the band’s own ’93 bomb thrower, “American Jesus.” Besides fervent Bad Religion-ites, it’s tough to figure out the collection’s potential fanbase: Devout Christians who think their holiday music would sound better with a side of Clinton-era polemics? Hymn-loving atheists?
6. It helps if you really love Christmas.
Many artists regard holiday albums as obligatory cash cows for which they have an almost palpable disdain, but Kelly Clarkson loves Christmas more than you have ever loved anything. Clarkson is a big holiday album Get: Her voice can do anything, she’s perky but not oppressively jolly, and — most unusually — she’s not past her prime hit-making years. Her seasonal music debut, “ Wrapped in Red ,” is one of the best in recent memory, featuring joyful, crisp versions of everything you might expect, plus a few originals. It all works: The title track is the best imitation of a Phil Spector Christmas song since U2’s sainted cover of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” and she’s not afraid to go lounge when she needs to (“White Christmas,” with its bar-at-the-airport-Marriott piano). Clarkson inhabits “Silent Night” so utterly that she doesn’t merely sing it, she unhinges her jaw and devours it. Guest vocalist Reba McEntire barely makes it out alive.
7. Sad people need Christmas music, too.
Blige’s “A Mary Christmas” is a thing of wonder in which the singer’s best qualities — her infinite capacity to convey sadness and personal disapproval, even in songs that are supposed to be happy — are displayed in perfect miniature. She Quiet Storms her way through “This Christmas,” addresses Rudolph sternly in an energetic swing version of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” treats Jessie J with queenly forbearance on “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and seems personally disappointed in “The Little Drummer Boy.”
8. Holiday albums can be used to burnish your musical bona fides.
Trace Adkins has a reputation as an overly serious bruiser with a distaste for nuance. His first holiday release, “ The King’s Gift ,” is, of all things, an album of Celtic Christmas carols that’s somber and lovely, closer to traditional folk than mainstream country. It’s an album of incredibly earnest Olde songs, bolstered by instruments such as harps and Uilleann pipes, and it wants to be taken very seriously. The Chieftains show up (on a fine “I Saw Three Ships”), but no mention is made of Rudolph or Santa. For a nominally secular Christmas album, this could be a first.
9. It’s the perfect time of year for a comeback.
People get nostalgic during the holidays, and they tend to want things as they were. Enter Kool & the Gang, whose first Christmas album in almost 50 years of existence, “ Kool for the Holidays ,” is everything you might hope. It’s goofy and cheery and instantly dated. Every song seems to be happening in some preserved-in-amber, 1980s version of Funkytown. Synths and jazz pianos abound, and someone inserted Ms. Pac-Man-style laser noises into “The Little Drummer Boy” because they thought — not incorrectly — that it sounded kind of cool.
10. It’s okay to re-gift.
Many of the year’s best offerings are actually re-packaged ghosts of Christmas past. Some, such as Bright Eyes’ 2002 feedback-drenched mope-a-thon “A Christmas Album” (with a rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that’s so funereal, we’re reconsidering rule No. 7), are only now seeing full release. Others, such as the budget-priced Classic Christmas series, offer newly assembled compilations of holiday hits from artists such as Streisand, Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond. The jewel of the series: a joint disc from George Jones and Tammy Wynette , who treat the holidays as an opportunity to drink, sulk and nourish petty marital resentments, resulting in a gritted-teeth holiday collection that has more present day relevance than “The Little Drummer Boy” ever will.