Checking out top holiday CD releases

Blige, Lewis, Jewel lead pack of new Christmas music

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As usual, it's a bountiful season for Christmas music. Here's a look at the best of the new releases:

Kelly Clarkson: "Wrapped In Red" (RCA Records) — "Wrapped In Red" arrives as the season's most anticipated holiday release, but only some of the songs live up to the hype. The best moment comes on "4 Carats," a peppy rocker that mixes classic pop, a bit of surf and some modern production touches. Another original tune, "Just For Now," has a fairly sophisticated melody that Clarkson negotiates with some dramatic highs and lows. But too often, Clarkson over-sings ("Baby, It's Cold Outside," "My Favorite Things" and "Every Christmas"). This makes "Wrapped In Red" a well-intentioned, but overblown, effort. Rating: 2 1/2 stars.

Mary J. Blige: "A Mary Christmas" (Verve/Interscope/Matriarch Records) — Once upon a time, it would have been hard to imagine street savvy, hard-around-the-edges Mary J. Blige doing a Christmas album. Even more worrisome, she teamed with producer David Foster — the king of the big mushy ballad and the man who helped bring Celine Dion and Josh Groban to the masses — to make "A Mary Christmas." And Foster leaves his mark with the big, lush orchestration applied to "My Favorite Things," "The Christmas Song" and "Do You Hear What I Hear." Fortunately, a bit of the edgier Blige pops through on "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," the sassy "This Christmas" and a jazzy "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer. " The latter song is the most imaginative moment on this well executed, well sung, but safe effort from Blige. Rating: 3 stars.

Various Artists: "Duck The Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas" (EMI Records Nashville) — It turns out the "Duck Dynasty" gang has some musical talent, as "Duck The Halls" is one of the season's most refreshing and enjoyable holiday albums. Will Robertson even co-writes several tunes, including "Ragin' Cajun Redneck Christmas," a rollicking Southern rock tune that captures the humor of "Duck Dynasty." Willie also teams with Luke Bryan for lead vocals on the equally humorous "Hairy Christmas." Elsewhere, Phil Robertson holds his own with George Strait on the humorous "Christmas Cookies" and Missy Robertson shines with her lovely voice. Maybe if this "Duck Dynasty" thing loses its shine, the Robertsons will have a future in Nashville. Rating: 3 1/2 stars.

Leona Lewis: "Christmas, With Love" (RCA Records) — The British singer (and 2006 winner of "The X Factor") goes Motown on "Christmas, With Love" — and gets the vintage sound right, whether it's on classics like "White Christmas" or "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday," or on the originals, "Mr. Right" and "One More Sleep." The album gets variety with a few reverent standards ("Ave Maria," "O Holy Night" and "Silent Night"). It all makes for an album that sounds like it could be a holiday favorite for years to come. Rating: 4 stars.

Jewel: "Let It Snow: A Holiday Collection" (Somerset Group) — Jewel may have gone country, but except for a few tunes, "Let It Snow" sticks with the typical pop template of countless holiday albums. Still, Jewel and her producers freshen the formula a bit with a pair of original ballads, "Blue Crystal Glow" and "It's Christmas," and by adding some subtle, but creative, stylistic touches to "The Christmas Song" and "I'll Be Home For Christmas." One could wish Jewel had taken more risks, but this is a pleasing collection. Rating: 3 1/2 stars.

Susan Boyle: "Home For Christmas" (Columbia/Syco Music) — The voice that floored all of England on "Britain's Got Talent" in 2009 is back with her second Christmas album, "Home For Christmas." Boyle's voice is still special, but the production (by Steve Anderson, Cliff Masterson and Avril Mackintosh) is not. It's predictable — even stodgy at times — adding little and at times detracting from what should be the centerpiece of "Home For Christmas" — Boyle's vocal performances. Rating: 3 stars.

Bad Religion: "Christmas Songs" (Epitaph Records) — The punk veterans bring their hard-charging tempos, slashing guitars and vocal harmonies to the holidays, putting a real charge into standards like "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and "White Christmas." Rating: 4 stars.

Johnny Mathis: "Sending You a Little Christmas" (Columbia Records) — One of the classic voices of Christmas, Mathis makes his sixth holiday album (primarily) a duets project. The versions of "The Christmas Song" (with Billy Joel) and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (with Natalie Cole) are musical comfort food. Meanwhile, Mathis makes some inspired song choices with the sentimental Dobie Gray ballads "This Is A Time for Love" and "Decorate The Night." Mathis, who at 78 years young is still in good voice, has added another worthy album to his Christmas catalog. Rating: 3 1/2 stars.

Brandon Heath: "Christmas Is Here" (Reunion Records) — One of Christian music's rising stars, Heath happily doesn't get too bogged down in hymns (like "Away In A Manger," "O Little Town Of Bethlehem" and "Go Tell It On The Mountain"). Instead, he also shows an appealing playful side on this folk-ish, largely acoustic outing by poking fun at the earlier-by-the-year arrival of the Christmas shopping season on "The Day After Thanksgiving" and remembering one of the most wondrous parts of being a kid on "Momma Wouldn't Lie To Me." — Rating: 3 stars.

Erasure: "Snow Globe" (Mute Records) — Erasure puts its trademark synth-pop touch on several seasonal standards — without getting too kitschy — then ups the ante with a healthy complement of original material. Two such tunes, "Loving Man" and "Brooklyn," are standouts, and help make "Snow Globe" an album that will warm hearts even in the coldest Christmas locales. Rating: 3 1/2 stars.

Jim Brickman: "The Magic Of Christmas" (Somerset Group) — Christmas album number six for Brickman features what one would expect — plenty of solo (or near solo) instrumental piano performances of holiday standards mixed with a few vocal tunes. The most notable of the latter group is "Sending You A Little Christmas," a song co-written by Brickman and sung by Johnny Mathis. Brickman's gentle sound may be too light for some, but he knows his audience. And with "The Magic of Christmas," Brickman gives his fans what they want. Rating: 3 stars.

Tamar Braxton: "Winter Loversland" (Streamline/Epic Records) — Having made a strong 2013 comeback album, "Love And War," Toni Braxton's younger sister is back with a holiday album that is soulful, at times even sensual ("Santa Baby") and finds Braxton giving a few standards some fresh vocal wrinkles ("Santa Claus Is Coming To Town"). Rating: 3 1/2 stars.

Various Artists: "Festivus 2" (Highline Records) — This second in a series of collections assembles holiday tunes from 16 under-appreciated alternative rock acts. Winners here include "Good King Winceslas" by the Lilys, the cheeky "Baby Jesus Was The First Glam Rocker" by the Glam Chops, Ulysses' "I Wish You A Merry Christmas," Darling Boy's Byrds-ish "Thank God It's Christmas" and the Priscillas' "One Christmas Wish." There are a few misses but mostly "Festivus 2" is an inspired package of Christmas tunes. Rating: 3 1/2 stars.

Various Artists: "The Best Man Holiday" (RCA Records) — Even if "The Best Man Holiday" doesn't connect with movie-goers, the star-studded soundtrack should. R. Kelly gets a nice groove on with "Christmas I'll Be Steppin'" and soul singer Charlie Wilson is in fine form on "I Still Have You." Jordin Sparks, Fantasia and Ne-Yo also deliver stand-out tunes. Rating: 3 1/2 stars.

Whitney Wolanin: "Run, Run Rudolph" (TopNotch Records) — Rocking versions of the title song, "Frosty The Snowman" and "Silver Bells" (a particularly creative arrangement to this standard) make for a short, but sweet holiday EP. Rating: 3 1/2 stars.