USA TODAY - Kelly Clarkson, Mary J. Blige and Susan Boyle are among the angels heard on high this season.
The best Christmas albums strike a perfect balance between the fresh and the familiar, maintaining the musical traditions of well-known songs while also adding to them. For USA TODAY, Brian Mansfield takes a look at some of the top acts chiming in with holiday titles this season, from YouTube sensations to America's favorite bearded family.
Duck the Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas
The whole Duck Dynasty clan gets involved in this peculiar blend of novelty tunes and play-it-straight renditions of sentimental favorites. In other words, it's got much the same tone as the TV show, with Uncle Si's rewrite of The Night Before Christmas and a closing prayer. The show's popularity pulls top country talent, including George Strait and Luke Bryan. Don't be surprised if some of the music shows up on the Duck Dynasty Christmas special, Dec. 11 on A&E.
Wrapped In Red, Kelly Clarkson
Clarkson, who'll have her own holiday special Dec. 11 on NBC, stays very much in Phil Spector/Mariah Carey mode for most of her album: Even new tunes like Underneath the Tree and the title track echo '60s girl-group pop. Clarkson and Ronnie Dunn team up for a jazzy Baby It's Cold Outside, but the highlight collaboration is the final verse of Silent Night, where she sings with Trisha Yearwood and mother-in-law Reba McEntire in a cappella three-part harmony.
Home for Christmas, Susan Boyle
On her second holiday album, Boyle, who rose to international fame on Britain's Got Talent in 2009, offers homey versions of The Christmas Song and The Christmas Waltz. She combines her vocals with Elvis Presley's for a posthumous duet on O Come All Ye Faithful, while Johnny Mathis joins her for When a Child Is Born. The new Miracle Hymn also appears on the soundtrack of the film The Christmas Candle, based on the Max Lucado book of the same name.
A Mary Christmas, Mary J. Blige
Sumptuously produced by David Foster, Blige's album takes a multilingual approach to the season, with French favorite Petit Papa Noel and a Spanish-language version of Silent Night sung with Marc Anthony. Barbra Streisand and trumpeter Chris Botti join her for When You Wish Upon a Star, while Jessie J and gospel greats the Clark Sisters guest on other tunes.
A Family Christmas, The Piano Guys
The Piano Guys' cleverly crafted YouTube videos of piano-and-cello performances have earned the group more than 300 million views and a 2012 PBS concert special. These genial instrumental arrangements include a mashup of Carol of the Bells and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and two descriptively titled originals, Winter Wind and Christmas Morning.
The King's Gift, Trace Adkins
Great Christmas albums reveal new facets of the artists who make them, while allowing them to stretch creatively. The Celebrity Apprentice winner indulges his passion for history on this Celtic-themed collection and gives fans a different context in which to hear one of country music's most distinctive voices. The album features guest appearances from The Chieftains, Scottish vocalist Alyth McCormack, and actor Kevin Coster and his daughter Lily.
Snow Globe, Erasure
Never an act to take a typical approach, British synth-pop duo Erasure combines traditional fare, including ancient Latin carol Gaudete, with originals that aren't specifically holiday tunes but fit the season's spirit. Though often melancholy in tune, Snow Globe also has a shimmery, icy beauty.
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)