Looking for some mood music for the season? Each year I choose the best, worst and mostly in between. Here's this year's Christmas sack:
"Wrapped in Red," Kelly Clarkson (RCA)
OK, Kelly Clarkson is a little over-emotive here and there, but she takes the project seriously and it shows. It's a good mix of familiar and new material, old-fashioned and more trendy arrangements, and Clarkson nails it vocally throughout. This is an especially rock-solid pop Christmas disc.
"Duck the Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas," The Robertsons (Capitol)
The "Duck Dynasty" family and special guests give you 14 tracks that range from clever to pure corn and sentimentality. For fans of the show, it's great. If you're not a fan, it's an avoid-at-all-costs endeavor.
"The Sounding Joy: Christmas Songs In and Out of the Ruth Crawford Seeger Songbook," Elizabeth Mitchell and Friends (Smithsonian Folkways)
This collection is a gem. Ruth Crawford Seeger was modern composer and folk song curator, as well as being the mother of Pete, Peggy and Mike Seeger, who all became influential artists in their own right. Elizabeth Mitchell leads a variety of musicians performing faith-based folk songs that are mostly from Seeger's collection. It's simple and mostly acoustic and includes Peggy Seeger, Natalie Merchant, John Sebastian, some talented children and other guests. This might be the sweetest disc of the season.
"Quality Street," Nick Lowe (Yep Roc)
Mercurial singer-songwriter Nick Lowe is responsible for the anthem "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" and has developed a cool post-rock style. His Christmas entry is pretty good: A cover of Roger Miller's "Old Toy Trains," a couple of traditional numbers and some originals. But the prize is "Christmas as the Airport," a gentle fantasy about falling asleep when flights are canceled and waking up alone in the airport.
"A Family Christmas," The Piano Guys (Portrait)
Piano, cello a little vocal and traditional songs. It's pretty and mostly very nice background music - until you get to, say, "Carol of the Bells" (calm that cellist down!) and "Let It Snow." It's definitely for Christmas on the more peaceful side.
"Vintage Christmas Wonderland," David Ian (Prescott)
I actually prefer this piano-based Christmas disc. It's only five-tracks long, but it's jazzy relaxing and wonderful. Andre Miguel Mayo and Acacia add some stylish vocals. It's still peaceful, but it has a little more pizzazz to keep your attention.
"Snowed In," Mindy Smith (Giant Leap)
Mindy Smith keeps her Christmas disc short and sweet with five songs. Two nice new originals sit well alongside "Silent Night," "What Child Is This" and "Auld Lang Syne." It's sweet and humble, like the best Christmas discs should be.
"Musical Gifts," Joshua Bell and Friends (Masterworks)
Classical violin great Joshua Bell enlists Alison Krauss, Chick Corea, Placido Domingo, Brandford Marsalis and many others to help out, but it's Bell himself who makes this disc shine — as it often does. In fact, it would probably be better without the guests.
"Just In Time for Christmas," Natalie Toro (www.natalietoro.com)
Natalie Toro is a singer with a clear, crisp voice and a delivery that never lets you forget she performs on Broadway. Sometimes it's almost irritating. But her delivery of the under-heard earworm "Once Upon a Christmas Song" is terrific.
"Merry Christmas to You," Jonathan Butler (Mack Avenue)
South Africa's Jonathan Butler delivers 10 songs with a 1970s R&B vibe. When he keeps it simple with just vocal and guitar it's excellent. Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen.
"Sea Sun Greetings," The Surfchords (www.surfchords.com)
You have to give attorney-by-day Lawrence Savell credit. He doesn't give up. Years after entering the holiday novelty market with "Yule Hear From Our Lawyers" (under the name LawTunes) and following with regular releases, he's returned with a surf rock collection with such titles as "Yuletide Riptide," "Snow Justice" and "Rippin' on a Red Eye With Santa on Christmas Eve." Sometimes it's funny. Sometimes it's not. But, there's charm in the guy's dedication and his 82-year-old mom's watercolors on the cover.