Every time you listen to a Christmas release from your favorite artist, just remember that it was likely recorded in the most un-Christmassy surroundings ever.
Most acts with Christmas ambitions spend a chunk of the summer locked in the studio, often decorating their surroundings with Christmas trees, lights and, in some cases, fake snow to evoke the proper spirit.
This year’s crop of professional Christmas carolers might not break any new ground with their releases (Is there an “All I Want for Christmas Is You” or “Happy Xmas” among them? Not really.), but most of them serve their intended audiences well.
Here’s a look at what some of them created during those sweltering summer months.
Scotty McCreery, “Christmas With Scotty McCreery”: It seems early for a Christmas record from an artist who is still in the development stages and only on album No. 2. But McCreery, the Season 10 winner of “American Idol,” has always possessed a precocious level of maturity both vocally and in his demeanor.
Make sure to listen: A super-twangy “Holly Jolly Christmas,” the banjo-tinged “Mary, Did You Know” and his thundering homage to Elvis on “Santa Claus Is Back in Town.”
Skip it: No one needs to record “Jingle Bells” again unless it can be dressed up a little different. This version isn’t bad, just pedestrian.
Original songs: “Christmas Comin’ Round Again,” a long-winded but otherwise touching midtempo chugger, and “Christmas in Heaven,” a reverent ballad.
Special guests: None
Cee Lo Green, “Cee Lo’s Magic Moment”: The Atlanta soul man and judge on “The Voice” possesses just the right amount of fun with his Christmas debut.
Make sure to listen: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” his flirty duet with “Voice” pal Christina Aguilera, who keeps her oversized pipes appropriately restrained.
Skip it: “This Christmas,” a surprisingly dull take from a soul master on Donny Hathaway’s classic.
Original songs: “All I Need Is Love,” his absolutely charming duet of sorts with his kindred spirits — The Muppets.
Special guests: Besides Aguilera, the smooth syncopations from Straight No Chaser highlight “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” a song that only Green could include and make it sound whimsical, not ridiculous. His duet with Rod Stewart and Trombone Shorty on “Merry Christmas, Baby” also appears on Stewart’s album.
Rod Stewart, “Merry Christmas, Baby”: Believe it or not, this is Stewart’s first foray into Christmas ditties. While he often sounds like a deflated Louis Armstrong throughout, there are a few glimmers.
Make sure to listen: The album-closing “Auld Lang Syne,” on which Stewart finally sounds as if he’s having fun and pouring some passion into the recording instead of merely reciting well-worn lyrics. Maybe it’s the slight Celtic touch given the song or its melancholy ache that resonated with him.
Skip it: Even with Chris Botti and Ella Fitzgerald (virtually) guesting, Stewart’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” is so uninspiring, it wouldn’t prompt anyone to leave their couch, let alone go on a date, for New Year’s.
Original songs: “Red-Suited Superman,” co-written by Stewart and David and Amy Foster.
Special guests: Michael Bublé (“Winter Wonderland”), Dave Koz (“Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”), Cee Lo Green (“Merry Christmas, Baby”), Mary J. Blige (“We Three Kings”).
Richard Marx, “Christmas Spirit”: He possesses an arsenal of hits and has written another several dozen for other acts, yet Marx has never entered Christmas territory until this, a largely reverential outing with some original gems.
Make sure to listen: “Alleluia,” his version of the Larry Gatlin arrangement, is haunting, while his duet with Kenny Loggins on “Let There Be Peace on Earth” exemplifies the Christmas spirit in every way.
Skip it: Nothing is particularly egregious, but his “Little Drummer Boy” is a bit muted.
Original songs: “Christmas Mornings,” written with Dave Grusin, and the title track, written with longtime friend Fee Waybill (The Tubes). Both are great, but the latter is an engaging ditty that deserves long-term play (and make sure to check out its video).
Special guests: Loggins, Sara Niemietz and Sara Watkins.
Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, “This Christmas”: While some will roll their eyes at what is, admittedly, a cheesy outing, there are lifetime “Grease” fans who will take any reason to hear these two again (they last worked together in 1983). Is it great art? No. Great fun? Yeah, pretty much.
Make sure to listen: “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” on which Travolta’s voice — wobbly on many parts of the album — sounds tender and strong, a perfect complement to Newton-John’s breathy vocals, which also shine on “Silent Night.”
Skip it: See “Original songs.”
Original songs: The thinly produced pseudo-rocker “I Think You Might Like It.” Eh, not really.
Special guests: Do they need anyone other than themselves? Probably not, but they took this opportunity to round up a ton of friends, including Barbra Streisand, Cliff Richard and James Taylor.
Lady Antebellum, “On This Winter’s Night”: The country-pop trio with well-publicized Georgia ties recorded their first Christmas album during two break sessions on their sold-out summer tour, and on it, they stick mostly with traditional picks. The results range from antiseptic to inspired.
Francesca Battistelli, “Christmas”: The Canton-based contemporary Christian star blends a little bit of jazz with her creamy pop leanings for traditional religious songs (“What Child Is This?”) and new songs, such as “Christmas Dreams.”
Colbie Caillat, “Christmas in the Sand”: The young woman with a propensity for churning out sunshiny songs scores Brad Paisley for a duet of “Merry Christmas Baby” and brings a summery lilt to “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”
Katherine Jenkins, “This is Christmas”: The supremely successful Welsh classical-crossover crooner – known to many on American shores as the pretty blonde who competed on “Dancing with the Stars” earlier this year – unveiled her first Christmas offering, a collection of traditional classics as well as a duet with Placido Domingo on “Come What May.”
Blake Shelton, “Cheers, It’s Christmas”: Exactly what you would expect from the good-time country hero (and Cee Lo Green’s judge pal on “The Voice”) — a sweet duet with Reba McEntire on “Oklahoma Christmas” and a welcome appearance by feisty wife Miranda Lambert on “Jingle Bell Rock.”
By Melissa Ruggieri, Atlanta Music Scene