In the past eight years, Kelly Clarkson has positioned herself as a modern queen of Christmas music. Her 2013 holiday album, Wrapped In Red, was dazzling and fresh, especially for the five original songs it featured. Since then, Kelly has released a handful of festive singles, yet it was still a small surprise when she announced a new Christmas album last month, her second in less than a decade. Like her previous offering, When Christmas Comes Around… includes a mix of both covers and originals. As we’ve come to expect from Kelly, her voice is stunning throughout: bright and brassy when a classic calls for it, then fragile and soft on more vulnerable moments. The instrumentation and overall soundscape harken back to Christmas music’s golden years, bringing in some well-known cheer and elements of jazz and swing.
When Christmas Comes Around… features twelve new recordings, as well as three bonus tracks, all of which were first released between 2017 and 2020.
The original songs that appeared on Wrapped In Red were the highlight of that album, and Kelly set up a tough act to follow, even for herself. Luckily, although they present a very different mood, the originals on When Christmas Comes Around… actually give their 2013 predecessors a run for their money.
“Merry Christmas Baby” opens the album with dramatic flair, eventually turning into a sassy song for a woman scorned. It certainly captures Kelly’s current situation (she’s going through a divorce, in case you somehow missed that news), and the lyrics are pretty telling. It’s a little bitter and a lot sarcastic, ending up being a fun and enjoyable listen. Similarly, the lead single – “Christmas Isn’t Canceled (Just You)” – riffs on a similar theme of a relationship dissolving. Kelly very consciously references several songs from Wrapped In Red and turns them around. More than angry, Kelly sounds like she’s living her best life without her trashy ex.
Continuing with the topic of divorce, perhaps the best on the album is “Merry Christmas (To The One I Used To Know),” a heart-wrenching ballad that puts a new spin on being single again. Yes, the man she loved let her down, but Kelly can still remember him the way he used to be when the relationship first started, before his colors changed. “Christmas Come Early” is another tender moment, with lyrics that fit in the times of COVID and the feelings of despair and a need for hope. “Blessed” also stands out for its focus on the good in this life, even after tragedy strikes. It’s a tad religious for this atheist reviewer, but that’s easily overlooked; the song is beautiful and powerful.
Offering a different mood entirely, “Glow” is the only (previously unheard) original that describes the flutters of new love as opposed to the heartbreak following the breakup. “Glow” is irresistible and adorable, and it couples a strong melody with stunning vocals. Chris Stapleton joins Kelly on the song, and although on first listen his part might feel like a bit too much, he’ll quickly grow on you. This is the better of the two new duets.
The only original on When Christmas Comes Around… that’s a letdown is “Santa, Can’t You Hear Me” with Ariana Grande. We all know Kelly and Ariana are both incredible vocalists, and this track certainly shows that off… perhaps too much. It’s an oddly noisy song, and it sounds like Kelly and Ariana are trying to out-sing each other for most of it. I love a powerful vocalist as much as anyone, but this song is grating on first listen.
Two of the bonus tracks are originals, too, and both are among the stronger tracks here. “Under The Mistletoe” with Brett Eldredge – first released last year – is a cute, holiday-themed love song. “Christmas Eve” – initially released in 2017 – is bombastic, loud, and total fun.
Surprisingly, although the choices of covers here are overall better than on Wrapped In Red, several of them feel more like interludes than full members of the album. Three of them are under two minutes long, as if they were intended to be used as the Kellyoke performances on The Kelly Clarkson Show. As much as I love “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” and “Jingle Bell Rock,” neither feels complete on When Christmas Comes Around… If they had been filled out more, it would have helped the album immensely.
As it is, the covers that do stand out are the two with fuller running times. “Santa Baby” is an unexpected choice for Kelly, but it really works for her. And although “Last Christmas” is generally one of my least favorites of all holiday songs in history, Kelly’s jazzy spin on it makes it more impactful and emotional. If we include Kelly’s version of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” – first released a year ago, and thus a bonus track – it also stands up among the better covers: emotive and beautiful.
The Final Verdict
Apart from some covers that feel too short (and thereby break up the album too much), When Christmas Comes Around… offers a great collection of songs, both new and old. The newly written songs really make the album, and it’s clear how personal they are to Kelly’s own life. After filing for divorce last year, the songs of heartbreak and moving on from a bad ex are authentic, but they don’t become too monotone. Kelly offers different moods within the breakup, from sassy and so over him to reminiscing on what once was. She rounds those out with other themes, too: crushes on a new paramour and feeling thankful (pun intended) for the wonderful things in her life.
Along with the too-short covers, When Christmas Comes Around… suffers from some odd transitions. The flow isn’t quite there, though in the playlist age, that can be easily amended by individual listeners. Rearranged, the album would easily have a better narrative, fewer jarring transitions, and an improved flow.
There’s something special about Wrapped In Red that seems untouchable, though if I’m being honest, it wasn’t a perfect album. And as reluctant as I originally felt about When Christmas Comes Around…, this is actually an equally strong album. In some ways it’s better, and if not for the two issues mentioned above, it could have been a superior album without question. We have a couple months to get used to When Christmas Comes Around…, but as of its release day, it’s a solid holiday album. It’s well-rounded: fun and emotional, comfortingly old-school but fresh in its themes and delivery, festive but also accessible enough to listen to at least some songs at other times of year.
When Christmas Comes Around… is a winning holiday album for all who love Christmas music. It also promises more greatness from Kelly Clarkson when she releases her next secular album in 2022.
When Christmas Comes Around…
Highlights on When Christmas Comes Around… include: “Merry Christmas Baby,” “Christmas Isn’t Canceled (Just You),” “Merry Christmas (To The One I Used To Know),” “Glow,” “Blessed,” “Christmas Come Early,” “Santa Baby,” and “Last Christmas.”