While Mariah Carey's inaugural holiday opus, Merry Christmas, hewed closely to both the Christmas and Adult Contemporary templates, its 2010 sequel more fully reflected the singer's versatility, branching out into R&B ("When Christmas Comes"), house ("Auld Lang Syne"), even opera ("O Come All Ye Faithful," featuring her mother, Patricia Carey). At the same time, the album commits even more faithfully to a classic holiday aesthetic than its predecessor, employing live orchestration on tracks like "Christmas Time Is in the Air Again." Of course, the album's other original songs don't dare compete with "All I Want for Christmas Is You" (a new version of which is also featured here, lest you forget about it), but "Oh Santa!" gives it the ol' yuletide try.
2. Sarah McLachlan, Wintersong (2006)
Wintersong is everything you'd expect a Sarah McLachlan Christmas album to be: wistful, lush, understated. Longtime producer Pierre Marchand envelops the album's 12 tracks in layers of reverb and lush harmonies, rendering songs like "What Child Is This?" into cool gusts of atmosphere. In McLachlan and Marchand's hands, "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "Christmas Time Is Here" are even more melancholic than usual, while the title track, the album's sole original song, is a mournful piano ballad in the vein of McLachlan's late-'90s hit "Angel." It's all as breathtaking and sad as it sounds – and just as comforting.
1. Kelly Clarkson, Wrapped In Red (2013)
Kelly Clarkson's Wrapped In Red gave the singer-turned-TV-host the opportunity to flex the versatility that made her a star: she flaunts her vocal prowess on standards like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"; she rocks out on "Run Run Rudolph"; and she nods to her Southern roots on "Baby, It's Cold Outside," a duet with Ronnie Dunn, and "Silent Night," featuring Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood. But it's the album's five original songs, all co-written by Clarkson, that make Wrapped in Red the best Christmas album of the century so far. The rollicking "4 Carats" puts a clever, modern twist on "Santa Baby," while "Underneath the Tree" and "Every Christmas," like Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" before them, already sound like standards. Wrapped in Red became the best-selling holiday album of 2013, making Clarkson the first American female artist to hold that distinction in the SoundScan era.