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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

It's not even Thanksgiving yet, but new collections of Christmas music have already been released. Kelly Clarkson's new album, "Wrapped in Red," premiered at number three on the Billboard Top 200. While Nick Lowe's "Quality Street" finds him mixing traditional songs with new ones he has written himself or call written with Ry Cooder.

Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of both albums.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOOVES ON THE ROOF")

NICK LOWE: (Singing) Another Christmas Eve, I was needing some proof. And brother, that's when I heard the hooves on the roof. Switched on my light to see, I heard a rumbling in my chimney. Jumped out...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's Nick Lowe doing a variation on "The Night Before Christmas" storyline with a new song called "Hooves on the Roof." Lowe's album "Quality Street" wins this year's genially eccentric holiday music award, with jazzy, folky performances of everything from "Silent Night" to Roger Miller's 1967 song "Old Toy Trains." In general, Lowe's collection is soothing, but never mawkish.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD TOY TRAINS")

LOWE: (Singing) Old toy train, little toy track, little boy's toys spilling from a sack carried by a man dressed in white and red. Little boy, time you were in bed. Close your eyes. Listen to the skies. All is calm. All is well. Soon you'll be hearing jingle bells. Old toy train...

TUCKER: "Quality Street" furthers the latter-day Nick Lowe style. The formerly bashing pop-rocker has, for the past, decade embraced more quiet music as a metaphor for maturity. That's a dubious premise that he redeems with a subtle intensity. In contrast to Nick Lowe's lo-fi album, Kelly Clarkson revs up her big voice to deliver some grand holiday cheer on "Wrapped in Red." The title song is a Phil Spector-style ballad that Clarkson co-wrote.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WRAPPED IN RED")

KELLY CLARKSON: (Singing) Everybody's happy. Snow is falling down. Prayers being answered, miracles all around. From afar, I've loved you, but never let it show. And every year another December comes and goes. Always watching, never reaching. But this Christmas, I'm going to risk it all. This Christmas, I'm not afraid to fall. So I'm at your door with nothing but the words I've never said. In all this white, you'll see me like you've never seen me yet, wrapped in red.

TUCKER: For someone who graduated from the "American Idol" school of over-singing, Clarkson has become one of the most pleasurably controlled of pop singers. It also helps that she has an impish sense of humor. Thus, while her album is padded with a few not especially imaginative versions of chestnuts such as "White Christmas" and "Blue Christmas," it also contains this jaunty, Motown-style new song, "Underneath the Tree."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDERNEATH THE TREE")

CLARKSON: (Singing) You're here where you should be. Snow is falling as the carolers sing. It just wasn't the same alone on Christmas Day. Presents, what a beautiful sight. Don't mean a thing if you ain't holding me tight. You're all that I need, underneath the tree tonight. I'm going to hold you...

TUCKER: This year, the holiday releases include nothing so mind-cloudingly odd as Bob Dylan's 2009 "Christmas in the Heart," although the new album "Duck the Halls" from the bearded reality-TV conglomerate "Duck Dynasty" has a certain rough, country-music charm. However, I prefer the contrasting philosophies of these two albums: Kelly Clarkson's glossy, but heartfelt work, and Nick Lowe's earnest, yet playful production. Either one will put you in a holiday mood in the month before Christmas.

BIANCULLI: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed Kelly Clarkson's new album "Wrapped in Red" and Nick Lowe's "Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for all the Family." Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film "Nebraska" starring Bruce Dern. This is FRESH AIR.

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