Christmas albums can accomplish anything, in theory. They can reinvigorate the careers of those who attempt them. (Though they usually don't.) They can launch new classics into the world. (This hasn't happened since "All I Want for Christmas Is You," in 1994, but still.)
They can, and often do, serve as a lucrative source of income for decently voiced mainstream singers on the downward slope of their careers. (You can look forward to "A Very Bieber Christmas," its cover art depicting Justin Bieber posing on a bearskin rug in front of roaring fire in 2019.)
There are rules, mostly artistic ones, that every singer attempting a holiday album seems to instinctively know: There's no way to sing "The Little Drummer Boy" without sounding awkward, but you should do it anyway; one should choose either "The Christmas Song" or "White Christmas" (there's no need for both); avoid "Away in a Manger," as it's difficult to sing.
Because there are other, less obvious rules that any artist contemplating making a holiday album should consider, we've assembled a list of Christmas album Do's and Don'ts using some of the year's top holiday collections as examples.
Do not attempt to make a holiday album if you are under 30. Holiday songs are one thing. Ariana Grande's great new cover of "Last Christmas" is the stuff tween Vine soundtracks are made of. But full-length holiday albums are worse than uncool — they're helplessly corny, even more so than Christmas sweaters. They're blunt instruments made for the likes of Susan Boyle, not Selena Gomez. Boyle's "Home for Christmas" is her second Christmas album — she's made only five albums total — and it's virtuous and bland and, in its own cautious way, perfect. This is holiday comfort food: songs you already know, arranged in a familiar fashion, sung by someone with the voice of an angel.
Take it seriously. "Duck the Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas," in which members of the phenomenally popular "Duck Dynasty" clan awkwardly sing-speak seasonal tunes, is both terrible and endearing. It's rambunctious but respectful, cute but not precious, and lighthearted but wholly earnest, the latter in keeping with one of the most inviolate rules of holiday album-making: It's fine to mock yourself, but never, ever give the faintest suggestion you are mocking Christmas.
"Duck the Halls" is not exactly destined to be an enduring classic, but everyone sings credibly well, with guest stars doing most of the heavy vocal lifting. George Strait turns up on a barely altered version of his classic "Christmas Cookies," and Luke Bryan does what he can with "Hairy Christmas" ("Like Jesus and Santa Claus/We got love behind these beards"). It's worth noting that "Duck the Halls" is one of the fastest-selling holiday albums of the past decade despite being the 2013 equivalent of that wall-mounted novelty fish that sang Al Green covers.
Guest stars are a must, preferably heavyweights from genres other than your own. Veteran guest stars, especially ones associated with Christmas, are a good way for the novice seasonal album maker to let everyone know he's come to play. An appearance by Christmas music Hall of Famers Josh Groban or Michael Bublis invaluable.
Alison Krauss, the Cate Blanchett of country music, can make even the iffiest of endeavors seem rarefied and noble just by stopping by. This year, she helps elevate "Duck the Halls" into something more than reality star karaoke. Enlisting superstars can also backfire: On her new album, "A Mary Christmas," Mary J. Blige loses a diva-off with Barbra Streisand on "When You Wish Upon a Star." Even attempting this was a rookie mistake. Barbra owns Christmas.
If you do use guest stars, make sure they're still alive. This one is pretty important. Boyle duets with an Elvis Presley sample on her album-opening rendition of "O Come, All Ye Faithful." It should have been sweet — Boyle means well, and Elvis probably really liked Christmas — but it's just weird.