Bah humbug! Far too many Christmas albums are cynical efforts by artists recycling the same old songs to bolster their catalog sales. It doesn’t have to be that way — great holiday music can elevate your spirit and thrill your ears. For this list, we culled the best Christmas albums: ones that you want to listen to year after year, not fascinating novelties. Get ready – it’s starting to sound a lot like Christmas.
In 2012, Cee Lo got a raspy Rod Stewart to duet with him on "Merry Christmas, Baby" and his fellow Voice judge Christina Aguilera to show up for "Baby It's Cold Outside," but his ideal musical partners were the Muppets. They collaborated here on "All I Need Is Love," based on the music to "Mahna Mahna." The result was pop R&B with bright colors, made out of felt and yarn – which suited this cartoonish, broadly appealing album.
For all its loving invocation of snow and mistletoe, "I'll Be Home for Christmas" is one of the saddest Christmas songs ever. The kicker is in the final lyric: "if only in my dreams." Naturally, it's the centerpiece of this forlorn 2006 album by Aimee Mann, where she kicks off with "Whatever Happened to Christmas?" and makes the notion of walking in a winter wonderland sound lonely and cold. This isn't a cup of holiday cheer – it's the bracing chaser.
Nat King Cole was so smooth that his songs could elegantly slide away from a listener, like a figure skater heading for the far end of the pond. This album, originally released as The Magic of Christmas in 1960, provides baritone reassurance that Christmas is a happy time, not an annual family debacle. But the secret ingredient is Cole singing hymns in German and Latin: straining to put across foreign lyrics, you can hear him employing all his professional skill.
Peterson, one of the most accomplished pianists in jazz history, played with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Count Basie, among other luminaries. On this 1995 album, he found that the true meaning of Christmas was cool jazz instrumentals. At age 70, he no longer needed to prove his virtuosity; instead, he plays with a light touch and leads a swinging six-piece band. When Peterson finds emotional depth in "Jingle Bells," you know he's operating at a higher level.
"Back Door Santa" isn't a song choice you'd expect in an album that touts itself as a celebration of hope, unless you're really hoping for some back-door loving this December. This 2001 blues album is cheerfully crass and slightly overproduced (by King himself!). But his guitar playing is as great as ever and the disc is has a warm-hearted spirit, like your gruff uncle who secretly loves to dress up as Santa for the kids.
This 2008 collection from singer/songwriter/Sufjan Stevens collaborator Rosie Thomas stakes out its territory with her slow, sincere cover of the Chipmunks' dreadful novelty single: "Christmas Don't Be Late." Remade by Thomas, the song becomes a beautiful invocation of holiday spirit. Subtext: if she can feel that much love for the Chipmunks, surely you can do the same for your fellow man? The rest of the album is just as charming and heartfelt.
Released in 1997, the same year that the classic "Mmmbop" topped the charts, this quickie album is a tasty pop-rock candy cane. Taylor Hanson hadn't hit puberty yet, and his voice sounds as clear as a Christmas bell. Best track: their version of "Run Rudolph Run," popularized but not written by Chuck Berry. Playing their own instruments, the teenage trio hurtle through the song, going as fast as they can without driver's licenses.
This album, originally released by ZE Records in 1981, is a collection of experimental, alternative, and new-wave takes on Christmas. With Suicide, August Darnell (of Kid Creole and the Coconuts), Was (Not Was), and Nona Hendryx, it's a lineup of Lower East Side all-stars. They don't seem to take much joy in the holiday – but they take plenty in making excellently weird noise. And it features one of the greatest Christmas singles ever: the Waitresses' "Christmas Wrapping."
When Charles recorded this album in 1985, he was in the middle of a schmaltzy Nashville phase, and some of that leaks into this collection – but for much of the album, he bears down like he invented rhythm and blues. (Oh, right, he basically did.) Check out his super-groovy take on "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," where Rudolph sounds like a lost soul brother who somehow ended up at the North Pole.
If you get maxxed out on the secular aspects of Christmas – shopping for presents, flying across the country, hearing "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" – this can be the antidote. It's a Christmas Eve service in the Anglican mode – Yuletide hymns sung by a choir, interspersed with spoken blessings and Biblical passages – held since 1918 in a chapel at Cambridge University. While it doesn't follow the traditional liturgy, the tone is formal and the results are deeply moving.
Louis Armstrong, genius trumpeter, gravel-voiced singer, and jazz pioneer, could turn on a dime between broad comedy and deeply felt emotion. Both sides of his musical personality are on display in his Decca Christmas recordings: "'Zat You, Santa Claus?" is pure slapstick, while his "White Christmas" can make you cry. Unfortunately, there are only six of those recordings, so this collection is filled out with other jazz artists. But you could do much worse than hearing Duke Ellington tackle "Jingle Bells."
This 2008 album is spoken-word, but just as much of a performance as any of the other albums on this list. (Sedaris, his sister Amy, and performance artist Ann Magnuson read his holiday-themed essays, such as "Dinah, the Christmas Whore.") If listening to "The Santaland Diaries," Sedaris's jaundiced story about working as an elf at Macy's, isn't one of your personal Christmas rituals, consider this is your chance to correct that error.
The Jamaican record label Studio One was a powerhouse in the Sixties and Seventies, releasing records by just about every important reggae artist. So delving into their archives for Christmas-themed music turns up some famous names, including the Heptones ("Christmas Time Is Here") and the Wailers featuring Bob Marley ("Sound the Trumpet"). The grooves are consistently strong and as joyful as the season; as Freddie McGregor sums it up, "Hip hip hooray/What a Irie Christmas Day."
The Ventures, the instrumental surf band famous for the "Hawaii Five-O" theme, came up with a simple formula on this fun 1965 album: start each song by quoting a rock hit, and then launch into a twangy cover of a Christmas classic. So "Jingle Bells" is built on the riff for Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is mashed up with the Beatles' "I Feel Fine." Simple but very effective: it still sounds fresh today.
"They're not all strictly Christmas songs," Tracey Thorn said, "but if they mentioned winter or snow or even just being cold, that was good enough for me." It should be good enough for you too, because on this lush 2012 release, Thorn (best known as the voice of Everything But the Girl) reinvents the Christmas canon, drawing from sources as diverse as the White Stripes' Elephant and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
Explore the flipside of Christmas cheer with this exceptionally well-curated 1991 collection: eighteen tracks of seasonal blues music (most of them from the '50s and '60s), compiled by James Austin for Rhino Records. Luminaries here include John Lee Hooker ("Blues for Christmas"), Canned Heat ("Christmas Blues"), and Sonny Boy Williamson ("Santa Claus"). "Santa Claus, Santa Claus, I'm in misery," Louis Jordan sings (in the last song he ever recorded) and he makes you believe it.
Johnny Cash's sonorous voice is not what you expect on a Christmas album – but his faith was strong enough that he made four of them anyway: one a decade, starting in 1963. This 2003 album compiles the highlights of the first three, plus a moving story he told on his TV program about an impoverished childhood Christmas. If Cash's voice sounds earthbound, that suits his the moral of the song-poems: the true spirit of Christmas is loving your fellow man.
In 1991, four years after the Pogues recorded "Fairytale of New York" (one of the greatest Christmas songs ever), their forefathers in traditional Irish music, the Chieftains, made a Christmas album of their own. (The Chieftains were the earlier version of the Pogues, with less attitude and better teeth.) The Bells of Dublin has great Celtic melodies, lots of fiddle and tin whistle, and guests that include Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithfull, Jackson Browne, Nanci Griffith, and oddly, actor Burgess Meredith.
As a full-service musical empire, the Motown label released scads of Christmas albums; this double-disc 2009 album collects the highlights, plus spoken seasonal greetings from stars like the Supremes. Many of the standout tracks belong to Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, but as ever, the engine is the Motown house band, which can find the funk in "The Little Drummer Boy." Trippiest cut: Marvin Gaye's "Purple Snowflakes," which seems to be about acid rain, or maybe just acid.
Kate and Anna McGarrigle were a brilliant Canadian folkie duo, now more famous for Kate's children (Rufus and Martha Wainwright) than their brilliant '70s albums. On this 2005 album, they recruit their family, plus friends including Emmylou Harris and Beth Orton, to do songs that range from "O Little Town of Bethlehem" to Jackson Browne's "Rebel Jesus." It's a homespun affair, with an emphasis on celestial harmonies – and it was the last album they made before Kate died.
It starts with big pompous drums, heralding an overblown version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." And then a surprise: we get some funked-up Hammond organ instead. While Smith was a jazzman, his albums regularly hit the pop charts and his sound wasn't far away from the instrumental R&B of Booker T. and the MGs. This groovy 1964 album (also available as Christmas '64) sounds like it was recorded halfway between the North Pole and Memphis.
Harris has always sung like an angel, and on this 1979 album she played the part, a living herald of joyful Nativity tidings. Some of the other golden-throated seraphim providing backing vocals: Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, and, er, Neil Young. On an album that's both rootsy and restrained, Harris is backed by a top-notch group of Nashville pros, but the prettiest track is probably the a cappella version of "The First Noel."
Low, an indie band from Minnesota, specializes in music moving at the tempo of glaciers, with exquisitely precise two-part harmonies. That approach proves to be remarkably well-suited to Yule standards: when you have to consider every note, even "The Little Drummer Boy" can become an object of astonishing beauty, inspiring a seasonal sense of wonder. This 1999 EP (released in a limited edition, but now available on streaming services) contains four traditional songs and four Low originals.
The Lowe composition "Christmas at the Airport," about a stranded traveler in a locked airport, sets the tone for this 2013 album: world-weary, but still full of good cheer. "I'm doing Santa's sleigh ride on the baggage carousel," he sings. ("Quality Street" is the name of a British chocolate assortment, often deployed as stocking stuffers.) Excellently, the most raucous cut is "Silent Night": recklessly ignoring its title, Lowe fills out the sound with organ, horns, and surf guitar.
Compiling twenty-four recordings from 78 rpm records cut between 1917 and 1959, this album includes blues, folk, gospel, calypso, and weird Americana. There's a few artists you may know: it's hard to beat Lead Belly getting excited that "Christmas Is A-Coming" or Bessie Smith wailing "At the Christmas Ball." But just as great are the unknown singers doing songs you've never heard, some religious, some raunchy, like "Christmas in Jail – Ain't That a Pain."
Frank Sinatra recorded Christmas albums with everybody from Bing Crosby to his own children, but this 1957 record was his finest Yuletide effort. (For the best of the rest, check out his Christmas Collection.) It's hard to get much mileage out of "Jingle Bells," even if you spell out the title and try to make it groovy – where this disc shines is when it slows down, letting Sinatra caress every syllable in "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
Most years, the prolific singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens records a Christmas EP and gives away copies. This treasure box collects the five EPs from 2001 to 2006 – there's over two hours of music, much of it devotional folk versions of the standards, but including some originals like "That Was the Worst Christmas Ever." Stevens, obsessed with Christmas like Buddy the Elf, didn't stop here: the following five EPs can now be found in another box set, Silver & Gold.
For this charity album in 1987 – the first in a long series benefiting the Special Olympics – producer Jimmy Iovine pulled in an all-star lineup, including Madonna, Sting, Whitney Houston, and John Cougar Mellencamp. Standout performers included Bruce Springsteen ("Merry Christmas Baby"), U2 ("Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," and the Pretenders ("Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), but nobody could top Run-D.M.C. rapping "It's Christmastime in Hollis, Queens / Mom's cooking chicken and collard greens."
For decades, this has been the reassuring sound of an American Christmas: Uncle Bing singing the standards (originally released in 1945 as Merry Christmas). His version of "White Christmas" is the best-selling single ever, with a mind-boggling fifty million copies sold. There's a reason so many people want to hear Bingle jingle: Crosby was one of the great pre-rock crooners, with a gift for making even a familiar song sound like a secret he was whispering in your ear.
When Los Angeles shopping malls want to make it snow for their customers at Christmastime, they blow soap flakes into the air. It feels fundamentally wrong but festive – just like the 1964 Beach Boys singing about snow instead of surf. The best part of this album are the five original songs written and produced by Brian Wilson, but even the standards with orchestral arrangements sound great because of the Beach Boys' harmonies – as beautiful as a westward-leading star.
Every Christmas from 1963 to 1969, the Beatles sent out seven-inch flexidiscs to fan-club members. What started out as dutiful recitations of Christmas thanks evolved over the years into charming verbal anarchy and then elaborate audio productions with sketches, poems, and songs. This album, sent out by the fan club in 1970 and 1971, collected all the singles – but sadly, was never commercially available. Maybe next year? (Another band that could release a great collection of Christmas fan-club singles: R.E.M.)
In 1963, Roy Orbison had a Number 15 hit with Nelson's song "Pretty Paper," about a homeless man surrounded by holiday shoppers – the single operatically slipped a knife into the gut of Christmas materialism. In 1979, Nelson recorded it himself in a more modest style, for a homespun Christmas album in the mode of Stardust, his 1975 collection of American standards. Nelson's secret weapon: Booker T. Jones (of Booker T. and the MGs), who played organ and did the arrangements.
Vintage '60s soul from the stars of Stax Records in Memphis: Booker T. and the MGs ("Winter Wonderland"), Isaac Hayes ("Winter Snow"), Otis Redding ("Merry Christmas, Baby"). This 2007 compilation (replacing 1982's It's Christmas Time Again, which collected the label's scattered Christmas singles for the first time) is at its strongest when it's uptempo and nasty – meaning you won't complain that both Albert King and Mack Rice do versions of "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'."
The title is a misnomer: this 2013 collection is cobbled together from a Jones Christmas album, a Wynette Christmas album, and some holiday duets they recorded while married in the early '70s. But the songs belong together, even if the singers didn't: two of country music's most beautiful voices taking turns singing lonely Christmas laments. Wynette's performance of "White Christmas" is just as melancholy as Jones's "Lonely Christmas Call," making this the perfect album for nursing a holiday heartbreak.
Before CBS aired the first Peanuts animated special in 1965, they thought it would flop. The executives hated the choppy animation, the real kids reading the lines, the melancholy tone unsweetened by a laugh track, Linus reciting a Biblical passage, and not least, this piano jazz soundtrack. Now this music evokes the show, which in turn evokes your own childhood: while "Christmas Time Is Here" is wistful and sad, there's no happier Christmas music than "Linus and Lucy."
Listen to Presley's "White Christmas" today, and you'll hear a reverent version with a touch of R&B, made effective by his powerful, emotionally direct singing. In 1957, however, composer Irving Berlin was so angered by it, he had his staff call radio stations around the country to try to get it pulled. This record didn't just pioneer the idea of rock versions of Christmas classics, it deservedly became the bestselling holiday album of all time.
The Hardest Working Man in Show Business released no fewer than three Christmas albums between 1966 and 1970. (He also released 20 other full-length albums during that five-year span.) This ridiculously great album compiles the highlights of those three discs: sweaty funk ("Christmas Is Love"), pleading ballads ("Please Come Home for Christmas"), monologues over slow jams ("Let's Make Christmas Mean Something This Year"), even social commentary ("Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto").
Recorded in 1962 but then out of print for decades, this is a forgotten classic: Christmas-themed gospel sung by three amazing sisters (the mighty Mavis Staples was only 23), backed with just organ, drums, and "Pops," their father, playing funky electric guitar. The Staples' first pop hits were still years away, but they already had talent and passion to spare. Regardless of your religious beliefs, when you hear "The Savior Is Born," you'll want to get up and testify.
This album may have been Phil Spector's crowning achievement: majestic Wall of Sound production, electrifying vocals from the Crystals and Ronnie Spector, and best of all, Darlene Love singing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" like it was her one chance at happiness. Unfortunately, this marshmallow-world confection was released on November 22, 1963: the day John F. Kennedy was shot. Out of step with a national tragedy, it flopped; many years passed before it was recognized as a true Christmas classic.
If modern Christmas music is basically an appendix to the Great American Songbook, then who better to sing it than the foremost interpreter of Cole Porter and the Gershwins? This superb 1960 jazz album finds Fitzgerald enthusiastically romping through field and fountain, singing "Sleigh Ride" with supreme joy and "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" with exquisite phrasing and subtlety. Even the songs that are overplayed chestnuts become tasty again after roasting in Lady Ella's vocal fire.