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40 Essential Christmas Albums

Classics and new entries worthy of your holiday bonus

40 Essential Christmas Albums

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.

By Gavin Edwards

Courtesy RCA Victor Records

5

Elvis Presley, ‘Elvis’ Christmas Album’

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.

James Brown, Funky Christmas

Courtesy of Universal Motown Records Group

4

James Brown, ‘James Brown’s Funky Christmas’

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").

Courtesy Columbia Records

3

The Staple Singers, ‘The 25th Day of December’

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.

Phil Spector, A Christmas Gift for You

Courtesy of Philles Records

2

Phil Spector, ‘A Christmas Gift for You’

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.

Ella Fitzgerald, Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas

Courtesy of Verve Music Group

1

Ella Fitzgerald, ‘Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas’

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.

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