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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

Emmylou Harris, Light of the Stable

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Records

19

Emmylou Harris, ‘Light of the Stable’

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, Christmas

Courtesy of Kranky Records

18

Low, ‘Christmas’

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.

Nick Lowe, Quality Street

Courtesy of Yep Roc Records

17

Nick Lowe, ‘Quality Street’

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.

Courtesy Dust To Digital

16

Various Artists, ‘Where Will You Be Christmas Day?’

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, A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra

Courtesy of  Capitol Records

15

Frank Sinatra, ‘A Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra’

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."

Sufjan Stevens, Songs for Christmas

Courtesy of  Asthmatic Kitty

14

Sufjan Stevens, ‘Songs for 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.

Various Artists, A Very Special Christmas

Courtesy of A&M Records

13

Various Artists, ‘A Very Special Christmas’

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."