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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."

Bing Crosby, White Christmas

Courtesy of MCA Records

12

Bing Crosby, ‘White Christmas’

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.

Beach Boys Christmas Album

Courtesy of Capitol Records

11

The Beach Boys, ‘Christmas Album’

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.

The Beatles Christmas

Courtesy of Lyton

10

The Beatles, ‘The Beatles’ Christmas Album’

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.)

Willie Nelson, Pretty Paper

Courtesy of Columbia Records

9

Willie Nelson, ‘Pretty Paper’

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.

Stax Records, Christmas in Soulsville

Courtesy of Stax Records

8

Various Artists, ‘Christmas in Soulsville’

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'."

George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Classic Christmas Album

Courtesy of Sony Legacy

7

George Jones and Tammy Wynette, ‘The Classic Christmas Album’

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.

Vince Guaraldi Trio, A Charlie Brown Christmas

Courtesy of Courtesy of Fantasy Records

6

Vince Guaraldi Trio, ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’

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."

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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