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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 Capitol Records

38

Nat King Cole, ‘The Christmas Song’

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.

Courtesy Telarc

37

Oscar Peterson, ‘An Oscar Peterson Christmas’

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.

Courtesy MCA

36

B.B. King, ‘A Christmas Celebration of Hope’

"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.

Courtesy Sing-A-Long

35

Rosie Thomas, ‘A Very Rosie Christmas!’

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.

Courtesy Mercury

34

Hanson, ‘Snowed In’

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.

Courtesy ZE Records

33

Various Artists, ‘A Christmas Record’

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."

Courtesy Concord

32

Ray Charles, ‘The Spirit of Christmas’

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.

Choir of Kings College (Cambridge), A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols

Courtesy of EMI Classics

31

Choir of Kings College (Cambridge), ‘A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols’

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, What a Wonderful Christmas

Courtesy of Hip-O Records

30

Louis Armstrong, ‘What a Wonderful Christmas’

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."

David Sedaris, Holidays on Ice

Courtesy Hachette Audio

29

David Sedaris, ‘Holidays on Ice’

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.

Courtesy Studio One

28

Various Artists, ‘Reggae Christmas From Studio One’

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."

Courtesy Capitol Records

27

The Ventures, ‘The Ventures’ Christmas Album’

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.

Courtesy Merge Records

26

Tracey Thorn, ‘Tinsel and Lights’

"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.

Various Artists, Blue Yule

Courtesy of Rhino Records

25

Various Artists, ‘Blue Yule’

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 The Christmas Spirit

Courtesy of Columbia Records

24

Johnny Cash, ‘Christmas with Johnny Cash’

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.

The Chieftains, The Bells of Dublin

Courtesy of RCA Records

23

The Chieftains, ‘The Bells of Dublin’

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.

The Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection

Courtesy of Motown Records

22

‘The Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection’

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, The McGarrigle Christmas Hour

Courtesy of Nonesuch Records

21

Kate and Anna McGarrigle, ‘The McGarrigle Christmas Hour’

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.

Courtesy Verve

20

Jimmy Smith, ‘Christmas Cookin”

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.

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."