It’s no surprise that a Christmas song – Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”– is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling single ever. There’s a universality to Christmas music that even transcends religion. Just ask Bob Dylan, who was raised Jewish but loved Yuletide tunes enough to record an album of them in 2009. From gangsta rap to jazz to reggae to indie-pop, from crooners to rockers, the impulse to knock out a “Blue Christmas” or a “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” knows no boundaries. Read on for our list of the 25 greatest Christmas albums of all time.
If there's one thing the centuries-old tradition of holiday music has always lacked, it's irony. Weezer bring it by the sleigh-load on this six-song EP. Hilariously, they choose only the most Jesus-y tunes to bash out in their vaunted flat-lined power-pop style. When Rivers Cuomo sings "Oh, come let us adore him" on "O Come All Ye Faithful," his creepily deadpan vocals sound like he's stalking the Baby Jesus, not celebrating him, and on the pooch-metal rendition of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," he's like a Dickensian droogy ready to burn his crummy Victorian orphanage if he doesn't get some figgy pudding, stat!
If you're looking for actual, traditional Christmas music, you couldn't do better than this rich, fascinating album of carols done by the New York Latvian Concert Choir, which is conducted by 74-year-old Andrejs Jansons. Mixing modern and ancient, Christian and pagan, sung in a clean, distinctly Baltic vocal style, this music powerfully evokes the richly textured, American immigrant experience. "On Christmas Eve" recalls old-time Broadway musicals, while "My Lovely Flax Field," connects to a distant, more exotic past. And if you think Christmas music has lost its sense of religious meaning, "The Word Was Made Flesh" is all you'll need to reset your spiritual clock.
"We bring you an Irie Christmas and a dancehall New Year," Miller sings on this bright, irreverent set, recorded in 1978, just two years before the Inner Circle frontman's untimely death at age 27. Miller and buddy DJ Ray I have a roots-rock riot as they redo "Silver Bells" and "Deck the Halls" in rub-a-dub stylee (the former goes on for an epic nine minutes), and we'll give you a big, fat, green guess what the one endlessly repeated item on their "All I Want For Ismas" wish-list is. (Here's a hint: It's pot.)
You gotta a love song called "Come On, Let's Boogie to the Elf Dance." Or perhaps, you want to bury it neck-deep in the snow out behind the house where Santa's reindeer take their traditional Christmas Eve pee break. Either way, the Brooklyn indie-pop songster's five-EP set is one of the more imaginative revisionist Christmas records. His takes on the classics are pretty and lovably dog-eared (see his banjo-fied "Amazing Grace") and his originals add wrinkles to the canon. ("It's Christmas Let's Be Glad" is a wry, shambling toast: "Let's be glad/Even if the year's been bad/There are presents to be had/A promotion for your dad.") As sad elves go, Suffy's all heart.
Christmas in the Heart is a great title for this utterly unexpected, weirdly inspired album – because with Dylan on the mic, it certainly isn't Christmas in the voice. In fact, his grizzled baritone is exactly what gives his 34th record a subversive charm: No music worships good singing like Christmas music, and by doing a carol like "The First Noel" or a post-War pop tune like "Christmas Island" straight and earnest, he makes you hear them with new ears. With help from musicians like Los Lobos' David Hidalgo and guitarist Phil Upchurch, he sings with real nostalgia as well as tender frailty, honoring this as vintage American music and making it part of his own story.
This hall-decking edition of Rhino's Eighties new wave compilation series is full of fun, quirky alt-pop nicely divided between oddball U.K. Christmas singles and college-radio novelties perfect for that last show you do before winter break. The album has two sad, snow-covered romantic masterpieces (the Pogues and Kristy MacCall's "Fairytale of New York" and the Pretenders' "2000 Miles"), some jangly adorability (Matthew Sweet and the Buzz of Delight's "Christmas" and Chris Stamey Group's "Christmas Time") and nerdy comedy gold (Kris Kringle is a girlfriend-stealing skeezer on They Might Be Giants' "Santa's Beard"). You can judge the staying power of David Bowie and Bing Crosby's legendarily bizarre "Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy" for yourself, but don't sleep on Captain Sensible's minor 1984 U.K. hit "One Christmas Catalogue," a sublime synth-rock evocation of all the ways we use the holiday to mark time – for better or worse.
The Voice has made Cee Lo Green America's favorite smiling funk mystic, so this lovable record is a no-brainer. He turns in one of the more stylistically ecumenical Christmas discs out there. Christina Aguilera swings by for a jazzy "Baby, It's Cold Outside," where Cee Lo injects the line "Baby, it's bad out there/ No cab's to be had out there" with a sly tinge of urban realism; "All I Need Is Love," with the Muppets, interpolates the Sesame Street classic "Manamana" into a hip-hop-soul jam; and Cee Lo locks in with Rod Stewart and New Orleans hornman Trombone Shorty for a super smooth "Merry, Christmas Baby." Cee Lo's solo takes effortlessly bridge the sacred ("Mary, Did You Know?") and secular (his richly oversung, deeply felt version of Joni Mitchell's "River"). A boomin' belly isn't the only thing he shares with Santa; dude's got something for everyone.
What would Christmas be without a little manic pixie dream girl magic? And Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward sprinkle it just lightly enough on this enjoyably slight set. Like She & Him's other records, there's a spare, unfussy elegance here – it's just Ward's supple guitar, piano or ukulele and Deschanal's retro-melancholic singing (with subtle help from legendary studio drummer Jim Keltner on a couple tracks). Their bell-clear take on the Beach Boys' "Christmas Day" is like sunshine on new snow; Zooey gets her country on during "Blue Christmas"; and on "I'll Be Home For Christmas," she sounds like an Andrews Sister with a nagging case of seasonal affect disorder, in a good way.
Death Row's Suge Knight-era dominance was cresting when the label posse got together for this album (minus Dr. Dre, who'd left Death Row the year it was recorded). Somewhat surprisingly, it's light on gangsta deviousness and heavy on spiritual uplift (see "Peaceful Christmas," by crooner Danny Boy) and straight, rather staid R&B takes on the classics by groups like 6 Feet Deep and Guess. That said, the Dogg Pound's "I Wish" is a buoyant 2Pac-like message song and Snoop Dogg's lone cut, "Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto," is one for the ages: "On the first day of Christmas, my homeboy gave to me/A sack of the krazy glue and told me to smoke it slowly."
The Carpenters moved a million copies of 1978's Christmas Portrait. It's been doing pitched battle with Anne Murray's Christmas Album for suburban white-bread dominance in "Honey, a new Volvo! You shouldn't have!" Land ever since. The expanded, two-disc 1984 version is a veritable schmaltz blizzard of vaguely terrifying good cheer. It's almost like Christmas was invented for Karen Carpenter to sing about; her milk-bath vocals fit "Sleigh Ride" and "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" like a reindeer sweater. Richard's soft-rock production and gloppy orchestral arrangements aren't bad either – a kind of warmed-over, sunken-den-Seventies version of Forties merriment.
Cash recorded Christmas albums throughout his career. In 2003, the year he died, Sony Legacy released this excellent collection of songs cut between 1962 and 1980. He adds depth to selections like "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," giving them a rough honesty that adds to their redemptive power. The best cuts are heart-rending, plainspoken song-poems that offer lessons on love, community and charity. Every spoiled little pisspants in America should have to listen to "Christmas as We Knew It," about Cash's poor family in rural Arkansas being thankful for what they were able to give, not what they might get.
Record industry titan Jimmy Iovine organized this all-star benefit album for the Special Olympics in 1987. Suffice it to say the guy had some pull; it's a veritable yuletide Yalta of Eighties greats: U2's version of "Christmas Baby, Please Come Home" has real R&B swing, Bruce Springsteen's live version of "Merry Christmas Baby" is peak E Street cut with eggnog-y looseness, the Pretenders do a moving version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and John Mellencamp knocks out a roots-rockin' "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." The big highlight is Run-DMC's classic "Christmas in Hollis," which samples Clarence Carter's "Back Door Santa" and features the imitable declaration: "My name's D.M.C. with the mic in my hand/And I'm chilling and coolin' just like a snowman."
Released in 1957, the same year as Elvis Presley's hit Christmas album, Sinatra's first Christmas record is like a conservative op-ed in response to the King's subtly radical bumrush. It's the essence of Eisenhower's America, bottled and giftwrapped with a red and white bow on top. This was the fourth album Sinatra recorded in a very good year, and he sings like he has the universe effortlessly balanced on the brim of his hat. At times the arrangements and back-up singing get in the way. But when he taps the nostalgic tug of "I'll Be Home For Christmas" and "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," it's mistletoe magic.
This should be a train wreck at the beach: Sixties surf-rock versions of Christmas songs inanely augmented with jingling bells and other thematic accouterments. But it's quite excellent. The Ventures infuse the predictable playlist with clever rock & roll flourishes – opening their hot version of "Rudolph Red-Nosed Reindeer" with an allusion to the Beatles' "I Feel Fine," giving "Frosty the Snowman" a shot of the Champs' "Tequila" and working their own "Walk Don't Run" into "Sleigh Bells." The stylistic invention and off-handed majesty never let up; their plaintively ringing "Silver Bells" is as pretty as a Velvet Underground benediction.
In 1963, when he was still an aspiring songwriter, Nelson penned the tenderly ironic "Pretty Paper," which became a hit for Roy Orbison. Sixteen years later, his own in-the-cut version of the song foregrounded Nelson's first album of traditional Christmas music. As on Stardust, his brilliant 1975 album of classic covers, Nelson's laidback readings and gentle guitar work make for refined yet comfy renditions. This is a record you put on when your relatives have all mercifully gone home and you can finally sit back in your favorite chair and slowly get loaded on Old Overholt while you watch football with the sound off. If you time it so you pass out while the album-ending instrumental "Christmas Blues" is rolling by, you may get lucky and sleep 'til New Year's Eve.
On the album-opening blitz through "Jingle Bells," the First Lady of Jazz swings with such snowdrift-leaping abandon that the poor ponies pulling her one-horse open sleigh should've filed for worker's comp. That breezily contagious spirit never lets up on this wonderful album, recorded in the summer of 1960 with an orchestra conducted by Frank De Vol (whose credits include the Brady Bunch theme). On cuts like "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow" and "Winter Wonderland," Fitzgerald extends her vowels like she's stretching a Christmas bow to the stars – and when she's really feeling good, she punctuates songs with lip-smacking exclamations like "I'm just wild about hors-es!" Yee-ha!
The stars of the Atlantic Records R&B roster came together for this fantastic 1968 set. The best rock & roll Christmas albums stay true to tradition while spinning it in fun new directions, and this perfects that balance. Otis Redding does a slow, heart-weary "White Christmas" and a satisfied, Southern-fried "Merry Christmas Baby," while Carla Thomas spins her signature hit "Gee Whiz" into the fireplace-stoking forget-me-not "Gee Whiz, It's Christmas." And then there's Clarence Carter's stocking-stuffer supreme, "Back Door Santa" – "I ain't like old Saint Nick/He don't come but once a year/I come runnin' with my presents every time you call me, dear."
What Jesus is to Christmas, Bing Crosby is to Christmas music. The Irish crooner's 1941 version of Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin's dreamy ballad "White Christmas" has sold 50 million copies, inspiring covers by everyone from Stiff Little Fingers to New Kids on the Block. Seven decades later, his vocal style remains the template for elegant ease and stately sentimentality. Crosby's 1945 album Merry Christmas – expanded over the years with tracks from throughout the Forties and Fifties and reissued on CD as White Christmas in 1986 – has a distinct Irish-Catholic flavor thanks to the hymn "Faith of Our Fathers" and the jaunty "Christmas in Killarney." There's also the Hawaiian-tinged "Mele Kalikimaka" (one of three songs where he makes hella merry with the Andrews Sisters). But, of course, the best tracks are solo Crosby, pouring vocal butter on "Silver Bells" or "I'll Be Home for Christmas," and making them unforgettably his own. This is what great singing is. If you don't like it, you're looking for something else.
The early Beach Boys could turn National Podiatrist Recognition Day into a party, so you know they're gonna knock Christmas out of the park. Their smiles 'n' sweaters playfulness is all over this 1964 collection. The best of the album's six originals is the darkly funny "Santa's Beard," in which Mike Love takes his five-year-old brother to meet Santa and the kid pulls the cotton falsie off Saint Nick's face in a life-altering moment of mall-bought demystification. The rest of the record mixes sunny tunes like "Little Saint Nick," a rewiring of "Little Deuce Coupe," with fun experiments like the jazzy "Frosty the Snowman." And the orchestra-backed versions of "White Christmas" and "Blue Christmas," both poignantly sung by Brian Wilson, hint toward Pet Sounds majesty.
The best imaginable host for a Christmas get-together, Armstrong beams welcoming warmth and easygoing cheer on this recent compilation of his recordings with friends like Mel Torme, Dinah Washington, Duke Ellington and Lena Horne. Every cut is immediately familiar – like pulling up to your brightly-lit childhood home on Christmas Eve after too much traveling. Mel Torme gets Top Friend honors for his velvety "The Christmas Song." But on numbers like "Cool Yule," "Christmas in New Orleans" and "Zat You, Santa Claus?" it's Satchmo's show. The high point is the finger-poppin' "Christmas Night in Harlem," when he growls, "Everyone's gonna sit up til after 3/ Everyone, we be all lit up, like a Christmas tree," and throws in a big, winking belly laugh for party-boss punctuation.
"I really did see mommy kissing Santa Claus/And I'm gonna tell my dad!," a too-cute 1970 Michael Jackson tells his doubting brothers in what might be Xmas-pop's most adorable moment. The rest of this 1973 double album is pretty fantastic too. Motown culls tunes from the Miracles, Supremes, Jacksons, Temptations, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, with highlights ranging from the Miracles' subtly grooving "Jingle Bells" to Wonder's lovely "What Christmas Means to Me" to the Supremes' awesomely pedagogic "Children's Christmas Song," featuring Diana Ross in Sunday school-teacher mode leading a kids choir. The 1999 reissue on Spotify ends with a country-tinged, Vietnam-era lament from Gaye, "I Want to Come Home for Christmas," that offers a fascinating spin on Motown's integrationist spirit.
It's pretty ironic that cool, laid-back West Coast jazz – music designed to advertise the easygoing luxuriance of California living – should come to be most commonly associated with poor lil' existentially bumfuzzled Charlie Brown standing around in the falling snow, complaining to Linus about how Christmas gets him down. On songs like "Skating" and "Christmas Is Coming," the Vince Guaraldi Trio nails a perfect balance of buoyant anticipation and wintry introspection.