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The 25 Greatest Christmas Albums of All Time

From Bing Crosby to Bob Dylan, Motown to Death Row, we rank the best Yuletide listens ever

Best Christmas Albums

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.

9

‘Soul Christmas’ (1968)

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." 

bing crosby white christmas
8

Bing Crosby, ‘White Christmas’ (1986)

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 beach boys
7

Beach Boys, ‘Beach Boys’ Christmas Album’ (1964)

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.

louis armstrong
6

Louis Armstrong and Friends, ‘The Best of Christmas Songs’

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.

5

‘A Motown Christmas’ (1973)

"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.

charlie brown
4

‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ (1965)

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. It's become some of the most visually evocative American music. Said Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, "The way they walk and bounce a little bit – he captured that in his music."

james brown
3

James Brown, ‘James Brown’s Funky Christmas’ (1995)

Brown, who died on December 25, 2006, recorded three Christmas-themed albums during his creative peak: 1966's James Brown Sings Christmas Songs, 1968's A Soulful Christmas and 1970's Hey America It's Christmas. The best tracks from each are collected on this fantastic set. The Godfather was re-inventing rock & roll in his own funk-revolutionary image throughout the late Sixties, so it's no surprise that he injected some soul-power into the holly, jolly time of year. There's bent-knee R&B balladry ("Merry Christmas Baby" and "Please Come Home for Christmas"), smokin' groove workouts ("Go Power at Christmas Time," "Soulful Christmas") and shots of gritty social consciousness ("Santa Claus Goes to the Ghetto," "Let's Unite the Whole World at Christmas"). Like Santa himself, Mr. Dynamite has something in his bottomless gift bag for every girl and boy the world over: On the blazing title track from 1970's Hey America It's Christmas, he implores, "White or black, blue or green/ Even a man I've never seen/Let's get together!"

elvis
2

Elvis Presley, ‘Elvis’ Christmas Album’ (1957)

Want to know how revolutionary Elvis was in Fifties America? Irving Berlin, the author of "White Christmas," was so scandalized by Elvis's 1957 version of the song that he tried to get it banned from radio. Sorry, Irv. Instead, Elvis' Christmas Album topped the Billboard charts for a month and went on to sell nearly 20 million copies in various editions. It's a wonderful mix of lighthearted rock & roll ("Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me"), reverent versions of traditional favorites ("O Little Town of Bethlehem") and nods to his country and gospel roots ("Take My Hand, Precious Lord"). The classic, of course, is "Blue Christmas." But on every song, Elvis ingeniously adds a suggestive thrust to a lilywhite genre while slightly purifying his own bad-boy image by showing he could warm your hearth as well as roast your chestnuts.

1

‘A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector’ (1963)

Not just the greatest Christmas record ever, but a bona fide pop classic in its own right. (Rolling Stone named it Number 142 in our list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time). Spector's wall of sound production adds grandeur and drama, while the Philles Records crew lights up the holiday hit parade with rock & roll fire. The Crystals party under the chimney on "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"; Ronnie Spector turns "Frosty the Snowman" into a puddle in the front yard; and on the classic Brill Building original "Christmas Baby, Please Come Home," Darlene Love throws herself into an epic ballad of romantic affliction, turning winter wonderland into teenage wasteland. No wonder Brian Wilson has called it his favorite album of all time.

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