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Christmas music, as we currently think of it, didn’t really get going until about the 1930s, when a number of Yuletide numbers became jazz standards. And to listen to most radio stations when they switch over to their all-Christmas music format around the beginning of the season– what is it now, October? — you’d think that musicians largely stopped recording holiday tunes by about 1972.
Of course this isn’t so, but I do think it’s fair to consider the period from about the mid-’40s through the ensuing three decades as a golden age of Christmas tunes. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find great holiday music from any era, as I think you’ll see with this list of the top twelve Christmas albums of all-time (one for each day of Christmas, of course). Think of this list as the anti-Mellowmas.
#1. A Charlie Brown Christmas (Vince Guaraldi Trio)
Let’s just get this one out of the way now, shall we? I defy anyone to hear any part of “Skating” or “My Little Drum” and not be instantly transported back to their childhood. I can’t say anything more about this record that hasn’t been said a million times, so I’ll just implore you to add this to your collection even if you hate Christmas music. Just be careful what version you purchase, as a 2006 remaster edition released by Concord Records has been met with much scorn (details on that here), and may still be floating around.
#2. Ultra-Lounge: Christmas Cocktails (various artists)
The holiday editions of the uber-retro Ultra-Lounge series are definitely examples of the law of diminishing returns, but the first entry is splendid. While the presence of gold standard yuletide tunes like Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” and Dean Martin’s “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” lend this set the appropriate amount of suave ’50s hipness, it’s the offbeat period pieces like “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer Mambo,” “Holiday on Skis,” and “Jingle Bells Bossa Nova” that will keep you coming back for more.
#3. A Merry Christmas With Bing Crosby & The Andrews Sisters (Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters)
There are so, so many Bing Crosby Christmas compilations it can be hard to figure out which ones you should have. I’m telling you straight, this is one of them. The credits on this record are a tad misleading, as only a half dozen of the 20 songs actual feature Crosby and the Andrews Sisters performing together. But those six — most notably their rendition of “Jingle Bells” as also heard in A Christmas Story — are worth the price of admission alone. The rest of the album is nearly as awesome, with seven solo Bing tracks and six more from the Sisters by themselves.
#4. A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra (Frank Sinatra)
What could be more classy and timelessly hip during the holidays than unwrapping presents while A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra plays in the background? Nothing, pally, that’s what. So don’t give me any of that bunk about how those new holiday albums from those crummy longhairs are where it’s at. You haven’t experienced Christmas until you’ve heard Ol’ Blue Eyes croon “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” or “Silent Night.” Ring-a-ding-ding, indeed.
#5. A Soulful Christmas (James Brown)
The Godfather of Soul released two holiday albums in the 1960s — this one and 1966′s James Brown Sings Christmas Songs. I have to give the edge to A Soulful Christmas, if for no other reason than the inclusion of “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto,” which is as awesome as the title sounds. True, the arrangements are thoroughly non-traditional but if you don’t mind a sweat-soaked dose of vintage funk and R&B mixed in with the usual Christmas fare, this is the album to own. Of course if you really want to go nuts, you can find most of the songs from these two records as well as others on the mid-’90s JB compilation, Funky Christmas.
#6. A Ding Dong Dandy Christmas! (The Three Suns)
Look, I’m not even going to try to pretend that the Three Suns aren’t cornier than ethanol. A Ding Dong Dandy Christmas! is not something to be played with the lights down and the fireplace crackling. This is nothing more than fun Space Age holiday pop, with the kitsch turned up to 11 (witness their unconventional arrangement of “Jingle Bells,” complete with tuba and accordion). It’s also guaranteed to bring some Christmas glee to even the Grinchiest holiday humbug.
#7. Ki Ho’alu Christmas: Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar (various artists)
Hey, why not? Hawaiin slack key guitar may not be your cup of tea, but Ki Ho’alu Christmas: Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar is not without its charms. Most of the songs here are tastefully performed and arranged instrumentals, and can lend some much-needed tranquility to your Christmas proceedings. And they’re just exotic-sounding enough to stand apart from the rest of your collection. I particularly enjoy this duet rendition of “Winter Wonderland” by Barney Isaacs and George Kuo.
#8. Merry Axemas: A Guitar Christmas (various artists)
Consider this to be the antidote to the Three Suns, as well as proof positive that even metalheads can be joyful and festive during the Yuletide season.
While you might be inclined to write Merry Axemas off as a nothing more than a festive electrified wankfest, it’s actually pretty substantial holiday tuneage. Hard rock and blues rock dominate the album as you might expect with a name like “Merry Axemas,” but their are a few subdued tracks that really shine as well. Eric Johnson’s “The First Nowell” is understated and atmospheric, as is Jeff Beck’s string-bending rendition of “Amazing Grace.” The best of the bunch is Steve Vai’s “Christmas Time Is Here” (via Vince Guaraldi), although Alex Lifeson’s decidedly un-Rush-like “The Little Drummer Boy” doesn’t lag far behind.
#9. A Time to Be Jolly (Bing Crosby)
Der Bingle was in his late 60s and in the last decade of his legendary career when this was released on the brand new Daybreak Records label in 1971. The only thing that dates it, however, are the vintage late-’60s/early ’70s MOR arrangements, which are really quite nice if you ask me. Most of the tracks on A Time to Be Jolly kick off with some slightly vanilla choral parts, but when Bing’s ageless croon pops up everything just feels right. The highlight of this set for me is the title track, which like the rest of the album is a tad hokey but is winningly earnest.
This collection has been re-released under a few different names since ’71, most recently as the ingeniously titled Christmas Album.
#10. The Magic of Christmas (The Soulful Strings)
If the James Brown Christmas songs are just a little too funky and hardcore for you, then perhaps this smoother set will be your cup of eggnog. At times placid and at other times bouncy and fun, this is really more soul-lite than anything else. But that is by no means a bad thing, especially standout cuts such as ”Jingle Bells” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”
#11. A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector (various artists)
This fantastic offering had the misfortune to be released on November 22, 1963 — the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. That unfortunate circumstance notwithstanding, this really is a gem from the days when Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound reigned supreme. Perhaps not coincidentally, Brian Wilson — a Spector devotee — and the Beach Boys released their own Christmas album the next year. I enjoy that too, but this is definitely superior.
#12. The Andy Williams Christmas Album (Andy Williams)
Outside of Bing Crosby, is there anyone whose voice is more associated with the Christmas season than Andy Williams? Don’t bother looking that up, because the answer is “no.”
And on The Andy Williams Christmas Album (1963), Williams demonstrates why. The man who produced all those great Christmas TV specials knocks it out of the park on every single track, but most especially on the immortal “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” This record rightfully dominated the Billboard Christmas charts for most of the 1960s and early ’70s and has been a perennial favorite ever since.