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Christmas music lovers everywhere all agree on one thing: one of the best parts of the holiday season is the music. Many of these songs have been recorded a gazillion times, so you’d think it’d be hard to put an original stamp on something so ubiquitous. And it’s true. It is hard, which is what makes it so wonderful. You can’t just phone in Irving Berlin’s classic “White Christmas” or do a decent “Sleigh Ride” and expect must-have sales. Christmas albums and compilations are a dime a dozen, so there’s got to be something extra, some moment that makes a listener say, “Yeah, I want to listen to this every single year!”
Every contemporary holiday album owes a debt to one or more of the albums below. These are the big guns, the trail-blazers and the well-worn shoes, the ones we snatch out of the bins whenever we see that familiar album cover, where popular artists proved holiday songs didn’t always have to be solemn to be enjoyable. These 10 albums are the touchstones of Christmas music.
Sure, Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound production style helps to define A Christmas Gift for You (1963) but do you know what else defines this album? The artists! Spector used the stars from his label, Philles Records, and was determined to make a smash holiday hit. The Ronettes and the Crystals add some rock ‘n roll power to kid favorites like “Frosty the Snowman,” “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” “Sleigh Ride,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans add to the earnestness with their versions of “The Bells of St. Mary’s” and “Here Comes Santa Claus” and Darlene Love wows with her rendition of “White Christmas” and on the album’s only original song and now Christmas standard, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” It’s hard to believe the album initially flopped and it wasn’t until subsequent reissues that it was able to claw its way onto ‘best of’ lists everywhere.* A Christmas Gift for You *is sugary pop goodness, the cream of the crop, setting the standard for holiday compilations for decades to come.
The Andy Williams Christmas Album (1963) topped the Christmas album charts three years in a row and has become a holiday mainstay thanks to well-known songs like “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “Happy Holiday/The Holiday Season,” and a popular cover of “White Christmas.” Anyone who’s ever gone shopping at a mall in December will be familiar with these songs. But when you actually sit down to listen to this, Williams’ first of many Christmas albums, there’s an overwhelming urge to throw a cocktail party complete with fondue and eggnog. The entire first side is perfect for a sophisticated evening with friends, Williams’ smooth pop vocals going down like butterscotch. For that post-goodbye hour when you’re walking around your place surveying the damage with drink in hand and heels kicked off, side two’s traditional carols and hymns are calming and reflective. So take a cue from Mr. Christmas and start prepping those “parties for hosting and marshmallows for toasting” because well, you know what time of year it is.
There’s something magical when people interact with the Muppets; even as an adult it’s so easy to believe in these characters. That magic and sincerity requires someone who is equally sincere and maybe a bit square, and arguably no one did it better than singer-songwriter John Denver. The album A Christmas Together is a soundtrack to a 1979 holiday television special and while it hasn’t received annual airings the way other specials have, the soundtrack is still something unique and wonderful. Stand-out tracks include their popular version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” Rowlf the Dog singing a duet with Denver on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and Miss Piggy leading a round with “Christmas Is Coming.” Even when songs threaten to stray into hokeyness, the Muppets’ comedic bits bring it back into genuine earnestness without the tongue-in-cheek cynicism you’ll find nowadays. I think that’s something we all need this holiday season.
For those who live or grew up in warmer climates, sometimes you just want a record that reflects the kind of Christmas you know… warm and green. That’s exactly what happens with the self-proclaimed greatest instrumental rock ‘n roll Christmas album ever made, The Ventures’ Christmas Album (1965). The Ventures, an instrumental rock band, add their characteristic sunny surf-rock sound to standard fare like “Sleigh Ride” and “Jingle Bells.” But the most awesome thing is how they do it: they take guitar riffs from other recognizable hits and incorporate them into the Christmas music. The result is ‘60s holiday mash-ups where the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” intros “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs’’ “Wooly Bully” is mixed with “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.” The Ventures clearly had fun with it, and generations of fans continue to enjoy this yuletide rocker. Give the album a spin at your next get-together and see if your guests can name all the popular hits.
Soul Christmas is a 1968 compilation album released by Atco Records (an Atlantic affiliate), which may not be as well-known as other record label comps but it’s no less awesome. Don’t be fooled by later CD releases, which added, removed, and rearranged the tracks, Soul Christmas on vinyl with its 11 classic songs is where it’s at. Clarence Carter is happy to give his presents to all the ladies while their men are out to play on album opener “Back Door Santa,” with its familiar horn opening famously used in Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis.” Booker T. & The MG’s contribute two tracks, “Silver Bells” and “Jingle Bells,” off their ’67 holiday album while Joe Tex’s “I’ll Make Every Day Christmas (For My Woman)” and William Bell’s “Every Day Will Be Like A Holiday” offer similar themes about making their partners feel loved every day. Other R&B legends appear like Carla Thomas, saxophonist King Curtis, Solomon Burke on the joyfully mid-tempo “Presents for Christmas,” and Otis Redding who recorded his versions of “White Christmas” and “Merry Christmas Baby” just before he died. Need some hot fire for your holiday parties? Right here, baby.
Elvis Presley still had one foot firmly planted in then-scandalous rock ‘n roll when he recorded Elvis’ Christmas Album (1957), his fourth full-length and first Christmas album. It was released in the midst of promoting the film Jailhouse Rock (promo photos were included in first pressings), and Presley was eager to show off his versatility. Tackling pop standards and bluesy rock originals on side one as well as traditional carols and gospel on side two (the gospel numbers included here were previously released on an EP earlier that year), Elvis’ Christmas Album was an instant classic, eventually becoming the bestselling Christmas album of all time. There’s the country-rock of “Blue Christmas,” the Drifters-inspired version of “White Christmas,” a rocker version of the Gene Autry classic “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and more. But despite some of the upbeat numbers the album is also surprisingly peaceful; at age 22, Presley already knew how to appeal to more than his teen-fan base. It’s the perfect wrap-your-presents and enjoy-some-hot-toddies kind of album.
By the time Ella Fitzgerald recorded Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas (1960) for Verve Records, Fitzgerald had already enjoyed a long career establishing her versatility with jazz, musical, and pop standards. Known as the First Lady of Song, Fitzgerald is one of the greatest singers ever, not just for her amazing vocal abilities but for her dedication and care that comes through in each song. Now imagine that enthusiasm on popular Christmas songs. From the fantastically whimsical album cover of a unicorn with a flower in its mouth to the opening notes of “Jingle Bells” you just know you’re in for a swinging good time. And hot damn it swings! Backed by an orchestra conducted and arranged by Frank DeVol, Lady Ella bounces from children’s classics like “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and “Rudolph” to more mature numbers like “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” which is one of the definitive versions of this song, in my opinion. Big band sound plus jazzy horn solos plus Ella freaking Fitzgerald make this pure joy on wax.
A Motown Christmas (1973) is a compilation sourced from various holiday albums by some of Motown’s biggest stars and is kind of an updated and expanded reissue of a 1968 holiday comp. Thank goodness they did because this double-album is the real deal, folks. Not only do we get the high-energy and polish we’ve come to expect from Motown but the sheer variety will appeal to lovers of both pop and traditional Christmas music. There’s the deep soulfulness of the Temptations (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” never sounded so smooth), the classy Diana Ross & the Supremes (“Silver Bells” and “White Christmas”), the youthful exuberance of the Jackson 5 (“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”), the bright and optimistic Stevie Wonder (“Someday at Christmas” is a bona fide classic), and the funky yet complex arrangements of Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. A Motown Christmas is a standard for all, an album to enjoy all season long.
Looking for an album to listen to while snuggling with your honey in front of a roaring fire? Something old and dusty but like a fine wine only gets better with age? Playful and sentimental, Bing Crosby’s Merry Christmas is the album for you. Originally released in 1945 on five 78 rpm records, the album has seen its fair share of iterations. The version with the above cover of Crosby in a Santa hat is actually the 1955 reissue when it first appeared on a 12-inch LP and it is this version, or subsequent reissue, that everyone should own. The oldest album on this list, *Merry Christmas *is nostalgia incarnate – even the best-selling Christmas single of all time, “White Christmas,” is about longing for childhood Christmases so long ago. Recording dates range between 1942-1951, making the album more like a compilation of Crosby’s classic crooners, his smooth baritone and note-bending delivery lulling you into dreams of tinsel and sugarplums. Personal favorites include his duet with Carol Richards on “Silver Bells” and the songs with the Andrews Sisters like “Mele Kalikimaka.” Oh and fear not, vinyl lovers, the recent reissues sound pretty good, too.
Christmas music aficionados may slap you upside the head if you don’t already own the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas. Peanuts by Charles Schulz was a comic strip about kids that also appealed to adults’ sense of humor and* A Charlie Brown Christmas*, which first aired in 1965, was the first of many animated television specials based on those characters. Producer Lee Mendelson went with Vince Guaraldi for his smooth jazz style that perfectly fit that all-ages appeal. For many of us, this soundtrack was our first exposure to jazz and how it could take a familiar melody and flip it around to make something new. Whether it’s the somber tunes like “What Child Is This” and “Christmas Time Is Here” or the more shimmery numbers like “My Little Drum” and “Skating,” Guaraldi managed to write and adapt traditional Christmas music that captures the nostalgia of the season, the ultimate in heart-warming soul-nourishment.
Marcella Hemmeter is a freelance writer and adjunct professor living in Maryland by way of California. When she's not busy meeting deadlines she frequently laments the lack of tamalerias near her house.
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