The 18 best Christmas albums of all time
21st Dec 2010 | 10:45
The 18 best Christmas albums of all time
It takes perfect timing, sensitive production and a whole lot of luck to land a timeless Christmas song. Many try, but most fail to live up to the glam anthems, carolling standards and crooning staples that we like to call the best Christmas songs of all time. But what does it take to land a perfect festive album? A damn site more than luck…
If you’re putting together a compilation, you’ll need cash - and lots of it. Which is why so many Best Of collections have fallen by the snowy wayside of this poll. No Wham!, Mariah, or Chris Rea? Forget it. You’re not a ‘Best Of’ anything.
If you’re an artist putting together an entire LP, you’ll need a dedication to the Christmas cause like no other. You’ll need to immerse yourself in the festive spirit in a way that us Scrooge-like mortals can only dream of. You’ll need to become Christmas itself.
So whose classic albums have made the cut? Which charitable compilations stand head and shoulders above the rest? We asked, you answered, and this is a gallery of the results: the 18 greatest Christmas albums of all time.
First up: Christmas - Low
Christmas - Low
Nothing says chilled out Christmas bliss more than Minnesotan slowcore legends Low’s Christmas EP. Released as a gift to fans in 1999, the wonderful sleigh bell-driven opening track Just Like Christmas lifts the listener just enough to cope with the onslaught of suitably downbeat tracks that follow.
Definitely one to be played in moderation, but as Christmas is as much about reflection as it is about celebration, that moderation shouldn’t be limited to less than once a year.
Listen: Low - Long Way Around The Sea
BUY: Low - Christmas
A Winter Romance - Dean Martin
Ahhh, romance. Where today’s modern man probably considers switching lager for Baileys to be the ultimate in romantic festive gestures, it takes the King Of Cool to really bring it on home for the boys. Dean Martin: actor; singer; Rat Pack platinum member; and all-round ladies man. His first Christmas-themed effort in 1959, A Winter Romance, is an orchestra-backed collection of staples with a fire-side lovin’ edge.
The album artwork sets the scene better than we ever could: a skiing holiday; a luxury lodge; a romantic embrace on the slopes... and a passing flirt with the hotty in pink. What a guy.
Listen: Dean Martin - A Winter Romance
Christmas With The Rat Pack - Various Artists
You’ll already find Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin elsewhere in this list, but if you’ve only got so much time, space and love for slick-haired, suited crooners, Christmas With The Rat Pack is the ultimate best of. And you wouldn’t want to miss out on the ‘Pack’s third wheel of its festive wagon, Sammy Davis. Jr.
So sit back and tip your hat while the pros show you how it’s done...
Listen: Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin - A Marshmallow World
A Motown Christmas - Various Artists
As far as genre-themed Christmas albums go, this one excels itself. The double LP’s artist roster is a veritable who’s who of Motown’s glorious ‘60s and ‘70s era: Stevie Wonder; The Supremes; Smokey Robinson; The Temptations; and The Jackson 5. Each perfectly chosen track sounds as cool and fresh today as it ever did.
All killer, no mince pie filler.
Listen: Stevie Wonder - What Christmas Means To Me
BUY: A Motown Christmas
XFM It's A Cool Cool Christmas - Various Artists
A collection of originals, covers and re-worked Christmas classics by the cream of the late nineties indie crop in aid of The Big Issue charity. Part American royalty: Grandaddy; Dandy Warhols; Eels; and part British: Six By Seven; Saint Etienne; and Belle And Sebastian. All far too cool to step over the periphery of mainstream appeal, as the album’s name suggests. But then that’s half the charm.
Check out album opener Grandaddy’s bleepy ode to production legend Alan Parsons for a taste of what to expect…
Listen: Grandaddy - Alan Parsons In A Winter Wonderland
A Very Special Christmas - Various Artists
The Christmas compilation equivalent of Marmite. If you like stadium-filling dad rock, you’ll love it. But if the thought of Bon Jovi, U2, Sting and Bryan Adams, reworking your cherished festive favourites with massive sincerity and a delay pedal, makes you puke a little bit into your mouth, look away now... but don’t go too far. A Very Special Christmas is a charity record, after all. And its initial 1987 release has spawned no less than six follow-ups including live and acoustic collections. So we’re guessing a significant amount of people fall into the former category.
Among the aforementioned big hitters you’ll also find some surprisingly original cover versions from the likes of Eurythmics, Stevie Nicks and The Pretenders. As far as charitable Christmas albums go, A Very Special Christmas sets the bar.
Listen: Stevie Nicks - Silent Night
Songs For Christmas - Sufjan Stevens
Songs For Christmas is a box set of five EPs released over six years between 2001-2006 (the missing year is 2004 when Stevens was too busy recording Illinois). The fact that these collections of stripped-down carols, covers and originals where originally recorded as gifts for family and friends - and that Stevens is himself a devout Christian - only adds to the music’s festive spirit.
Indeed, the Christian element runs boldly throughout, with Stevens’ choice of covers a refreshing change from the Rat Pack fodder. Away In A Manger, Once In Royal David’s City and O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, to name but a few.
Listen: Sufjan Stevens - Sister Winter
The Jackson 5 Christmas Album
Motown Records and the Jackson family regime certainly knew how to, er… ‘get the most’ out of their young artists. 1970’s Christmas Album was The Jackson 5’s third LP release that year. Although you’d never tell. Their versions of Frosty The Snowman and Santa Claus Is Coming To Town remain among the most upbeat and soulful festive tracks of all time which, on the outside at least, paint a picturesque portrait of a harmonious family Christmas.
‘Harmonious’ - get it? You know, vocal harmonies? Forget it. Just listen to this and try not to think about the fact that MJ’s mum is in fact a Jehovah’s Witness…
Listen: The Jackson 5 - I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
Merry Christmas - Mariah Carey
Mariah Carey released Merry Christmas at the glitter-covered peak of her career - between Music Box and Daydream - in 1994. It’s since become a festive staple (one of the best-selling Christmas albums of all time), spawned this year’s second addition (Merry Christmas II You - genius) and is to be the basis of a musical movie of the same name. Starring Carey, of course.
We expect we’re not alone in admitting that this is the only time of year when any Mariah Carey release is taken 100% seriously. Indeed, this is the only time of year where such capitalism is acceptable, let alone whole-heartedly embraced. So don’t even try and fight it…
Listen: Mariah Carey - All I Want For Christmas Is You
The Sinatra Family Wish You a Merry Christmas - Frank Sinatra
At any other time of year, the very idea of a millionaire crooner and his three adult children (dressed entirely in angelic white) recording an album of well-known covers is, quite frankly, sickening. But this is Christmas. And The Sinatra Family Wish You A Merry Christmas LP is the epitome of family bonding.
Alongside Frank Sinatra himself feature his son Frank Jr and two daughters Nancy and Tina. The album was out of print for decades before a 1993 reissue.
Listen: Frank Sinatra - The Christmas Waltz
The Beach Boys' Christmas Album
There aren’t many bands who could pull off a reworking of carolling standard We Three Kings Of Orient Are without sounding like a progressive school nativity play. Perhaps it’s the heavenly choir-like harmonies, but The Beach Boys managed it without a trace of irony. That, plus another six equally-sublime covers and five originals - including Little Saint Nick - make up The Beach Boys’ 1964 Christmas Album.
It shouldn’t work. But oh how it does…
Listen: The Beach Boys - Christmas Day
Christmas In The Heart - Bob Dylan
A whopping 34 studio albums in to his career and Bob Dylan finally gets around to recording a Christmas album (although, being Jewish, it’s probably more of a surprise that he did one at all). Appropriately self-produced under Dylan’s knob twiddling pseudonym Jack Frost, Christmas In The Heart is a charitable collection of hymns and carols reworked with Dylan’s signature croaky vocal, released in… 2009!?
So how the hell has it achieved ‘classic’ status already? Perhaps it’s the lush production. Or perhaps it’s because it’s Bob Dylan, for Chrissakes. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the fact that the pissed-up party vibe of Must Be Santa and Dylan’s own drunk grandpa-esque performance hits home a damn sight harder than imaginary chestnuts roasting on a radiator. Keep it real.
Listen: Bob Dylan - Must Be Santa
Funky Christmas - James Brown
Funky Christmas borrows tracks from James Brown’s various other seasonal offerings to create what is easily the best collection of festive funk out there. It’s a mixture of well-known covers and original pieces, all beautifully crafted with The Godfather Of Soul’s signature soulful sound and the ever-present might of his band.
Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto, in particular, is a poignant social message. Albeit disguised under a glistening layer of power funk.
Listen: James Brown - Go Power At Christmas Time
Merry Christmas/White Christmas - Bing Crosby
Bing Crosby is about as synonymous with Christmas as Santa Claus himself. Whether solo, in a movie, duetting with David Bowie or, more recently, having his duet with David Bowie impersonated by Will Ferrell and John C Reilly, the man may as well be the patron saint of Greenland.
The 1945 album Merry Christmas (reissued as White Christmas in 1995) has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide. It’s an undisputed heavyweight of the genre. And although oft copied, it’s worth pointing out that his version of White Christmas remains the seminal recording. Bing, we are not worthy.
Listen: Bing Crosby - It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas
The Magic Of Christmas - Nat king Cole
Nathaniel Adams Coles - or Nat King Cole - was a prominent pianist during the ‘50s, but it was his soft baritone which was so perfectly suited to jazz, big band, and, of course, traditional Christmas music. Perhaps surprisingly then, he only released one full-length seasonal album, The Magic Of Christmas.
It’s worth noting that you’ll need the 1963 reissue if you want The Christmas Song. And believe us, you do want The Christmas Song. Nat’s version is the best, hands down.
Listen: Nat King Cole - The Christmas Song
Elvis' Christmas Album - Elvis Presley
Elvis’ Christmas Album, the first of two seasonal LPs released by The king, came just four albums into his career in 1957. Following countless reissues, it’s since become one of the biggest selling Christmas albums of all time, and was always going to be a front-runner in this poll.
Elvis’ country-tinged, gospel-inspired take on carols and festive staples were, and still are, a breath of fresh air from the familiar croonings of the Rat Pack et all, but they weren’t a hit with everyone. In fact, Irving Berlin called Elvis’ cover of White Christmas a “profane parody of his cherished yuletide standard.” Ouch...
Listen: Elvis Presley - White Christmas
We Wish You A Metal Xmas And A Headbanging New Year - Various Artists
We have to admit, we were surprised at how close this ‘headbanging’ collection came to topping the poll. Until we looked at the artists who contributed to it. The sleeve-notes read like a God damn rollcall of rock and metal royalty. Lemmy, Ronnie James Dio, Tony Iommi, Alice Cooper, Dave Grohl, Vinny Appice, Billy Gibbons, Billy Sheehan... you get the picture.
But it’s the unexpected combinations, not the artists alone, which make this compilation so special: Lemmy + Gibbons + Grohl, for example, = the gnarliest version of Run Rudolph Run you’d ever sanely subject your ears to. Gentlemen, devil horns at the ready...
Listen: Ronnie James Dio, Tony Iommi, Rudy Sarzo and Simon Wright - God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records/Phil Spector - Various Artists
"Of course, the biggest thanks goes to you, for giving me the opportunity to relate my feelings of Christmas through the music I love."
Phil Spector’s spoken word address to his adoring public at the end of A Christmas Gift For You was probably more testament to his delusions than a touching sentiment. Especially when you consider that, at the time in 1963, few people outside the recording industry had any idea who Phil Spector was. The album was a flop, too. Released on the same day as the assassination of President John F Kennedy, the world wasn’t exactly in the mood for massive productions of upbeat Christmas staples.
But as is so often the case, time is the biggest test. And as Spector’s fame grew and his Wall Of Sound became the most-imitated and admired technique of the era, so did the public’s appreciation of A Christmas Gift For You.
To this day, as this poll testifies, Spector’s heavy production, delicate layering of instruments (including sleigh bells) and the painfully good, soulful vocal talent of the Philles Records’ artist roster - Darlene Love, The Crystals, The Ronettes and Bob B Soxx - has yet to be topped. Like the eccentric producer himself, A Christmas Gift For You is a cult classic. And from a festive perspective, it’s a masterpiece.
Listen: Darlene Love - Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
Liked this? Now read: The 25 best Christmas songs of all time
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