The 20 greatest Christmas albums – ranked!

20. The Roches (1990)

The US avant-folk trio got their start in music singing Christmas carols, making We Three Kings something of a back-to-the-roots venture. Arranged rather sparsely, it lets the Roche sisters’ harmonies shine – the a cappella star of Wonder is magical – while their Winter Wonderland with New York accents is an absolute hoot.

19. Various artists – Something Festive (1968)

In which the cream of A&M Records’ easy listening artists – including Herb Alpert, Burt Bacharach and Sérgio Mendez – present a Christmas album as velvety smooth as eggnog. The highlight: Claudine Longet’s filigree confection of strings, acoustic guitar and breathy vocals, Snow.

18. Various artists – Ghosts of Christmas Past (1981)

The most unlikely of things: a post-punk Christmas album featuring Aztec Camera playing a Django Reinhardt-inspired instrumental, a Factory Records grad selection and San Francisco-based Tuxedomoon. The impossibly beautiful snowflakes of the Durutti Column stand out.

17. James Brown – Hey America (1970)

James Brown has made three Christmas albums, but the last one deserves its place here because it’s the strangest. The problem isn’t the music — a string-laden rendition of funk — it’s Brown himself, who seems to make up the words to each song as he goes along, with bewildering results.

16. Bob Dylan – Christmas in the Heart (2009)

An honest, heartfelt expression of faith and seasonal cheerfulness? A concerted effort to take the title of the most bizarre Christmas album from James Brown’s aforementioned Hey America? Unraveling the thought processes and motivation behind Christmas in the Heart is a daunting task, but wacky Must Be Santa is a once-heard, never-to-be-forgotten experience.

15. Various Artists – A John Waters Christmas (2004)

One might expect happy schlock from film director John Waters, and there’s plenty of that here – singing kids, the chipmunks, Rudolph and the gang’s swearing Here Comes Fatty Claus – but the genius of A John Waters Christmas is how he captures the weirdness and that Laughter mixes with sheer loveliness, like Stormy Weather’s doo-wop Christmas Time Is Coming.

14. Various Artists – A LaFace Family Christmas (1993)

DC in 1992.
DC in 1992. Photo: Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

This compilation has earned its place in history by including the first track ever released by OutKast, Player’s Ball. An ultra-funky saga about a troubled drug dealer’s Christmas Day, the track is undoubtedly the pinnacle, but TLCs All I Want for Christmas and Toni Braxton’s stylish version of The Christmas Song are surprisingly close.

13. Sufjan Stevens – Christmas Carols (2006)

A 42-track compilation that traces Stevens’ evolution from chaotic folk-rocker to baroque pop mastermind. He sings carols with conviction, but it’s the tunes he wrote that really resonate – not least the cheerfully realistic Get Behind Me, Santa!, which expresses weary optimism for the holiday season: “It’s a fact of life like it or not, so put your hands together and try it.”

12. Kacey Musgraves – A Very Kacey Christmas (2016)

A perfectly balanced Christmas where kitsch – “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” – coexists with heartbreak and crying pedal steel on “Christmas Makes Me Cry” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” meets “A Willie Nice Christmas,” a weed-filled duet by Willie Nelson that challenges listeners to “stand taller than the angel at the top of the tree.”

11. Loretta Lynn – Christmas in the Country (1966)

The country star’s first Christmas album is nothing short of fantastic: muted Christmas carols, plenty of sass (To Heck With Ole Santa Claus, I Won’t Decorate Your Christmas Tree) and, most importantly, unadulterated tears in the tinsel misery on Gift of the Blues and Christmas Without Daddy.

10. Various Artists – A Motown Christmas (1973)

The Jackson 5’s Santa Claus Is Coming to Town is full of exuberance; Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen fascinatingly jazzy. The star, however, is Stevie Wonder: his original version of Someday at Christmas smashes Lizzo’s current cover, and his more upbeat What Christmas Means to Me is a delight.

9. Elvis Presley – Elvis’ Christmas Album (1957)

The first and best of Elvis’ seasonal offerings, made while Presley was still very close to his early, raw rockabilly years: listen to intense, bluesy opener Santa Claus Is Back in Town for proof. Add to that gospel and masterful ballads, and the I’ll Be Home for Christmas version is truly heartbreaking.

8. The Beach Boys – The Beach Boys Christmas Album (1964)

The Beach Boys Christmas Album was being recorded just as Brian Wilson’s talents were catching fire – around the same time as 1965’s fantastic The Beach Boys Today! And side one, where the Wilson originals lurk, is littered with gems: Merry Christmas, Baby, and Christmas Day in particular show just how awesome he was, even when he was supposedly tapping something to order.

7. Tracey Thorn – Tinsel and Lights (2012)

The exquisite melancholy of Thorn’s voice proves perfectly suited to a superbly curated selection of seasonal songs. The horn-backed version of Joni Mitchell’s River – more Christmassy than a Christmas carol per se – is beautiful. Her version of Like a Snowman, written by Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt, is even better.

6. Various Artists – A Christmas Record (1981)

The grandparent of all leftist Ze Records post-punk/post-disco roster Christmas albums: It’s diversely funky (August Darnell’s fabulous Christmas on Riverside Drive), darkly weird (Cristina’s Things Fall Apart) and disturbing (Suicides Hey Lord). ). Despite the hint of hipster snark, it spawned a true mainstream seasonal classic: the waitresses’ adorable Christmas wrap.

5. Low – Christmas (1999)

If you’re looking for an American indie version of the celebratory album, this is it. The cranky Little Drummer Boy is magical, but the killer is Just Like Christmas, a lo-fi take on the Phil Spector sound that’s utterly cheerful despite its portrayal of tour-related misery: “The snow was gone, we got it we got lost… it was like Christmas.”

4. Rotary Connection—Peace (1968)

Rotary Connection, with Minnie Riperton at center.
Rotary Connection, with Minnie Riperton at center. Photo: Archive Michael Ochs/Getty Images

A Christmas album to listen to all year round: a baroque, psychedelic soul opus packed with producer Charles Stepney’s lavish, adventurous orchestration, plus Hendrix-esque guitar solos (it features the craziest version of Silent Night imaginable imaginable) and Minnie Riperton’s voice from heaven.

3. Various Artists – A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector (1963)

To avoid A Christmas Gift for You because of Phil Spector’s toxicity would be to deny the incredible work of the artists involved. Hear Darlene Love’s pleading voice this Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) and the balanced blend of cuteness and heaviness the Ronettes bring to Sleigh Ride, and it’s hard not to succumb.

2. Ella Fitzgerald – Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas (1960)

An album so good it’s easy to be amazed: how did she make Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas so good? sexy? Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas is a triumph from start to finish – no smut, no excess, just a beautiful arrangement and incredible, seemingly effortless voice after incredible, seemingly effortless voice.

In the US, the short film A Charlie Brown Christmas is an annual TV ritual. The cartoon is less well known here, but that doesn’t diminish the power of its soundtrack, in which West Coast jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi manages to capture virtually every emotion Christmas can evoke, from the childish wonder of skating to the deep sadness it brings subverts theme song, Christmas Time Is Here. People’s preferences when it comes to Christmas music tend to be even more personal than usual, tied to memories and family traditions, but the music on A Charlie Brown Christmas pulls everyone under its tree skirt: It’s by turns sophisticated and as gritty as a school nativity play, but always fascinating again.

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