If you play your cards right, you can get all the way from Thanksgiving to the New Year without getting tired of holiday music. But you can’t often do that by just playing passenger and allowing the FM dial or your so-called “music-savvy” friend to take the lead with their respective playlists. You need great albums that offer both timelessness and straight-up jams.
It’s 2021, people. Songs like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” should have been buried long ago. While Christmas powerhouses like Bing Crosby are fun, you can be more creative. We tend to treat the holiday music scene kinda like the karaoke notebook at your favorite dive bar: Here are the options, take it or leave it. Turns out, a lot of great artists have made some incredible seasonal albums, from icons like Mahalia Jackson to guitar gods like Delicate Steve.
Put on your red and green loafers (or favorite dancing shoes), up the volume, grab an appropriate holiday cocktail, and set your Spotify to the following outstanding holiday albums.
It’s a Holiday Soul Party by Sharon Jones
Rest in Power, Sharon Jones. This soulful record from 2015 contains one of the best Christmas songs of all time in “Just Another Christmas Song (This Time I’ll Song Along).” The rest is a near-perfect mix of classic R&B and soul and infectious energy.
Hi-Fi Christmas Guitar by Joel Paterson
The album cover says it all: This is a record devoted to formative rock ‘n’ roll, the kind Chuck Berry helped create back in the day. Paterson’s a deft guitarist with a brilliantly retro sound and his treatments of classics like “Mele Kalikimaka” and “Silver Bells,” among others, are worth multiple listens.
The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album
A lot of surf rock acts have tackled the Christmas album, but none have matched what The Beach Boys have achieved here. Their pop and harmony sensibilities on full display, the record shimmers with playful melody after playful melody. Better, you get the feeling Brian Wilson and Co. are really enjoying themselves, not just logging studio time.
Elvis’ Christmas Album by Elvis Presley
This 1957 gem features not only the low-register crooning of the man himself but also some catchy blues-rock and even some gospel. It demonstrates the versatility of Elvis, who could have just as easily phoned this one in and got his check. Instead, he puts his heart and soul — and hips — into it.
Merry Christmas by Mariah Carey
Did you really think we’d scroll past this one? Not a chance. The 1994 instant classic includes the chart-topping “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” a Darlene Love song from 1963 that Mariah fully makes her own. The album at large showcases Carey’s golden vocal cords at the height of her pop reign.
A Charlie Brown Christmas by Vince Guaraldi Trio
This is a record that’s graying with age but still undoubtedly one of the best. It showcases Vince Guaraldi’s bonafide abilities as a jazzsmith, which he didn’t really get much credit for until this release came about. Sure, it will conjure up images of Charlie Brown and commercialization of Christmas, but it’s also a damn fine jazz record with just enough swing to keep your toes tapping.
Pretty Paper by Willie Nelson
Originally dropped in 1979, this album from the country music legend is Nelson’s first foray into holiday music and a great one at that. It’s produced by Booker T. and offers countrified versions of all sorts of classics. In true Willie fashion, the artist takes over your living room and tells an engaging tale with each familiar track.
Songs for Christmas by Sufjan Stevens
Most music fans know that indie icon Sufjan Stevens has a knack for all things Christmas. This 2006 album solidifies as much, a delightful take on some great old songs, treated to the beautiful musical mind and bedroom pop ways of Stevens. Even if you’re not religious, you can’t help but feel the spirit inherent to these powerful tracks.
The Lost Christmas Eve by Trans Siberian Orchestra
The musical equivalent of your neighbor’s unapologetic display of Christmas lights, this album is made to rock. It’s tough to beat a live Trans Siberian Orchestra show (in fact, YouTube some of these while we’re on the topic), but this album just about does. It proudly says that holiday music is not just about choirs, pianos, and reflection. It’s about amplifiers, frayed denim, and playing at volume 11.
Reggae Christmas from Studio One
This outstanding LP features a mixed cast, including the likes of The Wailers, Tennessee Brown, and The Heptones. The bounciness of the genre marries the cheerfulness of the season perfectly. In fact, versions of “White Christmas” and “Little Drummer Boy” are better and more interesting than their lauded originals.
Christmas Cookin’ by Jimmy Smith
Overlooked by the masses, this 1992 album offers some real musical worth. It spotlights Smith’s rare ability to marry jazz with fun and soul at the bench of his trusty organ. The arrangements are flawless and cool as you like, with plenty of solos and some big band brass to live everything sky high.
The Christmas Album by Delicate Steve
New Jersey musician Delicate Steve essentially sings with hi guitar, opting for intricate melodic noodling over actual singing. The result is a tremendous, electric guitar-driven effort from 2018 that’s especially fitting for the later hours of the night, after a few swigs of egg nog. Who needs words when you can fully speak through your Stratocaster?
Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas by Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald’s voice is so good it has become the standard-bearer within the vast sonic industry. This 1960 record is fun yet methodical, showing the vocalist’s untouchable tone and on-a-dime phrasing. It shows the high-energy side of jazz fronted by one of the greatest voices of all time.
CeeLo’s Magic Moment by CeeLo Green
Leave it to CeeLo to put out a holiday album with a wonderfully over-the-top album cover featuring the musician commanding a Bentley sleigh tied to three white horses. The album lives up to the audacious cover, with solid cameos by the likes of Christina Aguilera, Rod Steward, and even The Muppets.
Silent Night: Songs for Christmas by Mahalia Jackson
This album is nothing short of an experience, one that’s incredibly moving regardless of your thoughts on the holiday. It’s the work of gospel goddess Mahalia Jackson, and upon listening to just the first few lines, you get immediately why so many greats have considered her to be the best in the business when it comes to soul-stirring delivery.
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