There’s so much Christmas music out there it pays to be selective. After all, it’s really only in season for about a month of every year, so it’s not worth putting up with the bad or mediocre stuff.
In 2020 especially, you’ll have more control over your holiday playlist. Because you’ll be shopping from home more and generally doing less of what you used to do on account of the pandemic, you get to call your own musical shots. No more clothing stores force-feeding you the Rat Pack. No more mall food courts blasting Jessica Simpson or The Manhattan Transfer. This Christmas break, you and your discerning ears deserve better.
We know it’s a tall task to whittle this endless genre down to just 10 albums. Frankly, another 10 could be added as honorable mentions alone. Regardless, the 10 records below stand head and shoulders above the festive crowd. As long plays, you can simply click your Spotify once (or your turntable, if you’re a purist, with a turn at the midway point) and let the spirited tunes take you to wherever your fondest Christmas memories reside.
It’s a Holiday Soul Party by Sharon Jones
The late Sharon Jones already had a dense, immortalizing discography before releasing this Christmas treasure in 2015. It’s eleven glorious, soulful tracks—a magical mix of feel-good original material and classics given the ultimate groove treatment.
A Very Special Christmas Compilation
It’s almost cheating when you put together a star-studded compilation but this one can’t be overlooked. The 1987 effort has it all, from artwork by Keith Haring to amazing covers by the likes of Whitney Houston, Stevie Nicks, and Madonna. There’s even “Christmas in Hollis” by Run-D.M.C., easily one of the best hip-hop Christmas tracks of all time.
Merry Christmas from Hawaii by The Surfers
A wade in warm Pacific waters when you need it most, this album by The Surfers is simple and satisfying. It has all the Christmas staples, mostly sung choir-style and injected with a bit some very Hawaiian slide guitar and percussion. Basically, it’s a handful of good voices gathered (remember gatherings?) around a beach fire singing all of your favorites.
The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album
A great release even outside of the Christmas context, this album from Brian Wilson and Co. is playful and practically perfect in its melodic bliss. It was really the first time, at least in pop music, that many of the holiday hits were given the formative surf rock treatment and in that sense, it still has a freshness about it.
A Charlie Brown Christmas by Vince Guaraldi Trio
Here we are well over half a century later and this album still delivers. It’s easily the best jazz Christmas record ever, with its subtle swing and crafty instrumentation. It can be on repeat all December long, forming the soundtrack to your tree trimming, gift wrapping, meal prepping, and cocktail sipping.
If We Make it Through December by Phoebe Bridgers
Who? Only one of the most promising up-and-coming indie starlets in the current scene. Better still, Bridgers already has a great Christmas EP to her name with this brand new release, one that touches on the delicate, sensitive, and candid side of the holiday stretch. You don’t have to be coerced into being upbeat this time of year because Santa says so. Throw this on and reflect on the shit show that’s been 2020.
The Christmas Spirit by Johnny Cash
Nobody (well, maybe Elvis or Dolly Parton) can narrate the season quite like Johnny Cash. His low register is comforting as the snow and stress pile up. This record from ’63 reminds of the simple objective of the holiday; that is, to spread goodwill and peace and just be a decent person. And it does it to the tune of some nice, gently-prancing country.
The Lost Christmas Eve Trans Siberian Orchestra
Christmas should rock and when Tran Siberian Orchestra has the stage, it always does. The band’s entire holiday-centric discography is grand but this record in particular puts the electric guitar on a pedestal and decorates it with bulbs, candy canes, and all the festive accouterment. Turns out headbanging and caroling can go hand in hand.
James Brown’s Funky Christmas
The Godfather of Soul ignites all music. That goes for vintage Christmas songs and his own holiday creations. This album stresses both, with Brown’s one-of-a-kind energy and tremendous vocal range.
A Very She & Him Christmas
At first, She and Him seemed too cute, the coupling of indie folk star M. Ward and adorkable actress Zooey Deschanel. But it worked, especially in the Christmas department. This 2011 album of covers shows just how solid the pairing is, with her luminous voice and his deft guitar work.
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