The 15 Straight Up Greatest Christmas Albums of All Time
Christmas comes but once a year, yet somehow we as a society allow Christmas music to play ad nauseam for nearly 10% of the calendar year.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of atrocious Christmas music out there, from Grandma’s getting murked by rogue reindeer to Paul McCartney’s eggnog and synthesizer-induced delirium. But not all Christmas music is uniformly terrible. In fact some holiday music is just about as wonderful as this time of the year. Here are the fifteen greatest Christmas albums of all time:
15. Natty Christmas
All that Jacob Miller and DJ Ray I want for Christmas is weed. A lot of it. This album is one incredible reggae excursion through Christmastime, especially their nine-minute long riff on “Deck the Halls.”
14. Christmas on Death Row
Christmas on Death Row may not have the greatest Christmas hip hop tracks of all time (that title’s been taken by “Christmas in Harlem,” with “Christmas in Hollis” at a close second), but it is great in its own way, from Snoop’s opening James Brown and Isaac Hayes name-checking track “Santa Clause Goes Straight to the Ghetto” to the cover art of Santa strapped to an electric chair.
13. The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album
The Beach Boys’ Christmas LP is sneaky good, bringing out the best of Brian Wilson’s pop sensibilities with both traditional standards and a few originals to boot, especially with the Beach Boys’ vocals getting layered over a 41-piece backing orchestra. Not even the biggest scrooge (or Brian Wilson) can’t help but feel cheery while listening to “Little Saint Nick.”
12. Elvis’ Christmas Album
“Blue Christmas” is the standout track on Elvis’ Christmas classic, and the record’s second side of religious songs is way more God-fearing than you’d expect from the man whose hips turned a generation towards a life of sin and rock ‘n’ roll. That distinction might have been lost in the 50s, however — Irving Berlin was so scandalized by Elvis’ sinny, sinful version of “White Christmas” that he tried to ban it from the radio.
11. Christmas Album
Featuring arguably history’s best rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming To Town” (especially if you’re only counting studio versions, not Bruce’s live version), and a version of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” that for about 25 years was the most uncomfortable discussion of sexuality that Michael Jackson was involved in, the Jackson 5 Christmas album is the best thing they ever did.
10. A Very Special Christmas, Vol. I
The first A Very Special Christmas was a fantasy lineup of late-80s stars — Whitney Houston, The Boss, John Mellencamp, Sting, Run-DMC, Madonna, U2, Bon Jovi and more all came together for one classic rock radio wet dream.1 9 out of the 15 tracks on the album are performed by members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,2 the record was overseen by long-time producer and Macklemore jizz rag Jimmy Iovine, the album’s proceeds generated millions for the Special Olympics, and (most importantly) the album brought us Springsteen’s version of “Merry Christmas Baby.” Unfortunately for the compilation, the names of the talent assembled had a much longer shelf-life than the musical zeitgeist they channeled, which makes the album age about as well as Sting’s solo career.
9. A Motown Christmas
[Note: A proper YouTube link for the Motown Christmas recordings is tricky to come by, so the above video playlist is flawed but decent].
Motown’s various Christmas compilations are a little uneven, with incredible highs and pretty mediocre, synthesizer-laden lows. Groove your way through Stevie Wonder’s “What Christmas Means To Me,” cringe through The Supremes’ “Joy To The World,” and pretend like this never happened.
8. White Christmas
Credit to one of the OG’s where credit is due. Also known in vinyl format as Merry Christmas, Bing Crosby’s record is the second best-selling Christmas album of all time (behind Elvis), and “White Christmas” is the best-selling single in the history of ever.
7. James Brown’s Funky Christmas
Not one album, but rather a collection of the best tracks from the three Christmas albums that James Brown recorded over his lifetime, because apparently James Brown was a jolly man who loved giving the gift of good loving to all the grooving boys and girls of the world. Come for the soul balladry of “Please Come Home For Christmas,” stay for the social consciousness and Brown’s merry “uh-uh-HAHing” of “Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto.”
6. A Jazz Christmas
It’s difficult to get a digital hand on the little-known Chicago jazz legend Willie Pickens’ Christmas record, so do yourself and your loved ones a favor this holiday season and just buy the CD instead. Pickens and his band bring an understated and inventive energy to classic arrangements on an album full of heart and jazz flugelhorn but devoid of Christmas gimmickry.
5. What a Wonderful Christmas
Featuring the six tracks Louis Armstrong recorded for Decca Records, plus a number of other incredible takes by jazz legends like Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, and Lionel Hampton, Armstrong’s holiday album can pair well with a fire and a glass of whiskey or a crowded bar on Christmas Eve Eve, and just about everything else in between. The album stands out for its convivial joy and masterfully imaginative takes on Christmas standards, like only Louis could pull off.
4. A Charlie Brown Christmas
The gold standard of jazzy Christmases and holiday piano recitals everywhere. Joyous, fun, and universally beloved, A Charlie Brown Christmas managed to retain both insane popularity and begrudging respect from jazz-heads.
3. The Magic of Christmas
Of all the old-timey Christmas albums, Nat King Cole’s record sounds both the best and the most timeless. Classic in feel if not in age — his record is only three years older than Phil Spector’s hallmark A Christmas Gift For You, but an entire generation apart. Cole set the bar for everything a singer’s Christmas album should be, from Andy Williams up through Michael Bublé, with an assured baritone voice, soaring strings, and a generous helping of class.
2. Soul Christmas
Like the Stax record label that produced many of the stars of this album, A Soul Christmas stands in sharp contrast to the flowery over-production of Motown’s version of soul music, trading in strings for a horn section and silky smoothness for gruff and grit. Legends like Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Solomon Burke, and Booker T. & the M.G.’s absolutely kill it on the record, bringing sex and soul to the holidays.
1. A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector
It doesn’t get any better than Phil Spector’s bombastically iconic Christmas album. Spector’s wall of sound fits perfectly with his artists, especially Darlene Love, who goes absolute ham on tracks like “Marshmallow World,” “Winter Wonderland,” and the standout “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” That the album came out the same day as JFK’s assassination, and that the production is as inventive and crazy as Phil Spector himself, yet still worked its way up to be the Christmas album G.O.A.T. is just about as incredible as the album itself.