OK, I admit it. I’m a sucker for Christmas music. I can’t stand those tacky Hallmark Channel made-for-TV Christmas movies they’ve been torturing us with since July, and I definitely disapprove of Yuletide decorations before December. But during the couple of weeks leading up to the main event, nothing gets me in the holiday spirit like Christmas music. Every year, we add at least a couple more albums to the Christmas collection at my house, and many of these have become essential. Here are my favorites for every mood and taste.
Trimming the Tree
Putting up a Christmas tree is risky business. You’re almost guaranteed to make some kind of mistake; the question is whether you’re just going to break an ornament or knock the whole thing over. I don’t recommend listening to music while you’re getting the tree screwed into the base or making sure it’s all “even” (it never will be), but once you’re ready to decorate, cue up the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas (Vince Guaraldi, 1965). The first track (O Tannenbaum) couldn’t be more fitting, and once you get to Linus and Lucy, you will have found your groove. Keep the childhood memories coming with the soundtrack to How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Various Artists, 1966), and settle down with some eggnog and Bette Midler’s Cool Yule (2006) to admire your work. If you haven’t heard this one yet, you’re in for a treat. At my house, we listen to the Divine Miss M’s holiday album throughout the season.
Christmas Cocktail Party
Throwing a holiday party, and want it to be on the classy side, but not too stuffy? Look no further than the Ultra-Lounge Christmas Cocktails series (Various Artists, 1996-2004). Put all three of those on, and Don Draper himself wouldn’t be out of place as a guest. If the party’s still going strong after three martinis, throw on Ella Wishes You a Swingin’ Christmas (Ella Fitzgerald, 1960). It’s the ultimate jazzy Christmas album from the First Lady of Song.
If you like a little twang in your music, I recommend these three albums from singers who were at the vanguard of the New Traditionalist movement a few decades ago: Merry Christmas Strait to You (George Strait, 1986), Merry Christmas to You (Reba McEntire, 1987), and Light of the Stable (Emmylou Harris, 1979).
The most popular R&B-flavored Christmas album of all time has got to be Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas (1994). Incidentally, it’s also the album whose music is most likely to trigger gay gasps, especially when All I Want for Christmas Is You comes on in the bars. For something a little more old school, the Jackson 5 Christmas Album (1970) is one of the best to come out in Motown’s heyday. The arrangements on that one still sound fresh today, and it’s pure fun.
Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll
Speaking of old school…If you remember when rock was young, you’ll love these: Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree: The Decca Christmas Recordings (Brenda Lee, 1999), Elvis’ Christmas Album (Elvis Presley, 1957), The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album (The Beach Boys, 1964), and A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector (Various, 1963). That last one has been described as the best Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas album of all time, and I can’t argue with that. If you think you’ve never heard it, think again. The Crystals, the Ronettes, Darlene Love, and others blast through the best secular holiday songs with arrangements that turned traditionalism on its head. Brian Wilson has named it as his favorite album of all time, and I’m actually going to put it on right now.
Music for Christmas Morning
On December 25, I like to start the day with the old hymns, and nobody does them better than the King’s College Choir.The first thing we listen to on Christmas morning at my house is NPR’s broadcast of their Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, a program that has been performed annually since 1918. The most widely-known compilation of this music is O Come All Ye Faithful: Favorite Christmas Carols (1984). To keep the classical/traditional vibe going, we usually follow it up with Joan Baez’s Nöel (1966), which remains in the top three of my absolute favorite Christmas albums of all time. Also on that list is Sarah McLachlan’s bittersweet and devastatingly beautiful Wintersong (2006).
An Old-Fashioned Christmas
The best Christmas album of all time is the Carpenters’ Christmas Portrait (1978). Sacred songs? Check. Secular favorites? Check. The greatest female pop vocalist who ever lived? Yes indeed. It just isn’t Christmas without the Carpenters’ music. But neither would it be without Bing Crosby, and you can hear all his best seasonal favorites on the White Christmas album (1955). Since the title track of that album is the best-selling single of all time (over 50 million copies worldwide), Crosby has been called the King of Christmas. Others might argue that that title really belongs to Nat King Cole. To decide for yourself, check out his 1963 collection, The Christmas Song. No one would argue that Ray Conniff’s easy listening music could compete with any of these, but it definitely evokes that old-fashioned, Norman Rockwell, American sound of Christmas. Listen to his 1965 album, Here We Come A-Caroling, and you’ll see what I mean.
I’d love to hear your holiday music recommendations! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and let me know what I’m leaving out. Happy Holidays!