Now that it’s December, it’s time to dust off those records that live in the back of your collection, the ones that only get played one month out of the year: Christmas albums. In this post, I’m taking a look at some of the albums on Billboard’s list of the ten top-selling holiday albums of all time. Chances are you own some of them, and maybe you can’t imagine Christmas without them. But the thing about traditions is, you have to add new ones from time to time. In that spirit, I’m offering some alternative holiday albums that might be less familiar and a little fresher to your ears.
Elvis’ Christmas Album – Elvis Presley
Released in 1957, Presley’s first Christmas album—the top-selling record on Billboard’s list— features secular tunes on side one and sacred fare on side two, including a few non-Christmas gospel songs that had been previously released. The King is solemn on the religious tunes but loosens up for the secular stuff, including originals like “Santa Claus is Back in Town” and “Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me).” Personally, I can’t stand Elvis’ version of “Blue Christmas,” but it’s here, too.
James Brown’s Funky Christmas – James Brown
Let the King rest in heavenly peace this year and invite the Godfather of Soul over for Christmas instead. This compilation features tracks from the three holiday albums Brown recorded at the height of his funky powers between 1966 and 1970, including “Go Power at Christmas Time,” “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” and “Soulful Christmas.” Brown shows his socially-conscious side on tracks like “Let’s Unite the World at Christmas.”
Miracles: The Holiday Album – Kenny G
This album from 1994 has been certified “eight-times Platinum” by the Recording Industry Association of America. That means there are a lot of people who like contemporary sax man Kenny G. If you’re one of them, that’s swell. And I’m gonna stop there.
Christmas Cookin’ – Jimmy Smith
Here’s some holiday jazz that’s actually—how do I say this?—jazz. This collection from jazz organist Jimmy Smith was first released under the name Christmas ’64, but later editions bear the name Christmas Cookin.’ And it definitely cooks, with Smith’s soulful and funky Hammond B-3 augmented by a big-band brass section. Kenny G might be nice background music for Christmas dinner with Grandma, but for something you can crank up in your car on the way, try Jimmy.
The Christmas Song – Nat King Cole
Everyone and their mom has done “The Christmas Song,” but nobody does it better than Nat King Cole. You can hear that old chestnut and other holiday favorites on this 1960 LP. Ralph Carmichael’s expert arrangements work well with Cole’s smooth delivery, making this record as comfortable as your favorite pair of holiday slippers.
The Beautiful Day – Kurt Elling
This 2016 release is every bit as fresh as Cole is familiar. Elling is one of the top jazz vocalists of the day, but he’s no simple crooner. This album is brimming with intelligence and sophistication, and the program is varied and unusual. Highlights include two Leslie Bricusse-penned songs from the 1970 musical film Scrooge and a highly reharmonized take on Dan Fogelberg’s “Old Lang Syne.” Even the more familiar material is infused with newness, like when Elling uses extra lyrics borrowed from Tori Amos in “We Three Kings.” Highly recommended.
Christmas & A Fresh Aire Christmas – Mannheim Steamroller
Nothing quite says “1980s Holiday music” like these unlikely smash hit records from Mannheim Steamroller. Mannheim was the brainchild of composer/arranger Chip Davis, who started his own record label, American Gramaphone, to release his albums of new-age meets prog-rock meets classical. The Christmas records became Steamroller’s best-known work, and Davis and company still tour behind its success.
New Wave Xmas: Just Can’t Get Enough – Various Artists
For an even more quintessentially 80s musical experience, check out this Rhino Records compilation, which includes offbeat seasonal tunes from the likes of Squeeze, XTC, the Pretenders and They Might Be Giants. Bowie and Bing’s “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” is thrown in for good measure, and who could forget “Xmas at K-Mart” by Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band with the Rootettes?
Noël – Josh Groban
Released just 10 years ago, this album from opera-pop vocalist Josh Groban has already sold about 6 million copies. Produced by mega hitmaker David Foster, the album is easy on the ears, with lush orchestral textures and sentimental touches like recorded messages from American servicemen layered over “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” Like a holiday TV special, there are even guest stars—Brian McKnight, Faith Hill and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
A Robert Shaw Christmas: Angels on High – Robert Shaw Chamber Singers
Groban might be quasi-classical, but for true classical sounds at Christmas, choral music fits the bill best. This album conducted by the legendary Robert Shaw has lots of great stuff, including Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols” in its entirety. It also includes one of the most stunningly beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard—Morton Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium.”
These Are Special Times – Celine Dion
Canadian diva Celine Dion released this Christmas record in 1998, and it’s got sugary high levels of sentiment, drama and production value. It includes lots of originals, a couple of hit singles in “The Prayer” and “I’m Your Angel” (duets with Andrea Bocelli and R. Kelly, respectively), reverent versions of sacred material and pop tunes like “Blue Christmas,” which features fellow Canuck Diana Krall on piano.
Christmas – Bruce Cockburn
Singer-songwriter-guitarist Bruce Cockburn also hails from the Great White North, but his holiday album couldn’t be more different from Dion’s. Cockburn, a musician’s musician whose 1984 song “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” was a minor hit in the US, released Christmas in 1993, and the aesthetic is acoustic and stripped down. He has fun with a full band and backup singers on “Early on One Christmas Morn” and “Mary Had a Baby,” but the standout tracks for me are the haunting minor-key ones—“Riu Riu Chiu” is sung in Spanish, “Down in Yon Forest” is augmented by wind chimes and the centuries-old Canadian song “Jesus Ahatonhia” is done by Cockburn in the original language of Canada’s indigenous Huron people.
Mark is Art Director at Half Price Books Corporate.