(Or at least, 20th Century America)
Every culture that has developed far enough from the equator to take the idea of “four seasons” seriously, has developed some kind of festival of lights. In America, perhaps moreso than anywhere else, we’ve succeeded at melting some of the best aspects of the world’s traditions into an amalgamation of winter holidays that span what would otherwise be some of the darkest and most soul-crushing months of the year.
Out of all of the individual celebrations that make up the American winter holidays, Christmas has perhaps blended together more cultural influences than any other. Without even intending it to, the music on this list reflects that. These are recordings that owe their heritage to the people of a dozen cultures, from West Africa to West Germany, from Russia to the Caribbean, from Italy to Israel.
Not everyone in America celebrates Christmas as a particularly religious holiday. As a lapsed Catholic who is endlessly interested in all religious traditions, I can’t say that I celebrate it as anything but a secular tradition myself. But regardless of how we acknowledge or celebrate this holiday, one thing is certain: It is inescapable — Perhaps, deservedly so. So we may as well listen to some incredible Christmas music.
The first record on our list isn’t strictly a Christmas album, but it’s pretty close. The first of the Three Suites, and the cornerstone of this record, is Ellington’s brilliant arrangement of the Tchiakovsky Christmas ballet, The Nutcracker.
When I first heard his rendition of the “Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy” (appropriately retitled “Sugar Rum Cherry”), I was slack-jawed with admiration. Equally startling is “Arabesque Cookie”, Ellington’s re-arrangement of “Arabian Dance”, as well as, well, the whole rest of the album.
Many otherwise fantastic pop artists have tried and failed miserably, at creating a compelling Christmas album.
There’s just one key ingredient in making a worthwhile Christmas album: authenticity. And so many otherwise excellent pop artists have failed at that so miserably.
So with that in mind, Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the world of James Brown: a man who doesn’t have an inauthentic bone in his body.
This is largely an excellent album, made by Brown at the height of his powers. He commits himself to every line he screams, sings, belts, or otherwise ululates on Funky Christmas. This makes it easy to forgive him on those occasional moments in which flubs his way through some of the simple monologues on this recording. The man after all, is a performer and a musician, not a public speaker.
If you’re not a fan of James Brown, don’t expect to be a fan of this album. But for the converted, even reading through the track listing of this album can be an endlessly satisfying experience. (Yes, songs titled “Santa Claus, Go Straight To The Ghetto”, and “Go Power At Christmas Time” are every bit as good as you’re hoping them to be.)
(Note: Do not mistake the classic Funky Christmas for Brown’s 1999 steaming pile of unintentional kitsch, The Merry Christmas Album. That album, although potentially entertaining, is only “good” in the way that the collected works of The Shaggs or Wesley Willis are good. It’s not for most.)
Instrumental music is linked to memory like a scent. There’s not much I feel I need to say about A Charlie Brown Christmas, other than that it’s a tour de force by one of the most underrated pianists of the 20th century.
Guaraldi was an unpretentious musician, and an innovator in voicing and rhythm. He developed a style and cadence on his instrument that was unmistakably his, and on this record, his playing is broadly accessible and sophisticated at once.
If you don’t own it already, don’t hesitate in picking this one up. Original tunes like “Christmas is Coming” and “Skating” will still sound fresh, even to ears that grew up around this music. For those who’ve admired it, forgotten it, or never experienced it in full, A Charlie Brown Christmas is a must-listen.
A giant, throbbing mass of glittering girl-group. This tops the list for some, and we’d be remiss not to mention it here.
A mix of traditional tunes and original songs performed at a dirge-like, glacial pace. If you’ve heard this one and want more in the same vein, the next natural choice would be Sufjan Stevens’ impressive 5-disc Songs For Christmas.
There are hits and misses here, and although this is by no means the best of Motown, the hits make it well worth it. At least two of Marvin Gaye’s contributions on this album point in the direction of his remarkable score to Troubleman; Smokey Robinson sings schmaltz like he means it, and the over-talented, under-loved kids of the Jackson 5 sound totally sold on this whole “Christmas” deal. The tracks that are great in this collection are amazing. The ones that aren’t will make you squirm.
This is one of those rare albums that’s among the best sellers in the history of its genre for a good reason. Presley was at his peak when he made this LP in 1957, and if he was ever any good, so is this collection of songs.
This is easily the most unabashedly corny album on our list. We could have picked any of the classic Christmas crooner albums from Bing Crosby, Burl Ives, Ella Fitzgerald or Nat King Cole, and they would have done equally well. And like any of those singers, Mathis’ perkiest holiday moments can be a little off-putting to anything other than a family audience.
But for all his cheese, Mathis shows real artistry at times. Before the days of fancy studio production techniques, if singers wanted effects, they had to create them themselves. To that end, Mathis uses sustain and vibrato like Fleet Foxes use reverb. If you’re not worried about looking cool, Merry Christmas is arranged, produced, and delivered as well any comparable album.
Sounds exactly how you’d expect. Worth it, even if just for the talk-box guitar on the chorus of “Sliver Bells”.
The ones that didn’t make it.
Not every album can make the list. There are even a few we wanted to be awesome, but just didn’t live up to their promise. For some of the holiday albums from your favorite artists that you’d do well to avoid, see our bonus article, “3 Christmas Albums That You’d Expect To Be Totally Badass, But Actually Turn Out To Be Okay at Best.”
And of course, if we missed one of your favorites, feel free to email us, and we may just run your recommendation the first Monday in January.