christmas-music.jpgChristmas music is one of those inescapable, nagging companions to the holiday season... and boy, can its company ever get unbearable. Whether it's heartless muzak carols, icky American idol cash-in discs, or frighteningly ill-advised DJ Yuletide remixes, your ears have a lot to fear. So if you're going to be forced to listen to hip-hop versions of the Nutcracker while at the mall, the least you can do is have some festive tunes waiting at home that actually make you feel festive! There's a whole pile of fantastic albums out there which prove that Christmas music can still be affecting, fun, surprising, and full of real meaning.

REGGAE: JOE GIBBS - Reggae Christmas
VARIOUS ARTISTS - Christmas Greetings from STUDIO ONE
JACOB MILLER/RAY I - Natty Christmas

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Even if there isn't snow on the ground, it's gonna be cold outside. So who wants to hear a bunch of music that only reminds you how cold it is outside? Not you, cause you're gonna be listening to Christmas reggae! These albums may come across as being a little kitsch--which depends on your perspective--but these albums are way more than novelty. Not to mention, it sure is nice to hear such different takes on these tunes. The Studio One collection features this, but more than that, you get a bunch of original tunes by stars like Alton Ellis and Toots and the Maytals that are seriously fun. Joe Gibbs' Reggae Christmas and the Jacob Miller/Ray I Natty Christmas are a part of VP records' recent reissues, and each disc turns the season on its head. Enough of a Euro centric view of a Euro centric holiday! Over half of the world spends December in full sun--it's time you got in on the act too.

FOLK/ROOTS: BOB DYLAN - Christmas In The Heart
JOHN FAHEY - The New Possibility
KATE AND ANNA MCGARRIGLE - The McGarrigle Christmas Hour
VARIOUS ARTISTS - Where Will You Be Christmas Day?


Much Christmas music is based on old folk songs and melodies, making roots musicians some of the most able to convey its sentiments in compelling ways. Jumping the gun and releasing his new Christmas disc back in October might have seemed like a move befitting an old grinch, but under that rasp Bob Dylan's actually all cheer on Christmas In The Heart, although the rollicking, Pogues-y stumble of lead single "Must Be Santa" suggests a Christmas spirit more imbibed than imbued. John Fahey's work as an instrumental folk guitarist was highly influential and his The New Possibility disc is a great collection that sits just slightly on the avant-garde side. The McGarrigle Christmas Hour is just like what your family and friends sound like singing around the piano after turkey dinner... if you all happen to be ridiculously talented prodigies. Rufus and Martha Wainwright join their mother Kate, Aunt Anna, Teddy Thompson and more to create one of the better recent Christmas discs. Finally, Where Will You Be Christmas Day? is an exceptional holiday compilation collecting songs from between 1917 and 1959. Covering blues, jazz, country, folk, and other roots styles, it is full of character, charm and honesty--the perfect antidote to the samey, bland carol albums you're used to hearing in December.

COUNTRY: JOHNNY CASH - Christmas with Johnny Cash
EMMYLOU HARRIS - Light of the Stable
WILLIE NELSON - Pretty Paper

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Given that modern country singers can be among the worst offenders for making tepidly vanilla holiday discs, it's worth noting that country icons have put together some timeless Christmas albums. Christmas with Johnny Cash is a typically reverential affair, with The Man in Black's passion for hymns, gospel and family spilling over into a strong set of classics. Emmylou Harris' angelic, pristine voice is perfectly suited to Yuletide songs and so her Light of the Stable album is an easy choice for the holidays. Finally, Pretty Paper by Willie Nelson is a country album that has continued to stand head-and-shoulders above the Christmas crowd, even if it's not found in so many homes. Nelson's voice--warm, familiar, always at his trademark behind-the-beat relaxed cadence--makes this the kind of holiday album you could see yourself listening to year round.

INDIE ROCK: LOW - Christmas
SUFJAN STEVENS - Songs For Christmas 5CD
BRIGHT EYES - A Christmas Album

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A small, but successful number of indie bands have put together some great Christmas albums. Not surprisingly, many of these acts have strong religious themes in their music anyway, but these discs manage to embrace the season without being self-righteous. At the top of the list is Low's Christmas, an album that the band describe as a gift to fans--consider us lucky. "Little Drummer Boy" and "Silent Night" get their time here, but the band's originals, particularly the snowglobe shuffle of "Just Like Christmas" and the stately tale of the Three Magi "Long Way Round the Sea", are exceptional. From orchestration to song titles, Sufjan Stevens is never one to go halfway on anything. So it makes sense that his Yuletide contribution is a rich 5CD box set, full of extra goodies. On the other hand, Bright Eyes' A Christmas Album is so understated that it doesn't even have a title on its cover. Although prone to angsty, overwrought moments on his normal records, songwriter Conor Oberst knows to tone it down for the family and his holiday tunes are beautifully presented with the help of many guests.

VARIOUS ARTISTS - A John Waters Christmas
VARIOUS ARTISTS - Dr. Demento presents The Greatest Christmas Novelty CD of All Time

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Seeing as all holiday music is kind of a novelty anyway, why not take things the whole nine yards? If things have been getting a little too normal around the tree, these albums will at least raise a few eyebrows. Mark Mothersbaugh was not only a member of Devo, but he is also a film score composer responsible for movies like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. His Joyeux Mutato is an extension of his instrumental film work, featuring oddly skewed originals alongside the classics. Speaking of films, John Waters, master of bad taste and camp, would be the perfect guy to call upon to screw with any holiday. The compilation doesn't disappoint, even becoming oddly poignant at times... before closing with the awesome "Santa Was a Black Man." Not to be upstaged, we come to Dr. Demento, the Los Angeles DJ who launched "Weird Al"'s career. Yankovic is on here, as well as Elmo & Pasty's "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" and many more tunes in similar taste. Hey, did someone spike the egg nog?

JAZZ: VARIOUS ARTISTS - Verve's Christmas Jazz
FRANK SINATRA - The Sinatra Christmas Album
ELLA FITZGERALD - Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas

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These albums aren't exactly off the beaten path, but they do provide the sort of background to which few people will object while ripping through gifts and digesting ham. Plus the performances are top notch. The Verve roster's Christmas disc is a pretty serious collection of a few decades worth of serious talent. John Coltrane, Kenny Burrell, Bill Evans, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and we're not even halfway through. An impressive list of instrumental and vocal performances. Ol' Blue Eyes' holiday platter is another classic, perfect for the moment when you retire to the den to share a scotch with your uncle--it's on my holiday list. But the most fun, is Ella Fitzgerald's Swinging Christmas, which is its title's wish fulfilled.

SOUL: VARIOUS ARTISTS - A Motown Christmas
THE STAPLE SINGERS - The 25th Day Of December
VARIOUS ARTISTS - Christmas In Soulsville


An excellent abundance of soul Christmas compilations exist, including a huge run of 20th Century Masters albums by artists like The Supremes. Probably the best, however, is A Motown Christmas. Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, The Supremes--how much convincing do you need? As for The 25th Day Of December, who better than America's foremost gospel family band to set spirits right? Another real find, though, is Allen Toussaint's A New Orleans Christmas. New Orleans may have a rep for being a town of loose morals, but a warm, welcoming vibe is just as much a part of the city's legacy--the perfect fit for Christmas. Better known as a songwriter than a performer, Toussaint has always been highly underrated in either category. This record may not be his best, but it's certainly a welcome take on holiday music and full of strong, varied performances. Finally, Christmas In Soulsville's a great pick for soul, blues and R&B fans partial to Memphis' classic Stax stable.

CLASSICAL: DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON - The Christmas Album/Merry Christmas

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Few styles of music epitomize Christmas like classical, but it doesn't all have to be rote and by-the-book. Seminal label Deutsche Grammophon's The Christmas Album focuses on German performances of carols, hymns, organ pieces and chamber music. These pieces are archival in nature, freed from years in the label's vault. It is the perfect way to add a slight twist to Yuletide fare without upsetting anyone. A second volume, Merry Christmas, is also recommended. Now, if you really don't want to rock the boat, Christmas With The Academy is a serving of Olde English choir jams that stays well between the lines... and is also very good while doing so. Mind you, when you talk Christmas, few pieces are as flat-out fantastic and appealing to all ages as Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. Seriously, it's flawless, timeless, and if you haven't played it around the home in a while, maybe this year's the year to renew acquaintances. Many versions exist, but Valery Gergiev's take on it is particularly notable for both its sound quality and performance.

FAMILY: VINCE GUARALDI - A Charlie Brown Christmas
BURL IVES - Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer
OST - How The Grinch Stole Christmas (narrated by Boris Karloff)

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When all is said and done, Christmas is about family, and in particular, kids. These three albums don't need much introduction, and there's a reason why the TV specials from which they're drawn have been played over and over again. From Guaraldi's tender and comic understanding of the ultimate underdog, to Burl Ives' gentle telling of how the little guy comes to the rescue of the biggest holiday, to the way Boris Karloff's narration thunders with all the iconic glory a voice can muster, these recordings remain as fun as they come.

Reader Comments (1)

What? No Vandals' "Oi! To The World?" It's the best Christmas album of all time. Really!

December 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAdam

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