Every year, thousands of completely different Christmas albums are released around the world, vying for the attention of us listeners in the hope of being memorable. By the beginning of December, the vast majority of the year’s contenders will already be heading out of the blocks, occasional albums several laps ahead in quality, ambition and style. Some are destined to become critical and commercial favourites, classics lasting for years to come. The lion’s share will be forgotten. Of course, it seems a particularly pointless excercise to sift through this stream alone. As a suggestion of what to listen to first, here are our top 10 Christmas Albums of 2015.
10. The Braxtons – Braxton Family Christmas
Toni Braxton has not recorded with her four sisters for a quarter of a century, so the fact that they just released a Christmas album (Spotify • Amazon • iTunes) is reason enough to take notice. And while Toni’s voice seems worn at times, the rest of the Braxtons are surprisingly hungry, imbuing classics and originals alike with energy and power. Listening to all of them together in a close-harmony acapella “O Holy Night” is a mighty experience indeed.
Perhaps it’s an artefact of the streaming age, but the easily most frequent genre of new Christmas releases is solo piano instumentals. Strange, in a way, because most of them are awful – bland and uninspiring. Christian musician Don Pardoe (Spotify • Amazon • iTunes) is a rather surprising exception: pretty much like Mark Kozelek, he takes worn-out standards and gives them an entirely new life, here as deeply mournful Windham Hill-style new age.
I realise the hugely problematic nature of overly lauding children that sound like adult Opera singers, and Dutch 11-year-old Amira Willighagen (Spotify • Amazon • iTunes) has become one of the most prominent symbols of this disquieting trend. But, somehow, you get the feeling her managers have listened. Here her voice is softer, more child-like and in her natural range; the choice of pieces is astute and erudite, with some fascinating rarely-played material. Sadly, her old fans are barely buying it.
Joe Sample, founding member of The Crusaders, sadly passed away last year. But not before recording this engagingly joyful Christmas album with India.Arie (Spotify • Amazon • iTunes), which is now belatedly seeing release. It’s an exceptionally cuddly record, with mostly acoustic production throwing a warming blanket over gently half-whispered vocals. And there’s a truly fantastic selection of guest vocalists, including 90s superstar Brandy.
It’s become an established trope for smaller indie projects to release a Christmas EP, so many this year that they could easily have had a list of their own. Among the finest there’s the sweetly jangly Heck Ya Halls from Boulder, Colorado (Spotify • Amazon • iTunes), the harder-hitting christian synth rock of The Modern Post (Spotify • Amazon • iTunes) and the plucky Americana acoustics of Gungor (Spotify • Amazon • iTunes). Best of all, though, is Mx. Justin Vivian Bond who’s really outdone vself on the grandly dramatic Christmas Spells (Spotify • Amazon). Full album soon please.
Finland’s premier Jazz pianist and arranger, the great Mika Pohjola, has released Christmas records for several decades. Now in an utter mic drop moment he has unloaded a two-hour, forty-track quadruple-album monster (Spotify • Amazon • iTunes) consisting of both older and new material, and it’s a daunting challenge to any comers. Five languages, thirty sung pieces, ten instrumentals, amazing collaborators, countless ideas. But easily worth at least attempting to digest.
Originally recorded in 2010 but getting its international streaming release only now, this Christmas album (Spotify • iTunes) is the epitome of elegant sharpness. Ateneo Chamber Singers are the former glee club at Ateneo de Manila University and fun-filled like students – but the years as professionals has added gravitas, too. Mixing new tracks and Philipino classics going back far into OPM times, this is a great introduction to the music of the Phillipines and an enticement to explore deeper.
Swedish visa singer Sofia Karlsson has graduated from the more tradition-bound Christmas ensemble Jul i Folkton to make her own strong attempt at a Christmas album (Spotify • Amazon • iTunes) together with arch-collaborative multiinstrumentalist Martin Hederos. Beautifully recorded with some astoundingly effective originals that truly embody the Christmas spirit, this is easily the best Scandinavian christmas album for over a decade. Sweetly melancholic like a gentle drive through the bitter darkness of the Nordic winter forest.
This is probably the closest anyone has come to producing a truly credible new canon of Christmas songs since Alfred Burt. For eighteen months, jazz singer Ann Hampton Callaway collaborated with Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade director William Schermerhorn and a host of composers to create a fascinating selection of brand new Christmas songs (Spotify • Amazon • iTunes). All deeply immersed in carolling and Tin Pan Alley tradition, yet with a natural voice, as if they’d always been there. Only “I Believe” has been performed before, but it’d surprise me if this set won’t produce endless new versions in the decades to come.
1. Peter Andre – White Christmas
Yes, that Peter Andre. No, I’ve not lost my mind. Yes, I know the lead single is called “Christmas Time’s For Family”, that it’s ten tracks long and covers FBI torture method “Jingle Bell Rock”. Yes, I know it had a limited release last year as a promotional item for a low-cost supermarket chain. But this (Spotify • Amazon • iTunes) is by far the most fun I’ve had listening to a Christmas record for years. White Christmas is nominally swing, a genre Peter Andre has produced a series of middling records in for the past couple of years, but all the polish and Rat Pack pretensions are gone. Instead, half-way between showy dixieland, shouty highway gospel and musky rockabilly, Andre’s band is almost ufathomably loose, just about wild, with huge brushed drums, laughing background singers and an atmosphere straight out of the world’s most ideal dive bar. It may be an artifact of the hurried recording or it may be expertly faked, but you can’t help to be smitten.