Here it is again, just in time for Christmas eve: Our annual list of the best Christmas music of the year. Picking out the top 10 Christmas albums of 2018 has been a surprisingly difficult task, because it’s been an unusually strong year for holiday music. For once, it would readily have been possible to produce a top 20 instead, and perhaps if the strength of holiday material keeps up it may be an option for the future. Meanwhile, as a bit of a transparent bonus, here’s a playlist containing the top 10 albums listed below – but also an entire shortlist of entries that very well could have been on here in a less well-supplied year. And now, for the cream of the crop…
10. Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers – All I Got For Christmas Is The Blues
No-one would have predicted that former Backstreet Boys backing saxophonist and smooth-jazz hitmaker Mindi Abair would go on to record raw-sounding, White Stripes-inspired blues rock, and as a vocalist to boot. But the thing is, Abair’s pop instincts are still in full force as she powers through five Christmas classics and four high-quality originals, and the balance of high-octane roughness, catchy melodicism and blues tradition on display makes for a very engaging album (Spotify) indeed. Your Christmas party dance floor friends will love it.
9. Jessie J – This Christmas Day
Jessie J has always been a cut above your average British pop star, both in terms of songwriting and vocal ability. The fact that her career may be on a dip is anything but audible on this fabulous festive treat (Spotify), where she lives out her classic swing fantasies with a snappy verve that sounds entirely contemporary. All produced by an improbable who-is-who of 1990s R&B production, including Darkchild, Babyface and Jimmy Jam & Teddy Lewis, it’s a leap though 60 years of pop culture that comes across entirely timeless.
8. Howard Arman – More Christmas Surprises
The genre of pops – not pop, but orchestral musicians using their tools and skills to play popular tunes and light classical pieces – has a storied history in Christmas music, but has been a bit thin on the ground in recent years. But this album (Spotify) by the Bavarian radio choir, the Munich broadcast orchestra, the Slovakian tenor Pavol Breslik and led by the British conductor Howard Arman, all top-tier players in the art music world, is a glorious exception. An eclectic song selection and top-quality, spirited arrangement make it a must-listen.
7. LeAnn Rimes – It’s Christmas, Eve OST
It’s sometimes hard to fathom that LeAnn Rimes is still only 36 years old and in prime songwriting and artistic form. With a career well into its third decade, spanning the whole country, pop and dance worlds, two previous Christmas albums and six Chtistmas tours under her belt, you might think her a spent force. This partly self-penned soundtrack album (Spotify) proves otherwise. There’s true quality in the heartfelt originals and the covers are LeAnn in full dance-pop mode, medleying up classics with gay abandon and going all out on pop fun.
6. Aloe Blacc – Christmas Funk
Aloe Blacc occupies a strange and often fruitful space between tight James Brown-style 70s funk and contemporary dance pop, and his Christmas album (Spotify) is fabulously one of his strongest efforts yet. The “Wake Me Up” singer takes on covers with flair and a production verve that’s rare in Christmas music, but it’s the originals that truly shine here. They range from top-notch grooves to floating soul ballads, and the powerful opener “Tell Your Mama” is a slice of groovy nostalgia that’s destined to become a classic.
5. The Gregory Brothers – Sleigh Ride / Fireside
In what must easily be the most confusing release of the year, pitch-shifting meme comedy troupe The Gregory Brothers have a new Christmas album (Spotify) that’s beautiful, low-key and earnest, in the best possible way. It shows that all the talent that goes into making funny, musically deft internet videos can be repurposed for much more mature fare, and all the soaring build-ups, songwriting tricks and witty production choices can be used to record little gems of polished conventional beauty. It’s wonderful, without a trace of irony, and a true love-letter to the holiday and its musical traditions.
4. Young Oceans – Songs of Christmas
Slow, deliberate alt-rock recordings of traditional carols can be one of the most beautiful thing in the world. In the hands of someone like Mark Kozelek, all the stark acoustic moods available in modern recording meet hundreds of years of tradition, laden with symbolism and history. A much larger but just as spine-tingling approach is taken by Christian band Young Oceans, who load reverb upon choral reverb to create some of the most sublime and subtly overflowing Christmas music we’ve ever heard (Spotify).
3. Odd Nordstoga – Jul
Norwegian folk-pop singer Odd Nordstoga already has one of his country’s most successful Christmas albums under his belt, a highly conventional piece of slippery acoustic pop that could have been recorded any time in the past three decades. But this (Spotify), this is something else entirely. Accompanied and contrapuntally contrasted by the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, this is somehow both built up and stripped down to the rawest emotions imaginable, allowing Nordstogas half-whispering voice to carry all the bleakness and beauty of an icy winter morning, tearing at your soul and memories.
2. Nicholas Burgess – Xmas Gold
On one level, this holiday outing (Spotify) is a striking piece of video-game-inflicted synth-pop from the Boston musician, but that’s not entirely uncharacteristic. It’s got hooks, beauty and grooves aplenty. But where it really breaks though is in terms of lyrics – from perfectly painted little vignettes of middle-class life, perfect like an Alice Munro short story, to grand existential Santa Claus fantasy with titles like “The Great Christmas Airship Sails Towards Death”. If ever there was an album that expands the possibilities of what Christmas songwriting can be, it’s this.
1. Jul på Sunnmørsk – Jul på Sunnmørsk
It really is Norway’s year this year. For five years, a group of young musicians from Ålesund have held concerts of wildly inventive jazz interpretations of Christmas classics, sung entirely in broad west-Norwegian dialect. Now finally committed to record (Spotify), the result is superlative, easily the best Christmas jazz record this side of the millennium. The musical skill on display is spectacular, with singer Siril Malmedal Hauge a particular standout and the approach ranges from carefully plucked bossa nova to pulse-quickening hot-jazz abandon. A truly stunning tour-de-force.