Being a website dedicated to reviewing Christmas music inevitably means having to chose. Every record, from the throwaway to the massively ambitious, from the narrowest indie release to the biggest-selling recording of all time, is given a score. And this score will be not only a stamp of recommendation or warning, but equally, it’ll be something people will see as a comparison and a ranking. Well, here’s the task made simpler. It’s our take on the top 100 Christmas records of all time, grouped by score, so that all the 10-point albums appear before the 9-point albums and so on. Within each group the order is random.
The eagle-eyed of you will have noticed that there are not 100 albums on there. In fact, as of writing this, there’s only barely over a third of that number. However, new album reviews are added automatically, and we’re building up to a number close to if not precisely one hundred.
10 – The finest Christmas albums ever
- Asalto Navideño infused the newest salsa sounds with the traditional parranda traditions of Puerto Rico, and transformed salsa itself in the process. That it's also a fantastic piece of music with huge sing-along dance hits is probably not accidental.
- Mahalia Jackson declaims Christmas like a pastor, giving every word meaning like a poet, singing as if supported by an inner choir of trumpeting angels. And yet what she does is completely unique, even in relation to other gospel singers. Without shouting or breaking into a sweat, this is nevertheless probably the Christmas album with the most holy energy burning within.
- I have no hesitation naming June Christy's This Time Of Year the greatest Christmas album of all time. The massive ambition of writing ten lyrical and melodic masterpieces is matched by fantastic arrangements and beautiful performances from all concerned. This is the full range of grown-up Christmas experience condensed into one truly singular package.
- The Cover of Ella Fitzgerald's Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas is of an orange unicorn holding a flower. A unique image for a unique artist, whose ability to distill fantastic essence from popular song remains unchallenged.
- It's ironic that Doris Day, who spent much of her life using her considerable acting skills to live up to an infantalised ideal of womanhood, would be the one to produce the most adult Chistmas album of standards ever. This is subtle, complex, full of amorousness and despair, and a masterfully sung and produced album like few others.
- No Christmas album has been as deeply mythologised as A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records, full of notions of Phil Spector's genius and insanity, The Wall of Sound, The Wrecking Crew, Jack Nietzche, ad absurdum. Look beyond that and what you see is a brilliant, amazingly arranged album of outstanding quality that outshines every myth.
9 – Astoundingly good Christmas albums
- I don't think we foreigners quite understand how important this album and Vince Guaraldi is to Americans. It's one of the best-selling jazz albums ever, yet it's as emotionally complicated as anything. Christmas music can do this perhaps better than any other genre.
- The Ramsey Lewis Trio are fantastic in creating a warm, cheerfully innocent glow around this Christmas record, filling the atmosphere with discovery and curiosity. And that works surprisingly well both in the simple jazz trio first part and the selectively orchestrated second part.
- The Kingston Trio may be scorned by purists, but their combination of the best of pop and the best of folk make their sound truly unique and perfect for Christmas. They've got a folkie's sense of tradition, a treasury of unusual old songs to pick from and a penchant for unusual instrumentation (yes, that's a bouzouki). But their pop side brings forth complex arrangements, suave production values and an enormous professional sharpness. Brilliant.
- Is this the last great Christmas record of the Traditional pop era? To an extent. In a different way, The Carpenters always stood outside easy categorisation, especially when they're this far from soft rock.
- It's harder to think of a single compilation that better covers parang than the Strictly Parang set. It's an ideal place to start but also is rich enough to serve as a constant standby, and inevitably brings forth that Sorrel-tinged Christmas spirit on every listen.
- The Louvin Brothers were masters of both close harmony and of the album form, inspiring future generations of artists. It's worth thinking of them as the brilliant musicians they were, and not falling into the trap of thinking of them as particuarly simple. Their real, complicated lives inform their real, constructed music.
- Julie Andrews was in her vocal peak and could really focus on making an amazing record in the early seventies as her acting career had a temporary lull. With all that multi-tracking could offer, this has production care in spades, utterly clean and utterly beautiful. Rarely has a Christmas record been so worked through in every detail. If that's overproduction, let's indulge.
- Duke Pearson was one of the driving forces in the last great period of Blue Note. He brings all the arranging cleverness and eclectic influences from that era into a Christmas album, playing around with more new ideas in a minute than most Christmas albums get over a whole record. It's pretty awe-inspiring.
- The perfection of 19th-century music box technology and 1960s record engineering combine to create an album full of amazingly alive christmas music. Especially considering it's essentially recorded by a robot!
8 – Great Christmas albums for any collection
- Few intrumental albums – hell, few of any kind of albums – are as inventive and grand as this. Although it runs out of steam a bit at the end, for the Christmas season, it may be just what the doctor ordered.
- Becky Carlton's Hammond organ and Audrey Bronson's expertly modulated vocals, unapologetically full-length, make this a minor Christmas miracle. The field recording technique may not capture every nuance, which is sad, but the power and the deeply felt Christmas message (of getting your life together) more than make up for it. This is improvised Christmas gospel at its very best.
- Polished, timeless and with a sense of wit – this is not your average folk album, nor your average Christmas record. The care and the love of the craft shines through, and what may seem like a haphazard collection gels together beautifully in the harmonies and arrangements.
- Peter Jöback was never this good again. Somehow, the subject matter, the production and the point in his career made this record one where nothing could go wrong. There's even a Christmas version of "Hallelujah" that's actually good (!).
- Odetta renders classics like "Go Tell it On The Mountain" entirely unlike anyone else. And yet, it all sounds completely natural, as if these songs were made to sound like this, through perfect conviction. It's an exhilirating experience.
- Noelani's Hawaiian Christmas uses qualified, seriously-written folk-revival settings, but it's just so fun. In a way, it's playing around with European and mainstream American material, treating it as a source of fun - like mainstream artists would with Hawaiian music, but without the creeping stereotypes. It's a real eye-opener and a treat to listen to,
- A tragedy on every level, the loss of Nat King Cole's voice and later his life to the scourge of big tobacco was unfathomably horrible. But I hope I don't come across as a ghoulish goth when I say that on this recording, an aging voice can be a thing of beauty as much as it is a loss.
- Rarely has an artist been able to switch genres so readily as Mighty Sparrow – his Chistmas record is in total crooner style, and yet beats all crooners at their own game. He has definitely shown his ability to do ballads at other times in his career, but this is an unexpected delight.
- Mercedes Sosa's christmas album manages to hone on in on a sense of continued folk tradition, even if it's newly written. That's something both good christmas music and good nueva canción share, and here they work surprisingly well together.
- Mark Kozelek has the amazing ability to create meaning in music beyond and between the actual lyrics, melodies and chords. His interpretations allow new ideas to emerge from sometimes tired-seeming songs, bringing them forward to new generations.
- Jermaine Dupri was at his height when he decided to make this Christmas album, and he wasn't kidding around. This is newly-written Christmas music of the highest order, both seasonal, complex and fully of its time, deep in the height of the best 1990s RnB.
- This is Chet Atkins the inventive, pioneering guitarist. This is also Chet Atkins the great commercial record producer. There's no need to divide the two, and though in the 1970s the two roles would come to a tension and break, here they're still able to perfectly co-exist, creating enough creatively challenging dissonance and enough sharp unity to suggest some stunningly new possibilites.
- Felipe "La Voz" Rodriguez and Trio Vegabajeño are both here, but it's as if they've been let free. Free from the straight jacket of melodramatic Bolero, and deep into the arms of a big, christmas-tinged Plena party. It's a master class in how to inject the sense of raucous fun back into music that's been standing still, and one of the best Latin christmas albums ever.
- Burl Ives was contructed as the great folk song sell-out, certainly during the revival. But though this is sometimes over-arranged, you can still sense his purity of purpose on this fantastic Christmas recording.
- Country in the 1980s was probably not at its high point, but Alabama have Nashville's biggest hit machine songwriters writing fantastic originals, and a magical, sensitive lead singer in Randy Owen, whose quietly faltering voice saves it from being entirely airbrushed and one-note. Generously arranged and perfectly crafted, this is an album filled with love for both the season and for recording ingenuity.
7 – Worthwhile Christmas albums
- You want to be Steve & Eydie – and yet, you don't want to be them. In many ways, this is the perfect celebrity Christmas album. Jazzy, cool and full of energetic ideas, from a couple obviously in love, and yet you can feel it would have been so much more if they'd been let free.
- Just about every great Christmas album in the American tradition relies on studio craft to bring out the special atmosphere of the season. And few people are better craftsmen than Ray Conniff.
- Listen to Melveen Leed in the background, and you might think she's just a decent but uninteresting traditional Christmas singer. But the strangeness will eventually draw you in, and close listens will reward you with some of the most unsual intrumental combinations, harmonies and contrapuntal melodies in Christmas music history. It couldn't have been recorded in New York or Los Angeles, where the edges would have been sandpapered off.
- Soul Music and Christmas occasionally seem to live in different worlds - and many soulful Christmas albums lack nerve and excitement. Not so with Funky Christmas - a compliation on a somewhat obscure label, featuring no A-list artists, that's great and full of commitment quite possibly because of it.
- Saying that Andre Kostelanetz displays his playful style doesn't quite cover it. Excepting a few slow-moving standards, this is more than just a record to giggle along to - it's genuine, heartfelt oddness, that in the context of an easy listening Christmas album is almost revolutionary.
- It was never going to be the most harrowing of chanson records, but André Claveau seems to have buried as deep into Christmas magic as the genre is able to do. He may be the slickest of the chanteurs, certainly, but perhaps Christmas requires a certain amount of honey to cover the roughness, in order to truly breathe.
- Alan Mills set out on a series of great didactic projects, trying to get old (well, mostly old) folk songs to everyone. This album is full of gems, some just fragments, and he loves what he is doing – it's a pity the priviledged smugness shines through.
6 – Decent Christmas albums to bring out once in a while
- Tracey Thorn is an artists' artist, and her connections are impeccable. All the coveres here are good choices. And yet, strangely, the originals shine higher - all the restraint she shows as a cover artist is gone when she lets her mind go free. The rest of the material discharges like a battery into her imagination.
- The Merrymen create music that sounds more like skiffle pop than Trinidadian calypso. But isn't that their prerogative? Who is to say they don't own it? How much of pop wasn't in its turn influenced by African-American and Caribbean music? Quite beyond cultural politics, this is as pleasant a Christmas album as any, and a blind listen will reward you with a lovely slice of highly polished folk-pop.
- In a time when the world looks like we'll never be Sans Passeports again, the optimism of an earlier time is a refreshing reminder of another possibility. It's also, truth to be told, a bit cloying, and the darkness that exists in the best Christmas recordings is simply not here. Perhaps it's a price worth paying.
- There were certainly earlier Christmas albums, but all before Sammy Kaye were either hastily cobbled-together or dull as dishwater. Here, instead, we're treated to a relaxed jingle-bell warmth that's hard to deny. Better things were to come, but this is where the great American christmas record starts.
- Miss Peggy Lee was an independent, skillful and extraordinarily skilled purveyor of smoky, sophisticated night club chanteuseship. We get glimpses of it here, but in going full-on children's hour she tends to outsmart herself.
- Whoever thought up Mae West's sixties recording career was a genius. On paper, this sounds like it should be a car crash of Ethel Merman Disco Album proportions, but nope, it's actually quite good and full of moxie, aided not least by a great band performance, taken with the gravitas it deserves.