In many ways, 2020 has been an unusual year for the music industry, and not least the Christmas music industry. The global pandemic has meant that many recording sessions have been cancelled, and there are noticeably fewer released albums this year. At the same time, this disruption has also become an opportunity to create music that can both be reflective and indeed justifiably escapist. Our list of the top 10 Christmas albums of 2020 encompasses both of those, as well as some truly unusual recordings that take on Christmas in completely new ways.
10. Ralphie’s Red Ryders – You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out
Speaking of unusual premises for Christmas music, here’s an entire album (Spotify) dedicated to 1983 Christmas film classic A Christmas Story. No, scratch that, it’s an entire band dedicated to A Christmas Story, rather suspiciously claiming to be based in the fictional town in the film, Hohman, Indiana. You have to admire the exquisite dedication to a theme and the seemingly unending ideas the band is able to pull from the material, but it wouldn’t hold together as well as it does if the songs weren’t the fantastic little power-pop-tinged pop-punk gems they are.
9. Tinashe – Comfort & Joy
Refined R&B signer Tinashe never quite made good on the promise of stardom that her early recordings suggested was inevitable, but she’s continued to put out fascinating material since. Her self-released Christmas album (Spotify) – she calls it an EP, but it’s seven whole tracks long – is no exception. Rarely has anyone put so much of a personal spin on overly venerated old carols, that in Tinashe’s take suddenly sprout new bridges, verses and hooks that perfectly transform the old into the fully contemporary. With minimal, sometimes futurist production by her brother Quiet Child, this is definitely worth checking out.
8. Jamie Cullum – The Pianoman at Christmas
This year’s big mainstream releases haven’t really be up to the standard you’d expect, but British hitmaker Jamie Cullum has put in what must be considered a very credible effort. Yes, the vaguely rat pack-esque big band swing genre has been absolutely done to death and is the fallback of the lazy and uninspired, but Cullum manages to surprise with 10 fantastic originals and exactly zero covers. Beautifully recorded with some occasionally inspired arrangements and actual heartfelt moments, this album (Spotify) manages to overcome its excessive fussiness and reveals a fascinating core underneath.
7. Barnaby Bright – Bleak Midwinter
The Kansas City-based Americana duo has put together a Christmas package (Spotify) that strikes that balance of melancholy and hope that many of the greatest Christmas albums strive for. It seems particularly apt this year, and indeed one of the tracks on this half-original, half-traditional album has been a bit of a breakout hit: The touching “The Hurting Times”, which is themed around watching over someone in pain and suffering. Becky Bliss, the duo’s lead singer, has an amazing voice and the writing is stellar, if often drowning in over-slick production.
6. the bird and the bee – Put up the Lights
The jazzy, breezy semi-electronic pop of the bird and the bee feels very Los Angeles, which is indeed where the duo’s singer Inara George and Grammy Award-winning producer Greg Kurstin (of Sia Christmas album fame) are from. For nearly two decades, they’ve put out clever, playful music that lets them experiment with fusion ideas that they wouldn’t be able to implement anywhere else. This Christmas offering (Spotify) can get a bit too twee at times, but with a version of Little Drummer Boy featuring Dave Grohl on drums and a truly preposterous take on the Halleluja Chorus, it’s hard not to be swept along.
5. Andrew Bird – HARK!
Folk multi-instrumentalist and champion whistler Andrew Bird has created something unusual: A Christmas album (Spotify) that barely mentions Christmas. Among the occasional holiday classic, he’s put in covers of John Cale and John Prine songs and a whole host of excellent originals that only marginally seem to touch on the holiday. But somehow it manages to coalesce into a whole that manages to touch the elusive Christmas feeling nonetheless. Perhaps it’s the deft instrumental layering, perhaps it’s the achingly beautiful melodies, but this is a treasure that I keep returning to this year.
4. Iiris Viljanen – En finsk jul
You probably need to speak both Swedish and Finnish to get the most of this sprawling, bilingual, multi-levelled Christmas album (Spotify) that’s part instrumental piano improvisation, part intricate indie pop and part atmospheric traditional hymnal. Some of the material on here is achingly topical, talking about the distances brought on by the Covid pandemic and about what it adds to the meaning of coming home. But anyone, regardless of whether you can speak the language, should be able to appreciate the musicianship and the near-perfect acoustic recording that underpins it.
3. Sabrina Claudio – Christmas Blues
There’s a long tradition of sultry sensuality in Christmas music, but there’s something special about Sabrina Claudio’s angle on it in this beautifully warm pop album (Spotify). Yes, it’s sensuous, but it’s also a lot more emotionally naked and full of complex nuance than that description might suggest. With some excellent guest spots (not least this year’s standout pop star The Weeknd on the title track) and a choice selection of both originals and covers, this is by far the best pure pop Christmas album this year, stringently consistent in tone and with one of the best vocal performers in the business.
2. Calexico – Seasonal Shift
There’s a reason Calexico’s music is sometimes called “desert noir” – it’s somehow both genuine, deeply rooted in the southwest and its multitude of overlapping musical traditions, and cinematic in its post-rock scope and emotional subtlety. The band has spent over 30 years honing its multitude of influences and infused them in its craft, and on their first Christmas album (Spotify) you can tell how no arrangement, no musical idea is left to chance, nor dulled with age. Every time you feel it might veer into hokeyness, some amazing twist takes it into the stratosphere.
1. Majestica – A Christmas Carol
I couldn’t in my wildest imagination have thought that the genre of my favourite Christmas album of the year would be… Power metal. And yet here we are. At least two thirds of the way into the territory of orchestral soundtrack to a non-existent musical theatre adaptation of the Dickens classic, the album (Spotify) goes the full gamut from overture to grand coda with absolute maximalist certainty, completely transforming classic carols into whatever the story requires, with new lyrics, operatic splendor, massive bombast and screaming guitars. Absolutely bursting with ideas, musical references and fascinating turns, this is every bit as grandiose as the holiday itself.
Here’s the Records.Christmas top 10 Christmas albums of 2020 Spotify playlist, containing all of the records above and a whole set of others that could have easily also made the cut.