As the pandemic which dictates the bounds of our daily life entered its second year, it felt like even Christmas music was deflation. Practical considerations meant intended records never got made, with children’s choirs out of commission and recording studios shut in endless lockdowns. That the artists of the world nevertheless managed to pull together enough new seasonal records to enable us to list a whole top 10 Christmas albums of 2021 is a bit of a Christmas miracle. It’s certainly understandable that the quality is not quite as stellar as it was last year, but the very top nevertheless offers some true magical treats.
10. Norah Jones – I Dream of Christmas
Anyone who heard Norah Jones’s inspired and wildly popular debut album, almost twenty years old by now, could easily imagine that same warm voice lending its skills to a Christmas record. And now we have finally been granted a glimpse at the result (Spotify): eclectic and whimsical, full of beautiful production touches and ambitious in both scale and scope. The only thing missing, strangely, is Norah’s voice, which seems to surprisingly often make the entirely wrong choices and comes across as strangely laboured for such a veteran performer. Still, when it works, it’s marvellous.
9. Hymns from Nineveh – Julekassen
Hymns from Nineveh is Jonas Petersen, a Danish pop multi-instrumentalist with a bent towards finding the sacred in the profane. He made what must be one of the finest Christmas albums of the current century in 2011’s Endurance in Christmas Time. A decade later, now singing in his native Danish, he had amended this admittedly rather slighter volume (Spotify) to his discography, and it’s fascinating to follow his development. A journey into a wholly different musical world, where both electronic instrumentation and new vocal techniques leave trails of sheer ice crystals in the listener’s mind.
8. Weeping Willows – Songs of Winter
Swedish band Weeping Willows have truly exquisite taste, as shown by their perfect choice of more or less obscure Christmas pop covers on their two Christmas records, 2014’s Christmas Time Has Come and this year’s even sharper follow-up (Spotify). There’s a slight tendency to let that good taste get the best of them, though, and the subdued Nordic melancholy that permeates this album can come across as too cerebral and neither passionate nor cosy enough to really embody the material being covered. Start here, get inspired, and take the next step to dig deeper.
7. José James – Merry Christmas from José James
The relationship between jazz and Christmas music is an interesting one. Historically, jazz musicians have contributed some of the best records in Christmas history, but that’s hardly true today, where Christmas is with sad regularity reduced to the domain of hokey smooth jazz and pernickety revivalists. Well, here’s a fully contemporary, avant-gardist Jazz album (Spotify) by a group of New School and Juilliard graduates, and it’s fascinating if not necessarily consistent; while drummer Jharis Yokely and bassist Ben Williams are world-class, the titular singer himself ends up in some pretty unfortunate, shaky-sounding places.
6. Caitríona O’Leary – Strange Wonders: The Wexford Carols, Vol II
Presenting mostly unheard songs from two obscure 17th- and 18th-century collections of Irish carols – some given new melodies by Caitríona O’Leary as the original tunes are considered lost – this collection (Spotify) is a treasure of unusual aspects of Christmas celebration. Whereas the first volume, released seven years ago, contained mostly what we normally think of as Christmas carols, this one expands it to other seasonal celebrations like St. Sylvester’s Eve and the Feast of the Holy Innocents, with some fascinating new material coming out of the old books. Well recorded, if a little too sedate at times, this is well worth your time.
5. Gucci Mane – So Icy Christmas
Gucci Mane may be a few years away from his largest multi-platinum hits by this point, but his lyrical ability and his finger on the pulse of local artists and producers is as acute as ever. So Icy Christmas (Spotify) is an interesting seasonal hybrid, part straightforward Christmas album, part showcase for Guwop’s label 1017 Global Music, where his stable of rappers contribute less overtly holiday-tinged material. Of course Gucci Mane, the East Atlanta Santa himself, stands head and shoulders above the rest, and his Christmas trap hits are both funny and hard-hitting.
4. Amanda Shires – For Christmas
Nashville singer-songwriter Amanda Shires brings a rare sense of dark desert drama and the intricacies of human relationships to Christmas songwriting. Dealing with everything from longing for lost partners to intimate sexuality in a way that’s several layers more mature than your average Christmas recording, this album (Spotify) has an attractively ambivalent attitude to the season. It’s also rare to find Christmas albums with this sort of thematic consistency, or ones that bear repeated listens with the lyrics mode on, digging into the complexities with a mixture of high passion and unbridled creative joy.
3. Rutkai Bori Banda – Mandulka és a Karácsonyvár
Considering Christmas is often thought of as a holiday for children, there are surprisingly few quality children’s records that are themed around the holiday. This Hungarian-language recording (Spotify), released to accompany the book of the same name, is a glorious exception and has all the makings of a good children’s album – it’s in equal parts expressive, energetic, pun-filled, fantastical and inventive. Special praise must be given to the music, which veers wildly between genres and expressions, delivering everything from Russian folk music and tango to samba and funk with equal aplomb.
2. Kat Edmonson – Holiday Swingin’
Kat Edmonson unashamedly borrows many of her vocal stylings from jazz history’s most individually expressive giants, including clear streaks taken from Blossom Dearie and Billie Holiday. But since neither of those ever released a Christmas album, and since the highly proficient singer of this album (Spotify) herself manages to add in extra large servings of energy and seasonal joy, somehow it just comes across as charming. If you don’t mind a record that sounds like it could have been recorded 60 years ago, this is about as lovely as a new small-ensemble vocal jazz Christmas record can be.
1. Dresdner Kammerchor – Es ist ein Ros
Sometimes, a single recording can make you reevaluate an entire life’s work, and open up your ears to new ways of listening. I’d never paid much attention to late-renaissance/early-baroque composer Michael Praetorius, but this recording of his Christmas vocal repertoire (Spotify) is mind-blowing – showing how exquisitely clear his vocal lines are as they intertwine and leap around each other to form perfect harmonies, yet never muddle or feel forced. The arrangements, many by chorus director Hans-Christoph Rademann, bring forth these qualities masterfully, and the singers (not least Soprano extraordinaire Isabel Schicketanz) are fully up to the game. Simply one of the best classical records in years.
A playlist with all of the top 10 Christmas albums of 2021, plus an assortment of other interesting new Christmas music, is available to listen to here on Spotify.