OK, the season is most definitely upon us and it’s time to start talking about Christmas music. I have a couple of boxes full of Christmas CDs I’ve collected down through the years. It’s always a delight to sift through the old tracks, hear familiar favourites and also add a new disc or two to the collection.
This year I’ve decided to share my favourite Christmas albums with you. I’m not claiming these are the best albums or, in any way suggesting this is a balanced or, critically justified list. There’s no classical or choral albums on here, and I know some will question my decision to leave out great albums by Bing Crosby, Billy Holliday and Johnny Cash.
These are simply my favourite albums, the ones I reached for on the day we put up our Christmas tree this past weekend and the ones I know will accompany meals and quiet nights over the coming weeks. Some are amazing, some are tacky, some are just downright odd. But, they all help bring the smiles and joy at this time of year.
12. Christmas Songs – Various
This is a sampler the Nettwek label released in 2000. It’s a bit of a mixed bag really, with some amazing cuts, like the Bare Naked Ladies with Sarah McLachlan doing a great novelty version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and a few tracks that haven’t aged so well. The bonus was the final track, a spoken word comedy piece called “Polly Anderson’s Christmas Party” which was my introduction to the comedy of Stuart McLean. Christmas Songs isn’t perfect (and Sarah McLachlan fans may perfer to hear her excellent release, Wintersong) but, for me, it’s still a special album.
Standout Track: Christmas Day – this elegantly arranged track features Dido when she was still rising to the top of her popularity and highlights all the wonderful idiosyncrasies and celtic inflections in her voice.
11. Jingle All The Way – Crash Test Dummies
Best known for the 1993 hit song, “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” the Crash Test Dummies were an Alternative Rock band who never quite matched the early success of their second album God Shuffled His Feet. Jingle All the Way was released some nine years after that and they merged all sorts of weird and wonderful Lounge and Alt-Country influences to bring us a slippery, hard to categorise musical feast.
Standout Track: Jingle Bells – from the opening bells, whips, drums and accordion you just know this isn’t going to be a typical version of the Christmas favourite. The Crash Test Dummies were renowned for lead singer Brad Roberts’ Bass-Baritone voice, which is used to wonderful effect here.
10. The Spirit Of Christmas – Ray Charles
I’ll admit, this album is a bit of a mess. I’ve always preferred Ray Charles in his earlier, grittier mode and this finds him in a more lush and even cliche-laden setting. But, there’s a sincerity in his voice and playing that wins me over in every listening. And, as ever, there’s just as many echoes of country as funk in the arrangements. Spirit of Christmasis warm and tender, like the season.
Standout Track: What Child Is This? – From the Thad Jones inspired horns in the intro, to the slow burning groove, and then the sudden upbeat transition and Freddie Hubbard’s searing trumpet solo, this is an extraordinary version of this familiar tune.
9. Christmas Songs – Diana Krall
Depending on where you shop or eat, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard a track or two from the 2005 Verve release. Krall is one of today’s most popular jazz talents and this album sees her tapping into the classic orchestral version of Christmas Jazz. Christmas Songs is sassy, urban and pretty much the perfect upmarket Christmas album.
Standout Track: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – Krall’s best vocal performance on this album is matched by some wonderful guitar playing by Russell Malone and Johnny Mandel’s arrangement and conducting. An exercise in sophisticated restraint.
8. If One A Winter’s Night… – Sting
This 2009 release sees Sting in his “early music” mode, but with a decidedly looser and funkier vibe than his other recordings from this time. If On A Winter’s Night… brings together traditional Christmas and seasonal tunes with some originals and even a fresh setting of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Christmas At Sea. This is a beautiful, atmospheric and rewarding album (with excellent liner notes) that breathes with the dark hope of midwinter.
Standout Track: The Hounds Of Winter – one of Sting’s best pop tunes, brought to life in a new and delightfully acoustic arrangement.
7. Maybe This Christmas Tree – Various
Another Nettwerk sampler, Maybe This Christmas Tree quickly became a household favourite. Featuring songs from The Polyphonic Spree, Death Cab for Cutie, Lisa Loeb and Jars of Clay this is a great snapshot of last decade’s Indie Rock sound wrapped around new and older Christmas songs.
Standout Track: Bittersweet Eve – I’m at a loss to explain why this excellent New Year’s Eve themed song isn’t on more people’s lists as one of the best seasonal songs of recent years. Lush, dark and haunting, this is a great song.
6. A Very Mancini Christmas – Henry Mancini
If you wanted to make a case for the most influential Christmas album of all time, this may well be it. Everybody (and I mean everybody) rips off Mancini at one point or another when arranging Christmas tunes. As soon as you start to think things are sounding corny, Mancini throws in a twist, cadence or reharmonisation to keep things lively. Go on, make yourself a Mad Men style drink and sit back and enjoy Greatest Christmas Songs, you know you want to!
Standout Track: The Christmas Song – every Christmas album seems to cover this song, but seldom if ever does it sound as rich and effortless. From the first note to the last, this a masterclass in arranging and studio performance.
5. The Season – Jane Monheit
Monheit’s breathy jazz vocals are such a natural match for Christmas music, so it’s no surprise this is such an enjoyable album. The uptempo numbers are classic, perhaps slightly cluttered big band swing, but I think the strength of Season is in the slower tunes, including My Grown Up Christmas List and Merry Christmas Darling.
Standout Track: Moonlight In Vermont – this simply arranged, mid-tempo number, gives Monheit plenty of room to show off her vocal chops and her voice is wonderfully offset by Miles Okazaki’s atmospheric guitar playing.
4. The Christmas Song – Nat King Cole
If there’s one voice that defines Christmas for me, it’s Nat King Cole. He just owns so many of the classic songs of the season on this album. It’s cool, it swings, it’s rich with layers of voice and instrumentation and it just sounds better every year. Christmas Song is one for every collection.
Standout Track: The Christmas Song – there’s so many great versions of this wonderful tune. But, this remains the definitive version. Possibly the best song Nat King Cole ever recorded and undoubtably one of the best Christmas songs of all time.
3. Jolly Old Soul – Various
There’s a few Soul & R&B Christmas compilation albums out there and this is my favourite. Drawn from Elektra, Atlantic and Rhino releases, this album has a stellar cast, including Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Donny Hathaway, Rooker T. and the MG’s and Carla Thomas. Jolly Old Soul has some familiar versions and also a few cuts you might not have heard, like the wonderfully dark and funny “Back Door Santa” by Clarence Carter.
Standout Track: This Christmas – there are a number of great versions of this song out there, but I still have a soft spot for Donny Hathaway’s original version. Soaring vocals, punchy horns, funky bass and lush strings, this is one of the classic Soul/Funk tunes of all time.
2. A Very Ally Christmas – Ally McBeal
How could such a decidly dodgy TV sitcom produce one of the finest Christmas albums of all? Well, despite the naff story-lines, this show actually had some great cast members and decent music in many of the episodes. Most of the tracks feature Vonda Shephard, who sang the soundtrack for the show and regularly appeared oncamera. There are also cameos from Jane Krakowski, who many would now recognise on 30 Rock and Macy Gray. Ally McBeal: A Very Ally Christmas is as delightful as any Christmas album out there.
Standout Track: River – perhaps the best cover of this bleak Christmas song, performed by non other than Robert Downey Jr. Short, sweet and full of emotion.
1. Christmas In The Heart – Bob Dylan
Some Christmas albums try their best to break with tradition, to avoid cliche and to present a really idiosyncratic, unique vision of the genre. And, then there’s Bob Dylan’s Christmas album, which seems at every turn to lean heavily into the cliche and nostalgia until it comes out the other side as one of the most amazing and irony free Christmas albums ever. Every year I pull Christmas In the Heart out of the box and it amazes me anew.
Standout Track: The Christmas Blues – You’ll seldom hear Bob Dylan sound more like he’s having fun than on this swampy, grooving track. There’s so much going on in this tune and yet it all sits perfectly in it’s place. Delightful.
Update for 2013 – A Blue Note Christmas Vol 1 & 2
Every year I pickup a few new Christmas albums and this year’s standout is this set which repackages two old Blue Note releases, Yule Struttin’ and Yule De Boppin’. Many “Jazzy” Christmas are flat, smooth affairs, but this varied collection rises above them with some excellent performances, especially from Joey Calderazzo, Benny Green, Eliane Ellis, Pat Martino and Bobby Watson.
Standout Track: Chipmunk Christmas – this angular and inventive version by John Scofield is full of everything that makes a proper Jazzy Christmas tune work. Beguiling, fun and original.