There's a deep sense of comfort that comes from a well-curated Christmas playlist, with finely-aged classics following one after the other and invoking all the cozy holiday memories of the past.
Here's AllMusic's countdown of the 30 most essential Christmas albums, from Ray Charles to Bing Crosby to James Brown and even Charlie Brown. Unwrap these albums early and get ready for the Yuletide season.
#30 — Gene Autry Sings Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town — Gene Autry
Gene Autry Sings Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town is a charming Christmas recording of Gene Autry running through some of the season's favorites, some obscure seasonal tunes, as well as a couple penned by Autry himself, including the immensely popular "Here Comes Santa Claus." The arrangements are very inspired classic pop stuff where sweeping strings, woodwind trills, and a chorus of backing vocalists mingling with Autry's rich voice and plenty of ringing percussion. "Boun Natale," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and "Santa's Coming in a Whirlybird" are all particularly inspired tunes on the set and the overall feel of the album is classic holiday fodder before later artists tried so hard and awkwardly integrated new styles into the songs.
#29 — Making Spirits Bright — Dean Martin
Drawing from both the Capitol and Reprise vaults, The Christmas Collection: Making Spirits Bright comes close to being the definitive Dean Martin holiday record. As his recording career progressed, Dean became less concerned with perfect performances (not that he ever was too concerned in the first place), eventually winding up with really relaxed performances by the end of his stint with Reprise. Theoretically, this could make for problems -- the deceptively casual, actually precise Capitol recordings would make the clearly casual Reprise songs sound lax -- but the compilers are sharp, picking the best of both eras. Ultimately, that means it's difficult to spot the sources if you're just listening casually, and that's for the best, since it results in a charming, thoroughly entertaining Christmas record, highlighted by fine versions of "White Christmas," "Jingle Bells," "Silver Bells," "Let It Snow! Let it Snow! Let It Snow!," "Winter Wonderland," "Baby, It's Cold Outside," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "The Christmas Blues," "Marshmallow World" and "Silent Night."
#28 — A Motown Christmas
A Motown Christmas is an outstanding 12-track sampler of highlights from holiday efforts like the Jackson 5's Christmas Album, Stevie Wonder's Someday at Christmas, and Smokey Robinson & the Miracles' The Season of Miracles, all recorded during the label's late-'60s peak and infused with the same beautifully soulful vibe which defined the Sound of Young America at its best. Although the set leans primarily on seasonal chestnuts like "Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer," "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," and "Silver Bells."
#27 — Christmas Eve and Other Stories — Trans-Siberian Orchestra
What would happen if members of Savatage decided to write some Christmas songs? Easy: Trans-Siberian Orchestra. This "supergroup" is the brainchild of Jon Oliva and Paul O'Neill (respectively the leader-keyboardist and the producer of Savatage). They hired Al Pitrelli (Asia, Savatage) to play guitars, Robert Kinkel to help with keyboards, John Middleton (also a member of Savatage) on bass, and Jeff Plate on drums. Lead vocals are shared by six vocalists, while some of the backing vocals are handled by Savatage lead singer Zachary Stevens. Christmas Eve and Other Stories is a concept album: all the songs are built as chapters of a book, each telling part of a larger story. The plot here is of a young angel sent down to Earth to find and bring back to the Lord "the one thing that best represents everything good that has been done in the name of this day." The angel's quest takes him all over the world, through Russia and Sarajevo, until he finally hears the prayer of a father. This last piece is the strongest moment on the album and makes for a miniature story within the larger story. It is basically told in a trilogy of songs: in the first, "Ornament," we hear the father's prayer, explaining how he hasn't seen his daughter in many years. In "Old City Bar," the angel finds the daughter, standing alone outside a bar, and talks to the bartender who, out of a random act of kindness, takes all the cash from his register drawer and gives it to the girl so she can go home. The third song, "This Christmas Day," has the father praising God, thanking him for bringing his daughter back to him on this night of all nights. It is a very touching story, pondering the thought that "If you want to arrange it/This world you can change it/If we could somehow make this/Christmas thing last/By helping a neighbor/Or even a stranger." Musically, the band has taken some traditional Christmas songs ("O Come All Ye Faithful," "O Holy Night," "The First Noel") and mixed in some modern rock music. The result is stunning and very impressive. It is filled with energy that simply blows you away. The already classic "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24" is a gripping instrumental based on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" (although you might have to listen carefully to hear it). Fans of progressive music should like this one. And if you're into the more recent works of Savatage (like Handful of Rain or Dead Winter Dead) you'll really love this.
#26 — The Ventures' Christmas Album — The Ventures
Originally issued on Dolton, this instrumental classic was reissued briefly in 1990 on CD by EMI. The Ventures have a blast with unique covers of secular Christmas songs: each instrumental borrows riffs from popular mid-'60s hits, incorporating them into their twangy guitar yule melodies. "Sleigh Ride" uses the Ventures' own hit "Walk, Don't Run," while other selections borrow from hits of other artists. It's a gas to hear "Frosty the Snowman" set to the Champs' "Tequila."
#25 — A Smooth Jazz Christmas — Dave Koz
Since 1997, the Dave Koz & Friends Christmas Tour has evolved from a handful of concerts by the beloved saxman and pianist David Benoit to a 30-plus-city national phenomenon also featuring fellow genre all-stars Peter White and Rick Braun and singer Brenda Russell. The original tour came in support of his popular 1997 seasonal offering December Makes Me Feel This Way, but the show has taken on an incredibly joyful creative life of its own, prompting Koz and his cohorts to create an exciting studio recording which captures the powerful emotion, warmth, and special familial spirit of these shows. Featuring unique ensemble arrangements of timeless classics, a handful of several Koz originals (including the brand new Koz/Benoit collaboration "Beneath the Moonlit Sky"), and musical surprises by the sleigh-load, A Smooth Jazz Christmas By Dave Koz & Friends is contemporary music's premier event for Christmas 2001. The experience begins the same way as the live performance, with a lengthy medley ("The Overture") introducing each artist one by one; in a complete blend of styles, the songs include "Let It Snow," "Winter Wonderland," "What Child Is This?," "Angels We Have Heard on High," "Jingle Bells," and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," the latter segment featuring Brenda Russell. Russell also adds her lush vocal presence to "The Christmas Song," while the medley of "O Tannenbaum/Sleigh Ride" moves from a playful Vince Guaraldi-like groove to a feisty Latin explosion. The gang creates a gentle, moody atmosphere for "Silent Night," while "Beneath the Moonlit Sky" features a wild moodswing from smoky soprano sax/piano duet to guitar, trumpet, and sax jam. "The Little Drummer Boy" is an exciting showcase for Braun's trumpet over a marching drum beat, while "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" features a bluesy solo improvisation by Benoit. Koz sang on the original recording of the title track to December Makes Me Feel This Way, and gives the reins here to the incomparable voice of pop superstar Kenny Loggins. Russell found the intensely energetic '40s big-band gem "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus," and it's since become a showstopper live; Koz and Braun create a potent horn section here as well. Cozy readings of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "White Christmas" are followed by a festive and folksy Koz original for Hanukah, "Eight Candles" (featuring Peter White on accordion), and a passionate new recording of Russell's classic "Get Here." Here as in the show, the encore/grand finale is "It Was the Night Before Christmas," featuring each member of the band reciting a verse of the famous poem over a bouncy, finger-snap-driven groove. One of the most diverse and original smooth jazz Christmas CDs ever.
#24 — Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits: 1935-1954
This charming collection of golden classic Christmas favorites stretches from 1935 to 1954. Rhino scores big with the idea of marketing music of such quality for a lesser cost. This record features everybody and everything from the Bing himself to Gene Autry's "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" to "All I Want for Christmas," a comedic, hilarious family favorite. What would Christmas be without "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!," a wintry cry for a snow-white landscape, sung proudly here by Vaughn Monroe? With its goal of making Christmas memorable, this collection of songs -- from the youthful "Here Comes Santa Claus" to "White Christmas," Bing Crosby's dreamy, reflective hit -- should appeal to all ages. At least one can imagine and dream for a white Christmas with the help of Bing, though most of the world really never receives one.
#23 — Honky Tonk Christmas — Alan Jackson
One of the best country Christmas albums, this smart blend of old and new songs doesn't have a traditional carol in the bunch. He starts off strong with the rocking "Honky Tonk Christmas" and then sings a gorgeous duet with Alison Krauss. He adds his voice to a previously taped track by the late Keith Whitley on "There's a New Kid in Town" and does a credible job with Merle Haggard's "If We Make It Through December." Save for a silly duet with the cartoon Chipmunks, this is a fabulous album.
#22 — Silent Night: Songs for Christmas — Mahalia Jackson
Whether or not you like sacred vocal music, one cannot help but be moved by the power and passion with which Mahalia Jackson sings "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" and the spiritual "Go Tell it on the Mountain." Her rendition of "Silent Night, Holy Night" is simply inspirational.
#21 — Please Come Home for Christmas — Charles Brown
Please Come Home for Christmas, a King reissue from 1961, finds blues crooner Charles Brown trying his hand at Christmas tunes. This set has become a staple for listeners who seek beyond the traditional Nat King Cole or Bing Crosby holiday fare. Brown croons laid-back renditions of "It's Christmas Time," "Christmas Comes But Once a Year," "Let's Make Every Day a Christmas Day," as well as the original version of what has become a cool Yuletide classic, "Merry Christmas Baby."
#20 — Christmas with Buck Owens and His Buckaroos — Buck Owens
This 1999 reissue of Owens' 1967 Christmas album is a straight-up affair; with no hidden bonus tracks, just the straight 12 tracks from two 1965 sessions (odd they waited two years to put this stuff out), this is prime Buck Owens and His Buckaroos in the holiday mode. Featured here are "Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy," "Santa's Gonna Come in a Stagecoach," and enough Yule-time weepers to make you realize that the holidays have a mighty dark side, too.
#19 — A Christmas Album — Barbra Streisand
If Simply Streisand, which appeared earlier the same month as A Christmas Album, indicated that Streisand was overly reverent when it came to standards, reverence was no problem with seasonal fare. You don't necessarily look for unusual interpretations of your Christmas music; you just want those old favorites sung well, and for the most part, that's what you got from Streisand. She did lead off with "Jingle Bells?" into which she injected some of her trademark humor while performing at a breakneck pace. Marty Paich arranged and conducted the secular songs like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "White Christmas," which occupied side one, while Ray Ellis handled the religious material on side two. But both were traditional in their charts, and Streisand gave her singing just enough personality without getting in the way of the familiar songs. They were trying to make a timeless classic, and that's what they achieved.
#18 — December — George Winston
The mother of all solo instrumental albums, and with good reason. Mixing traditional carols with Pachelbel's Canon and a few originals, George Winston produces a solo piano album of unparalleled -- and undeniable -- beauty. How can music be simultaneously stirring and soothing, relaxed yet exalted? Millions have found the answer here, and an industry has spent decades trying to duplicate it.
#17 — Snowfall — Tony Bennett
With British arranger/conductor Robert Farnon handling the transatlantic sessions, Tony Bennett's 1968 Christmas album turned into a swinging affair, from the version of "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music (how did this song become associated with Christmas?) to seasonal standards like "White Christmas" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Bennett's warm style was especially winning on this kind of material, making an inevitable assignment a winning combination of singer and songs.
#16 — Merry Christmas — Johnny Mathis
Of the several Christmas LPs Johnny Mathis has recorded, this one gets the nod. With empathetic arrangements by Percy Faith, it's impossible to say how many babies were born the following September after parents heard Johnny Mathis crooning "The Christmas Song." Smo-o-o-oth !
#15 — Christmas Album — Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass
Herb Alpert turned to jazz's Shorty Rogers -- then toiling in the L.A. film and TV studios -- for voice and string arrangements on his Christmas album, and Rogers in turn went all out for schmaltz. Rogers' cooing voices introduce several of the tunes, whereupon the Tijuana Brass do their mostly unrelated Ameriachi thing familiar from past albums. Indeed, "Las Mananitas" seems to have been lifted from an obscure B-side of a 45 and overdubbed with the Rogers treatment. Jingling bells is a recurring song theme -- first with "Jingle Bells," then the cloying "The Bell That Couldn't Jingle," and ultimately "Jingle Bell Rock." For the first time in a long time, Alpert's sense of pacing occasionally goes awry; "My Favorite Things" nearly comes apart in the silences and piano/vocal interlude between the TJB grooves, and "Sleigh Ride" screeches to a dead halt. And yet time and further exposure has revealed this record's homey charms, which no doubt is one reason why it continues to be available on CD where other TJB best-sellers have fallen by the wayside.
#14 — A Christmas Album — Amy Grant
At the age of 22, Amy Grant took another step in her career by issuing her first Christmas album in 1983. It was a logical-enough release for a Christian performer, but also one that suggested she was an established headliner, an artist whose versions of standards like "The Christmas Song" and "Little Town" (aka "O Little Town of Bethlehem") would be interesting to listeners because she was singing them. In her carefully planned march to mass popularity, the album represented at least one tentative outreach in a musical direction Grant would not pursue. The leadoff track, "Tennessee Christmas," found her husband and co-writer, Gary Chapman, playing a pedal steel guitar on a song that seemed intended to probe the country market and that actually earned some country radio play. But despite being a scion of the Nashville aristocracy (i.e., the wealthy families that long predated the rise of country music in the city), Grant was never really a country artist, and the rest of the album, cut at James William Guercio's Caribou Ranch studio complex, reflected the increasing influence of West Coast pop on her sound, with Los Angeles studio aces like Lenny Castro, Bill Champlin, Victor Feldman, Richard Page, and Dean Parks among the credits. Also increasing his influence was songwriter/keyboardist Michael W. Smith, who contributed such songs as "Emmanuel," a synthesizer-heavy pop/rock track that could have fit on one of Grant's regular albums. So could some of the other material, in fact. A Christmas Album was a record for the audience Grant had attracted with her 1982 breakthrough (and about to be gold) LP, Age to Age, an audience of Christian rock fans attracted by her personal approach to faith. It looked forward to her straddling of secular and CCM music, and as her star rose, it sold well perennially, eventually achieving multi-platinum status, helping associate Grant with the Christmas season as she went on to record more seasonal albums and tape holiday specials.
#13 — White Christmas — Bing Crosby
"Der Bingle" in two distinctly different moods: from the solemnity of "Silent Night" and "Adeste Fidelis" (sung in Latin and English) to the playfulness ("gonna have a lotta fun") on "Jingle Bells," with the Andrews Sisters providing some smiles with their "Ji-ji-jingle" vocals. They duet on two more, including "Mele Kalikimaka." It also includes a remake of "White Christmas."
#12 — Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas — Kenny Burrell
After its original release on Cadet Records in 1966, Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas was out of print for years until a 1992 reissue. With pensive, meditative, precise playing, it's a must-have and features a definitive jazz hit version of "Little Drummer Boy."
#11 — A Very Special Christmas
Recorded to benefit the Special Olympics, this has some of the biggest names in contemporary music, most covering seasonal favorites with mixed success. Outstanding tracks include the Pretenders "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," with Chrissie Hynde giving a touching performance. Run-D.M.C.'s topical "Christmas in Hollis" relies heavily on sampling "Back Door Santa," and may head you toward the dance floor. Alison Moyet's stately version of "The Coventry Carol" is beautifully haunting. Only the Material Girl, Madonna, embarrasses herself with an overly campy "Santa Baby."
#10 — The Complete James Brown Christmas — James Brown
Part of Hip-O Select's exhaustive and terrific James Brown reissue series, 2010’s The Complete James Brown Christmas is a double-disc set that rounds up his three seasonal albums for King -- 1966’s Christmas Songs, 1968’s A Soulful Christmas, 1970’s Hey America -- and a handful of non-LP singles and single edits. Unlike most artists who bend themselves to fit the standards of the season, Brown didn’t abandon his carefully crafted style for Christmas: he made records that sounded like his hits, they just happened to be about Santa Claus and Christmastime. And his three holiday LPs were not interchangeable, either. Each reflected the sound of the year, so Christmas Songs was steeped in dramatic, string-laden uptown soul; A Soulful Christmas dug deep into the grooves, going so far as to include “Say It Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud” in the thick of the proceedings; and Hey America was powered by deep, heavy funk. Because so much emphasis is on the grooves, it doesn’t take long for the Christmas themes to become incidental, but that’s fine; these three albums were recorded while James Brown & the JB’s were at a peak so it’s a pleasure just to hear them play anything. This may be a disappointment for some looking for more JB that is as clearly Christmas as “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto,” but the entirety of The Complete James Brown Christmas is a joy that could be shared at any time of the year.
#9 — The Spirit of Christmas — Ray Charles
Recorded in 1985, The Spirit of Christmas finds Ray Charles performing a variety of holiday favorites with vocal assistance from the Raelettes and an appearance by jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. The ten tracks mix standards and originals, including "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and the ballad "That Spirit of Christmas," which was featured in the movie National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. The Spirit of Christmas is perfect background music for any holiday celebration.
#8 — Have a Holly Jolly Christmas — Burl Ives
Have a Holly Jolly Christmas is a compilation of holiday songs performed by Burl Ives. The award-winning actor performed the definitive version of the title track, thus forever cementing his place in the genre. The other songs here (many of which have also gotten quite a lot of radio play) are all standards for the most part, and are all sung in Ives' sweet, fractured croon. Fans of the title track will probably enjoy the rest of the album, and any other curious listeners may also want to give this a try.
#7 — What a Wonderful Christmas — Louis Armstrong & Friends
Although this Christmas compilation is credited to "Louis Armstrong & Friends," it's really more aptly categorized as a various artists anthology, since Armstrong only has six of the fourteen tracks. The disc is filled out with seasonal offerings by Dinah Washington, Mel Torme, Louis Jordan, Lionel Hampton, Peggy Lee, Eartha Kitt, and Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, mostly from the 1950s. It's pleasant pop-jazz that doesn't rate among the highlights of any of these talented artists' careers. But it makes for an above-average Christmas disc, especially on Lionel Hampton's "Merry Christmas, Baby," Louis Armstrong's "Cool Yule," and Louis Jordan's "May Everyday Be Christmas," which celebrate the holiday with more gutsy hipness than the usual Yuletide fare.
#6 — Elvis' Christmas Album — Elvis Presley
Elvis' 1957 original Christmas album is one of his most inspired early outings and the first time he tackled anything resembling a thematic concept. Split evenly between rockers and bluesy numbers like "Santa Claus Is Back in Town," "Blue Christmas," and "Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me," perennials like "White Christmas," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," and "Silent Night," and straight-ahead gospel favorites like "I Believe," "Peace in the Valley" and "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," the disc revealed a different side of the rocker for the first time on a public instead conditioned to expect something outrageous. One of the King's shining moments, this is quite simply still one of the best holiday albums available.
#5 — The Sinatra Christmas Album — Frank Sinatra
A collection of Ol' Blue Eyes best holiday interpretations, this particular Christmas collection was released in 2003 by EMI as a digital download. Featuring Sinatra's renderings of "Jingle Bells," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and "Silent Night," the Sinatra Christmas Album should be a welcome addition to anyone's holiday cheer.
#4 — Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas — Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas is a charming, warmly humorous -- and yes, swinging -- set of classic Christmas tunes. The program is familiar, from bouncy singalongs like "Jingle Bells" to slinky ballads like a downright sexy "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," but Fitzgerald treats each song with exactly as much respect as it deserves. And so Frank Loesser's "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" is wistfully romantic and Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne's "Let It Snow" is kittenishly enticing. As always, Norman Granz's production avoids the schlock that drowns some holiday sets. This is as good as jazz Christmas albums get.
#3 — The Christmas Song — Nat King Cole
First issued in the early '60s, this collection of musical Christmas cheer is packed full of the smoothly sung, sentimental favorites associated as much with Nat King Cole himself as with the season. The singer's performance of "The Christmas Song" is an unforgettable classic reprised here twice, once in an updated version that includes a contemporary vocal from his daughter, Natalie, and also in Cole's original 1946 recording. Other traditional religious favorites like "I Saw Three Ships" and "Away in a Manger" are also featured, in a setting that, with its well-arranged orchestral accompaniment, manages to sound both sophisticated and folksy.
#2 — A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector
Featuring Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" in its prime and his early stable of artists, the Ronettes, Crystals, Darlene Love, and Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector stands as inarguably the greatest Christmas record of all time. Spector believed he could produce a record for the holidays that would capture not only the essence of the Christmas spirit, but also be a pop masterpiece that would stand against any work these artists had already done. He succeeded on every level, with all four groups/singers recording some of their most memorable performances. This is the Christmas album by which all later holiday releases had to be judged, and it has inspired a host of imitators.
#1 — A Charlie Brown Christmas — Vince Guaraldi
Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz called on pianist extraordinaire Vince Guaraldi and his trio to compose and perform music that would reflect the humor, charm, and innocence of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the entire Peanuts gang for their 1965 Christmas TV special. It was a perfect match: Guaraldi strings together elegant, enticing arrangements that reflect the spirit and mood of Schulz's work and introduce contemporary jazz to youngsters with grace, charm, and creativity. "What Child Is This" touches on cool jazz's richly textured percussive nuances, while "The Christmas Song" reflects Christmas' relaxing, mellow moments. The renowned "Linus and Lucy" gives the Peanuts characters a fresh, energetic feel with its tantalizing meter changes, brilliant percussion, and dashing, humorous piano lines. "Christmastime Is Here," perhaps the album's most endearing and eloquent moment, is six minutes of soft, lullaby-like melodic and percussive flavors. This collection of soul-soothing melodies would not be complete without the romantic gem "Skating," which blends musical references to falling snowflakes with the dashing feel of swing. Finally, the uplifting, emotionally stirring swing tune "Christmas Is Coming" really brings the listener into the joyous light of the Christmas spirit. Fred Marshall's alluring walking basslines and drummer Jerry Granelli's hauntingly beautiful brush work give most of the album a warm foundation, while Monty Budwig and Colin Bailey shine through with eminent dexterity on bass and drums on "Greensleeves." As for Guaraldi, his penetrating improvisational phrases paint pictures of the first winter snowfall, myriad glistening trees, and powdery white landscapes. With its blend of contemporary jazz and lyrical mannerisms, A Charlie Brown Christmas is a joyous and festive meditation for the holiday season.