Friday, December 01, 2006

The Top 10 Christmas Albums Of All Time

Every year, new holiday fare is released to the public to satiate their never-ending desire to hear Christmas music. It amazes me how the music industry continues to recycle the same Christmas songs year after year in various packages, by every conceivable artist known to man, and we keep buying. From James Galway, to Willie Nelson, to Clay Aiken, and everybody in between, Christmas music sells and sells and sells. One of the nice things about this time of year is we all enjoy music by artists that we would never otherwise think of listening to the rest of the year. A case in point is my daughter. She knows nothing about Nat King Cole except for his Christmas album and his perennial chestnut (pun intended), "The Christmas Song." While she enjoys this standard holiday tune very much, she would never consider listening to anything else he recorded without poking fun at the old folks who realize that Cole was one of the great jazz and pop singers of his era. At what other time of year do adults voluntarily listen to and sing along with novelties like "The Chipmunk Song" and "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" rather than changing the radio station. Keeping the above in mind, following are capsule reviews of my top ten all-time favorite Christmas albums, all worthy of your consideration.

1. Nat King Cole - The Christmas Song (1963)
This album, combining some of the best loved carols and songs with Mel Torme's title track, is sung by one of the 20th century's greatest voices and therefore it easily tops my list. It is one of the few Christmas albums I never tire of hearing. I'd even enjoy it if I listened to it in July. A new expanded version was released last Christmas season with eight additional tracks.

2. Various Artists - Acoustic Christmas (1990)
The CD's twelve tracks includes songs by Roseanne Cash, Shawn Colvin, The Hooters, Harry Connick Jr., and T-Bone Burnette. The album travels all the roads of acoustic music as it alternates between soft and mellow settings with the emphasis on the song and vocals (Art Garfunkel singing "O Come All Ye Faithul" is a great example) to boisterous, fun-filled arrangemnents by Poi Dog Pondering who teamed up with The Dirty Dozen Brass Band for "Mele Kalikimaka." It's all very eclectic and wonderful. It's hard to find this CD in stores but you can easily find it on Amazon, and for a lot less money too.

3. Brian Setzer Orchestra - Boogie Woogie Christmas (2002)
This is one of the most fun Christmas CDs ever. Setzer and the world's most famous rock n' roll big band roar through some holiday standards with hot guitar and lots of brass and woodwinds. It's mostly party time but when Setzer slows it down he shows he can really sing and proves this band is more than just a gimmick. His versions of "Jingle Bells" and "Sleigh Ride" will blow your walls down. See the full review here.

4. Chicago - XXV/What's It Gonna Be Santa? (1998/2003)
This CD was originally released in 1998 as Chicago XXV and re-released in 2003 as What's It Gonna Be Santa with six additional songs. Why is this CD so good? It's the album where Chicago remembers they were a horn band and therefore it's the best disc they've released since Terry Kath died in 1978. "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" features the Chicago horns in all of their glory and shouldn't be missed. If you like the "real" Chicago you'll like this CD. Read the complete review.

5. Michael Buble - Let It Snow (2003)
This five song EP given away free by Borders Books and Music, and now available on the Internet, was my introduction to Buble. When I first heard this CD I was stunned. Nobody sings like the old time big band vocalists anymore and therefore saying Buble is the best 1940s band singer since Sinatra may seem like faint praise. However, one listen and you know Frank would have been impressed. Harry Connick's vocal chords can only be jealous of this guy. You can buy it from Amazon.

6. John Boswell - Festival Of The Heart (1992)
New Age pianist John Boswell has wonderfully arranged these traditional Christmas carols and songs in a manner that emphasizes the beautiful melodies most of the songs possess. These instrumental, all acoustic offerings let the melodies shine through without any gimmicks. This is another CD that is hard to find in stores but you can easily buy it from Amazon.

7. Vince Guaraldi Trio - A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
This is one of the most universally loved jazz albums of all time and one of the most famous albums in history, Christmas or otherwise. Guaraldi's marvelous piano playing and composing are a perfect fit as the soundtrack to the famous TV show. It may also be the most important non-sacred Christmas album ever released because of its influence on our culture. It helped elevate the Peanuts gang to the exalted status they held for decades and that makes this record more than just a Christmas album. A new remastered version with four alternate takes added has been released for this holiday season.

8. Oscar Peterson - An Oscar Peterson Christmas (1995)
There are two truly great elements to this CD. First the musicianship is superb and secondly I've never heard such enjoyable improvisation around the melody without ever losing site of it. Peterson blends vibes, flugelhorn and his piano around a rhythm section with very tasteful arrangements that will make you want to listen to this album closely. As with Guaraldi's work it's far more than just Christmas music. Don't just play this CD as background dinner music because it is top drawer jazz. Peterson never fails to shine and this CD is no exception. All twelve reviews posted on Amazon give this CD five stars.

9. Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra - The Nutcracker (1990 on CD)
What can be said about this disc of excerpts from Tchaikovsky's famous ballet? It's one of the most famous and loved works of music ever recorded performed by what many believe is the greatest orchestra in the world. There may be a hundred versions of "The Nutcracker" available to the public but as this lone review on Amazon indicates Ormandy's version may be one of the best.

10. Chris Isaak - Christmas (2004)
The closest we come today to hearing Roy Orbison sing is Chris Isaak. Isaak is a fine composer, singer, and interpreter of other people's songs and this sixteen track disc showcases all three talents. Eleven cover versions mix with five new Isaak originals. His songs make me wonder how good of a Christmas album Isaak could have produced if he had filled the entire disc with originals. His "Washington Square," a song about being alone without love on Christmas Day, can also be interpreted (at least by me) as referring to our homesick troops fighting in Iraq. Don't get depressed, this album is not without plenty of fun moments. It's available here.


  1. Great list, great reviews Charlie. Just reading this is enough to put me in the mood and override my current burnout from hearing too many artists cover Joni Mitchell's "The River" which is apparently now an official Christmas song although not necessarily intended as such when Joni first recorded it.

  2. Fantastic list! I would add Dean Martin, Bing Crosby and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy to my list :)