This list does not have Handel’s Messiah. Not because it’s not great. It is, of course, better than great. It’s THE classic Christmas album. I regret not including so many other records that I think are great, but that’s how it goes.
What is here is a good balance of Christmas albums, consisting of four compilations, three instrumental offerings, and four genres (country, jazz, rock, and soul). I hope these selections are useful and enjoyable.
1. A Charlie Brown Christmas — Vince Guaraldi Trio
If it’s good enough for Charles Schulz, it’s good enough for me. Originally released in 1965 and since reissued on Fantasy Records in 1988, Guaraldi’s Christmas album has maintained its popularity and is still regarded as one of the best ever.
A Charlie Brown Christmas (full album)
Some of the more distinguished tracks from the TV show are Christmas Time is Here (vocal and instrumental), Linus and Lucy, Skating, Fur Elise, and The Christmas Song. If you don’t have this album yet, don’t be a blockhead. Just go get it already.
2. In the Christmas Spirit — Booker T. & The MG’s
I love this album. It’s my favorite cover of all the Christmas albums. This was released in 1966 on the Stax label, and reissued on Sundazed Music in 2000. Twelve classics fill the album, including my favorite rendition of Jingle Bells to start it off.
It is laid back, instrumental groove at its best for the holidays. Having a hard time with gift ideas? Giving a classic record to a music fan you know and love will surely be appreciated.
3. Christmas — The Johnny Cash Family
What makes this 1972 Columbia Records recording special is the family dialogue between each song. I get a down-home cozy feeling listening to his family tell stories, such as the one where Mother Maybelle Carter talks about her Dad and his copper kettle he used for moonshine until her Mom took it away to use it for apple butter. There are standards, as well as less popular tunes, written by Johnny Cash, family members, or friends. Larry Butler plays a wonderful piano solo titled My Merry Christmas Song.
That Christmasy Feeling
My Merry Christmas Song
4. Christmas Songs — James Brown and His Famous Flames
Released in 1966 on the King label, this album features the Godfather of Soul singing original songs with his backup band. It’s not as funky as later years with The J.B.’s, but it’s still tight and warm with Brown’s soul coming through. My favorites are Sweet Little Baby Boy, Parts 1 & 2 and the instrumentals This is My Lonely Christmas, Parts 1 & 2.
Sweet Little Baby Boy
5. Christmas with Chet Atkins — Chet Atkins
If you want world-class guitar, Chet’s your man. Released in 1961 by RCA, Chet’s distinct guitar is accompanied by the sweet harmonies of the Anita Kerr Singers. I’d have to say Little Drummer Boy and Jingle Bell Rock are my favorites at this point.
Little Drummer Boy
6. The Christmas Rock Album — Various Artists
This is a collection of rock n’ roll artists singing Christmas songs (who would’ve guessed) — some popular ones, some more obscure — originally recorded in the 70’s and early 80’s, and released on Priority Records in 1986. Some of my favorite tracks are Thank God It’s Christmas and Christmas Wrapping.
Christmas Wrapping by The Waitresses
7. A Very Special Christmas — Various Artists
Another great rock collection, this was the first of many Christmas albums from A&M Records to benefit Special Olympics International (released in 1987). There are some notable artists on here, but it’s worth owning simply because of Stevie Nicks’ Silent Night. My cousin observed years ago that all bikers love Stevie Nicks. I would add that almost all groups known to man love Stevie Nicks. If she joined forces with the Dos Equis guy, this world would have less crime and more love.
Silent Night by Stevie Nicks
8. Have a Merry Chess Christmas — Various Artists
Released in 1988 on MCA Records, this is a collection of soul artists, mostly from Chicago, who released Christmas songs on the Chess label from 1953 to 1969. Some of the giants of early R&B are here, including Chuck Berry (whose Run Rudolph Run is a familiar classic), The Moonglows, The Soul Stirrers, and The O’Jays (who recorded in Philly). A great jazz group, The Ramsey Lewis Trio, also makes an appearance.There’s some nice harmonizing vocals on here, and each track is worth playing.
Christmas Means Love by The Soul Stirrers
9. It’s Christmas Time Again — Various Artists
This is a collection of Memphis soul recordings, mostly from the 70’s, released on the Stax label in 1982, that provides a variety of sounds. Some of the more well-known musicians here are Albert King, Rufus Thomas, Isaac Hayes, and The Staple Singers.
White Christmas by The Rance Allen Group
As with all the other albums on my list, this can be played throughout with enjoyment. Two of my favorite tracks are White Christmas and What Do the Lonely Do at Christmas? for their soulful harmonies and smooth rhythms. Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’ is done twice, and both versions provide some fun.
10. Christmas Album — Jackson 5
Last but certainly not least is the famous quintet, a quintessential pop soul favorite, complete with a festive red bow. This was released on the Motown label in 1970, and prominently features young Michael with vocal solos and harmonies with his other four brothers on classics like Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (a great way to start the album off!), The Christmas Song, and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. A lesser known song, written by Hal Davis called Give Love on Christmas Day, is one of my favorites on the album. The Little Drummer Boy, one of the ones Michael is most prominent on, is another great one.
Christmas Album (full album)