The classic sounds of Christmas

10 essential albums for the holiday season

  • Christmas-music-of-Johnny-Mathis

  • Every year it seems there are a dozen or more new Christmas albums released. But as much money and effort as we put into expanding our holiday record collection, we sometimes overlook and even forget about the classics that no collection is complete without.

    In that spirit, here are 10 suggestions meant as a starting point. And while I wanted to include something for just about everyone, this is by no means a definitive list.

    “The Christmas Music of Johnny Mathis,” Johnny Mathis: Mathis is a mainstay of the Christmas season, his voice as ubiquitous on the radio, in department stores, and homes as the colors green and red in December. And for good reason, considering he has released several classic Christmas records beginning in 1958 with “Merry Christmas.” And since purchasing all of the releases is impractical and expensive, go for this 1993 compilation, which assures that you won’t be missing out. It features Yuletide favorites such as “Winter Wonderland,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

    “Christmas Portrait,” The Carpenters: The siblings’ soft rock-jazzy pop 1978 foray into holiday music is predictably polished and impeccably arranged, with Karen’s unmistakable smooth voice front and center. And while “Merry Christmas Darling” is the record’s most popular song, it features one of the worst lyrics in song writing: “I’ll be Christmasing with you.” Sorry, Karen and Richard, but Christmas is a proper noun and not a verb, making the act of Christmasing impossible and grammatically incorrect. Still, it sings better than “I’ll be celebrating Christmas with you.”

    “A Christmas Album,” Barbra Streisand: Does anyone else find it strange that someone as famously Jewish as Streisand would release a Christmas record? Even if she’s looking to cash in on the holiday, she does the songs justice with her gorgeous voice. On an album that sounds like a one-woman Broadway production, this 1967 release has Streisand being playful (“Jingle Bells”), traditional (“Sleep in Heavenly Peace (Silent Night)”), and putting her powerful vocals to good use (“Gounod’s Ave Maria”). She also gives Bing a run for his money on her version of “White Christmas.”

    “Dr. Demento Presents: Greatest Christmas Novelty CD,” Various Artists: As much as Christmas is about the classic songs of the season, it’s also about those funny songs that are pounded into our heads ad nauseam by Dec. 25. Still, what’s Christmas without “The Chimpmunk Song,” “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth,” “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”? The patron saint of parody music, Dr. Demento, was even kind enough to include “Jingle Bells” by the Singing Dogs in this 16-song collection. Released in 1989 by Rhino, this out-of-print album is one you’ll have to go online to buy. But your kids will appreciate the effort.

    “Elvis’ Christmas Album,” Elvis Presley: Presley has had numerous Christmas songs released throughout his life and beyond, but it all started in 1957 with “Elvis’ Christmas Album,” not only one of the great holiday records of all time, but one of his best records, period. Presley covers the classics (“Silent Night,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem”) just fine, but the standouts are his more bluesy-early-rock efforts: the galloping “Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane), the sad “Blue Christmas,” and the playful “Santa Bring My Baby Back (to Me).” This album was an early indicator that Presley had the chops and skill to do it all.

    “XFM It’s a Cool Cool Christmas,” Various Artists: For a modern flavor search out this 2000 import from XFm, a London alternative radio station. This 21-song collection from mostly indie artists is a mixture of new songs and holiday favorites, the latter given an alt twist, like the synth-heavy “Little Drummer Boy” by the Dandy Warhols and the guitar-driven “Feliz Navi-Nada” by El Vez. And for a gorgeous diversion from the modern, spin Belle and Sebastian’s fragile “O Come, O Come Emmauel.” As for the originals, Granddaddy gives a jolt of quirky humor with “Alan Parsons in a Winter Wonderland” and Snow Patrol is, well, Snow Patrol on the band’s “When I Get Home From Christmas.”

    “A Motown Christmas,” Various Artists: This 1973 25-song compilation features the famed voices of Motown bringing a R&B groove to the beloved holiday favorites. The Jackson 5 probably leap to mind first, with their bubbly kid-pop versions of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” but not to be overlooked are the Temptations’ gorgeous version of “Silent Night” and Smokey Robinson & the Miracles breathing new life into the chestnut “Jingle Bells.” Marvin Gaye, in his only song on the album, brings an emotional close to the holiday festivities with his somber “I Want to Come Home for Christmas” about a POW wishing for a Christmas miracle.

    “20th Century Masters — The Christmas Collection: The Best of Bing Crosby,” Bing Crosby: Like so many classic-era vocalists, Crosby loved Christmas songs, and recorded several records’ worth of material. This might be his best compilation with all of Crosby’s holiday favorites digitally remastered including “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (Single Version),” “Silent Night (1942 Single Version),” “Jingle Bells,” and “Here Comes Santa Claus.” And what would any Crosby holiday record — or any Christmas album collection — be without him crooning the beloved “White Christmas (1942 Holiday Inn Version)”?

    “Christmas With the Rat Pack,” The Rat Pack: Admittedly, this is kind of a cheat throwing Frank, Dean, and Sammy’s holiday songs into one release, but this list is about the essentials, as well as making it easier and more affordable to get them. While there are more than a few Rat Pack holiday compilations, go for the 2007 release, which features 21 tracks, including Martin’s whimsical “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” Sinatra’s classy “The Christmas Waltz” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” and Davis’ smooth “Christmas Time All Over the World.”

    “Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas,” Ella Fitzgerald and “The Magic of Christmas,” Nat King Cole: Torn between two Christmas classics for the final spot on the list, I opted to include both of these classic jazzy holiday records that were originally released in 1960. Perpetually in bright spirits on record, Fitzgerald is the perfect voice to bring warmth to the holidays as she joyfully dances through these dozen upbeat Christmas tunes. And just as omnipresent as Crosby’s “White Christmas” is Cole’s “The Christmas Song,” which also happens to be the title for this renamed reissue of “The Magic of Christmas,” and which is presented in three different versions on the disc, including a posthumous duet with his daughter Natalie, courtesy of the magic of technology.

    Contact Kirk Baird at: or 419-724-6734.