An Essential Guide to Christmas Music
Published Nov 28, 2016Christmas music is arguably the most peculiar musical genre in existence. For one thing, it has the shortest lifespan per annum (because let's face it, Ministry was right: every day is Halloween).
Each year, it begins receiving airplay as early as mid-November, and limps its way to New Year's Day, never to be heard from again until next year's 47-day cycle. And yet, despite its limited shelf life, Christmas is quite possibly the oldest form of pop music we know. From the 19th Century boom of carols to the rise of the pop song in the 1930s, a lot of the staples we know by heart are actually pretty ancient.
As such, in general, no one really wants to hear a new original Christmas song; it tends to survive purely on the old standards, of which there really aren't many. The market is clogged with albums featuring near-identical tracklistings, and sometimes it feels like there are only a dozen or so Christmas songs in existence. That doesn't seem to stop people from buying the same albums every year, though: That's Christmas by a cappella group Pentatonix, which features only one new composition, was the best-selling holiday album in both 2014 and 2015 (and also 2014's fourth best-selling album overall in the U.S.).
Oddly, this incessant repetition seems to be Christmas music's greatest strength. Virtually every song has been covered in every possible style, allowing it to cross over into a variety of markets. Not a fan of the Glee cast's "Little Drummer Boy"? Well then, why not try a version by Bad Religion or Ottmar Liebert of the Heavy Blinkers with Jenn Grant or Justin Bieber featuring Busta Rhymes? Or if you really want a treat, Shaggy's version, where treat, where he flips it as "Jamaican Drummer Boy"?
The point is, there's a lot to sift through. With that in mind, here is the Exclaim! Essential Guide to Christmas Music to hopefully help you distinguish the good from the bad.
10. Sufjan Stevens
Songs for Christmas / Silver & Gold
(2006 / 2012)
Right at the end of his most prolific period, indie rock darling Sufjan Stevens dropped a five-disc box set of Christmas music he had accumulated over six years. Unlike his proposed "50 States" project, which ended at two, his crack at making holiday music proved to be fertile — altogether, he recorded 100 songs. As usual, it features most of the season's popular carols, and sometimes even multiple takes across the five EPs (see "O Come, O Come Emmanuel"). But like the rest of his catalogue, there's an evolution to trace, and each one is a unique interpretation depicting that stage in his career. He did it again in 2012 with the followup Silver & Gold, an even more ambitious five-disc set.
While the two collections tend to favour quantity over quality (there is plenty of filler), it's hard not to admire this as a true labour of love. Clearly, Stevens is passionate about Christmas, and he pays the utmost respect with his versions. However, it's the whimsy of his originals — notably, the forlorn folk of "That Was the Worst Christmas Ever," the demented lo-fi jingle "Mr. Frosty Man" and the giddy prog-pop of "Get Behind Me Santa!" — that make these two sets so endearing and distinctive.
9. Kenny & Dolly
Once Upon a Christmas
In the early 1980s, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers were the perfect couple. Together, they had brilliant chemistry, comedic and musical timing, and let's face it — they were adorable. (Just look at that album cover!) How they were not an actual married couple is one of music's biggest mysteries. Their 1983 hit "Islands in the Stream" may be their crowning achievement, but Once Upon a Christmas remains amongst their most relevant work together.
The album was packaged with a rather bizarre and campy TV special from 1984 called Kenny & Dolly: A Christmas to Remember, named after their delightfully wistful single. The silky, synth-y production and cutesy back-and-forth might strike some as a bit too schmaltzy — two grownups acting as teen lovers and serenading each other about believing in Santa Claus — but if Christmas isn't the right time of the year for some schmaltz, what is?
Duluth, MN slowcore heroes Low have never been shy about expressing their spirituality — married members Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk practice the Mormon faith — but no one really expected Low to release an album of Christmas songs. Known for their sublimely dour and glacial indie rock, Christmas struck fans as a surprise, but also brought some welcome relief to the genre's tendency to be tacky and commercial.
By sticking to their sparse formula, Low strip a song like "Silent Night" right down to the bones to maximize its expressiveness, and lend hypnotic power to "Little Drummer Boy" (which later featured in a winter Gap ad) by cranking up the organ and droning it to the max as Parker bangs the drums militantly. But the reason why Christmas is such a treasure is that it features some of the band's best original compositions. "If You Were Born Today (Song for Little Baby Jesus)" is just a damn good Low song, and "Just Like Christmas" is a jolly tune with sleigh bells that first demonstrated just how much potential these sad-sacks had to write a pop song.
7. Elvis Presley
Elvis' Christmas Album
That Elvis Presley has the best-selling Christmas album of all time comes as no surprise, but it stirred up controversy at the time of its 1957 release. Elvis was still misunderstood as a threat to the youngsters, with those recklessly swivelling hips of his, and one person who wasn't having it was famed composer Irving Berlin. Once he learned that the King had included a cover of his song "White Christmas," Berlin called for the "profane parody of his cherished yuletide standard" to be banned by radio.
By today's norms though, Elvis' Christmas Album feels warm, familiar and classic. His rendition of "White Christmas" actually sounds quite tender and tasteful, especially compared to the sexed-up, bluesy take on "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and the rockin' "Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me." But Elvis was a devout Christian, and he treats hymns such as "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Silent Night" with the utmost respect. And of course there is "Blue Christmas," his essential classic that probably shifted most of the 20 or so million copies this thing sold.
6. Mariah Carey
Known primarily for her singles, Mariah Carey's best album is probably a greatest hits compilation, but there's also an argument to be made for Merry Christmas. One of the best-selling holiday albums ever (it made her the most successful international artist of all time in Japan), Carey was simply born to sing carols. As co-producer, she clearly knew her crossover potential too, mixing pop, gospel, soul and even dance music to reach a variety of markets.
Merry Christmas could easily have become a showcase for Carey to show off her pipes on the more sober classics like "O Holy Night" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," but she chose to keep it playful. The Phil Spector-esque "All I Want For Christmas Is You," which she co-wrote, is the best original Christmas song of the last 30 years, not to mention her most recognizable, and her version of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" may just be the second best out there, next to Darlene Love's original.
Of course, Carey exercised her diva rights and tried to repeat the success in 2010 with a disastrous sequel, Merry Christmas II You, and learned the most important rule of making Christmas music: no artist should ever try to release a second album.
5. The Beach Boys
The Beach Boys' Christmas Album
By the time the Beach Boys recorded The Beach Boys' Christmas Album, they already had six albums in the can, all made in the short span of two years — in fact, this was the band's third LP of 1964. At the time, Brian Wilson was at his creative peak, and became motivated after sitting in on sessions for Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift for You.
What's unique about the album is that the Boys stacked the A-side with originals, kicking off with their 1963 one-off single, "Little Saint Nick," a seasonal rewrite of "Little Deuce Coupe." It's so listenable as a Beach Boys album that you have to wonder how many of these songs existed previously; strip them of the lyrics, and it sounds like another new studio album from a band that, at the time, could do no wrong.
4. Various Artists
A Motown Christmas
Motown wasn't actually late to the game with their Christmas album — they released Merry Christmas from Motown in 1968, though it was only available in the UK. Then, in 1973, they released A Motown Christmas, which featured a number of tracks from Merry Christmas.
Although it's been rejigged and reissued a number of times, the original version of A Motown Christmas is a stacked 24-track set that showcases the label's unrivalled, ridiculously stacked roster: Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations and the Supremes. A 17-year-old Stevie Wonder singing "Ave Maria" doesn't exactly work, but that downer is really the only blemish on an album full of vibrant energy and life. And let's face it, no one sings "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" better than a pubescent MJ.
3. Vince Guaraldi Trio
A Charlie Brown Christmas
It's difficult not to visualize the Peanuts gang while listening to the Vince Guaraldi Trio's soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, but it's a miracle this music even exists. Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz allegedly denounced jazz as "awful," but felt Guaraldi's score gave his cartoon the "bubbly, childlike tone" Schulz was looking for.
Despite the comic being set in the frozen tundra of Minnesota, the San Francisco-based composer gave the score to the 1965 TV special a loose, Californian vibe, a contradiction that results in some deeply evocative and magical moments: the bouncing piano on "Skates," the anticipatory build of "Christmas Coming" and "Christmastime Is Here" with the awkward falsetto of a children's choir rendering an exquisite blend of melancholy and joy.
2. Bing Crosby
Nicknamed "the Voice of Christmas," no vocalist is affiliated more with Jesus's birthday than Bing Crosby. Though the title is often remembered first as the 1954 film by Irving Berlin, Crosby cut the songs on White Christmas more than a decade earlier.
Originally titled Merry Christmas, the album has been a major source of confusion, receiving countless reissues over the last 70 years, but every version seems to have the songs that matter most: the twinkling, timeless title track that no voice has ever bettered (and the best-selling single of all time), the swinging version of "Jingle Bells," his smooth-as-silk "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and his bouncy turn at "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town."
Not on the album, but just as essential, is his 1982 duet with David Bowie, "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy."
1. Phil Spector
A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector
Phil Spector set the holiday album benchmark with A Christmas Gift For You; everything that came afterwards has tried to top it, but for 53 years, it's reigned supreme. As the producer explains in the spoken word segment of "Silent Night," it was his "endeavour and desire to bring something new and different to the music of Christmas, and to the recording industry." Needless to say, he achieved that goal.
Spector's "Wall of Sound" production style was custom built for these songs, and he used a meticulous, tyrannical approach (LaLa Brooks of the Crystals compared sessions to "child abuse") attain perfection. Although it mostly featured covers, Spector included one original that would go on to become a classic: "Christmas "(Baby Please Come Home)" featuring Darlene Love.
It's not just the greatest Christmas album of all time — it's one of the greatest albums of all time, period.
What to Avoid:
Oh boy, where to start? If there's one thing Christmas is known for, it's some of the corniest music ever put to tape. The list is long: American Idol punch line William Hung, David Hasselhoff, Afroman, Colonel Sanders, Smash Mouth and basically every teen pop act you can think of. And let's not forget about the Jingle Cats, the Jingle Dogs and the Jingle Babies.
But more legitimate artists have also given us coal. When they were arguably at their worst, Weezer put out a six-song EP called Christmas with Weezer that basically phoned in six classic carols with little imagination. Christmas on Death Row confirmed everyone's suspicions: Christmas music cannot successfully be disguised as gangsta rap and G-funk (though if you do want some Xmas hip-hop, try Jim Jones' A Dipset Xmas). Twisted Sister's A Twisted Christmas and Keith Sweat's A Christmas of Love also proved the same goes for heavy metal and horny R&B, respectively. And let us not forget about Bob Dylan's Christmas in the Heart, which is really only for Dylan enthusiasts that are just as passionate about Christmas music.
There are many other classic holiday albums that just missed the cut: Frank Sinatra's A Jolly Christmas, Nat King Cole's The Magic of Christmas, Ella Fitzgerald's Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, the Jackson 5's Christmas Album and Christmas With the Rat Pack. The ever-popular A Very Special Christmas series also produced many volumes, and though there are more stinkers than bangers — the first volume is by far the best — it'd be easy to curate your own perfect compilation via iTunes by cherry-picking the best songs, like Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' "Christmas All Over Again," Bruce Springsteen's "Merry Christmas Baby" and Run-D.M.C.'s "Christmas in Hollis."
As far as less obvious albums go, dig deep for a 2000 indie compilation called It's A Cool, Cool Christmas, and you'll find a well-curated tracklist featuring Teenage Fanclub, the Flaming Lips, Belle & Sebastian, Grandaddy and Saint Etienne, whose own album of originals, 2010's A Glimpse of Stocking, is also pretty delightful. Other recent albums worth checking out are those by Tracey Thorn, Kylie Minogue, Aimee Mann, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, She & Him and the late Sharon Jones with the Dap Kings.
Looking for some 2016 releases? Try the new albums by Kacey Musgraves, the Killers, Loretta Lynn and David Bazan.