MOJO’s Top 15 Christmas Albums

We serenade some of the best festive long-players ever.

The Ronettes

Christmas sONGS, old and new, are all-pervasive at this time of year and, depending on your levels of festive spirit, are accepted as either an annual treat or perennial nightmare.

Christmas albums on the other hand are larger, more complicated beasts – often dripping with hastily processed covers as easily disposable as artificial snow and as enjoyable as a forced perma-grin at Christmas lunch.

There are some, however, that work as truly great records in their own right, packed with the best the season has to offer. So from Elvis in 1957, to Phil Spector in 1963, Low in 1999 to Sufjan Stevens in 2006, here are 15 of our favourite Yuletide albums. Enjoy!

Various A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector

Various
A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector

Philles ❄ 1963
Currently serving 19 years to life at California State Prison, one wonders what lies in store for Phil Spector this Christmas. In decades gone by he might have been able to snatch a few moments of peace by revisiting this collection of chiming R&B treats. Recorded at the peak of his powers in 1963 and festooned with festive standards, A Christmas Gift… climbs to such gloriously symphonic heights courtesy of a continent-devouring sound that’s delivered by precision players (Hal Blaine, Steve Douglas, Tommy Tedesco) and radiates soulful crackle and good-time holiday cheer. The Crystals, the Ronettes, Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans and Darlene Love all step up to deliver the definitive pop versions of these Yuletide classics that, 50 years on, still sound as wildly grand as their creator was deeply troubled. Ross Bennett

The Blue Hawaiians Christmas On Big Island

The Blue Hawaiians
Christmas On Big Island

Restless ❄ 1995
Christmas brings out MOJO’s inner loungecore, and when it’s frickin’ freezing outside, there’s nothing like the lure of a tiki bar. Here, we allow Quentin Tarantino’s favourite LA whiteboy surf band to spirit us to Honolulu, where “Santa won’t be needing his reindeer / Because he’s out there surfing in his summer sleigh”, while Bron Tieman’s pedal steel twingles lazily, the perfect accompaniment to post-prandial sluggishness and soothing antidote to the dread “Boxing Day colon”. It’s crude but effective, swinging easily between the warm breeze of Jingle Jangle and the driving Ventures-style twangfest of We Four Kings (segueing into a Tom Maxwell tom-tom assault on – but of course! – Little Drummer Boy). As Britain from Arundel to Auchtermuchty huddles round the three-bar electric fire, the fantasy of “a luau that will last till New Year’s Day” seems positively ambrosial. Mele Kalikimaka, as they say over there, apparently. Danny Eccleston

John Fahey The New Possibility: John Fahey's Guitar Soli Christmas Album

John Fahey
The New Possibility: John Fahey's Guitar Soli Christmas Album

Takoma ❄ 1968
Many is the time I’ve sat with the headphones on in a dark corner of the house trying to figure out what the hell John Fahey was chasing after. No-one seems to agree. This beautiful collection of the American steel-string guitarist’s festive efforts, from 1968 and 1975, possesses a deliciously deep and spooky ambience, a disjointed jauntiness coupled with a frost-fall morning melancholy, Fahey’s guitar somehow sounding like an Elizabethan harpsichord grown wild and mad out in the Appalachian mountains. But what do I know? Our otherwise on-the-money Fahey How To Buy [MOJO 164] dismisses these recordings as “Cliff-territory bland”. Perhaps, if you want your mercurial blues folk guitarists to just deliver extended syncopated tone poems and epic psychedelic ragas, then you’re right to stay away from Fahey’s Xmas efforts, but if you want a guitar album that somehow sounds exactly like Christmas morning – clear, sharp, and cold on the outside but with a crackling fireside warmth at its heart – then this is the perfect stocking-filler. Andrew Male

Sufjan Stevens Songs For Christmas

Sufjan Stevens
Songs For Christmas

Asthmatic Kitty/Rough Trade ❄ 2006
We’re a mostly secular bunch here at MOJO but even the most jaded of us were tapping along to Once In Royal David’s City played on “four slightly out-of-tune pianos” that sound for all the world like a steel band. OK, so we didn’t play all five CDs consecutively – that would be like being stuck in The Danielson’s maniacal mouse organ with Jingle Bells on repeat. But such is the prolific talent of this eccentric, Episcopalian multi-instrumentalist that five discs of Christmas standards peppered with originals is mostly a good thing. With Stevens’ usual mix of wry humour (That Was The Worst Christmas Ever! nails the claustrophobia of a family Christmas) and unselfconscious joy (Hark! The Herald Angels Sing! on effects-heavy glockenspiel) what started as a gift for family and friends in 2001 is here collected with stickers, cartoons and chord charts for those who also get a banjo in their stocking. Jenny Bulley

Elvis Presley Elvis' Christmas Album

Elvis Presley
Elvis' Christmas Album

RCA/Victor ❄ 1957
"Santa Claus had the right idea. Visit people once a year," deadpanned Danish stand-up legend Victor Borge, his misanthropic comment echoing the sentiments felt by many during the kick-bollock-scramble nature of the festive season. As if the sheer mania of Christmas were not enough, this time of year also provides a regular opportunity for radio stations to bombard us with The Worst Music Known To Man (be grateful that Bryan Adams's Reggae Christmas remains a well kept secret...) and for TV stations to serve up so-called Christmas 'specials'. Since Bob Dylan decided to pile on the seasonal misery, it is hard to find musical salvation in such a bleak climate. Thankfully, The King is on hand to offer us a modicum of succour with this, his first Christmas collection from '57.


Of course, there are those who view this album – his fourth for RCA – as proof positive that The Hillbilly Cat had been thoroughly de-clawed. And yet, this is a strong set that underlines two key Presley traits: the first his Sinatra-esque ability to turn even the most ridiculous material to his advantage, the second his profound empathy for gospel music. The latter is typified by stirring renditions of I Believe, (There'll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me), It's No Secret What God Can Do and Take My Hand Precious Lord, while he adds richness to familiar Christmas nostrums like O Little Town Of Bethlehem and Silent Night. Of the more kitsch material, Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me and Gene Autrey's Here Comes Santa Claus sizzle with hip-thrusting élan, while I'll Be Home For Christmas and Blue Christmas ripple with Elvis's inimitable sense of blues-laden melodrama. White Christmas, meanwhile, follows The Drifters' interpretation of the Irving Berlin standard, causing the latter to dub it "a profane parody" of his classic song and urging that it be denied radio airplay. As it turned out, DJs played these tracks and, indeed, continue to play them. And, when you hear them, they still manage to transport you to a world away from that frenzied last minute panic-barge down Oxford Street... Phil Alexander

The Vince Guaraldi Trio A Charlie Brown Christmas

The Vince Guaraldi Trio
A Charlie Brown Christmas

Fantasy ❄ 1965
When CBS bosses first watched A Charlie Brown Christmas in November 1965, they hated it. It was too slow, had no laugh track, saw Linus reading from the Gospel of Luke and featured a deeply doleful score from a West Coast jazz trio. Of course, nearly a half-century on, Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack to the round-headed kid’s quest for Yuletide meaning has become the wistful, humble underscore to two weeks of rank Western consumerism. Everyone remembers Linus And Lucy, the plaintive boogie woogie groove that the Peanuts kids dance to in the snow but the rest of Guaraldi’s suite piano trio is sadder still – a white winter landscape of hushed drums, muffled bass and twinkling piano notes that speaks to the forlorn, questing Charlie Brown in all of us, frozen in a moment of quiet contemplation about the year ended and the year ahead, the ways deep and the weather sharp. Rich with the wisdom of humility, A Charlie Brown Christmas actually sounds like a child’s Christmas morning, a pensive innocence adrift in a spirit of wonder. Andrew Male

Low Christmas

Low
Christmas

Sub Pop/Rough Trade ❄ 1999
A band of slo-core Mormons may not seem the ideal seasonal companions but Low’s 1999 mini LP is a unique intersection of spiritual incantation and secular rock. This is Low at their most divine, in every sense. If You Were Born Today bemoans our Godless modern world as one in which Jesus would be killed by the age of eight if and when he come again, while Long Way Around The Sea stages a unexpected nativity in slow motion. But no matter how potentially clumsy the sentiment, in Low’s hands it sounds beautiful. The Mimi Parker-sung original Just Like Christmas is a warm-blooded pop song with sleigh bells and Spector-sparkle that floored Low fans on its release. The song is now well on its way to becoming a Christmas compilation staple. (Official: it was recently heard playing in Sainsburys.) Their Little Drummer Boy is the fairy on the top; faithfully arranged but bundled up in reverb and distorted guitar, it’s an unlikely classic of the season. Jenny Bulley

James Brown Funky Christmas

James Brown
Funky Christmas

Spectrum ❄ 2001
What is it with purists and this time of year? Back in ye day, MOJO’s How To Buy on James Brown told you all to “Avoid anything involving Christmas”! Well, it pains us to say this but… MOJO is wrong! In fact, very wrong, as this might well be the greatest collection of Xmas platters by a solo artist ever released. Brown set out his vision in 1966 with the Christmas Songs LP which included his heartfelt appeal to Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something This Year. Brown’s Xmas records work because they’re so incongruous – soul power and passion invested in such tarnished seasonal subject matter as presents and trees, Santa Claus and smiling children and, well, peace and love. Brown regards Christmas as a time when, as Wayne Coyne once put it “all of mankind reveals its truest potential” and weirdly, he makes Santa Claus the representative figure of optimism and pride, love and kindness. And, as James puts it, there ain’t no use in saying there ain’t no Santa Claus “as Santa Claus is definitely here to stay… in the mind”. Ever wonder why Santa Claus was adopted as a figure of Black Power in late ’60s America? Here is the answer. Andrew Male

Ella Fitzgerald Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas

Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas

Verve ❄ 1960
“Here is an ebullient Ella Fitzgerald, exuding the warmth and spirit and good cheer with which the Yuletide is usually equated.” So say the liner notes to Ella’s first (and best) Christmas album, a record that shuns the hearbroken, lonely and blue in favour of festive fun, frolics and goodwill. From a scat-fuelled Jingle Bells to a blissful White Christmas, each track is deftly articulated, elegantly poised and naturally swinging, those cool vocals providing cosy accompaniment to home cooking, the slosh of wine and the flicker of early evening candle light (we’ve tested all three). The Queen Of Jazz could sing these songs in the middle of July and make it seem that Rudolph and his pals were already limbering up for their leap into the night. Ross Bennett

Johnny Cash Hymns

Johnny Cash
Hymns

Columbia ❄ 1959
“This is some of my best work,” reflected Johnny Cash when he penned additional notes for the 2002 reissue of Hymns. Forbidden to record any sacred music by Sam Phillips while signed to Sun, Cash’s second album for Columbia saw him eschew his hellraising reputation for a return his god-fearing roots. Reaching back to the songs he’d sung in church as a child (his stark take on Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is a perfect melodramatic example), Cash also offered up five of his own co-written compositions including The Old Account, Lead Me Father and He’ll Be A Friend – three tracks where matters of faith are accorded a deep sense of righteous gravitas through Cash’s trademarked quaking baritone. While Hymns may not be a Christmas album per se (and Cash has recorded a large number of festive collections, most of which are cloyingly saccharine affairs), the 13 tracks included on the CD reissue make up what is one of his most consistent ‘50s sets. Cash would seek further solace in hymnal power throughout his career, last of all on the My Mother’s Hymn Book album produced by Rick Rubin and originally released as part of the posthumous Unearthed box. Phil Alexander

Dean Martin Christmas With Dino

Dean Martin
Christmas With Dino

Capital ❄ 2004
Christmas with Dino. Let's ponder that concept a second. No, let's revel in it. It would involve plenty of these, perhaps one or two of these, and plenty of feet-up time. Dean might sing you a song... but rest assured he wouldn't knock himself out. That's OK, though. Martin's good-natured mumble-croon is the perfect complement to a lazy Yule: real-fire warm and ludicrously laid back - practically comatose, in fact, on Winter Wonderland, drawn for this seasonal Dino roundup from his 1966 Crimble cash-in, The Dean Martin Christmas Album. These tracks are never less than exceedingly agreeable, but are bettered by those drawn from 1959's A Winter Romance, with gloriously witty arrangements and crisp work by the Gus Levene-conducted orchestra putting the porridgey '66-vintage orchestrations to shame. This, surely, is the best Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! on record, and elsewhere Dino lives up to his ‘King Leer’ nickname on Frank Loesser's slyly lascivious Baby, It's Cold Outside. Dean's Christmas TV special became a holiday staple in the States. Like everything else, he didn't seem to take it terribly seriously, and perhaps the irony was not lost on him when he expired, of an acute respiratory failure, on Christmas morning, 1995. All ye who live to loaf, raise a glass to him. Danny Eccleston

Various The Ultimate Motown Christmas

Various
The Ultimate Motown Christmas

Motown ❄ 2009
There are some in the MOJO office who feel a bit stuffed after just one CD of this, but that's the beauty of the digital of course; if you don't want Boyz II Men featuring Brian McKnight doing Let It Snow (on CD2), you can simply uncheck the box and instead download the bits you know will be great. Such as The Jackson 5’s rightly celebrated Santa Claus Is Coming To Town – showcasing the natural speed of Michael's beat-perfect lead vocal; Stevie Wonder's 1967 weepy, Someday At Christmas or Marvin Gaye's moving 1972 Vietnam war petition, I Want To Come Home For Christmas. And if Diana Ross is a tad shrill on The Supremes' Joy To The World she makes up for it by ring-a-linging beautifully through their refined take on Silver Bells. And hark! Here are The Supremes themselves trilling down the years to wish us "a merry Christmas and a happy new year!" on one of 16 recorded messages from the Motown stable's seasonal finest including Marvin, Smokey, Thelma Houston, Eddie Kendricks ("Your singing Santa") and David Ruffin rapping at march-tempo to usher in The Temptations' atmospheric Little Drummer Boy. A bonus 'stripped version' of them singing Silent Night is also rather lovely, shorn its ’70s gospel ding-dong.

Personally, I could listen to a whole album of Funk Brothers Christmas instrumentals and here we get their Normal Whitfield-produced Winter Wonderland. And if there were one note left to leave for Santa, it would be to ask for the addition of the Jacksons' Frosty The Snowman. But then they had to save something for the Jackson 5's Ultimate Christmas Collection... Jenny Bulley

Herp Albert & the Tijuana Brass Christmas Album

Herp Albert & the Tijuana Brass
Christmas Album

A&M ❄ 1968
The further we get away from the fur-lined festive grotto of the '60s and '70s American lounge sound, the more glorious it seems. While many Americans might possibly have reality-bruised memories of these festive rites of passage (mom 'n' pop sozzled on sidecars while Pat Boone and family shimmy with Scooby Doo) we Brits stare at the pixelated images on YouTube and imagine a winter wonderland far more bright and colourful than our own grim session with a bowl of nuts, mince pies, Empire sherry and Christmas Night With The Stars. Perhaps the urtext of the Santafied style is this 1968 release from Los Angeles trumpeter Herbert Alpert and his gang. Repackaged in 2005, with liner notes that assure us Herb and the gang "weren't going to give the project a going-through-the-motions effort", this cocktail of smooth-sailing jazz, sleighbells, and ba-ba-ba-ing boys and girls now sounds surprisingly groovy. This is thanks in part to the assistance of Herb's "good friend", legendary West Coast jazz trumpeter and arranger Shorty Rogers. Alpert's signature sound - bi-polar honey bee trapped in a yogurt pot - remains ever-present, but on tracks like Sleigh Ride and My Favorite Things Rogers brings a woozy fruit punch pep to proceedings and even lets Herb sing a few. Purists out there can dismiss Herb's sound as the epitome of Republican naugahyde cool, but this album still manages to capture the warm, woozy buzz of being one eggnog over the line. Like the reindeer in the song, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass really know how to fly. Andrew Male

Various Christmas Cocktails

Various
Christmas Cocktails

Capitol ❄ 1996
Some songs on Christmas Cocktails sound like they were recorded in July – check Billy May’s shimmying Rudolph The Red Nosed-Reindeer Mambo, or Jimmy McGriff’s fabulously wrong Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town – but since when was Christmas meant to be about authenticity? Assembled in the wake of the jaunty mid-‘90s loungecore fad, this collection of festive US jazz, pop and dance tunes from 1950 to ’67 is an hour-plus spent (mostly) in the company of such quality voices as Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, Julie London, Lou Rawls and more, singing of peace, plenitude, goodwill and love over stylish orchestrations and beaming chorales. Just add a couple of large alcoholic beverages to ’61 vintage Nat King Cole singing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” in that inimitable three-packs-a-day voice, and even the most Grinch-minded will feel a tremor of the Christmas spirit. Ian Harrison

VariousBlue Christmas

Various
Blue Christmas

MOJO CD ❄ 2004
Yes, it could be considered blowing our own novelty plastic party hooter, but the fact is that round at our house MOJO’s free CD from December 2004 has become as necessary a part of Christmas as the Doctor Who special, the Alastair Sim Scrooge and The Two Ronnies. A fine selection of Christmas tunes by the likes of The Staple Singers, Davids McAlmont and Arnold and Diana Ross, somehow the time of year amplifies those familiar sentiments of peace and goodwill to all, making it a dependable and subtle antidote to the vapid kakola that can pass for the Yuletide entertainment experience. It’s expertly sequenced as well, going straight for the jugular when, on The Flaming Lips’ opening A Change At Christmas (Say It Isn’t So), soulful Wayne Coyne sings about how at this time, “there is sympathy for those who are suffering / And the world embraces peace and love and mercy / Instead of power and fear”. And while you’re letting these momentous sentiments sink in, we’re off into Rufus Wainwright’s chirpy wassail Spotlight On Christmas, which excitedly declares “It’s Christmas!” My God! It is! There are sweetly melancholic, third-double-whiskey numbers up next from Marvin Gaye, The O’Jays and A Girl Called Eddy before James Brown turns up to advise Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something This Year (Soul Brother Number One recommends thinking back to being a kid). And so it continues, with Ed Harcourt’s In The Bleak Midwinter another highlight and The Ventures’ gambolling take on Jingle Bell Rock rounding things off. And when the fun’s over, the decorations are back in the loft and it’s back to reality, this CD will go back on the shelf, only to radiate again this time next year. Ian Harrison

RONETTES PHOTO: Alamy