Superfan of many genres of music -- including all flavors of holiday-themed music!
Like to mix things up with your Christmas music? Me too.
With dozens of awesome holiday albums now in my collection, I find it painful to have to wait 'til after Thanksgiving-- as my hubby and kids have mandated for meal times at least, through a mostly friendly negotiation process -- to play Christmas music. So I've taken to sneaking weekly doses of it as early as Nov. 1. (Even I recognize that Halloween must first pass!)
Many of the all-time best Christmas CDs, in my opinion, feature just one fabulous voice -- Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole -- from start to finish. But I also really love great Christmas compilation albums. The mix they bring to the holiday table is perfect for partying with friends and family. Compilations cater to diverse tastes, introduce us to wonderful new sounds by tucking lesser-known gems between more celebrated tunes, and remind us of the broad reach of Christmas joy. After all, how many other musical "themes" can bring together classical, jazz, blues, country, pop, indie, lounge, world and other genres under one festive umbrella?
Can you find a great Christmas playlist on Spotify? Of course. (Choose from a 6-hour, genre- and generation-spanning Hits version or a 3-hour Classics version focused on beloved, mostly pre- to way-pre-1980 tunes.) But just as some of us like to hold a physical book in our hands, there's a certain appeal to the color-covered vinyl and CD compilations that help decorate our living spaces at holiday time.
Certainly there are risks to purchasing a Christmas compilation: the occasional clinker in an otherwise stellar collection of songs; the potential overexposure to Eartha Kitt's iconic, incredibly popular but (when overplayed) irritating version of "Santa Baby." The risks pale in comparison, though, to the joy you'll feel in not having to play DJ for a holiday gathering, as the creators of these records have done that work for you.
Here, my 20 personal picks for best Christmas compilation albums. Most of these will not show up on a list of most famous Christmas albums, but give them a listen and you might agree that they're among the most enjoyable. Cheers!
A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector
Arguably the best Christmas album, period, this almost doesn't feel like a compilation, as Spector's epic Wall of Sound is such a unifying force. But make no mistake, this gathers several talented contributors into one unbeatable musical experience. It may be hard not to let the producer's criminal conviction cloud your enjoyment of the music. But the truth is, Darlene Love and the Ronettes deserve most of the credit for this yuletide tour-de-force that would eventually soundtrack every mall in America. And that near-constant presence is justified. While "White Christmas" is widely considered among the very best of Christmas songs, for me it doesn't quite come alive until Darlene Love belts it out. The album just powers straight ahead from that opening track, proving the best Christmas songs rock as well as lilt, chime, jingle-jangle and swing. Especially if you can get your hands on a red, green or other colorful version, this is one of the best Christmas vinyl albums to gift yourself or others.
Verve Presents: Very Best of Christmas Jazz
You really should get brilliant pianist Oscar Peterson's whole Christmas LP (An Oscar Peterson Christmas), but barring that, catch him here with Ramsey Lewis, Shirley Horn, Dinah Washington and other luminaries. (Warning: Don't expect the standard, mellow version of "Greensleeves" when John Coltrane is involved. This is not Kenny G's soprano sax.)
Now That's What I Call Christmas!
For under 20 bucks you get one of the bestselling Christmas compilation albums ever--having gone platinum six times over, it's one of only two post-2000 releases to make the all-time top 10 list, along with Josh Groban's Noel--and its popularity is absolutely justified. With 36 songs covering a multitude of genres, this two-CD set truly delivers something for everyone. Have your Christmas White (Bing), Blue (Elvis), or Holly Jolly (Burl). Revisit the improbably cool, pleasantly weird Crosby-Bowie "Little Drummer Boy" collaboration. Yearn for peace with John & Yoko. Give Santa a rockin' welcome to town with Bruce. Yeah, there are some odd picks here (Michael Bolton?), but it packs a lot of value for under 15 bucks. Note: Now That's What I Call Christmas 2, released 5 years after the original compilation, is also worth checking out, especially if you prefer a heavier concentration of contemporary artists.
The Time-Life Treasury of Christmas: Holiday Memories
This 2-CD set is more of an investment, but jam-packed with singular classics. It's not Christmas without "The Chipmunk Song," right? And Judy Garland's silken, wistful "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (if it didn't violate the holiday spirit, I'd fight anyone who doesn't consider this the best modern-era Christmas tune) -- along with loads of other classics. Perry Como and Andy Williams should please the family elders, and for kids it's hard to beat Gene Autry's "Frosty the Snowman."
Ultimate Classical Christmas Album of All Time
I don't play a ton of classical music over the holidays but am always grateful to hear it at relatives' homes. It's just so beautiful. And classical Christmas music is less distracting than some other genres when the opportunity for conversation with normally distant loved ones is at a premium. ("No screeching about Frosty," as one reviewer wryly put it.) The collection delivers over 2 hours of music, including the divine voices of Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Christmas in the Country
Seeing Willie Nelson at a recent outdoor summer concert -- talk about crossing numerous genres; wow! -- inspired me to want more country-tinged holiday music in the home library. Besides Willie, this one also features greats like Tammy Wynette, Tanya Tucker, Johnny Cash & Merle Haggard.
Maybe This Christmas Tree
This is my favorite of the "Maybe This Christmas" compilation series. An indie-rock crowdpleaser that's not too obscure and retains more of a holiday "feel" than some edgier indie collections do. Get through the slight creepiness of Polyphonic Spree covering John and Yoko's "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" and you'll be rewarded by Death Cab for Cutie's tuneful take on "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." Maybe a controversial pick, lol, but I even included this in my list of 10 best Christmas albums.
Platinum Gospel -- Gospel Christmas
"When Was the Baby Born" is one of my favorite upbeat holiday songs, and the version on this compilation does it proud. Plus, I'll listen to just about anything featuring The Blind Boys of Alabama. This one is really hard to find as of 2021, but copies could be floating around secondhand. (Have a fantastic gospel compilation alternative to recommend that might be more readily available? Hit me up in the comments!)
The Nevilles are here -- let's get this party started. This compilation of "spicy" Christmas songs includes gems from national treasure Allen Toussaint ("The Ponchartrain will freeze/And we all are gonna skate/The day it snows on Christmas in New Orleans"), a soft and soulful "Christmas Prayer" from Aaron Neville, and many others. Don't forget the blackeyed peas -- in your good luck hoppin' john -- alongside your gumbo on New Year's Day!
What a Wonderful Christmas
I've only had this wonderful album -- which I'm stunned, almost offended (lol), to see is priced at under 6 bucks as of October 2021 -- for a few years. But the first time I heard it was a "Where have you been all my life?" moment. Every Louis tune is great, but it doesn't hurt that his "friends" include Dinah Washington, Louis Jordan ("May Everyday Be Christmas," with his orchestra, is a highlight), Lena Horne and Duke Ellington. Our family never tires of this collection of tunes dating mostly to the 1950s. It's among the first Christmas compilations in rotation every year and the last to be tucked away in our wrapping-papered shoebox of CDs on Jan. 2.
Ultra-Lounge: Christmas Cocktails, Part One
Time-travel back to the Mad Men era without all the show's depressing subplots and troubling office conduct. The mix of standout vocalists and instrumental tunes makes for great cocktail party background, but you won't even need a martini to feel festive with this one. One of my favorite songs you don't hear all over Christmas radio? Julie London's sultry "I'd Like You for Christmas." If you love this first installment, there's a companion album called Ultra-Lounge: Christmas Cocktails, Part Two.
Pentatonix The Best of Pentatonix Christmas
The powerhouse a capella group from Texas has absolutely owned Christmas music since the 2010s. It may be cheating to put this 2019 release on a best Christmas compilation albums list, as (unlike with the other albums on this list) all the tunes come from the same band. But this is a compilation of songs from four previous Pentatonix holiday albums, plus four new-to-this-album songs:
"Do You Hear What I Hear?'
"You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch"
and (interestingly, for a Christmas album) "God Only Knows"
Note: A capella Christmas music superfans will be pleased to know that Pentatonix does plan on an "Evergreen Christmas Tour" for 2021.
Reggae Christmas from Studio One
Ever been on a tropical vacation for Christmas? Now you can be, without leaving home. This album is hard to get hold of, but worth the search for vintage tracks from one of the most renowned reggae labels ever: Reggae One, the 1954-founded "Motown of reggae." Yes, there's a track -- the harmonies-laden "Sound the Trumpet" -- from Bob Marley's band, the Wailers. But primarily this is a chance to get acquainted with lesser-known Studio One bands in a celebratory context. Update: You can preview this great reggae Christmas compilation album at the Studio One website!
Wonderland: Cool December
You know that really fun, hip person who makes holiday music compilations balancing quirky, unexpected gems (what, you haven't heard "There's Frost on the Moon?" or "Little Jack Frost Get Lost"?) with tried-and-true classics ("Winter Wonderland," "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!"), then gifting the CD or playlist to lucky friends and family every year? This is just like what he or she would put together -- but available to all! Bonus points for including not just the silky-as-eggnog tones of Sarah Vaughan ("Snowbound") and undisputed Christmas chanteuse Ella Fitzgerald ("Sleigh Ride"), but also a tune from Billie Holiday ("I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm"), who in my opinion should be featured much more on holiday compilation albums. As for the fellas, we hear from the Bing Crosby (not "White Christmas" this time, but rather, "Looks Like a Cold, Cold Winter"), Dean Martin ("A Winter Romance") and John Pizzarelli ("What Are You Doing New Year's Day?).
African rhythms are a perfect match for the celebratory holiday spirit, plus who can resist the Gipsy Kings? From Europe, India, the Caribbean and other parts of the global village come this exuberant compilation that would be a great asset to any party -- including a kids' school party, as a fun way to help the young ones experience the richness of holiday sounds worldwide.
Blue Yule/ Christmas Blue and R&B Classics
Sonny Boy Williamson, one of the blues greats my better half introduced me to, is in very good company with this Rhino Records CD, which also features Charles Brown, John Lee Hooker and other luminaries. I've been sneaking pre-Thanksgiving listens in the car to this recent addition to my collection. I liked this enough to get a copy for my dad as a Christmas gift, too, along with some gourmet bacon. (Blues & bacon - what's not to love?)
Underground Garage Christmas a Go-Go
If beer and chips are more your holiday party style than eggnog and passed hors d'oeuvres, check out this rough and ready collection. Little Steven Van Zandt put together this super fun garage, punk & rockabilly inflected collection, wisely kicking things off with Keith Richards. Go!
Yule Struttin': A Blue Note Christmas
If "Blue Yule" doesn't strike your fancy, give this Christmas blues compilation a try. My sax idol Dexter Gordon and super-suave Chet Baker are among the highlights of this sophisticated mix. Kudos to Blue Note for a sexy-Santa album cover that's urbane, not cheesy like you might see decades later...
Hipsters' Holiday: Vocal Jazz and R&B Classics
What's the number-one Christmas song my kids request each holiday season? Pearl Bailey's "Five Pound Box of Money," introduced to them years ago via this compilation, which we received as a very savvy gift. We never do receive that 5-pound box of money, but oh well -- at least we've got great tunes!
The Alligator Records Christmas Collection
"Deck the Halls with Boogie Woogie?" Yes please :) You know you're in for fun with the Chicago-based, blues-centric Alligator label, showcasing lesser-known artists that might just become your favorites -- along with marquee names like Koko Taylor, Son Seals and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.
Where Will You Be Christmas Day?
I love this dusty, eccentric collection of Christmas Americana, recorded from 1917 to 1959. How can you miss with Leadbelly, Bessie Smith and Lightnin' Hopkins on the roster? This is the Christmas compilation to pull out for your jaded hipster pals.
If my 20 suggestions above aren't quite enough, here are some more ideas for the best Christmas compilation albums you can buy this season -- pulled straight from my family's home library of favorites...
- Have Yourself a Jazzy Little Christmas
- The Best of Motown Christmas
- Holidays Rule
- Christmas Cocktails
- Reggae Christmas
- It's a Cool Cool Christmas
- Merge Records: You Wish
- Christmas with Sinatra & Friends
- Hawaiian Style Christmas
- You Sleigh Me
- Christmas in the Caribbean: Holiday Songs Performed on Steel Drums
And for those who believe the best Christmas songs rock --
- A Rock'n'Roll Christmas is a little uneven but features Chuck Berry, the Kinks, Jon Bon Jovi and more
Which are your favorite Christmas music compilations? Your favorite genres? And how early do you start cranking these holiday tunes? And when is the last appropriate day to play them, before you tuck them away 'til next year?
© 2012 Mary