Recording a Christmas album is looked down on by many but it’s actually a really difficult exercise. There’s a limited canon of songs and an even more limited musical palette for someone recording a holiday album to work with if they want their record to be successful. And that’s excluding any aspirations of, ya know, artistic merit or credibility, trying to say something that hasn’t been said many times and many ways.
So what distinguishes the very best Christmas albums from the rest? To me it’s the ones that can work equally well as foreground or background music. After all, there are an infinite amount of holiday themed scenarios where music serves as some sort of soundtrack. Some are symbiotic, some have a recurring relationship, and others are independent of it. Despite the high volume of holiday albums a large majority too exclusively serve one purpose. As a child I used to love listening to Luther Vandross’s This is Christmas in the car but every time my Mom put it on while she was baking and I was trying to do homework it drove me crazy! Conversely Michael Bublé’s Christmas album works as a backdrop, but with 6 ballads in a row it’s a laborious listen in almost any other setting.
Here are five of my picks (in no particular order!) of some of the best Christmas albums that manage to accomplish this extremely rare feat..
A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector – Let’s get this one out of the way early. In many corners it’s viewed as the greatest Christmas album ever and one of the best albums ever in general. It’s the one that established Phil Spector’s legendary Wall of Sound. What does this mean for the listening experience? It means you can crank it up through headphones and learn a lot about production and arrangement at the feet of a master evil genius. But Wall of Sound records with its even keeled mix also lend themselves well to lower volume background listening as well.
Holiday For Swing! – Seth MacFarlane’s big band Christmas album flips the script. It’s hardly a collection of popular standards. There are some under appreciated (and under recorded!) gems here like “Christmas Dreaming,” “Little Jack Frost Get Lost,” and “Warm in December.” It’s a refreshing change of pace from hearing yet another take on “Jingle Bells.” Joel McNeely’s lush orchestrations can fill up a room without being a distraction.
A Very She and Him Christmas – No frills, no tricks. Just great performances and full of warm fuzzies. Not a single note sounds out of place. For most millennials this is one of the first Christmas albums pulled for just about every occasion: tree decorating, cookie making, chilling by the fire. It’s also the go-to album if you’re looking to soundtrack your holiday party and want to look really cool.
James Taylor At Christmas – Let’s be honest, James Taylor’s overall aesthetic lends itself perfectly to Christmas music. All he had to do was make a Christmas album. It’s pretty flushed out arrangement wise for a Taylor record, with lots of colorful jazz piano and strings. There are some interesting twists to otherwise straight ahead standards that make it a worthwhile listening experience. The whole album stays within about 20 BPM throughout which means it’s incredibly smooth and also qualifies it as potential muszak for any holiday gathering.
A Charlie Brown Christmas – Clocking in at just under 40 minutes, it seems like A Charlie Brown Christmas isn’t the most ideal record to put on and walk away from if you’re looking for party background music. But Vince Guaraldi’s style of jazz lends itself perfectly to repeated listens because of his beautifully melodic and spacious piano playing. The vocal and instrumental versions of “Christmastime is Here” come right after each other on this album and yet the listener can come away with totally different impressions of each.
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