20. The Roches – We Three Kings (1990)
The US avant-folk trio began their musical career carol singing, which makes We Three Kings a kind of back-to-their-roots enterprise. Quite sparsely arranged, it allows the Roche sisters’ harmonies to dazzle – the acappella Star of Wonder is magical – while their New York-accented Winter Wonderland is an absolute hoot.
19. Various artists – Something Festive (1968)
In which the cream of A&M Records’ easy listening artists – Herb Alpert, Burt Bacharach and Sérgio Mendez among them – offer up a Christmas album as velvety-smooth as eggnog. The highlight: Claudine Longet’s delicate confection of strings, acoustic guitar and breathy vocals, Snow.
18. Various artists – Ghosts of Christmas Past (1981)
That most improbable of things: a post-punk Christmas album, that features Aztec Camera doing a Django Reinhardt-inspired instrumental, a selection of Factory Records alumni and San Franciscan oddballs Tuxedomoon. The Durutti Column’s implausibly beautiful Snowflakes is a standout.
17. James Brown – Hey America (1970)
James Brown made three Christmas albums, but the last one earns its place here by dint of being the weirdest. The issue isn’t the music – a string-laden take on funk – but Brown himself, who appears to be making up the words to every song as he goes along, with bewildering results.
16. Bob Dylan – Christmas in the Heart (2009)
An honest, heartfelt expression of faith and seasonal cheer? A concerted effort to snatch the title of most bizarre Christmas album from James Brown’s aforementioned Hey America? Untangling the thought processes and motivation behind Christmas in the Heart is a tough call, but the crazed Must Be Santa is a once-heard, never-forgotten experience.
15. Various artists – A John Waters Christmas (2004)
You might expect gleeful schlock from film director John Waters, and there’s plenty of it here – singing kids, the Chipmunks, Rudolph and the Gang’s sweary Here Comes Fatty Claus – but the genius of A John Waters Christmas is how he mixes the weirdness and laughs with sheer loveliness, as on Stormy Weather’s doo-wop Christmas Time Is Coming.
14. Various artists – A LaFace Family Christmas (1993)
This compilation earned its place in history by featuring the first track ever released by OutKast, Player’s Ball. The track, an ultra-funky saga of a harassed drug dealer’s Christmas Day, is undoubtedly the highlight, but TLC’s All I Want for Christmas and Toni Braxton’s classy take on The Christmas Song run it surprisingly close.
13. Sufjan Stevens – Songs for Christmas (2006)
A 42-track compilation that charts Stevens’ progress from shambolic folk-rocker to baroque pop mastermind. He sings carols with conviction, but it’s the tunes he wrote himself that really hit home – not least the cheeringly realistic Get Behind Me, Santa!, which expresses weary optimism regarding the festive season: “It’s a fact of life whether you like it or not – so put your hands together and give it a shot.”
12. Kacey Musgraves – A Very Kacey Christmas (2016)
A perfectly balanced seasonal feast, where kitsch – I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas – coexists with heartbreak set to weeping pedal steel guitar on Christmas Makes Me Cry, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer meets A Willie Nice Christmas, a weed-addled duet with Willie Nelson that urges listeners to get “higher than the angel on top of the tree”.
11. Loretta Lynn – Country Christmas (1966)
The country star’s first Christmas album is just fantastic: hushed carols, an ample helping of sass (To Heck With Ole Santa Claus, I Won’t Decorate Your Christmas Tree) and, best of all, unadulterated tears-in-the-tinsel misery on Gift of the Blues and Christmas Without Daddy.
10. Various artists – A Motown Christmas (1973)
The Jackson 5’s Santa Claus Is Coming to Town is exuberance bottled; Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen intriguingly jazzy. The star, though, is Stevie Wonder: his original version of Someday at Christmas crushes Lizzo’s current cover, and his more upbeat What Christmas Means to Me is a joy.
9. Elvis Presley – Elvis’ Christmas Album (1957)
The first, and best, of Elvis’s seasonal offerings, made when Presley was still within touching distance of his early, raw rockabilly years: listen to the intense, bluesy opener, Santa Claus Is Back in Town, for proof. There’s also gospel on offer and masterful ballads: the version of I’ll Be Home for Christmas is genuinely heartbreaking.
8. The Beach Boys – The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album (1964)
The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album was recorded as Brian Wilson’s talents caught fire – taped around the same time as 1965’s awesome The Beach Boys Today! And side one, where the Wilson originals lurk, is studded with gems: Merry Christmas, Baby and Christmas Day in particular show how great he was, even when ostensibly knocking something off to order.
7. Tracey Thorn – Tinsel and Lights (2012)
The exquisite melancholy of Thorn’s voice turns out to be perfectly suited to a superbly curated selection of seasonal songs. The brass-assisted version of Joni Mitchell’s River – Christmas-adjacent rather than a Christmas song per se – is gorgeous. Her take on Like a Snowman, written by the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt, is even better.
6. Various artists – A Christmas Record (1981)
The grandparent of all left-field Christmas albums, featuring Ze Records’ post-punk/post-disco roster: it’s variously funky (August Darnell’s fabulous Christmas on Riverside Drive), blackly comic (Cristina’s Things Fall Apart) and unsettling (Suicide’s Hey Lord). Despite the air of hipster snark, it produced a genuine mainstream seasonal classic: the Waitresses’ delightful Christmas Wrapping.
5. Low – Christmas (1999)
If you want an American indie take on the festive album, this is the one. The fuzzed-out Little Drummer Boy is magical, but the killer is Just Like Christmas, a lo-fi version of the Phil Spector sound, utterly joyous despite its depiction of tour-related misery: “The snow was gone, we got lost … it was just like Christmas.”
4. Rotary Connection – Peace (1968)
A Christmas album you could listen to all year round: a baroque psychedelic soul opus packed with lavish, adventurous orchestration courtesy of producer Charles Stepney, plus Hendrix-y guitar solos (it features the most freaked-out version of Silent Night imaginable) and Minnie Riperton’s heavenly voice.
3. Various artists – A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector (1963)
To shun A Christmas Gift for You because of Phil Spector’s toxicity would be to deny the incredible work of the artists involved. Listen to Darlene Love’s beseeching voice on Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) and the poised blend of cuteness and toughness the Ronettes bring to Sleigh Ride, and it’s hard not to succumb.
2. Ella Fitzgerald – Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas (1960)
An album so good, it can leave you faintly baffled: how did she make Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas so, well, sexy? Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas is a triumph from start to finish – no schmaltz, no excess, just one beautiful arrangement and incredible, seemingly effortless vocal after another.
1. Vince Guaraldi Trio– A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
In the US, the short film A Charlie Brown Christmas is an annual TV ritual. Here, the cartoon is less well known, but that doesn’t diminish the power of its soundtrack, where west coast jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi manages to capture virtually every emotion Christmas can inspire, from childlike wonder on Skating to the profound sadness that undercuts its theme song, Christmas Time Is Here. People’s preferences in Christmas music tend to be even more deeply personal than usual, bound up with memories and family traditions, but the music on A Charlie Brown Christmas sweeps everyone under its tree skirt: it is alternately sophisticated and as rough-hewn as a school nativity play, but always spellbinding.