I am someone who enjoys Christmas music. I am also someone who admits that there is a lot of bad Christmas music out there. Born in 1978, my Christmas memories included my parents pulling records out and playing them after Thanksgiving was over. In my house, the Goodyear and Firestone Christmas collections were staples (tire companies used to give the records out as seasonal promotions) as were Percy Faith’s various Christmas records.
Below are five albums that I consider to be some of the best Christmas records put out. They vary in age but as a child of the late seventies, it probably should not be a surprise that three were released within five years of each other during the 1960’s. If you want to listen to some Christmas songs put on the playlist below: pour a glass of whiskey, and enjoy the sounds of the season without sounding like you are at the mall.
#5 “Soul Christmas” – Various Artists
In the late 1960’s Atlantic Records, a large label that featured jazz and soul, pulled together some of its best artists to create a classic Christmas R&B album. Aptly titled “Soul Christmas”, the record was a compendium of heavy hitters like Otis Redding and Booker T and the MG’s, as well as lesser-known artists like Carla Thomas and King Curtis. The record is interesting because even though you may not have heard of all of the artists on the jacket, there is a good chance you are familiar with 75% of the versions on this album. Many of the tracks, which were recorded for this compilation, have gone on to become holiday staples.
The record begins with Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa” (whose hook was later used on RUN-D.M.C.’s “Christmas in Hollis”) and doesn’t let up from there. Some of the songs, like Solomon Burke’s “Presents for Christmas” and William Bell’s “Everyday Will Be Like A Holiday” are solid, straight-up soul with Atlantic’s fantastic studio musicians backing them up. Others, like Redding’s “White Christmas” are great twists on classics, while Carla Thomas’ “Gee Whiz It’s Christmas” is flat out fun. King Curtis and Booker T & The MG’s songs are scattered throughout the album; they are instrumentals that compliment that upbeat soul wonderfully. If you want to start a Christmas party, there are few better Christmas records to put on your turntable.
#4 “Christmas Is” – Percy Faith
For me, nothing says Christmas like this album. I remember the cover with Christmas ornaments strewn across it- this was a staple in our house. The record was put out by Percy Faith, a musical director for Columbia Records whose specialty was arrangements. In the period between World War II-era big band vocalists and rock and roll Faith’s “mood music” arrangements were quite popular. While this album came out in 1966 it reflects Faith at his best, a beautiful-sounding Christmas experience that is heavy on emotion without being over the top.
Clocking in around 33 minutes with 11 songs, “Christmas Is” hits a lot of the classics. The arrangements on “Silver Bells,” and “White Christmas”, songs that were 16 and 24 years old when this album came out, are as good as Christmas instrumentals get. The album is bookended by two vocal stunners, the Faith-penned “Christmas Is” and “Happy Holidays”, both of which reflect the joy of the season. While many albums of this genre can fall into the schlocky musical sounds, Faith’s album feels timeless. It is less a product of the sixties and more one of the season.
#3 “It’s a Holiday Soul Party” – Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings
Few Christmas albums, or should I say, holiday albums, kick it off with an original Hanukkah song, but few singers had the punch of Sharon Jones. Backed by the amazing Dap Kings, Jones rips through 11 fantastic holiday tunes. Unlike many albums released today unrestrained by length, this album is tight and would fit on an LP. Songs like “Ain’t No Chimney in the Projects”, reminiscent of James Brown, and “Big Bulbs”, are fantastic originals that could have come from any number of 1960’s soul labels. Much like Faith’s album, “White Christmas” and “Silver Bells” are some of the stand-out classic hits, but done in a way that Jones claims the songs for herself. The album closes with “God Rest Ye Merry Gents”, an instrumental version of the classic song. English carols never sounded so funky.
#2 “A Christmas Gift For You” – Phil Spector and Various Artists
While most readers who did not grow up in the 1960’s only know Phil Spector as a convicted murderer, which is quite festive to think about, this album, which he produced, seemingly was assembled in another world. “A Christmas Gift For You” was part Christmas, part pop and all together a fabulous record. All of the artists were from Spector’s label. In addition, I believe the musicians were part of the Wrecking Crew, the label’s fantastic musicians. Their riffs and music compliment the amazing vocals that drive the front of each song.
This is an album where every track is a keeper. Almost every tune is well known and it starts strong with “White Christmas” and “Frosty the Snowman”. “The Bells of St. Mary” is a beautiful, lesser-known song by Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans. In an album of standouts Darlene Love is probably the best artist. She has four songs, including the closer, the Spector-penned “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”. When David Letterman was on the air, Love would stop by and sing this song around Christmas each year. The power and emotion behind it is hard to describe; Love conveys longing and angst while surrounded by fantastic backing vocals and excellent instrumentals, including a great saxophone solo. It will make you miss your Christmas crush, even if they are only three feet away.
#1 “Holiday Pops” – The Boston Pops Orchestra with Keith Lockhart
Christmas pops albums, like Christmas pops concerts, are fairly ubiquitous and often bad. One of the gold standards has been the Boston Pops Orchestra. They put out good Christmas music under Arthur Fiedler, but my favorite is actually the more recent release by Keith Lockhart. It is a fantastic mix of tradition and modern, instrumentals and vocals. In addition, the arrangements have a lot of great songs strung together, such as “Christmas Waltzes.” “Fantasia on Christmas” is an 11 minute journey through many different traditional carols. There are some songs that you might have heard your grandparents playing on their HiFi during this season like, “Good King Wenceslas” and “Shepard’s Chorus”, but they are done with precision and energy. Although there are some slower songs the album never drags. In addition, the modern songs feel right at home next to others that are decades, or centuries, older. “Christmas Time is Here” from Charlie Brown’s Christmas special, “Sleigh Ride,” and “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas”, from Home Alone 2, all get a classic take that turned the modern into timeless.
I hope that some of these tracks make it into your ear hole this year. We wish you a fantastic holiday season and hope that it is spent with the people that matter most to you.
– Adam Sandy
President | Ride Entertainment, Business Development