If you appreciate Christmas music at all — if you don't, we're going to have to ask you to leave — you have probably heard every Christmas carol and song known to mankind. And there have been dozens of versions of every tune done in every style of music imaginable.
Some of the best versions are old school. We're talking about albums recorded before 1980, before A Very Special Christmas became big business and long before every country singer was essentially required by Nashville law to put out something for the holidays.
You might consider giving some of these a spin this year if they aren't in your rotation already.
The Christmas Song - Nat King Cole (1963)
Originally released in 1960 under the title The Magic of Christmas, this album contains the re-recorded version of the 1946 classic "The Christmas Song" written by jazz crooner Mel Torme. Even Torme has said the best version of this was Cole's and it's hard to argue. The double album includes a ton of great music from the traditional ("Joy to the World") to the silly ("All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)") done as only Cole could do them.
A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector (1963)
The same guy that went to prison (and is still there) for murder in the 2000s was also responsible for the sonic textures of Wall of Sound of the 1960s and '70s. His 1963 Christmas classic featuring Darlene Love, The Ronettes and others is considered one of the best records ever released, holiday or otherwise. There are plenty of recognizable tunes here, but "This Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" was the one original and now a rock holiday staple.
Pretty Paper - Willie Nelson (1979)
Nelson's final album of the '70s was this quiet, organ-soaked delight. The title track is a Nelson original and features the legendary country singer in his prime. Other standouts include the fragile "Silent Night" and the understated instrumental "Christmas Blues." It's absolute Willie at his best.
Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas - Ella Fitzgerald (1960)
One of the great voices in jazz music, Fitzgerald was also one of its most popular. Fronting for Count Basie and Duke Ellington, she earned the nickname "The First Lady of Song." On this 1960 release, Ella swings hard to the arrangements of Frank De Vol on some of the holiday's most popular tunes. "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" is sublime and you may recognize her version of "Sleigh Ride," featured in the Elf soundtrack.
Christmas Portrait - The Carpenters (1978)
If you have parents or grandparents who were adults in the '70s, there was a Carpenters record in their collection, probably this one. The silky smooth voice of Karen Carpenter was almost literally the sound of the '70s and it doesn't shine any brighter than on "Merry Christmas Darling," with music written by her brother, Richard. Like a bearskin rug in front of a roaring fire, Christmas Portrait is all things '70s Christmas and more.
A Mowtown Christmas (1973)
Prior to the Jimmy Iovine charity A Very Special Christmas compilations, you'd be hard pressed to find a more star studded holiday affair than this one. Featuring the Jackson 5, The Supremes, The Temptations and Stevie Wonder, Mowtown founder Barry Gordy knew how to give the people what they want and he nailed it again here by compiling the best of his roster's holiday staples. From little Michael Jackson imploring his brothers in "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" to one of the most underrated and socially biting holiday tunes of all time in Stevie Wonder's "Someday at Christmas," this is like a Mowtown greatest hits set, but filled with seasonal cover tunes.
Elvis' Christmas Album - Elvis Presley (1957)
At the peak of his early fame, Elvis did what many artists did and released a Christmas compilation, but forever in the style of the King. His stuttering vocal grooves on "Here Comes Santa Claus" and "Blue Christmas" sound like they were written just for Presley. And the soulful underpinnings of "Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me)" hint at his R&B roots. Side two is a tad odd, filled out by gospel songs from his Peace in the Valley EP, but it's still a wonderful representation of one of the forefathers of rock and roll.
A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra (1957)
For our money, jazz music is the best genre at the holidays and nobody could make Christmas as cool as Old Blue Eyes. The brilliant arrangements by Gordon Jenkins (and the legendary Nelson Riddle on later bonus song releases) run the gamut from the playful on "Jingle Bells" or "Mistletoe and Holly" to the almost reverential in "Adeste Fideles" (O Come All Ye Faithful's Latin translation). His versions of "A Christmas Song" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" are fantastic, but "The Christmas Waltz" really showcases the nuance of Sinatra's deep baritone.
Soul Christmas (1968)
Much as almost everything from the Stax/Atlantic Rhythm and Blue catalog was grittier and funkier than their Mowtown counterparts, so too was this stripped down soul record featuring Otis Redding, Booker T & the MGs, Solomon Burke and King Curtis, among others. The clear favorites here are Redding's "Merry Christmas Baby," which Bruce Springsteen took to new popular heights years later, and Clarence Carter's "Backdoor Santa." If you want your pumpkin pie with a side of down dirty funk this year, slap this on the turntable and groove.
A Charlie Brown Christmas - Vince Guraldi Trio (1965)
From the much beloved holiday special of the same name, this was exactly the opposite of what the television higher ups wanted. With cartoons mostly featuring classical compositions all the rage, this delightfully whimsical cocktail jazz trio didn't measure up in the eyes of the Hollywood brass. Yet, here we are, more than 50 years later and it remains one of the great jazz records ever produced. Can anyone imagine the opening scene without the playful, bouncing melody of "Skating" in the background? And the children's choir version of "Christmastime is Here" is simply magical.
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