It is often hotly debated around Thanksgiving: When should we start listening to Christmas music? For some, the answer is "now." For others, and we won't name names — cough, Scrooge, cough — it's "NEVER." If you are in the latter camp, you can move on to other things like stealing candy from babies and pushing old ladies into the street.
For the rest of us, the joyous time of the year when holly jolly tunes are piped from every speaker is upon us. And it's as good a time as any to brush up on your classic Christmas recordings. For us, classic Christmas means anything pre-1990, which does exclude some pretty great records (Charles Brown, I'm looking at you!), but if these aren't in your rotation this holiday season, you are missing out.
Elvis' Christmas Album - Elvis Presley
Classic Song: Blue Christmas
Underrated Track: Here Come Santa Claus
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Only Elvis could make a song like Blue Christmas sound almost cheerful with his trademark mumbling, but Here Comes Santa Claus is the real winner here with the "here comes a-Santa Claus, uh, here comes..." awesomeness. His voice is so iconic and has a pleasantly jarring effect on the more religious carols. Note that there was an original and a reissue that were decidedly different from one another.
A Motown Christmas - Various Artists
Classic Song: Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (The Jackson 5)
Underrated Track: Someday at Christmas (Stevie Wonder)
There might not be a sound more joyous than a very young Michael Jackson belting out Santa Claus is Comin' to Town with his brothers in the Jackson 5 or begging them to believe him when he sings I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. And, yes, there are fantastic songs here from Smokey Robinson, the Supremes and the Temptations, but the soul of the album is the bittersweet Someday at Christmas, which finds Stevie Wonder at his heartfelt best.
Beach Boys' Christmas Album - Beach Boys
Classic Song: Merry Christmas, Baby
Underrated Track: I'll Be Home for Christmas
Sometimes, Christmas albums are just gimmicks, a way to make a quick and easy record for a band with the hopes of some decent return. This was particularly true of artists in the '60s. It was almost expected. But, hearing the Beach Boys' California perfection of Merry Christmas, Baby is worth it. It is lackluster in places, but Brian Wilson's mournful Blue Christmas and the trademark harmonies on I'll Be Home for Christmas make up for any shortcomings.
Merry Christmas - Johnny Mathis
Classic Song: Sleigh Ride
Underrated Track: Silent Night, Holy Night
There are those who sometimes confuse Johnny Mathis with Nat King Cole, especially when they both do The Christmas Song. But, Mathis brings a sharper tone than his fellow crooner Cole. And Mathis is fantastic in all his bubbly goodness on Sleigh Ride. But, don't miss his tender rendition of Silent Night, Holy Night.
Pretty Paper - Willie Nelson
Classic Song: Pretty Paper
Underrated Track: Christmas Blues
Nelson penned Pretty Paper for Roy Orbison who had a hit with it in 1963, 16 years before Willie decided to make a record centered around the tune. This is classic Nelson with his trademark Texas twang even on hymns like Little Town of Bethlehem. For a more interesting turn, try out Christmas Blues, an instrumental cut smothered in Nelson's Martin nylon-strung guitar he affectionately refers to as Trigger.
Christmas Portrait - Carpenters
Classic Song: Merry Christmas, Darling
Underrated Track: Christmas Waltz
There may be no more quintessential '70s pop artist than Carpenters, the kinda-creepy brother-and-sister team that recorded huge soft hits in the middle part of the decade. Their Christmas album serves as much as an extension of their wistful brand of pop as a holiday offering. Merry Christmas, Darling is like a postcard from New England in the late 1970s and Christmas Waltz may be the best version of this oft-forgotten tune ever recorded.
Soul Christmas - Various Artists
Classic Song: Merry Christmas, Baby (Otis Redding)
Underrated Track: This Christmas (Donny Hathaway)
Before Bruce Springsteen belted out Merry Christmas, Baby, there was Otis Redding laying down the nasty for this Atlantic R&B offering, highlighting their roster of stars including Redding, King Curtis, Solomon Burke and Booker T. and the MG's. This grittier stripped down foil to Motown's slick, multi-layered arrangements is anchored by Donny Hathaway's timelessly funky This Christmas, now a staple of holiday rom coms. Some of the best and most under appreciated soul artists ever appear on Soul Christmas, making it a good primer for those new to '60s-era Atlantic rhythm and blues.
Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas - Ella Fitzgerald
Classic Song: Sleigh Ride
Underrated Track: Christmas Island (also, What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?)
Has there ever been a better title for a holiday album? The answer of course is absolutely not and the First Lady of Song is at her finest with brilliant and peppy versions of Sleigh Ride (keep an ear out for it when you watch Elf this year, a great soundtrack worth checking out, by the way) and Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! But, her lovely and laid back readings of Christmas Island and What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? are jazz perfection regardless what month it is.
Merry Christmas - Bing Crosby
Classic Song: White Christmas
Underrated Track: Mele Kalikimaka
There may be no more famous Christmas song than White Christmas. Bing Crosby popularized the now-classic tune with the 1954 corny, aw-shucks movie of the same name. On the album, the Irving Berlin-penned blockbuster is front and center, but it's the lesser known Hawaiian Christmas ditty Mele Kalikimaka that steals the show. It has become a staple at the holiday commercials and films like National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.
The Christmas Song - Nat King Cole
Classic Song: The Christmas Song
Underrated Track: All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)
"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" may be the most widely recognized opening line of any song, never mind Christmas, and the most famous version of this song, written by Bob Wells and Mel Torme, is Cole's, so why not name the entire record after it? But, don't think Cole, a brilliant jazz musician in his own right, is a one-hit wonder. This album is loaded with some great songs with All I Want For Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth) leading the pack. Most of the songs on the record are lushly arranged and backed by Percy Faith and his orchestra, but All I Want is the much more sparse and lovely Cole trio.
A Very Special Christmas - Various Artists
Classic Song: Do You Hear What I Hear? (Whitney Houston)
Underrated Track: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (The Pretenders)
Between the Whitney Houston classic, Run DMC's Christmas in Hollis (a first of its kind), the Eurythmics' Winter Wonderland and numerous other standouts (Bon Jovi's Backdoor Santa not withstanding), it's hard to imagine a more star-studded Christmas effort. The charity recording and its rather underwhelming sequels have raised over $100 million for Special Olympics. The Pretenders quiet, reflective Have Yourself is beautiful and subtle and the singular track on this album loaded with stars from Bryan Adams and Bruce Springsteen to Sting and U2.
A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra - Frank Sinatra
Classic Song: Jingle Bells
Underrated Track: Mistletoe and Holly
The biggest star of his era, Sinatra could do anything he wanted, so no surprise he released this Capital gem in 1957. The Gordon Jenkins arrangements and backing from the Ralph Brewster Singers sprinkle this ultra cool jazz record with a hint of sweetness, but not enough to be saccharine. His "jing jing jing jing" Jingle Bells is a clever play on what can be at times a tired old standard and, Adeste Fideles, the Latin-language version of Oh Come All Ye Faithful, is a particularly interesting selection. But the cheeky and rarely heard Mistletoe and Holly is Sinatra at his best.
A Christmas Gift to You from Phil Spector - Phil Spector
Classic Song: Christmas Baby Please Come Home (Darlene Love)
Underrated Track: I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (The Ronettes)
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This creepy convicted murderer used to be one hell of a songwriter and producer. Spector, who invented the California "Wall of Sound," was known for his dense orchestrations and lush arrangements, and A Christmas Gift is long on both. Recordings from The Ronnettes (featuring Spector's talented wife, Ronnie), Darlene Love and The Crystals are among the 13 tracks, but Love's Christmas Baby Please Come Home (a stellar rendition by U2 appears on A Very Special Christmas) is the bittersweet winner. Still, hearing Ronnie Spector belt out I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus with all that reverb-y musical accompaniment is pretty awesome too.
A Charlie Brown Christmas - Vince Guaraldi Trio
Classic Song: Linus and Lucy
Underrated Track: Skating
When the producers of the television special of the same name approached CBS with the idea of a cocktail jazz trio doing the music, higher ups were apoplectic. Cartoons had always been voiced with orchestral arrangements and silly sounds. Producer Lee Mendelson, however, wanted Guaraldi's light and bouncy trio compositions to carry the timeless animation of Charles Shultz along with actual children voicing the characters. It was groundbreaking, brilliant and a massive success. Most know Linus and Lucy, the piano-driven "theme song," but the crystalline upper-key melodies of Skating perfectly offset the opening scene, set on a frozen pond. Every song on the soundtrack is immediately recognizable while still being effortlessly easy to consume for those who love jazz and the many others who don't, no doubt why it became so popular.