Top Five Best Christmas Albums of All Time (that I happen to own)
by Kevin Birnbaum
I’ve never been able to join in the hardliners’ prohibition of Christmas music during Advent. I know that Advent is not Christmas, and that Advent is supposed to be a season of hopeful waiting, and that good things are all the sweeter when they’ve been waited for. I know these things. And I wonder: How amazing would Christmas music be if I waited until Christmas to listen to it?
But I just can’t wait. In fact, I’ll listen to Christmas music at any time of year. I don’t think there’s ever a wrong time to rejoice in the Incarnation.
So I’m not going to wait until Christmas to recommend my Top Five Best Christmas Albums of All Time (that I happen to own). I’m pretty picky about my Christmas music, but these are five albums that I keep coming back to. So enjoy, and let me know about your favorite albums in the comments!
5. Bing Crosby, Christmas Classics
This is everything a pop Christmas album should be—a delightful mix of classic religious and secular carols, all crooned in Bing’s matchless baritone, plus a couple of enjoyable novelties. “Christmas Dinner, Country Style” is utterly ridiculous, but by the time Bing gets to the line about “swing to the right a huckleberry muffin,” it’s really grown on you. And there’s something nice about the odd-couple duet with David Bowie, “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy,” the many parodies notwithstanding.
4. King’s Singers, Christmas
The King’s Singers’ multilingual, mostly a cappella album offers a slower, sparer, less ebullient take on the Nativity. The effect is meditative and hauntingly beautiful. All seventy minutes are impressive, but a few tracks stand out as exceptional. “Coventry Carol,” about Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, is terrifying. “Maria durch ein Dornwald ging” is transcendental. The lush and upbeat “Born on a New Day” is proof that it’s still possible to write a worthwhile new Christmas carol.
3. Vince Guaraldi Trio, A Charlie Brown Christmas
If this album doesn’t take you back, you had a deprived childhood. Guaraldi’s virtuosic jazz piano playing perfectly captures the slightly melancholy feel of the classic 1965 television special that didn’t shy away from “what Christmas is all about.” His take on “What Child Is This” is endlessly fascinating. “Linus and Lucy,” while having nothing in particular to do with Christmas, is a spectacular romp. This is a Christmas album that transcends the genre and simply does not get old.
2. Philadelphia Brass Ensemble, A Festival of Carols in Brass
If you could distill all your fondest Christmas memories into sonic form, you’d end up with this album. Twenty-five favorite carols, flawlessly and joyfully played by a small brass ensemble drawn from the Philadelphia Orchestra of the 1960s. The arrangements are simple, and the players generally limit themselves to two verses, so things never get boring. They even manage to make the usually insufferable “Twelve Days of Christmas” fresh and fun. This is THE perfect background music for a Christmas party.
1. The Tudor Choir, An American Christmas: Shapenote Carols from New England & Appalachia
There’s a decent chance you’ve never heard anything like this. A world-class choir founded to sing Renaissance polyphony takes on something completely different—the bold and brash sounds of early American shapenote music. This is truly joyful, exuberant music that I can’t help listening to all year round. I mean, how could you not love Christmas music with lyrics like “The master of the inn refused a more commodious place, ungen’rous soul of savage mold and destitute of grace”? Ouch.