Whether or not it’s just an illusion caused by age and cynicism, it seems like holiday madness is beginning earlier and earlier every year. I heard Bing Crosby’s ubiquitous “White Christmas” on November first this year, and I’m not OK with that. Now, I’m not really one for Christmas music anyway. For the most part, it reeks of crass commercialism and a quick cash-in. That said, it doesn’t have to be inherently bad – there are still a few Christmas albums that I start to dust off each December that stir up the same excitement for the holiday season I had when I was a child. And if we’re going to be bombarded with Christmas music for two months, then here are five albums we ought to be listening to.

The first record I always reach for that glorious morning when the city wakes up to a layer of fresh white powder is also probably the most universally known and loved on this list. In fact, if Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas doesn’t make you smile, then you might not have a pulse. An instant classic as soon as it was released in 1965, the album hasn’t lost an ounce of relevance. Not only do songs like “Skating” and “Linus and Lucy” evoke the joyous rush of everything grand about Christmas, but they’ve also served as an introduction to jazz for youngsters for decades. The light but complex layers of percussion on “Christmastime is Here” and Guaraldi’s lyrical tinkling on “What Child is This?” belie the same innocence and humor that makes Peanuts so timeless, and the level of musicianship make this an album you can enjoy whether you’re 6 or 60.

The New Possibility: John Fahey’s Guitar Soli Christmas Album offers further proof that simplicity beats schmaltz any day of the week. Unwieldy title aside, one of the true innovators in acoustic guitar music turns in an album full of mellow and plaintive takes on Christmas classics on this 1968 LP. In most hands a solo acoustic guitar album, let alone one full of Christmas tunes, spells out b-o-r-i-n-g, but Fahey manages to fingerpick his way through familiar melodies interestingly enough to make this much more than background music.

On the total other side of the spectrum is A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, an album allmusic.com calls “inarguably the greatest Christmas record of all time” – a designation I certainly couldn’t dispute. Way back before the murder allegations and goofy fro wig, Spector was the boy genius behind the “wall of sound.” This is (arguably) the greatest producer of all time at the peak of his considerable powers, and the performances he coaxes from his stable of artists (The Ronettes, Crystals, Darlene Love and Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans) are pop masterpieces that capture the quintessence and grandeur of Christmas spirit.

As great as A Christmas Gift for You is, it’s not my favorite Christmas compilation. That title easily goes to Atco’s (an Atlantic Records subsidiary) Soul Christmas, a 1968 LP worth tracking down for Otis Redding’s sublime takes on “White Christmas” and “Merry Christmas, Baby” alone. Additionally, “This Christmas” by Donny Hathaway is about as close as any of us mortals are going to get to hearing an actual angel singing a Christmas tune. Throw in Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa,” and the Curtis Mayfield-led Impressions own divine interpretation of “Silent Night” and you have the hands-down most soulful collection of Christmas tracks available.

Last, but not least, is The Beatles own Christmas Album (what, you thought I’d go a whole column without mentioning them?). As pervasive as the Beatles music is, a lot of people don’t even know this record exists. Why? For one, it’s extremely rare. It’s never been released on CD, and the original LP was only distributed through the fan club, so copies go for hundreds of dollars. Secondly, it’s not a collection of songs per se, it’s a compilation of the flexi-disc 7-inches they would send out to the fan club, beginning in 1963 and continuing until their break up. The messages began with the four lads gathering around a single microphone, cracking each other up and thanking the fans – but they grew increasingly avant garde as the years pile up. The album is more interesting as a historical document than anything, almost like a sonic timeline of their development (and drug use). Any Beatles fan would be remiss not to try and at least track down a bootleg.

So, while these albums are by and large anomalies in the canon of crappy Christmas music, they’re notable exceptions. There are others too (James Brown’s Funky Christmas and Smokey Robinson and the Miracle’s Season for Miracles come to mind the quickest) that prove that it’s indeed possible to create worthwhile art around an increasingly commercial holiday. The common thread that unites them is unfettered joy, and a few rotations on the turntable ought to make even the most hardened Scrooge nostalgic for the days when Santa was real, and Dec. 25 was the best day of the year.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.